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Parterre Paradise: a French-inspired formal garden adds a touch of elan to an already lush outdoor space in Madison.

Tucked away in a Madison neighborhood grows a spectacular garden. Far from a mere yard-of-the-month, this botanical wonderland reflects the passion of its creator, master gardener Rubie Howell, who modeled her garden after the parterre gardens she visited in England and France and transformed her ordinary corner lot into a series of "rooms" furnished with heirloom perennials and dotted collection of whimsical garden accessories.

To begin her project, Rubie called on landscape architect Carter Brown of Garden Works in Ridgeland. "I loved the formality the French had," Rubie says of the gardens she visited on two garden trips to Europe, where she even got to experience Monet's garden at Giverny. "I drew off what I wanted, gave it to Carter, and let him do it to scale. I let him lay it out, but I planted everything."

And so the side yard that began as "strings and sticks" became a parterre-style garden. Parterre, meaning "low to the ground," is a method of gardening where the layout is made up of symmetrical and geometrically formal raised beds, usually bordered with boxwoods and separated by sand or gravel paths. The side garden took two tries due to the clay soil. After the first frustrating attempt, Rubie dug up the garden and had a half-load of soil trucked in and tilled into the clay. She then replanted, and the vision became reality.

Standing in her kitchen next to a floral arrangement made from cuttings gathered from her gardens, Rubie gestures toward the window over the sink. A breathtaking view of the formal garden fills the space.

"This is my joy," Rubie smiles. "I get to look at this while I do the dishes."

Saving the side yard for last, Rubie begins a tour of her incredible gardens with the patio, which is more like a richly decorated room, with its scored and stained concrete "floor" and an arbor "ceiling" thickly covered in black-eyed Susan vine, climbing fern, and, remarkably, a potato vine bearing potatoes. A border of huge heart-shaped caladiums surrounds the patio, dotted with pieces from Rubie's collection of antique watering cans. A fountain provides a soothing background sound.

Rubie readily admits to spending a great deal of time in this space. "We live out here," she says, pinching off a withered black-eyed Susan bloom. "Everybody loves being out here."

The backyard is chockablock with plants of all kinds, unusual specimens like a red banana plant, an umbrella palm with blooms and leaves like exploding fireworks, lysimachia covering a rock shaped like a face, a 7 1/2-foot-tall fig tree ("a friend brought it to me that size"), and thriving cannas that lend shade to a couple of stone bunnies. A postage-stamp-sized patch of grass claims the center of the yard.

"I used to have 75 roses growing here," laughs Rubie, "but about four years ago I thought, 'Y'all are gone!'"

A wooden swing sits in a far corner of the backyard, surrounded by clematis and reddish-purple evergreen wisteria. A dry creek bed winds its way along the back fence, where sky pencil hollies, still in their nursery pots, patiently wait for Rubie to find a spot for them. She plans to "redo" around the patio, replanting with boxwood to give the area more formality.

Gardening comes naturally to Rubie. "My mother was a gardener," she explains. "My brother, who lives in San Diego, and I didn't like gardening when we were younger, but we love it now." Rubie and her brother have even helped each other establish their gardens. Rubie passes along many of her plants to her daughter, and her 21-month-old granddaughter is the proud owner of her own watering can. "She couldn't lift any of mine," grins Rubie.

The next garden room is hidden behind the garage. Shady and secluded, Rubie created this spot herself--with her husband Ray's help. Hostas, ferns, and pentas grow along the borders, with a centerpiece made from an English pot surrounded by rosemary. A climbing hydrangea creeps up the wall of the garage, its woody bark providing stability behind a row of freshly shorn "Blue Point" junipers.

"I've cut them way back," Rubie says of the junipers, "and I'm waiting to see what they'll do."

Along the back fence, a potato vine grows in the holly bushes. Lamb's ear and his thrive alongside yet another variety of black-eyed Susans. "I love what they do for a garden," Rubie says.

Rubie even designed the wrought-iron gate, a present from Ray, which leads to the driveway. Another arbor defines the path to the driveway, its chicken-wire base covered in jasmine and clematis, which sport seed heads that resemble tangled wire. What was once an all-iris bed is a spot in transition in this garden room. "The arbor made it too shady for irises."

