Elizabeth Livingston doesn’t really give a hoot about the names — Latin or common — of the plants in her backyard paradise.
“I’m not very concerned about nomenclature,” Livingston said. “I’m much more interested in color, texture, pattern, growth habit — those kinds of things.”
That’s because Livingston — a New Orleans native, née Polchow — is an artist, a painter whose abstract canvases reflect her passion for the chromatic and sculptural attributes of the garden.
She utilizes several varieties of large-scale bamboo as the organizing element of the walled space, then layers in a variety of bananas, palms and elephant ears for secondary height.
Canna lilies in deep purple — a hue repeated throughout the composition — and giant purple crinums create another layer of height and depth, with lower growing plants, including brilliantly colored coleus and corkscrew crotons, hovering closest to the ground.
“You will notice that there aren’t a lot of flowers in the garden, except for the Pride of Barbados and the purple brugmansia. There is just so much you can do with foliage that you don’t really need flowers everywhere for color or accent,” Livingston said. “I reserve them for one bed closest to the house, and I change them out seasonally. Right now there are a lot of Sunpatiens in them, but in the spring there are pansies and violas.”
The garden is 27 years in the making, the time period that Livingston has lived in the grand 1910 Craftsman home in the University Section. But it is only in the past six years, since her divorce, that she has taken full command of it.
“The bamboo was all here, and the crape myrtle and palm, but I have been removing plants that I feel are out of character and adding others,” she said. “For example, there was a row of shrubs that just didn’t seem right, and I replaced them with native irises. They are right by the plunge pool and should put on a display in the spring.”
The plunge pool is just one of the visual surprises encountered when exploring the garden. A brick path travels the circumferences, weaving through stands of giant bamboo. One stand is leaf green, another has a bluish cast, another is orange and green stripes, and one is dark copper bordering on black.
“I don’t know all of the names, but some of the bamboo are tropical and some temperate. The temperate tend to run, but the tropical tend to clump,” she explained.
The rarest of the collection and the one that provides the most alluring accent to the garden is the weeping bamboo, its feathery fronds swaying in a breeze and sheltering a red chair set beneath it.
In one corner of the yard, the brick walk passes a Craftsman guest cottage, tucked away beneath foliage. Farther along is a bird bath, then an Asian fountain against a wall.
A path branches toward the center of the garden and leads to the irregularly shaped plunge pool, which Livingston says provides respite from the heat as well as an interesting vantage point for viewing the garden.
“It’s totally shaded so completely private, and plants grow right up to the edge of it,” she said. “I don’t know why people feel as though they need to pave everything if they want a pool.”
A patch of green lawn in the center of the landscape contrasts with the voluptuous plantings surrounding it.
“The eye needs a place to rest, and that is what the lawn is for,” explained Livingston. “There is a lot going on with height and depth and color, lots of forms, and it’s a spot of calm.”
Livingston enjoys the feel of walking through the primeval landscape, dwarfed by giant bamboo and elephant ears, but she treasures most the view of the garden from a glassed-in space at the rear of her house that she calls “the back porch,” where two comfortable chairs offer dual vantage points and a place to sip iced tea.
“I can sit for hours just looking out at the garden and watching the birds visit the hanging bird feeder. Nothing too exotic — blue jays and sparrows mostly,” Livingston said. The view is so mesmerizing that Livingston admits it’s hard to pry herself away from it and sometimes spends entire weekends at home painting, gardening and looking.
When subfreezing temperatures blanketed the city last winter, Livingston said her tropical paradise suffered the consequences as did others across the city.
“It looked like a lunar landscape out here, and it took ages to cut everything down,” she said. “We were told we might want to rethink tropical, but all of it came back.
“Just look at it now!”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.