Waterproof

Gardening without watering — in this climate? Architect Susan Neely proves it’s not only possible but also easy.

Side view of Neely’s home

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

If you’d driven past the corner of Dreux Avenue and DeMontluzin Street in the choke of this June’s drought, you might have found architect Susan Neely watering her extensive garden.

Once.

That is, Neely only watered the vegetation that wraps her home and climbs its trellised walls once, despite weeks without rain. And that one concession, she says, was totally out of character.

“I don’t water,” Neely says simply. “My approach to gardening is that if it can’t survive on its own, I really don’t want in my yard.”

That’s tough-sounding talk from a soft-voiced Northshore native who stands about 5-foot-2 and looks even younger than her 32 years. In designing and building her own home in post-deluge Gentilly, though, Neely had to make clear, tough choices. She built the two-story structure atop 9-foot piers, 18 inches above the highest watermarks left here in 2005. The house itself is without air conditioning; instead, Neely encouraged passive ventilation by orienting all her windows north and south, a design choice that makes the most of prevailing breezes. The sod roof (that’s right, grass) further insulates the house from heat. By summer’s end, the jasmine vines that currently reach above the first floor will add another layer of insulation as they blanket the trellises that stripe the walls. 

Neely was definitive about all of these choices, which embody her commitment to green, sustainable design that’s appropriate for New Orleans. But she was equally definitive about her landscaping and her determination to neglect it.

Yet the place is lush. Ten-foot-tall castor bean plants in a deep shade of burgundy line the sidewalk, filtering some of the harsh afternoon sun. A gangly Chinese umbrella tree rises inside the gate. At the front corner of the property, a Southern magnolia, a pomegranate tree, a rubber tree and a pair of 5-foot yuccas flourish under the canopy of a bald cypress. Between the house and the sidewalk, yellow Allamanda vines are beginning to hoist themselves onto the low wire fence. Tendrils of the young Chinese wisteria, American wisteria and trumpet creeper vine that Neely planted last summer are also thriving. Under the house, in a spot kissed by afternoon sun, an Australian tree and a sago palm share space with blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes.

Instead of poring over gardening books, Neely paid attention to what worked in the most derelict conditions possible. She gathered the castor plants from empty lots where she found them growing after Katrina. The Chinese umbrella was inspired by a trip to the Louisiana-Mississippi border, where she saw them growing wild behind a hotel and asked to dig one up. One element –– which was disturbed by the recent addition of a pool –– was a sugar cane fence. The idea for that natural 14-foot-high barrier came from simply driving through sugar cane country west of the city. To restart the cane fence, she’ll plant a few stalks of cane from a friend’s garden. 

Some of her choices, on the other hand, were pure serendipity. The yucca plants, for instance, had been traveling with her for about eight years as potted plants. Same goes for the rubber tree. Neely just plunked them in the ground by the cypress and hoped.

“The cypress tree was the only thing here when I bought the land,” Neely says. Both the yuccas and the pomegranate have more than doubled in size in the year since she planted them. “I don’t know what was in the ground when it flooded there, but I’ve never seen plants grow this fast,” Neely says.
Exposing the plants to natural rainfall is key to the design’s success. The citrus plants that dot the perimeter of the house have plenty of access to rainfall, as does the ginger that screens the front deck. Even the potted jasmine plants on the second-floor back porch get the benefit of rain –– when it rains. That’s because the fully enclosed porch is like a lathe house, with 3-inch gaps between the narrow slats that shelter the space.

Some of Neely’s successes, like the old-fashioned roses that hide her water pipes, are totally unexpected.  But many of them are simply the result of careful observation, and they make perfect sense –– as does her commitment to water conservation … even though, in the heat of summer, she broke down and installed a small pool.

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