Spring Fever

Above: Bob and Bettina Barnes in their garden.

Below: The Briars, a classic Southern plantation.

Before You Go
For more information, contact Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-647-6724 or visit www.cityofnatchez.com.

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For garden lovers, Natchez in springtime blooms with possibilities.

S T O R Y   A N D   P H O T O S   B Y   C A R O L Y N   T H O R N T O N
A hard freeze on the eve of a state garden event resulted in the birth of the pilgrimage of homes tour in 1932 in Natchez, Miss. With nothing to show in the gardens, organizers decided to open their homes instead. Hostesses dusted off heirloom gowns stored in trunks and attics and welcomed guests with old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

Today, visitors still come to Natchez to see its wealth of antebellum homes. Yet in spring, the gardens present a distraction as this beauty blushes with pink, mauve, red and white azalea blooms and other floral delights.

“Natchez was never known for its gardens as much as its landscaping,” said John Seleeby of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, which offers packages for touring the city’s homes and gardens during the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages. “We have a few great homes on pilgrimage that have formal gardens,” he said, noting other eye-catching private gardens that can be viewed year-round by taking a self-guided driving or walking tour downtown.

The Governor’s garden

Monmouth Plantation, home of U.S.-Mexican War hero and former Mississippi Gov. John A. Quitman, has one of the most meticulously maintained formal gardens in Natchez.

“We have a lot of weddings, so we always have to be ready,” said chief gardener Larry Stewart. “We use a lot of traditional plants–hydrangea, ferns, lariope, antique roses, magnolia trees.” Plantings change seasonally.

Landscape architect William Garbo of Jackson designed various garden rooms throughout the 26-acre property. A wisteria-covered pergola and gazebo overlooking a pond bridge are the most popular locations for exchanging vows. Stewart’s favorite spot is a hedge-rimmed rose bed leading to the lower garden.

Enormous catalpa trees in the front lawn were planted after the Civil War.

“We know this because the Union troops camped on the front lawn,” said events manager Lucianne Wood, “and they cut down the trees that were there.”

Bed-and-breakfast guests enjoy strolling the grounds, playing on the grass croquet court and sipping mint juleps on the plant-filled patio.

Bluff views

Rosalie’s Bicentennial Garden overlooks the Mississippi River and serves as a launch pad for October’s Great Mississippi River Balloon Race. Closer in, formal gardens surround the mansion (open year-round).

Robert Watson lovingly tends the formal beds in front and side gardens filled with an abundance of azaleas, canna lilies, ginger and indigo.

“It was used for dyes,” he explained about the indigo. He makes sure something is always blooming: old-fashioned four-o’clocks, naked ladies (also known as resurrection lilies), hostas, forsythia, plumbago and a palette of spring flowers.

Sky flower vines climb a lattice wall between the house and kitchen. In keeping with tradition, a nearby kitchen garden still produces tomatoes, okra, peppers, eggplant, asparagus, various herbs and figs.

A neoclassic-designed side garden was planted in a romantic style. Flower seeds were tossed in, like a bridal bouquet, and left to bloom where they fell. Throughout the grounds, a profusion of color and the sweet scents of jessamine (jasmine) and ginger entice visitors to linger outdoors in any season.

Garden rooms

Confederate President Jefferson Davis married Varina Howell at The Briars in 1845. Today, this classic Southern plantation home owned by interior designers Newton Wilds and Robert E. Canon has gardens filled with surprises.

When the designers purchased the home in 1975, the grounds were so overgrown that only the tops of the gateposts were visible. Wilds and Canon cleared the growth to create 19 acres of gardens and lawns.

“We approached the garden as if it had different rooms,” said Canon.

Ivy topiary animals–a giraffe, elephant and what was once a lion–stand on the left side of the garden.

“A tree fell on it, crushing the structure. Now it’s a dog,” Canon said.
Behind the house, the owners have fenced off a small cemetery for their beloved St. Bernards.

Wisteria blooms on a Japanese-style covered staircase that leads to a lily pond. Elsewhere, overnight bed-and-breakfast guests can follow covered decks for encompassing Mississippi River views from a remote deck. Canon recalled how a fellow from the Southeast Association of Landscape Architects toured the grounds without uttering a word.

“Finally he commented, ‘You’ve broken every rule. But it works,’” Canon said.

Forest blooms and city sidewalks

During any visit to Natchez, private gardens can be admired from downtown sidewalks on North Pearl, North Union, Wall and Washington streets and along the Bluff Walk.

At 705 Washington St., the clipped holly, hedges and dwarf japonica make the side garden of Robert and Bettina Barnes stand out. It was designed with the guidance of Atlanta architects Hugh and Mary Palmer Dargan.

Three varieties of jessamine–to increase the bloom time–climb a crosshatch grid. Clematis vines bloom on top of roses. Barnes tucks plants from friends throughout the beds. When something doesn’t work, he removes it.

Florentine garden ornaments–a rabbit, snail and unicorn–hide amid the greenery.

“All the neighborhood children love the unicorn and have to have their picture taken with it,” said Barnes.

Adults are equally impressed by the three-story-high holly.

And the beautiful gardens in Natchez will impress and inspire any visitor who lingers amid the many colors.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

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