Ever since Jeannie McKeogh bought her house on Vincent Avenue in Old Metairie in 1981, she struggled to bring her vision for its garden to fruition.
But no matter which landscape designer she worked with and no matter how lovely the result, it never seemed to represent exactly what she could see in her mind’s eye.
“I wanted voluminous, loose, spontaneous,” she said. “But I kept getting crisp, defined and geometric.”
That is, until she met Gregg Porter through a mutual friend a couple of years ago.
Known by most for his 20-plus years as senior staff attorney with the appellate court, Porter had traded in his law books for gardening shears several years before he met McKeogh.
He took one look at the courtyard area she had laid out in front of her home and told her, “Your garden really has some potential. I think I can help you with it.”
And he did.
“Jeannie and I are really perfect collaborators,” Porter said. “She doesn’t know the name of one plant from another, but she knows the feeling she wants her garden to convey, and that’s something I can translate into reality. We talk in terms of emotion and color and much less in terms of plant materials. That’s for me to figure out.”
The result is the lush flower garden in front of McKeogh’s brick Colonial Revival home, plantings that bear up just fine in 98 degree heat.
Most houses in the area eschew color in front for a formal, clipped and sculpted look, relying on sheared boxwoods or topiary for effect. But McKeogh’s garden is now known to nearby neighbors as “the house with all the flowers,” thanks to her collaboration with Porter.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I was active in gardening. One of my earliest memories of my grandmother was of putting pansies in the soil with her,” Porter said. “Then when I was in college, I worked for a landscaping company for several summers.”
But it was Hurricane Katrina that turned the tide for Porter.
“I ended up on a farm in Louisville, Kentucky. I found myself digging in the dirt, planting things and enjoying nature. I resigned my position at the appellate court by telephone while I was still away but took on just enough legal work when I returned to be able to support myself while I established myself as a gardener. I owe a lot to Mary Lou Christovich, who turned me loose in her garden on Prytania Street because she believed in me.”
By the time Porter became involved in the Vincent Avenue garden, McKeogh had already created a courtyard area in front, centered on her front door and its portico. Four Savannah hollies served as the corners of the composition, with a row of sweet olives dividing McKeogh’s lot from that of her next door neighbor.
“We spent a good bit of time and resources working on the soil,” said Porter. “I brought in some excellent soil and mixed in a lot of ground up pine bark. I also enlarged Jeannie’s beds, doubling the depth of most of them, so that they would have the space needed to be able bring her vision to life.”
McKeogh, an interior designer, was inspired by forecourts at English country houses when she laid out the courtyard in front of her home. She worked with her concrete contractor to devise a stain for the concrete pavers to make them look like stone.
“I remember sitting in the back of his truck and mixing colors until they were just right,” she said.
A central path is flanked by beds of coral “Drift Roses” interplanted with euphorbia “Diamond Frost” and “May Night” salvia. In the square bed in the center, a carpet of dark blue torenia contrasts with the coral hue of the roses.
A stone urn in the center of the square overflows with lime-hued “Creeping Jenny,” and large metal planters contain mounds of melampodium — a yellow, daisy-like flower.
“The bed on the far side of the lawn is at its peak now and the one next to the driveway is a little past prime. I planned it that way so that one is always at its peak,” Porter said. “The long beds don’t have all of the same plants, but share enough that they tie to one another.”
The far bed contains zinnias in orange and yellow, sunflowers, Louisiana irises and nicotiana. Red Knockout roses serve as a backdrop. Opposite are tall celosia, tibouchina, Mexican sunflower and buddleia.
“To keep everything looking good and flowers in bloom year-round, you really have to plan ahead,” said Porter. “I don’t just go to a big box store and see what looks good. Instead, I develop a color palette for each season and choose plants I know will grow well in our climate.
“I have a great relationship with grower Melinda Taylor, who’ll start seeds for me so my plants are ready for the garden when I need them. It’s all a matter of timing.”
As for fertilizing and feeding, Porter adds a little time-release plant food like Osmocote three or four times a year. And even though McKeogh has a sophisticated irrigation system, sometimes Porter leaves it turned off.
“I find it so much better to let plants dry out a good bit and then give them a deep watering. Irrigation systems tend to give them frequent shallow waterings that lead to weak root systems,” he explained.
The McKeogh/Porter garden is absolutely jawdropping, but Porter isn’t satisfied.
“It’s something about the roses, the color or massing,” he said. “I know we will figure it out together.”