Russell McCulley; photos by Cheryl Gerber
Fair or not, it’s difficult to separate organic gardening from its hippie connotations. Think organic, and you’re likely to picture something virtuous, sure, but also a little ragged and unruly—a gardening strategy that all but sacrifices order to the obstreperous glory of nature.
That’s not the case at all in Cathy Pierson’s garden, a well-manicured and secluded patch of ground a golf ball’s throw from Audubon Park.
“I’m an orderly person,” says Pierson. “I like an orderly garden. And I’ve found that you can have a really decorative garden that’s organic.”
At first glance, Pierson’s “Eden,” as she calls it, looks like a typical well-designed—and rather high maintenance—Uptown garden. Potted plants decorate a pool area; a stand of small trees divides the pool and an open stretch of St. Augustine grass, which is flanked by lush beds, an attractive fountain and a few tall roses.
On closer look, however, the hallmarks of organic gardening begin to reveal themselves. Pierson has an extraordinary variety of plants and herbs in a relatively small space. The variety of blooming plants ensures a corresponding range of insects, but discourages the kind of infestation that can occur with too much of one type of plant.
“The idea is to reach a balance between good and bad insects,” she says, and to create an environment where natural predators, including birds, wasps and spiders, can find plenty of insects to feed on. “I never have a bug problem,” she says, and thus no need to spray chemical insecticides.
Organic gardening does allow for spraying, provided the substance used to treat for insects falls within natural guidelines. The same goes for fertilization; Pierson maintains a pair of compost bins and uses the organic material to fertilize the garden. “Natural plant materials allow your yard to establish its own ecosystem,” she says, with a foundation of healthy soil that contains plenty of earthworms and microorganisms.
Pierson fills her beds with plants that take well to different sections of the garden, which is in essence a collection of distinct microclimates. “If it doesn’t work in my yard, it goes,” she says. “I don’t get plants that I have to make work.”
Once established, the organic garden can require a lot less maintenance—though Pierson does have help from Landscape Images—than one filled with exotic plants and nonnative species. Pierson doesn’t rely on Louisiana varieties (“I’m not a purist.”). But she has installed a basic structure of shrubs and large plants that thrive in the New Orleans climate while leaving open a generous section of beds for plants that change with the seasons or her moods: at the end of summer, for example, a bed of impatiens was about to give way to rows of fall lettuce.
If there is an exception to Pierson’s low-maintenance rule, it’s her roses. “I really love old roses, so I have to tolerate a little black spot,” she says, referring to a condition that discolors the leaves. Meanwhile, she is looking for an organic solution to thrips—tiny insects that attacks the rose buds before they bloom. “If they ate the leaves—but the bloom? It’s so unfair.”
Getting the garden how she wants it took some effort in the beginning, she says. But the reward is a yard that teems with life and ensures that the larger world beyond the garden walls is a bit less tainted by artificial chemicals.
“If you don’t spray, you get toads, earthworms, butterflies, the wasps that eat other pests—the thrill of turning over a leaf and finding a bright green frog underneath,” Pierson says.
“It all comes together to create this wonderful ecosystem that you just love to be in.”
Blues admires the pink and white cyclamen and lamium in the backyard.
Walking irises mix with a purple Japanese maple in a small area where Cathy Pierson grows some herbs—thyme, oregano, sage, basil and lemon verbena. Plectranthus and alythem scatter the front.