The joyful work of gardening

By Meaghan Clark   Photo by Johan Lenner

Running a business can be stressful and time consuming. Running an award-winning pub, raising children as a single parent, and still finding time to create a garden that is an oasis of beauty in an urban setting is more than admirable – it’s newsworthy. Polly Watts, owner of The Avenue Pub on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans has nurtured and tended the outdoor spaces of her family home with love, resulting in a beautiful garden worthy of much praise.

Located Uptown in the lower garden district, Watts’ home is surrounded by a large stone wall that makes her place truly feel like a secret garden. A large iron door lets visitors and family into a huge space with an outdoor potting “shed,” two courtyards, and several beds throughout the area. “I love spending time out here and I get in as much as I possibly can,” says Watts.

Watts conquers beds, plants, cutting, and weeding as strategically as possible, following growth patterns and Mother Nature herself. A freeze in early 2018 left many sections of Watts’ garden in tangles, with favorite flowers completely ruined or dead, trees in need of pruning and re-shaping, and some sections that had to be completely re-planted. She lost angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia), gingers, and more. “It was a very tough freeze,” says Watts. “It left me with a lot of extra work that I wasn’t planning on,” Watts adds. 

Work is something Watts knows and does well. Her business, The Avenue Pub, is open 24 hours a day, has a rotating list of craft beers, hosts a variety of events, tastings, unveilings, and celebrations, keeping Watts and her staff constantly on their toes. Consistently in the top 25 Beer Pubs in America, Watt’s Avenue Pub is a mecca for beer lovers. Meticulous about keeping her beer lines clean, her beer offerings are the most current and her staff is on top of beer news and happenings, she often takes her staff on trips to Europe to tour breweries and see how they operate, sample beer, meet clients and potential partners, and observe other successful pubs. 

Being a woman in a predominately male industry hasn’t stopped Watts from growing her business, expanding her knowledge, and weathering industry changes. She views it all as a challenge, much like her garden. Hailing from New Orleans, Watts left the Crescent City after college and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where she learned a lot about bourbons and even more about gardening. She took a job at the nursery for the discount on products and plants. “I was paying a babysitter as much as I was making but wanted to be able to afford to take care of a large garden at home,” she says.

With her father ready to retire, Watts came back to New Orleans to take over the family business. She instituted world-renowned beers, brought a large selection of bourbons back from Kentucky, introduced fine European-style pub food, and determined to educate herself about craft beer.

The self-taught gardener puts the same energy and drive into creating a beautiful outdoor space at her family home. Despite occasional failures – plants that won’t seed or thrive – Watts continues to plan, plant, re-plant, transplant, and expand her garden. 

“There’s a certain Zen-like feeling when working in the garden. I love to wear myself out so that I go to sleep thinking of my garden and not of my woes,” she says.

Watts is not overwhelmed when it comes to figuring out how to keep her garden going. She is sensible, methodical and always looking for new ideas and plants. She walks through her garden, pointing out a bed that needs more sun and will have to move, a tree that was overpruned and needs time to come back to full bloom, a spot in the garden where she plans on putting more bamboo, and pots that need to be filled with new life.

One of her key strategies is how much she plans ahead. In one section of her garden, Watts points to Wisteria (which has also been growing in various other spots for nearly 40 years) and discusses what she wants to do with it. She prunes it on a regular basis and has set up new runners that she predicts will fill out the way she intends in about three years. Upon observation of her garden after the freeze and the pruning she did following that, Watts made plans for cutting down a tree that blocked light to a flowerbed that she hopes to expand next year. “Planning is what makes you successful in business or in gardening,” Watts says. “It’s easy to get lost and not see the long-term results but it’s necessary for success,” she adds.

After a tour of the garden, Watts sits down at a table outside her potting shed to have a drink of water and reflect on her garden. It’s obvious that this kind of work is a joy to her as she talks with excitement about discovering a new resource for greenery or shares a story about helping a fellow gardener. Neighbors and friends pop by often for advice, ideas, clippings, or to just admire her work. 

“I could talk for hours and hours about gardening,” she says.

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