René Nevils and her husband, Rick, built their contemporary-style home in 1978 with a putting green and a wooden deck in an enclosed courtyard at the front.
“The putting green was like living on the beach,” René Nevils said of its sand trap’s insidious material that wound up everywhere. “We slept in sand. We walked in sand. We ended up having to redo the wooden floors.”
The wooden deck was just as bad.
“The only thing that lives on a wooden deck in Louisiana in the summer is lizards,” she said.
All it took was a trip to Japan to convince the couple that a Japanese garden would be perfect for their Stanford Place house.
“I fell in love with the aesthetic of that little island,” René Nevils said. “The Japanese can take a space so small and make a forest out of it. We started thinking about how to transform this small Southern courtyard into something beautiful to look at.”
What she ended up with is a collection of surprise areas.
“You must come to each area,” she said. “You never want to see everything at once.”
The Nevils started with rocks, “the very basis of the earth,” she said.
At a local stone yard, René Nevils hand-picked the large rocks, which were brought in on dollies with the dirt dug out from beneath to set them.
With smaller rocks, she created a dry river bed with its source at a fountain in a pot just outside her den. A bridge crosses the deep part of the river after it passes through an area of “mountains.” The dry river meanders its way outside the courtyard to the “sea.”
“Everything is in miniature,” René Nevils said. “When it rains, water runs just like it is in a river.”
This summer, Nevils enlisted Kim Bevil, of Heavenly Gardens, to redo the garden that had become overgrown over years and tired from last year’s cold winter.
“A horrible holly had taken over,” Nevils said. “Everything looked shoddy.”
Bevil redesigned the beds, added a fountain and plants and redid the rock bed.
“You have an ‘aha’ moment every time you turn a corner in the garden,” Bevil said. “It’s like little rooms, meditation areas, rooms with meaning.”
At the very entrance of the garden is a small planted area featuring marriage rocks, two large rocks that support each other.
“One can’t stand without the other,” Nevils explained. “This is the first thing you see when you enter the garden. This is what tells you what is here.”
A Japanese black pine, the symbol of longevity, is what Nevils considers the focal point of the garden.
“When these are young, you can prune them like bonsai,” she said. “We didn’t do that. We let it do what it wants.”
In another small area, a manger is filled with plants. Another section contains a stand of bamboo, planted in PVC pipe to keep it from spreading. Another area contains a meditation rock hidden by shrubbery.
One of the most interesting sections contains a small sleeve fence designed by Rick Nevils. It’s a three-tiered wooden screen that separates a small area behind it.
“It is like a kimono sleeve that has three folds,” René Nevils said.
Nevils considers the garden an extension of her living room and her den.
“Everything looks out,” she said. “The garden is a personal space. If you come into my space, I want you to feel welcome and calm. I want the garden to have a good influence on you.”
For her, the garden provides solace.
“We move through this garden from inside the home, from the air conditioning,” she said. “In this place, I can think. I can shut out the world.”