When Anna Timmerman was growing up on a Michigan farm, she would never have foreseen that she would one day become a specialist who restores historic gardens in New Orleans.
But thanks to three master gardeners in her family, courses in horticulture at Michigan State and then in garden design at the Art Institute of Chicago, Timmerman has found her niche.
Now, she’s guiding the restoration of two gardens at the Pitot House on Bayou St. John: the parterre garden and the native garden.
Timmerman will discuss the restoration of the parterre and offer insights into the history of the garden type at a talk on Saturday, Jan. 17, at the historic house museum.
“The parterre at the Pitot House is especially interesting because the plan for it — the layout and bed dimensions — were brought along when the house was moved by the Louisiana Landmarks Society 50 years ago to save it from demolition,’ Timmerman said. “The original parterre was documented so that it could be replicated at the new site.”
In the simplest terms, a parterre is a garden composed of beds laid out in a geometric — and usually symmetrical — pattern, separated by paths and edged with a low, clipped hedge.
When parterres were developed in France during the 15th century, they relied on the complex geometry of the beds for their visual impact, rather than on flowers or color.
They were as pleasing when viewed from the dividing paths as they were when seen from a second story gallery or window. The parterres at Versailles are considered to be the pinnacle of the garden type.
“Parterre design went out of style a bit when the naturalistic English landscape plantings became popular in the 18th century, so we owe Gertrude Jekyll a debt because she was able to combine the formal elements of the parterre with informal elements like perennial borders,” Timmerman said, referring to the influential English garden designer and writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The parterre at the Pitot House is an excellent example of how Americans adapted the principles of the parterre to the habitats they encountered here in the United States, Timmerman explained.
“It has all of the formal elements — a pathway leading down the center with beds laid out symmetrically on either side — but it is planted with a number of flowering and fruiting plants that would not have been included in early parterres in France,” she said. “We have been doing research into what plants would have been in the garden during the time period from 1800 to 1830, just after the house was built and during the time the Pitot family lived in it, and the goal is to restore the garden to that period.”
The restoration project began with weeding the beds, then culling plants that were either too aggressive or not appropriate for the time period. Maidenhair fern, which Timmerman said was an invasive plant in early Louisiana, filled most of the beds and was choking out other plants.
“I’m leaving it in certain beds but reducing its spread so we can have more diversity in the plantings” she said.
Providing structure in each half of the garden are grapefruit trees, one in the center of circular beds on both the left and the right of the center path. The trees produce bountiful fruit, which the Louisiana Landmarks harvests and makes into grapefruit marmalade as a fundraiser each winter.
“The trees are a little overgrown and cast a bit too much shade on the beds closest to the house, so we plan to shape them to be a little more compact, like large topiary,” Timmerman said.
Beds on the left of the central walkway, as one faces the house, rely on mature camellia bushes for their structure; those on the right, on antique roses. Plant inventories from the past include the names of all but two of the camellias; Timmerman is looking for an expert who can help her identify the two mystery cultivars. The old roses, however, have all been identified and include Souvenir de la Malmaison, Cramoisi Superieur, Duchess de Brabant and Veilchenblau.
“The missing piece was an Archduke Charles, which I finally found and was able to order from the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas,” she said.
Timmerman said the Pitot House parterre is very much a work in progress, as she continues to identify mystery plants, reintroduce plants lost during Hurricane Katrina, and relocate plants that are too aggressive or incompatible with the 1800-1830 time frame.
One change made recently raised eyebrows among the coterie of dedicated volunteers and board members accustomed to seeing the parterre a certain way.
“Boxwood was installed along the edges of each of the parterre beds, to define them,” Timmerman said. “Some members were concerned at first because they were used to a looser look, but I explained how a low hedge of some kind is fundamental to parterre design. They got it.”