When Joan and Al Arnold moved to their shotgun single on South Scott Street, the front yard was nothing but concrete. That wouldn’t do at all for Joan, a member of the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans.
“I always had a garden when we lived in New Orleans East, and I wasn’t going to quit,” she said. “I like gardening so much that I go volunteer in the greenhouse at the Botanical Garden just because I like to dig in the dirt.”
Leave it to the Arnolds to create a front garden — where before there was concrete — and to take advantage of existing concrete in the rear to create a fenced patio with the charm of a French Quarter courtyard.
“Erik did it right,” said Joan, referring to her landscaper son who helped reconfigure the front yard. “He got rid of the concrete and the wide concrete steps that went across the front of the porch, dug it out to a foot deep, and brought in good-quality dirt.”
After new brick steps and a brick walkway to the front porch were installed, the beds were ready for planting. Today, the front garden at the Arnolds’ home looks perfect, despite the protracted freeze a couple of weeks ago.
“That’s because I don’t plant tropicals,” Joan explained. “My next door neighbor has to cut back his elephant years every year after they freeze. I like to garden with native plants and perennials with annuals for extra color.”
The front garden bears out Joan’s philosophy. A variegated abelia anchors the right corner of the bed, close to the sidewalk, and a miniature blueberry bush defines the left corner. Between them, an old garden rose — Ducher — is covered with delicate white buds. A red bottle brush tree occupies the rear left corner and a parsley hawthorn on the right provides structure for the bed. It also provides bouquets of white flowers in the spring and small red fruit in the winter.
“That tree was covered with fruit but the birds have stripped it,” Joan said. “I think it was that same mockingbird who eats the blueberries.”
The permanent features of the bed are complemented by annuals that Joan changes out twice a year — once in May and again in November.
“In the fall, I plant alyssum, violas and snapdragons and they do fine in the freezes,” she explained. “In May, I like to plant coleus because they can deal with the heat of the summer.”
To the left of the path to the front porch, a sweet olive nestles in a corner and rewards Al and Joan with intoxicating fragrance as they porch sit. The porch itself is decked in exotic succulents that Joan has collected. And along the right side of the porch, there is an herb garden, each planting identified by a hand painted ceramic tag that Joan has created.
In the rear of the house, faced with fence-to-fence cement, Al and Joan chose to make the best of it and treat it as one would a courtyard. Al painted a tropical beach mural on the rear fence and enhanced the space with strings of lights. One fence serves as an exhibit space for a collection of crosses that the couple has brought home from their travels, including one made of wood from the bell tower of the church in Cottonport where Joan’s mother was baptized in 1911. Narrow planting beds ring the space and are in transition as Joan decides what to plant now that the Japanese plum has grown so big that it shades some plantings out. A potting bench close to the house gets frequent use.
One of the Arnolds’ favorite garden features isn’t a plant at all but the iron bottle tree in the front yard that they bought at their favorite junk shop in Breaux Bridge. Dazzling new and vintage bottles glow cobalt blue, bronze, vivid red and pale blue-green.
“We used to have it closer to the porch, but we moved it near the sidewalk when we found out how much the neighbors like it,” Joan explained. “Sometimes we come out and a bottle we put on it is gone and another one had taken its place — people seem to like to swap them out. We like that, but I don’t worry if they take a bottle and don’t replace it. When you’ve lost everything you had in Katrina, what’s a bottle?”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. firstname.lastname@example.org, @rstephaniebruno