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A Secret Garden


The Plant Gallery makes a 2,000-square-foot plot in the French Quarter into a hidden oasis

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“If you were put into a burlap bag and dropped into the center of this garden, you wouldn’t know where you were. You could be in the South of France, California or New Orleans,” says Kenny Rabalais, owner of the Plant Gallery, whose landscape designs for a garden in the Quarter have taken him on a bit of an odyssey.

As with any garden in a historic district, there were perimeters, objects and–given Katrina–some starts and stops. (His headquarters on Airline Highway were flooded out, but he reopened with some 60 employees–not a few working on this garden). There was a live oak tree, between 130 to 150 years old, an outdated swimming pool that needed more than refurbishing, a brick wall to one side and a stucco one to another (affording luxurious privacy). Not to mention outdated plantings, plumbing and zoning permits.

The part that made the project so exciting was the garden itself: some 2,000 square yards of space. “Yes, in the French Quarter where you are often lucky to get 200 square yards,” says Rabalais, whose career started with cutting grass in middle school in St. Bernard and progressed post-college to owning the Plant Gallery in the Quarter before the company’s growth moved them outside the much-loved area. “Two thousand square yards of garden … a house under renovation, whose French windows, when finished, look out onto the garden. The generous scale allows for off-street parking and an entirely different frame of reference as an entrance.”

The owners of the house were and are very clear about what they want, and they have the patience to get it right. The house was under renovation for close to four years. In that time, the landscaping started and stopped but was always clearly defined: This must be a place for entertaining on a large and intimate scale, yet be
an oasis for the owners when they want peaceful time to themselves.
The pool, roughly 10 feet by 30 feet, can now be used for swimming,lounging and can act as a fountain. Around it, the old brick was removed and reset to make new flowing pathways. All the plantings were to be green and white…and, depending on the season, a delight to the senses:gardenia, jasmine… Simple, low boxwood parterres set only the slightest tone of formality–the owners did not want a formal garden. “They absolutely did not want hoity-toity–that is not their style. They wanted a garden that looked old but had all the conveniences of new: copper up and down spotlights, and sensor sprinklers”.

“And they wanted flexibility: The pool, the views, the parking and a grill area near the very old oak tree where the leaves form a canopy for shade and there is room for people to enjoy cooking or watching the cook “

The furnishings are still in the works. The owners are great collectors of contemporary art; their tastes run to sleek, beautifully crafted and modern. “We are still working on that,” says Rabalais. “Creating a garden–anylandscaping–takes time. This may be the longest project the Plant Gallery has ever worked on, but the owners are absolutely clear about what they want; they have great taste and a good deal of patience.”

Anyone who has ever tried to grow a camellia or a Meyer lemon tree knows it doesn’t happen in a day. Nor can such a magical garden happen overnight.