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Beyond the garden gate: history and horticulture come together in splendid style in a secret garden in Natchez.

Walking past the house at 705 Washington Street in Natchez, few would realize the home was mail-ordered from Pennsylvania around 1836. It arrived in pieces--wall and floor boards, windows and doors--all numbered for a two-story house to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs.

Even fewer passersby, peeking in at the lush greenery and colorful flowers that surround the house, would likely believe that this elegant garden space was a virtual black hole when Drs. Bob and Bettina Barnes moved in in 1959.

"When we bought it, there was nothing here (in the yard)," says Bob. "The out houses and stables were still out back but deteriorated." So the Barnes set out to renovate the property.

Noticing the changes as renovation work progressed with more than the usual curiosity was Mrs. Walter Abbot, a member of the family who had lived there for five generations. Mrs. Abbot approached the new owners and told them she had all the doors, windows, shutters, mantels, and hardware that belonged to the house. The Barneses were astonished by Mrs. Abbot's cache of building details. The materials she gave them filled two 18-wheeler trucks.

As the home grew, the bare garden became a blank canvas for Bob's green thumb. In their spare time, the Barneses searched the woods around Natchez for native plants and trees. They wanted specimens that they knew were already adapted to the rich soil and subtropical climate. Occasionally, they planted a bush or tree and later realized it didn't work in their landscape. They had no qualms about digging it up and replacing it with something else.

It took two years to build up the soil, but gradually the garden spread from around their home to the walls marking the property line. In the process, they unearthed traces of the early beds, and when they fashioned a circular bed in the side garden, it reminded Mrs. Abbot of a round flower bed similar to one her grandmother had maintained.

Since the Barneses' home is not on the semi-annual Natchez Pilgrimage tour, the garden isn't designed to peak all at once. "A lot of Natchez gardens only look good for pilgrimage in spring and October," says Bob. Instead, the Barneses' garden changes with the seasons to provide something of interest year-round. To achieve a unified whole, the Barneses, with the help of Atlanta landscape architects Hugh and Mary Dargan, originally planned a single garden, but it didn't work because the property was too compartmentalized. Their plans changed numerous times over the years. About 20 years ago, when Natchez was hit by a hard freeze, the gardens underwent a major renovation. The space now consists of six garden rooms, all visible from inside the house.

Bob, who grew up in Arkansas, comes from a long family of gardeners. He remembers his grandfather's greenhouse and garden pit as a great place to play in the rain. "They didn't have nurseries in Arkansas," he says. "People overwintered plants in greenhouses and started their seeds there."

He carries on that tradition today with his own greenhouse behind the carport, where he nurtures orchids for display inside the couple's home. Growing orchids is easy, he says, with a greenhouse that maintains constant humidity. "They're a practical plant," he says, "and last a long time. We like to use them around the house because you don't have to constantly change arrangements." Orchids also send out bursts of scent several times each day. "It's a delightful aroma," he says.

Among the daylilies and daffodils flowering throughout the garden, "Natchez Lady" and "Betty Barnes" are two of five hybridized varieties named in honor of Bob's mother, who served as a national officer in both the Daffodil and Daylily Societies and was an avid gardener all of her 99 years.

Plants in the garden include ferns, hostas, camellias, dwarf nandina, old-fashioned roses, white crape myrtles, redbuds, hollies, daylilies, snowball and oakleaf hydrangeas, pink ginger, amaryllis, pink and white azaleas, gardenias, dusty miller, rosemary, aspidistra, mahonia, and several varieties of Indian hawthorn. Dwarf ardisia thrives as a lush groundcover, while mondo grass grows down the center of the driveway. Wintergreen borders beds. Begonias, pansies, chrysanthemums, and caladiums add seasonal accents. "We try to have something blooming all the time," says Bob. In the true Southern tradition of plant sharing, Bob always tries out whatever seeds someone sends him.

Trees include Japanese maple, magnolia, photinia, ginkgo, river birch, potted sago palms and vitex, and live oaks covered with resurrection fern. Potted yaupon have been trimmed so that the branches "weep" downward, giving the trees an ornamental appearance. Bluestone and brick comprise the hard surfaces and walkways.

Jessamine and jasmine--Carolina, Confederate, and Asiatic, that is--climb lattice against the wall to mask a window of the yellow house. Dr. Bob intertwined the three varieties to extend the blooming season. Nearby, clematis is allowed to climb through roses to provide height and blooms once the roses have petered out.

Although Bob has help with the heaviest tasks, he still spends a couple of hours in the garden each day. "When I'm gone, it really shows," he says. "There's always something to do." But after some 50 years of tweaking and trimming, Bob and Bettina do find time to sit back and enjoy the garden along with the rest of their neighbors. "I don't have a favorite part," Bob says. "I just like the overall picture."
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Author:Thornton, Carolyn
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:May 1, 2005
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