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Spring Gardens at Houmas House

Mother's Day Buffet
Spring at Houmas House
Contributer: Christopher Leach; WGNO New Orleans

As the birds and bees take wing, Spring has dawned over the Louisiana landscape and there are few places in the Southern United States that can match the majesty of the gardens at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens.

Theoretically, if God were from Louisiana, his beard would be made of Spanish moss and perhaps, his Eden would look something like the gardens that Head Gardener and Grounds Keeper Craig Black maintains.

Craig Black is a visionary bringing to life the very essence of imagination.  “I can walk into a hundred square feet and change that garden out in a day and you can’t tell that it wasn’t there yesterday,” says Black.

When the morning gets underway, the steam rises up from the manicured lawn and the dew settles over the delicate petals of a city of thousands flowers just as the Spanish moss drapes from the arms of ancient oak trees.  Houmas House is one of the most ethereal of spaces and Craig Black has been the mastermind behind 15 acres of greenery for 45 years.  His gardening team is small and often it is just a team of five people.  Interestingly enough, Craig has a habit of hiring ex-barbers, because he says they are the best when it comes to shaping up the garden.

His favorite style of gardening is the “jewel-box” garden.  Each garden is room with new vibrant arrays of color.

South Louisiana is not without it’s share of challenges for the spring gardener.  Black says “plants grow fast here and the weeds grow even faster then the plants.”  However, Craig Black and his dream team plant over 40 thousand plants a year from his greenhouses.   “I walk out into paradise every morning and get to decide how its going to look today,” says Black.

At a quarter to seven every morning he’s out, ready to continue a perpetual metamorphosis of changing the look of each bed and border.  The oldest plants are the towering great oak trees, some of which were around when the enslaved African peoples worked the land as a sugar plantation.

The sugar and indigo are now long gone, replaced by the scent of sweet jasmine, oriental poppies, orchids, geraniums, devil’s trumpet plants, tea roses, impatiens, Louisiana iris, butterfly bushes, artichokes, lilies of every variety, bougainvillea, daisies, tomatoes, fennel, cabbages, daffodils, banana shrubs, hydrangea, bamboo, Japanese maple, pansies, petunias, angelonias, okra, coleus, caladiums, marigolds, zinnias  and literally EVERYTHING ELSE YOU CAN IMAGINE.  (while typing this list, I Julie Andrews was singing My Favorite Things in my head, accompanied by John Coltrane of course.)

One of Black’s newest gardens is a fairy garden with details carved from a beloved oak tree that use to live on the grounds and sadly met it’s end last year.

Black says his knowledge of greenery was influenced by Dan Gill, a horticulturist at LSU who wrote the book, Gardening in Louisiana Month by Month .  “It’s probably the bible of gardening in Louisiana,” says Black.

The Houmas House gardens have many plants certainly!  But it has an especially impressive  variety of of bromeliads and has a greenhouse specifically dedicated to them entirely.   Black says whether you are a gardener with acreage to play with or are living in an apartment, bromeliads are a very hardy plant to keep around and there is a variety to suit most conditions.

Outside the realm of the novice plant enthusiast, Black keeps some pretty impressive specimens including a young Amorphophallus Titanium.  “When it does bloom, the bloom is five feet tall and smells like rotting meat,” says Black.   He also has a unique cycad, an ancient plant who’s relatives were around before the late Cretaceous period when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  Plants such as conifers and cycads (your sago palm is a part of this family), were around before flowering plants evolved.

When Craig Black does not have dirt under his fingernails, he is in his studio, writing poetry or painting.  His career at Houmas House has transformed his way of life.  He lives on the grounds without a vehicle and prefers it that way!  It brings him warm and fuzzy sentiments as the crowds stroll through his creation.  The people from around the globe walk the gardens mirroring the diversity of the plants.

Apart from the plants Craig Black shares his home with, he also lives amidst a group of talkative turkeys, ducks, luxurious fancy breed chickens, a peacock and a cockatoo.

Everyone who visits Houmas House this time of year admires the overture of spring.

The message is simple:  To cultivate something positive in your life; you never know what may grow.