A historic Southern garden is rejuvenated with individuality, flair, and a love of plants.
Photos Courtesy of Ben Hillyer/Karen Dardick
Natchez, Miss. - When tourists come to Natchez, most view the elaborately furnished, historic antebellum mansions for which this riverfront town is most famous. But gardeners in the know want more. They ask to visit the exquisite gardens surrounding the Barnes House. Built in 1836 and carefully restored and tended by Drs. Robert and Bettina Barnes, the house and surrounding gardens are the talk of the town.
The Barneses have lived in the house for almost a half century, where they raised their children while Bob practiced medicine and Bettina practiced child psychology.
Parterres and pots
Bob is the gardener in the family. “I come from a family of gardeners, and I’m carrying on the tradition,” he comments while showing visitors through the serene gardens.
This meticulously planned and maintained walled garden evokes the original 1836 garden that flourished in the front courtyard where now a crane statue stands sentry over a waterlily garden.
Designed by Earl Hart Miller of Natchez, with considerable input from Bob and Bettina, the formal garden consists of a series of five outdoor rooms, each with a different style and function.
“Parterres and pots is how I describe it,” Bob says. “I wanted to create an Italianate feel to reflect the Spanish, French, and Italian influence that was so much a part of Natchez prior to the Civil War. We achieved this with formal beds accented by container plants of all sizes. As we traveled throughout the world, we brought back to Natchez ideas from many of the gardens we saw.”
The courtyard garden evokes a historic landscape that flourished on the same site approximately a century ago.
“When we began the excavation, we found a circular bed where the fountain is now and planter beds around the perimeter, similar to the design we chose,” Bob says. “If we had known what was underneath, we would have used the original design. But at least it shows we’re showing what type of garden would have been here when the house was built.”
A century ago, garden fanciers might have displayed both local and exotic plants. It was an era when plant explorers fascinated the gardening world with strange, new plants brought back from expeditions around the world.
But not all exotic plants flourish in this humid region of the Deep South, with hot summer nights and somewhat frosty winters. So Bob has experimented over the years, and his plant palette features those that thrive in his Zone 8a region. The emphasis is on foliage plants with flowering shrubs adding seasonal color interest.
Planters are displayed strategically in various sections of the garden and contain trees or shrubs underplanted with annual flowers that are changed seasonally.
Sago palms, weeping yaupon hollies, fishtail palms, and aspidistras accentuate the formal courtyard built from 200-year-old Natchez brick. A graceful crane statue spouts water into a custom lead fountain, the central focal point. In summer, waterlilies emerge amid water hyacinths and an assortment of floating aquatic plants. Feathery fronds of papyrus add motion and elegance
“When we were in Malta, we saw papyrus growing in pots, and I knew that I had to do this at our own garden,” Bob explains. “This is an international garden – the crane came from Florence, and the animal statuary in each parterre came from various European countries.”
Bob loves most types of plants and is especially fond of orchids. His greenhouse is filled with hundreds of exotic orchids in different stages of growth.
When they flower, he takes them from the greenhouse and displays them in decorative containers – many purchased during the couple’s international travels – throughout the gracious house and in nooks and alcoves in the gardens.
In addition to plants, the garden is filled with laughter, for Bob and Bettina are gregarious and love to entertain. The rear garden is their favorite outdoor living space. A wisteria-clad pergola shelters a stone table at which numerous luncheons and dinners take place. While Bob makes sure the plants are in top form for guests, Bettina takes care of the accessories.
“Bob’s the real gardener,” she says with a laugh. “I certainly enjoy all the fruits of his labor.”
On a practical note, squat pots spilling over with aromatic herbs such as chives, basil, sage, rosemary, and mint flank the kitchen door for easy harvesting while cooking.
The overall impression is one of order, patterns, and neatness, not surprising for a retired surgeon. Now his skills are applied to the numerous shrubs and plants – all meticulously shaped, lovingly tended, and greatly admired by visitors from near and far.