Last month marked my first visit to St. Louis. I had driven past on the highway during family trips and have passed through for flight connections, but I had never spent any time in this great city. I’d been looking forward to the ninth annual America In Bloom (AIB) Symposium & Awards Program (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) because I knew it had the potential to be one of the best with St. Louis’ horticultural heritage, assets and professionals. Was I ever impressed!
One hort professional who is making sure St. Louis isn’t just a drive-by is Bill Ruppert of National Nursery Products. In addition to co-chairing the AIB symposium, he directs the Horticulture Co-op of Metro St. Louis and is a driving force on the board of Gateway Greening, a nonprofit organization that supports 200 community and youth gardens and just received a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant for its City Seeds Urban Farm.
Since 2005, Gateway Greening has participated in Urban Roots, a downtown St. Louis landscape enhancement initiative. I stayed at the Hilton next to stunning, Chicago-style plantings Ruppert and his volunteers installed at Kiener Plaza. Market Street and Tucker Boulevard medians were bursting with colorful annuals and tropicals. Thrillers, fillers and spillers were identified by variety on signs at each end of the themed plantings, making it easy for consumers to plant the same varieties at home.
The effort began when a local radio personality complained St. Louis didn’t have any flowers in town. Ruppert, the radio host and a developer went to Chicago to meet with Mayor Richard Daley’s team to find out how their plantings are funded and managed.
One idea was to develop a signature planter unique to St. Louis. A high-profile landscape architecture firm designed it and an architectural restoration company cast the molds. The classy planters with the fleur-de-lis motif (pictured) have been adopted by Macy’s, Ball Horticultural Co., PanAmerican Seed, a suburban Rotary club, a community college and individuals. Ruppert is looking into selling them to other cities, like New Orleans, as well as offering smaller, affordable consumer versions, as a revenue stream for Gateway Greening.
The city does not pay for the plants or maintenance. Gateway Greening relies on corporate sponsorships, donations and fundraisers to support the efforts. While volunteers are mobilized to install the plants and remove them in the fall, Gateway Greening pays for a watering service through a maintenance contract. Beds and medians are on drip irrigation.
The plantings are near the St. Louis Arch and the baseball stadium, which each draw about 3 million visitors a year. Gateway Greening has dressed up downtown for its Kodak moment and is making a lasting impression. How are efforts like this possible during the Great Recession? “Times like we are currently experiencing require expanded creative thinking and action to sell the value (and power) of our products and services,” Ruppert says. We definitely need more Bill Rupperts to lead the way.