What do you think of when you hear “secret garden” and “Vieux Carré”? If you imagine brick walls teeming with ferns, or a klatch of banana palms, or old garden roses tumbling over stucco walls, you would be only partially right.
As the Patio Planters’ “Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carré” tour Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. demonstrates, the wide range in styles of the 12 gardens included makes it impossible to predict with any certainty what you’ll find behind each garden gate.
One place that defies traditional expectations belongs to Sidney Torres, the well-known entrepreneur, civic activist and real estate developer whose television show “The Deed” is now in production for a second season. His is no romantic courtyard but a vast space in front of his Esplanade Avenue home.
Six homes will be open each day of the tour. If you’ve never seen a luxuriant lawn in the French Quarter before, you will Sunday.
“The property itself is just so unusual for the Quarter because it stretches through the block and has an entrance on Esplanade and also on Barracks,” he said. “The house faces Esplanade but it is set way back on the lot, almost in the center of it.”
Torres’ home was built about 1855 for the Fisk family, whose residence was adjacent at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Bourbon Street and who intended it as a billiards hall and library. Surrounded by “baroque” gardens, according to the Patio Planters, the space was filled with old garden roses, wisteria and verbenas. A central fountain was an important feature. From 1921 until Torres purchased it four years ago, the property belonged to the Schwartz family, including the late sculptor Eugenie “Ersy” Schwartz.
When Torres acquired the parcel, he didn’t know precisely what he planned to do with it, but he knew he couldn’t let it get away.
“I hadn’t decided whether I would live in it or sell it after I bought it in 2013,” said Torres. “The first thing we did when we got going was to plant the hollies along the sidewalk for privacy.”
But as work on the house progressed, Torres became captivated by the place and decided to make it his personal home. He has been working with architect Lee Ledbetter on the house and on the garden.
“The best term to describe the garden is ‘minimalist.’ I wanted to allow the space to speak for itself rather than to overcrowd it with things that might take attention away from the house,” said Torres. “The goal was to make sure that each one has its own glory and that they complement one another.”
The fountain from the front yard was relocated to the rear of the house and installed in the cobbled courtyard, where there is room to park four cars after entering from Barracks Street. Moving the fountain made room in front of the house for the knife-edge pool inspired by those Torres had encountered in Europe, especially in London and the south of France.
“The pool is flush with the grass, and it serves as a giant mirror for the house and mature Medjool palms I put in,” Torres said.
Knife- or zero-edge pools differ from infinity or vanishing-edge pools, although the terms are sometimes confused. Vanishing edge pools produce the illusion of water extending out to the horizon. For a knife-edge pool, narrow slots are installed on all edges of the pool, so that water overflows into them and creates the illusion of the water being flush with the surrounding pool deck (which is the grass lawn at Torres’ home). The “perimeter overflow” or knife-edge pool was conceived of by John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although the pool and palms anchor the design, other elements contribute to the contemplative garden style. Paths throughout the property consist of crushed limestone, with floating pavers of Pennsylvania blue stone set in the gravel. Climbing ficus softens the stucco walls that wrap the property, and hollies are pruned so that there are no branches up to about three feet.
Then there is the sumptuous lawn of Zoysia Cashmere — a velvety expanse of dark green, finely textured grass that grows in dense mats. It is drought tolerant and competes well with weeds because of its dense growth habit.
“The lawn was a hodgepodge of weeds when we started, so I took it out and put in the Zoysia Cashmere,” said Torres. “I go barefoot all the time around here — I’m big on feeling connected to nature. I like to walk out of the living space and have the feeling of extending the inside outside. The grass does that; it’s soft so it feels good to walk on.”
Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carre’ tour
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Headquarters: Creole Delicacies, 533 St. Ann St.
French Quarter Gem & Lapidary, 527 St. Philip St.