New Orleans’ courtyard gardens stay lush in winter

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 6, 2009

By Eileen Fleming
For The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS ó Chances are that one day this winter, while much of the country is hunkered down inside to stay warm, author and artist Kit Wohl will grab her laptop for a patio work session under the sun.
She can pick one of several tables set up amid flowering plants, trees, sculptures and a swimming pool under a warm sun. It’s what many Southerners wait all summer for: courtyard weather.
New Orleans’ French Quarter, in particular, is known for its walled courtyard or patio gardens, and many tourists try to sneak peeks as they stroll by the gates of houses. The semisecret gardens took shape in the late 1700s, after fires burned the city. Housing began fronting the street, pushing back and protecting a home’s open space.
Strictly speaking, what Wohl has is a rooftop patio garden, off her second-story great room near the French Quarter. It’s accessible from three sides through arched-glass doors.
Built-in retainers secure trees adorned with colored glass balls. Containers feature a variety of blooming plants, such as lavender and pink petunias. And the second-story perch offers privacy that many ground-level courtyards in the French Quarter lack.
Janelle Madsen, however, doesn’t mind the tourists who flow past ó and peek into ó the wrought-iron gates of her French Quarter courtyard. She lives next door to chef Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Kitchens, and the street is full year-round with diners.
Madsen said the courtyard is the perfect place for her to enjoy an afternoon glass of champagne and food from an outdoor grill. Music from street musicians wafts in, setting a relaxing mood.
There are 10 condominiums in the complex that share the courtyard, and residents pitch in cleaning the garden. The container plantings require little maintenance, however, said Madsen.
“My thumbs have never been terribly green,” she said. “Things pretty much grow themselves.”
As evidence, she points to an arching avocado tree that covers the side expanse. It came from a seed planted about 10 years ago, and is now bearing fruit she uses for guacamole. A pine that arrived years ago as a Christmas decoration now anchors a corner.
“We call it our private jungle,” she said. “Once in a while we go down and give everything a haircut. And if a plant is curling from the sun on the balcony we put it in the courtyard and it comes back to life.”
Dan Gill, a horticulturist with Louisiana State University’s AgCenter, recommends that Southern gardeners take advantage of hardy bedding plants to enjoy color year-round. He recommends the pansy, viola and Dahlberg daisy among plants that warm up winter gardens.
Because the typical brick courtyard offers little space for in-ground planting, gardeners usually use containers.
Lynette Stilwell’s 31-foot-square, French Quarter courtyard offers a sliver of soil around a hand-dug pool. She has overseen the courtyard’s transformation from a bare space surrounded by a wooden fence to a lush, manicured garden.
Beneath the strip of soil lies organic soil 4 feet deep; Stilwell put it along the 6-foot-tall border wall. The garden includes a blooming Hong Kong orchid tree, two huge white birds of paradise, and other plants that she selects in consultation with Gregory Finsley, who designs and maintains balcony and courtyard plantings in New Orleans.”You must consider the amounts of shade and light. In those deep, dark pockets you can’t plant something that needs light,” he said. “And an irrigation system is mandatory. … If you miss one day of watering, the stress factor can do a number on the plant for a month.”
While Madsen keeps maintenance to an occasional “haircut,” Finsley recommends “preening, or carefully plucking off the dead bits.”
He and Stilwell can sit in the courtyard for hours deciding what plant and what color goes where. “She has a keen eye for shape and color,” Finsley said. “I’m meticulous about clean lines, so where you do put color in, you can see it. That way you appreciate it more.”Stilwell enjoys letting others appreciate her efforts. Her 1894 home and its courtyard are included on tours conducted during benefit drives for civic organizations.
“I have one of the loveliest courtyards in the Quarter,” she said. “I’m going to live here forever.”