Mary Johnson wants visitors to come to her lush garden, and plants the vines and foliage that will make sure birds, bees and butterflies come calling.
There’s milkweed for monarch butterflies and passion vines for the Gulf fritillary, the state butterfly.
“I plant for them,” she said, noting she doesn’t use any chemicals, “just a slow-release fertilizer in the hole when I put in a plant.”
But becoming the neighborhood spot where the birds and the bees hang out wasn’t easy.
When she and her late husband, Lloyd Johnson, moved to their Hundred Oaks area home in 1978, there were two huge trees in the front yard and landscaping that required constant maintenance.
“They had commercial people come in on a regular basis,” she said. “I wasn’t about to do that. The grass and shade bored me.”
Johnson had the front redesigned and planted by a landscape architect.
“I loved his plan, but didn’t like his plants,” she said. “I dug up a boodle of things and took them all back to the nursery. I wanted to do more native things.”
A friend introduced Johnson to the Louisiana Fern Society, which meets regularly in New Orleans. Through Fern Society programs and trial and error, Johnson developed a real interest in ferns and other shade plants.
“It was a learning process for me,” she said.
Some of Johnson’s favorite plants just appeared in her garden as gifts from the birds. She found a tiny Eastern Red Cedar growing in the front yard. It’s a large tree now, and its location is not ideal — right behind a tall palmetto — but Johnson wouldn’t dare take it down.
“I left it in because it is a native,” she said. “I am sure a landscape architect would not approve.”
The front is filled with other native plants and some non-native varieties that have done well in her environment. Turk’s cap, thunbergia, coral honeysuckle, oak leaf hydrangea and blooming ground cover add color during different seasons of the year.
In April, Johnson had a large water oak removed from the eastern side of her house. It was a sad day.
“People have told me for 37 years that that tree was going to come down and kill me,” she said. “But at least I would have died happy.”
Johnson had the arborist leave the stump, where she placed pots of plants among the roots.
The backyard is filled with native ferns and hostas planted near a large live oak that fills the area and shades a wooden deck.
Even though Johnson focuses on shade plants, she has a 12x7-foot raised brick bed she said she “conned” her husband into building. It’s in the front in the one sunny spot in the yard.
In the beginning, she filled the bed with roses, but soon tired of them. One year, she planted hundreds of tulips. Now, the bed is a mix of annuals and perennials.
Johnson grew up in Canada, but moved to Europe in her 20s. That’s where she met Lloyd Johnson, a native of Wisconsin who stayed in Europe after serving in the military in World War II. He was an avid sportsman and world-champion bobsledder.
A friend recommended Louisiana for its hunting, fishing and love of sports.
Both Johnsons were used to cold climates and shorter growing seasons. They were living in an apartment when Mary Johnson spotted her house and its well-kept garden.
“For the two of us who grew up in the north, it looked more like an oasis,” she said. “That’s why we bought the house.”