Rubie steps over to a pot standing between the twin garage doors to point out a butterfly chrysalis attached to the rim. The chrysalis, tiny and delicate, clings to the pot like a gold-trimmed earring.

"Isn't that incredible?" Rubie says. "It attached itself here, right where our cars are coming and going."

An arbor provides a doorway to the parterre garden from the driveway. The arbor, fashioned from rebar, is covered in trumpet vines, though it formerly held a climbing rose. Rubie has planted every square inch of her property, so if she wants something new, she must take something out, oftentimes just transporting it to the garden of a loved one. "My whole garden is at my daughter's house," Rubie laughs. "I replant everything."

Behind the boxwood hedge is a veritable treasure box of perennials. Sage, tall with pink slipper-like blooms; phlomis with its whorls of yellow blooms and gray leaves; astors; butterfly weed; a climbing "Red Cascade" rose bush; tall pink-topped agastache; baptisia with its blue-gray foliage; balloon flower, which gets its name because it looks like a balloon just before blooming. Other plants lucky enough to grow in Rubie's formal garden include several varieties of black-eyed Susans, rose campion, salvia, cannas, purple coneflowers, crape myrtles, and zinnias. The centerpiece of the garden is a three-tiered fountain from Mexico, surrounded by yellow daylilies and lysimachia. A birdhouse, given to Rubie by her family, is nestled among the foliage, its copper roof showing off the same green patina as a nearby copper weathervane and copper vine. A stone boy and girl were finds at the Canton Flea Market.

Every corner of the garden is filled with color--coneflower, coreopsis, whirlygig, even a wild ageratum, which Rubie confesses "came to my house and visited me." Upright verbena lends its purple color without crowding the area with too much foliage. Orange lilies, bachelor's button, hollyhocks, and white daisies reinforce the European formality of this garden space, while garlic--yes, garlic--is the unexpected guest at this party.

Another rebar creation, a trellis, fills in a blank spot behind a row of arborvitae. "I like the structure they give," explains Rubie, fluffing the spring-green branches. Spring-blooming yellow jasmine grows on the trellis, with daylilies in front of the arborvitae for a layered effect against the house.

Rubie's irrigation system is accomplished through a drip system for the boxwoods and a sprinkler for everything else. She fills the fountain with the garden hose when the water gets low. And rotating the plants keeps Rubie busy.

"I have a hard time when something dies," she admits. "And sometimes I'll dig something up and throw it away only to regret it later."

Back inside the house, Rubie roams from room to room. Hanging in the den is a painting she commissioned of her parterre garden. Yazoo City artist Hope Cart captured the spirit of the garden using cheerful oil colors almost as vibrant as the actual garden. The fountain had not arrived when Carr started her work, so the center of the painting was left blank until the fountain's installation.

At the end of the tour, Rubie pauses, revealing her favorite part of the decor. "I can see my garden from my whole house," she says, gazing out her bedroom window. "I have my garden with me all the time."


Creating a beautiful formal garden doesn't have to be overly complicated. It simply requires some advanced planning; less experienced gardeners may want to start with a small area at first (though it should be at least 10 square feet) and then expand the space along with your growing knowledge of what works and what doesn't in your unique landscape.

Here are a few basic tips for getting started:

* Draw out your garden plan to scale on graph paper. This is the most critical part of the planning process. Use different colors to represent the plants you'd like to use. Look at garden books and photos of other successful parterre gardens for guidance.

* When choosing plants, select those with contrasting colors of blooms and foliage to clearly define each area of the garden.

* Select a focal point. This could be a fountain, as in Rubie's garden, or a statue, a large pot, a topiary, or even a sundial.

* Prepare the soil carefully. Mississippi clay may require a hefty volume of amendments to achieve the optimal growing conditions. If the area has poor drainage, consider building raised beds. Strive for a fiat-topped, precisely defined planting area.

* Lay out the pattern, using stakes, string, measuring tape, and special landscaping spray paint. When you're done, step back to make sure the design is symmetrical.

* Plant large quantities of small plants for maximum impact.

* Use low hedges like boxwoods to separate each bed. These will take a while to grow to the perfect shape, so be patient!

* Lay out pathways of gravel, brick, or stone. These paths help to create the desired strong geometric shapes while providing a means of easy access to each part of the garden.
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Author:Seepe, Nancy Flowers
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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