Most gardens in New Orleans’ French Quarter keep their secrets to themselves, hidden by a wall with only the occasional sound of water from a fountain to tantalize the outer world.
But not the garden at the home of Betty and Bill Norris. It announces itself with an unruly and breathtaking climbing rose that tumbles over the wall and beckons to all who pass by.
“The rose is only 4 years old, but it’s so vigorous that I have to keep it trimmed back so that walkers don’t get tangled up in it,” said Betty Norris. “I didn’t really intend for the Rose of Montana to peek over the wall, too, but there it is.”
If there were a beauty contest between Rêve d’Or (the rose) and Antigonon leptopus (the Rose of Montana or “Coral Vine”), it would end in a draw. But why consider a competition when the delicate pink blossoms of the vine complement the rose-tinged golden blooms of the climbing rose so perfectly?
The garden will be on view next weekend during the “Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carré” tour hosted by the Patio Planters. Seven gardens will open their gates from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, and a different seven on Sunday Oct. 18. The nonprofit group raises funds from the tour and other events to stage caroling in Jackson Square just before Christmas each year.
The Norrises’ not-so-secret garden began unfolding when the couple moved to St. Philip Street after living elsewhere in the Quarter for a decade.
“Bill and I moved to New Orleans 25 years ago and to the Quarter right away,” said Norris, a staunch French Quarter advocate who served on the Vieux Carré Commission for many years. “My first garden project in New Orleans wasn’t at home but at the McDonogh 15 School at the corner of St. Philip and Royal.”
For the school, Norris and other volunteers enlisted the pro bono help of the late landscape architect Chris Friedrichs. Thanks to the plan Friedrichs created and countless hours of volunteer labor, the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” as it was nicknamed back then, gained sumptuous flower beds flanking the entry steps and a grove of trees.
But Norris did not stop there.
“My mother was a gardener and I used to help her. I was bitten by the bug long ago,” said Norris. “When we bought this house, there was no garden at all — just banana palms. They stretched all the way from the rear building to the front wall of the property. I hired someone to remove them and it took him days to dig them up and then sift through the soil to get all the roots out.”
Today, the one-time banana grove has been totally transformed. The Rose of Montana, now at peak bloom, engulfs one wall of the garden shed on the North Rampart edge of the garden, climbs along a cord to reach the house, then bedecks the side porch of the house with a riot of tiny pink blossoms.
“We chose this particular house largely because of the side yard and its potential for a garden,” Norris said. “The Creole cottage that once stood next door burned down in 1948, and the then-owners of our house bought the vacant lot. They’re the ones who built the garden shed, but we worked with architect Rick Fifield to add the side porch.”
Measuring just 950 square feet, the single shotgun house benefitted dramatically from the construction of the covered side porch. The addition not only provides a spacious outdoor room that can be used year-round, but also affords a place to rest after a long day weeding and planting in the garden.
A sweet olive tree toward the rear of the garden scents the air and shades a collection of ferns — maidenhair, asparagus and a treasured no-name fern that Norris brought back to New Orleans from Mississippi.
Spikes of cast iron plant (aspidistra) contribute texture to the mix, which also includes shrimp plant, ageratum and walking irises.
Blue plumbago in a low container serves as a focal point, as do vignettes centered on architectural salvage elements and statuary.
Three different colors of butterfly ginger intermingle with several varieties of hydrangeas and a trumpet creeper vine (Campsis radicans) lends both attractive foliage and arresting golden blooms to the tableau. The exotic Gloriosa lily climbing a wood trellis next to the pedestrian gate to the garden may be Norris’ favorite new discovery.
Many of the plants were gifts from friends, including the signature climbing rose.
“Leo Watermeier started it for me a few years ago from a cutting he took of one of the roses he cares for in Armstrong Park, and I have rooted many cuttings of it since,” Norris said. “It was tiny when I got it but just look at it now.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.