When Gen and Bud Trimble first laid eyes on Afton Villa in 1972, its gardens were an untamed jungle, and the ruins of the 40-room plantation house were little more than a pile of bricks.
But faced with the possibility that someone might purchase the 250-acre site and turn it into a subdivision, they did what ardent preservationists would do: They bought the place.
More than four decades later, Afton Villa gardens are a highlight of the annual Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, March 18-20 this year, and a must-see for any Louisiana gardener.
Gen Trimble relied on her comprehensive garden journals to write “Afton Villa Gardens: The Birth and Rebirth of a Nineteenth-Century Louisiana Garden,” just released by LSU Press. She will sign copies of the garden memoir Wednesday, beginning at 5 p.m. in the Pavilion of the Two Sisters in the New Orleans Botanical Garden.
A host of high-profile garden clubs are sponsoring the event, which will include refreshments.
Although she is known as a gardener and preservationist, Trimble also is a wonderful writer. She earned a degree in journalism at LSU before moving to Chicago, where she became a copy editor and short story author.
Her prose, including the excerpts she includes from the garden journal she has kept, guides the reader with wit and feeling through the history of Afton Villa, the reclamation of its original garden spaces and the creation of new garden rooms.
“When I talk about it, I don’t call it the restoration of the gardens but the preservation,” Trimble said. “Susan Barrow (the 19th century owner who built the Gothic Revival house that burned in 1963 and established the gardens) didn’t keep records, or at least we haven’t found any. So our guiding principle has been to restore the spirit of the garden without in any way obliterating its footprint or that of the house. We try to use 19th century plants whenever we can, but we’re willing to use substitutes as long as they are compatible with the spirit of the garden.”
Landscape architect Dr. Neil Odenwald has been involved with the project almost since its beginning.
The “Ruins Garden” occupies the area where Barrow’s fabulous plantation home once stood. Trimble reports in her book that she used long garden hoses to lay out proposed flower beds, which were then planted in a color scheme that to this day is limited to white, blue and yellow.
“The records show a modest beginning of 500 pansies. We now put in 13,000 pansies as ground cover each November. From 250 tulips in our first effort, we now put in 8,000 yellow and white tulips in January to come up through the pansies,” she notes in the book.
The parterre was the second order of business for the Trimbles. Having earlier procured the services of Ivy Jones (“We hired him for two weeks and he’s been here for 40 years”), the Trimbles called upon him to help with the redefinition of the parterre’s scraggly boxwoods.
“Together we started to cut back and would take off no more than a foot at a time,” said Trimble. “Bud wasn’t a bona fide gardener, but he loved clipping. Sometimes I had to stop him before he clipped everything to death.” The far end of the parterre includes a maze that Trimble said “was the delight of children at Afton.”
Terraces, ponds, garden ornaments and handsome containers all contribute to the heart-stopping beauty of the place, but perhaps the most divine component is the daffodil valley.
The site of an overgrown ravine when the Trimbles purchased the property, the valley was cleared of trash trees and brambles and slowly reclaimed.
“The first year, we planted 1,000 daffodils, many of them King Alfred. I didn’t know it rarely blooms after the first year here in Louisiana,” Trimble said. “Now we plant other varieties that rebloom and they have naturalized beautifully. By now, we have planted a total of 100,000.”
She notes that her late husband decided eventually that the daffodil valley was his favorite place in the garden, although he originally thought the reclamation of the ravine was a foolhardy undertaking.
At about 35 acres, the garden area represents a fraction of the parcel the Trimbles purchased. The remaining woods are home to a burgeoning deer population.
“I once planted hydrangeas around the edges of the woods, but didn’t know at the time that deer could eat an entire field of pansies and hydrangeas in one night,” Trimble said. Lesson learned. An electric fence and Deer Stop spray now hold the deer at bay.
Trimble makes it clear that her relationship with Jones, her head gardener and manager, helped her find the strength to continue working on the garden after her husband died in 2004.
“When I was in despair and I told Ivy that I didn’t know if I could go on, he said, ‘Mrs. T, if there’s no you, there’s no me.’ Our lives and work are inextricably bound together,” she said. “I get a phone call from him every morning before 7 a.m. with a report and we plan what needs to happen next.”
Trimble understands that her account of the history of the Afton Villa gardens is dissimilar to many garden books on the shelves today.
Less of a how-to guide, it is a sensitive portrait that traces the history of the place, explores the lives that have been devoted to it, and describes a singular and ever-evolving approach to garden-making.
“Most garden books tell you when to plant sweet peas and when to prune camellias. What my book is about is the preservation of the aura of this old garden and the team that made it happen,” Trimble said. “Sometimes we have success and sometimes we fail, but we keep on trying.”
Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at rsthephaniebruno @gmail.com.