Typical guides to successful gardening offer advice about building structure with shrubs, planting color in multiples of three, and ensuring year-round interest by deftly using annuals to complement flowering perennials. In the New Orleans climate especially, year-round gardening is a privilege that gardeners prize.
Not so Leland Montgomery.
Though Montgomery is as accomplished a gardener as any, he prefers a garden that relies almost solely on cool-weather annuals to make a glorious display in spring that then fades away over the heat of the summer.
“By midsummer the beds are pretty empty, but the roses, small shrubs, ajuga and iris japonica keep them from looking totally barren,” Montgomery said. “This year, because of the long, cool spring, the season has been extended. I would never see violas blooming this late in the season in previous years.”
Montgomery’s home is situated on a corner and has a wide side yard where long, wide annual beds frame an alley of lawn. The garden is almost completely enclosed: tall wood fences on the north and east and Montgomery’s 19th century shotgun house on the west.
A Halesia or snowbell tree at the south end blooms on bare wood in March, prompting his annual garden party.
But not all of Montgomery’s plantings are hidden from view behind fences. A bed just inside the front gate of his home offers a hint of what’s behind the walls, and a long bed between the fence and brick sidewalk on the west side of the house offers a spot for what he calls “the white garden.”
“I don’t use white in the primary annual beds but was introduced to a white nemesia that smelled like vanilla while shopping at Urban Roots one day. I knew I needed to have it in my garden, so I created the white garden to showcase it,” Montgomery said. Cats Romeo and Harvey like nothing better than to loll on the warm brick sidewalk next to the white garden.
Montgomery shops for annuals constantly in the spring, visiting the garden center Urban Roots and local horticulture expert Melinda Taylor’s greenhouse regularly to seek out plants that produce small, delicate blossoms in a range of colors.
“I stay away from a lot of things that most gardeners use because their large blooms don’t fit with what I envision,” he said. “I find that a lot of popular perennials are thugs in the garden; they take over and dominate everything. I like finely textured foliage and small flowers instead.”
The beds contain an assortment of well-known annuals including phlox, violas, pansies, larkspur (which self-seeds), dianthus, petunias, nasturtiums and columbine.
Lesser known species such as corydalis, diascia, nemesia, linaria and viscaria also appear.
The goal, Montgomery said, is to create a “tapestry of color.”
He tries not to install two plants of the same kind or color next to one another and aims for plantings to intermingle. A purplish ground cover called ajuga weaves the plants together to create a united impression.
Montgomery does little to condition or amend the soil in the beds to support the demands of the blooming annuals, eschewing some techniques that gardeners use.
“I leave the soil alone. I think double digging and other techniques do more harm than good, at least here in New Orleans with our alluvial river soil,” Montgomery said. “I do use liquid fertilizers and chelated iron, but that’s about it.”
It has been more than 20 years since Montgomery gave his side yard over to the green swath of grass bordered on each side by 6 feet wide annual beds. The east bed benefits from evenly spaced iron trellises that attach to the east fence and support old-fashioned climbing roses to provide height, color and blooms from spring to autumn.
“I planted the roses so long ago that I don’t remember their names, but they complement the annuals and keep the beds from looking bare when the heat of summer really sets in,” he said. “I’ve chosen to have a winter/spring garden only. Summer is our ‘New England winter’ as far as I’m concerned.
Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.