Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess

by Lake Douglas and Jeannette Hardy

photographs by Richard Sexton

Published by Chronicle Books

208 pages, 2001


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In the Garden

Reviewed by Pamela C. Patterson

 

There is nothing quite so breathtaking as New Orleans in the springtime. Walking down the street, your head swivels to take in the tropical flora bursting into bloom on every block. Heady scents of gardenia and jasmine perfume the air and it seems that every yard, no matter how modest, is graced with azaleas gaily waving their bright pink petals in the gentle breeze.

A friend of mine lives in New Orleans' Garden District and I've had the good fortune to visit him several times in the early spring -- either crashing at his place for Mardi Gras, or coming to visit during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at the end of April. I love to sit on his second-story balcony in the mornings, sipping strong coffee and gazing at his neighbor's incredible courtyard garden across the way.

It's very Midnight-in-the-Garden-of-Good-and-Evil, replete with statues and bowers, all just a tad decadently overgrown. While it's obvious that considerable effort has been put into the layout, and the garden becomes a bit grander every year, I never actually see anyone working in it. It just seems to metamorphose all on its own.

If it's too hard for you to get to the Big Easy, but you'd still like to enjoy some of the city's magnificent public and private spaces, a few hours with Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess is the next best thing to being there. This is no mere coffee-table book of pretty photos and superfluous text -- this tome boasts style and substance and it has both in spades.

The authors are both resident New Orleanians with deep roots in the city's horticultural life. Lake Douglas has written extensively on landscape architecture and garden design and Jeannette Hardy has been the garden writer for The Times-Picayune since 1995. She also writes for Horticulture magazine. The duo's admiration for New Orleans gardens and gardeners is evident in the detailed profiles which accompany the lush and inviting photographs. The book is divided into sections, beginning with a brief history of the development of garden spaces in the Crescent City. This section is illustrated with numerous wonderfully detailed maps and photographs from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The next section, "Public Parks and Open Spaces," gives an overview of many of the city's most revered and glorious parks. Among these are City Park, with its WPA-era statues by Enrique Alferez, and Audobon Park, a heavily used green space which includes a golf course and a walking/bicycling track. Also featured are many of New Orleans' famous and historic public meeting places, including Jackson, Washington, Lafayette and Congo Squares.

The final and most extensive section of the book is called "Beyond the Streets: Close-ups of Contemporary Gardens." It is organized into the following groupings: balconies, galleries, and porches; courtyards; shotguns, cottages, and bungalows; grand gardens; art gardens; and house museums. It celebrates gardens of all sizes, shapes, and social strata, along with the creative forces and diligent caretakers responsible for these living works of art. The very first garden profiled in this section, a three-story French Quarter townhouse with outrageously overgrown balconies, is typical of the unexpected delights New Orleans has to offer:

Even among the rarefied gardens of the French Quarter, the one that fluffs out from these balconies is a tour de force. Without the slightest nod to order, it sends a tangle of bleeding heart, passionflower, air-potato vine, and rosa de montana over the balcony railings like quilts hung out to dry. Snippets of flamboyant flowering plants pop out like starbursts. And for comic relief, life-sized wire figures bound in twinkling lights appear to be climbing up the balcony railings.

Bill Huls, a landscape designer who lives in the second-floor apartment, has been tending his balcony garden for a decade or so. The garden had always drawn admiring comments from tourists passing below. But it wasn't until Neal Luke and Harry Worrell moved into the apartment above Huls's a couple of years ago that the two-tiered garden began taking on the mantle of brilliance. It was then that Worrell's air-potato vine, with its big, heart-shaped leaves, grew downward toward Huls's balcony, latching on to some rosa de montana which, in turn, began climbing upward. The quilt started taking shape.

Behind this profusion of plants, Huls often sits, taking in the feathery pink blossoms on the mimosa tree across the street and listening to inventive buggy drivers give their tourist raps. Part of their repertoire centers around the Cornstalk Hotel across Royal Street and the cast-iron fence that gave it its name. "You can sit out here for thirty minutes and hear fifteen different stories about the history of the fence," said Huls.

Of all the courtyard gardens featured in this book, perhaps my favorite is the one on Bourbon Street belonging to Betty DeCell. DeCell doesn't even live on the premises -- she rents out the brightly painted Creole cottage to a tenant -- but she nonetheless devotes hours each week to tending the lush plantings, riding over on her blue bicycle to water everything by hand.

Thirty-foot-tall banana trees tower over the courtyard and a thick screen of arrow bamboo adds to the jungle atmosphere. "Things grow quite well here," says DeCell, "and the sound of the rain hitting the leaves reminds me of being in a little tropical forest."

Other gardens which stand out are Henrietta Hudson's "brilliant showstopper, awhirl with rare perennials, flowering trees, and ravenous vines" all winding around her tiny cottage on Burgundy Street; the uptown residence of Sandra and Richard Freeman, with its elegant setting graced by a curved glass room overlooking the garden and patio; and the truly grand garden of Robert and Elizabeth Livingston, a completely organic landscape which boasts an old driveway converted into an exotic bamboo grove, plantings of riotous color and an abundance of impossibly verdant foliage.

Indeed, the predominant color throughout this book is green -- a deep, rich shade which bespeaks diligent watering and some good, soaking rains. Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess is a celebration of the city's green spaces and their guardians and Richard Sexton's gorgeous photographs beautifully convey the ambiance of New Orleans at its blooming best. | June 2001

 

Pamela C. Patterson daydreams of owning a second home in New Orleans. Naturally, it would feature a fabulous courtyard garden overflowing with fuchsia and bougainvillea.