Jewel Box Garden

In a romantic old New Orleans garden, landscape architect René Fransen casts symmetry, texture, and shape in defining roles

Trying to control your imagination on a stroll through the elegant old neighborhood surrounding New Orleans’ Audubon Park is like holding the leash of an undisciplined puppy. It will resist all attempts at restraint. Too many flights of fancy beckon beyond dense hedge walls, from the splash of hidden fountains to images of secret gardens and jasmine-draped pools.

Ruthie and Lou Frierson have lived in this section of the Crescent City for more than 30 years, and during that span they have created a cool, intensely fragrant garden that could exist just as easily in the romantic imagination.

“Our garden has evolved along with our lives, and many talented hands have helped make it what we see today,” Ruthie says, reflecting on the patio garden and its columns of mature jasmine, masses of evergreen wisteria, and the Palladian-style fountain bubbling gently in a raised pond.

Underfoot, a patio of New Orleans soft red brick, punctuated by flagstone, pulls together the garden’s structural elements and unifies the whole: the Georgian (see: Reviving Timberlane) house, built by the prestigious New Orleans firm Armstrong and Koch in the ’20s, and the guesthouse, added in the ’80s by New Orleans architect Barry Fox. The patio winds behind the house and leads to a hidden delight: an intimate secret garden and second fountain, which await discovery just beyond the kitchen.

In the ’70s, when the Friersons moved in across the street from Audubon Park, they enlisted architect Douglass Freret, who created the original design for the secret garden, and Baby Hardie, a much-beloved garden designer who was a legend in a city noted for flamboyant personalities. “She always wore large, wide-brimmed straw hats,” Ruthie remembers, and “she loved sweeping gardens with deep, curving beds.” Although both are gone now, their influence is alive and visible in the structure of the garden.

Since the early ’80s, the garden has continued to thrive under the hand of landscape architect René J. L. Fransen, who designed both the brick patio and the dominant Palladian fountain. Fransen fit an antique urn that Lou inherited from his grandmother into a niche at the back of the fountain and planted it with witch hazel that has grown to fill the overarching space. He created the fountain’s richly layered backdrop by constructing a 12-foot-high wall, adding a hedge-row, and weaving in showy golden dewdrop, a tree-shrub from the verbena family, which, he says, “sings for its supper” when its blue flowers and yellow berries form a canopy over the patio.

Shape and texture, along with a pleasing symmetry (see: Gardens of Artistic Symmetry), characterize the garden, which Fransen describes as “loose, but defined by architectural elements. We clipped the corners of the raised planters, and the little curves give a bit more interest. We try to do things in a soft way, and the bands of the planters are made of the same old brick as the patio surface.”

A soft, verdant carpet of St. Augustine grass, where the Friersons’ grandson kicks soccer balls, adjoins the brick patio. Large boxwood balls stand like sentinels at the ends of the planters, and a border of miniature boxwood runs along the brick edging. “Actually,” Fransen smiles, “they aren’t miniature boxwood at all, but we have kept them clipped for so many years, they have ‘bonsaied’ themselves.”

Fransen uses plantings to disguise certain functional elements such as downspouts. “We must have them,” he says, “but there are ways to soften them.” He and Ruthie have accomplished this with jasmine and ‘Cécile Brunner’ climbing roses that turn the spouts into lush, living columns.

Fransen is quick to point out that Ruthie and Lou are dedicated gardeners. She chooses and rotates many of the seasonal plants herself. Her tastes run to perennials and a cool palette because, she says, “I love pastels and white, which are showy at night.” A trip to Hyder House, a restored 18th-century house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they witnessed the lavish use of planters and window boxes, gave the Friersons the idea to include them in their garden.

Eleven planters hang as window boxes or along the railings of the second-floor terrace; six hang on the front fence; and seven are positioned between the columns outside the conservatory. The automatic watering system, installed by Lou, ensures that the planters always stay perfectly hydrated.

In the secret garden, Fransen has expanded on Freret’s original design and installed new plantings. Eagleston hollies on the rear property line screen the neighboring house, and ‘Mine-No-Yuki’ sasanqua camellias have grown large enough to shape into sculpted beauties. The presiding personality at the center of this little jewel box garden is the circular fountain tended by statues representing the four seasons. Water from the antique urn-on-pedestal fountain spills like liquid fringe into a lush ecosystem created for the resident fish, blue iris, white hyacinth, and pickerel weed. Butterfly iris blossoms flutter above the surrounding planters.

The heady fragrance of blooming Confederate jasmine, sweet olive, roses, ligustrum, and gardenia surely must be the lagniappe of the Frierson garden — that little something extra New Orleanians are so fond of giving each other.

RESOURCES: Landscape architecture by René J. L. Fransen, 504/529-7294; Palladian fountain by Roman Fountains, 800/794-1801,; guesthouse architecture by Barry Fox Associates Architects, 504/897-6989.
by Grace Collins Hodges

Brought to you by Lawn Patio


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