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seeds of change

With New Orleans looking toward a more hopeful future, it’s time for a new gardening aesthetic.

Flowers on a trellis can hide unsightly views.

cheryl gerber photographs

The morning after the Saints’ win in the Super Bowl, I found a sad tribute in our backyard: an array of beer cans hurled over the fence by neighbors.

While Drew Brees was finding Marques Colston and Lance Moore with the football, it seems, somebody was hanging out behind the abandoned property that backs up to our home and using our fence as a target for tin can passes.

Sigh. But being a New Orleanian at this point means taking it in stride –– with a big dose of humor. Citywide recovery finally seems like a real possibility, thanks to the election of a new mayor in the same unbelievable weekend that brought the Saints out of Ainthood for good.

As we enter the growing season, it seems appropriate to look back at four years of post-Katrina gardening and reflect on how the weirdness has perverted my gardening aesthetic.

Instead of seasonal blooms and water elements, my garden-planning, frankly, has grown to emphasize barriers and visual screens. Got a blighted house that the city won’t deal with nearby? Erect a tall trellis and cultivate vines so you don’t have to see it. Need to be sure that the ne’er-do-wells who hang behind the abandoned building don’t explore your yard and house, as well? Cultivate plants that discourage fence-hopping with their density or an array of thorns.

Our rose garden is a good example. In 2006, our replacement air conditioning condensers went in long before most of our neighbors returned. Stoked by tales of disappearing condensers from around Mid-City, we erected a sturdy 3-foot-by-18-foot lattice to shield the equipment from view and planted a group of old-fashioned climbing roses in front of it to make theft inconvenient. The condensers are still there, and the roses look great.

The pyracantha (translation: “firethorn”), for another example, is a reminder of the April 2008 evening that brought a pair of young men flying over a neighbor’s backyard fence into the empty yard behind ours. We’d heard the multitude of gunshots and thought they were firecrackers –– until one of the fence-jumpers turned out to be wounded, and we called for an ambulance. The pyracantha, which features 1-inch thorns, went in the next weekend. It weaves beautifully through the openwork wire, and the birds love its deep-orange berries.

(Mitch Landrieu, are you reading this?)

I was drawn to bougainvillea because, like pyracantha, it sports impressive thorns. (After the shooting, I admit, I went on kind of a thorn binge.) With time, the drought-loving, punishment-tolerant plant has become much more of an attraction than a barrier. The “flowers” –– actually bracts of leaves that come in red, white, pale green or fuchsia –– put on a generous display in spring and fall, prompting all kinds of pleasant conversations with folks who just happen to be walking past the house. Ironically, the barrier has become a conversation-starter.

All of these plants, I’d like to point out, are troupers when it comes to neglect, making them ideal New Orleanians.

Pyracantha thrives in sun or shade, though it prefers acidic soil, and it isn’t fussy in its water requirements. The only thing that bothers bougainvillea is an absence of sunlight, and even in light shade it will produce dark-green foliage. I have found, through trial and error, that it prefers to have its roots kept clear of competing grasses. Old-fashioned roses are susceptible to black spot, but they’re less fragile than many of the hybrid roses. Watering once a week, mulching with pine straw and removing discolored foliage promptly seem to be all these heritage plants need to bloom profusely.

When it comes to screening the view of that gutted yet empty building, New Orleans’ climate affords several easy solutions. Shell ginger is an excellent plant for drawing the eye and shielding a bleak spot. (I use it to hide a sad patch of fence that we still haven’t fixed from the storm.) Star jasmine is an aggressive climber that thrives with its roots in near-rubble, though it definitely wants full sun to grow toward. In our case, sadly, that means it draws itself away from the ruined house next door instead of acting, as we’d hoped, like a curtain. 

With spring’s approach, I battle the return of thousands of morning glory vines, the legacy of four springs’ worth of trying to hide the lots next door. This fall, we finally purchased those lots, so my need for that curtain is gone. The passionflower that we coaxed into flower to hide the building behind us –– the one where the can-throwers gather –– finally became so huge that we actually dug it up. The slower-growing wisteria vines have finally established themselves on the fence, and we trust them to fill in the void left by the rambunctious red flowers. 

It’s time for a change. I’d like to plant something traditional, like a row of camellia bushes, without worrying what or who they will repel or hide –– or maybe a row of gold day lilies interspersed with black hollyhocks.

The Saints as world champions, an effective mayor and a little bit more order beyond the perimeter of our garden: Good things come in threes, they say, and that would be the perfect trifecta.
 

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