A hidden jewel in Baton Rouge

Story and Photos by Yvonne Lelong Bordelon

Tucked away along one of the tree-lined streets of Old Goodwood in Baton Rouge is a southern style hidden jewel that brings to mind the beauty of the classic children’s story, The Secret Garden. Visiting the enchanting garden of Chris and Sharon Werner, you discover new wonders at every turn, making you feel as if you have been transported into the pages of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s endearing book.

Looking from inside the secret garden toward the entrance, the path is lined with tree Ligustrum, fall blooming Ligularia, sculpted boxwood hedge, begonias, Canna, ‘Red Sensation’ cabbage palm (Cordyline australis ‘Red Sensation’), and sweet olive (Osmanthas fragrans). A cherub fountain is tucked in among the lush foliage.

About 26 years ago the Werners purchased the tree-rich property and began their ongoing quest to create an integrated outside living space – a design that connects the house to a series of outdoor rooms. Chris explains, “I guess I’m trying to find a harmony between man and nature for myself – a secluded little Eden.”

A charming parterre on one side of the house features four wrought-iron obelisks holding pots of Wave petunias and pink Mandevilla.

With Sharon as his inspiration, he skillfully designed the landscape, carefully selecting an abundance of plants that would be the envy of any plantsman and building many of the structures himself. Flowering plants are featured in strategically placed containers and are changed out in spring and fall, minimizing labor and ensuring continuous color. The small patches of turfgrass are used as design elements, so all of the maintenance is done with electric and rechargeable tools.

A dead palm stump has been repurposed with decorative birdhouses. Ferns, variegated hidden white ginger (Curcuma), butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium), and pots of colorful ‘Red Sister’ Hawaiian ti surround it.

The variety of plant material is astounding. The purple, blue, and green color scheme in various shades and textures is repeated throughout the landscape. Some of my favorites are the shiny dark green leaves and yellow fall flowers of Ligularia; the flamboyant red and purple foliage of tropical Hawaiian ti (Cordyline fruticosa); and the various blooms of bountiful Begonia and Petunia, which attract pollinators.

The front yard features a wisteria-covered archway and a water feature with a floating ball in a sugar kettle. Lavender blooms of hybrid Senorita Rosalita cleome (C. ‘Inncleosr’) line the path and Lantana and begonias provide nectar for butterflies.

The entrance to the Werners’ secret garden is on one side of the house, just past a formal boxwood (Buxus spp.) parterre with four wrought-iron obelisks, each holding containers full of cascading blue Wave series petunias. Attractive twin planters sit on each side of the wooden gate, through which a view of a cherub fountain placed amid lush tropical plants and ferns beckons you to step inside.

A hummingbird garden beside the curving path features containers filled with colorful, nectar-rich plants including white petunias, Hibiscus, and red powderpuff (Calliandra haematocephala). Bottlebrush (Callistemon), cannas, and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) are foundation plants.

Chris constructed Sharon’s favorite room, the eye-catching six-column pergola, which is the center of the semi-formal landscape – a style the Werners call “romantic 19th century.” Winding pathways emanate from the vine-covered structure and lead to other garden rooms.

A pergola covered with wisteria is the focal point of the garden. Tropical flowering and foliage plants including caladiums, Crinum ‘Milk and Wine’, Hawaiian ti, and cabbage palm add color through the seasons.

This talented gardener built “The Zen Room” greenhouse himself, mostly from repurposed and rot-resistant materials salvaged from various remodeling projects. Orchids, bromeliads, and numerous tropicals, including 40-year-old Ficus trees, thrive there. Chris engineered a unique bamboo faucet placed on a repurposed antique chest with a black flowerpot sink and also installed the microirrigation system, lighting, and thermostat-controlled ventilation fans. The space is maintained year round and is used as a place for contemplation.

Another waterfall along the fence adds the soothing sound of trickling water to the landscape. Elephant ears (Colocasia spp.), Peperomia, and ligularia line the path.

A lushly planted Japanese-style garden in the more woodsy part of the yard, features a torii-style archway and a stream with waterfalls powered by three separate recirculating pumps. Each pump is hidden in a cavity dug into the ground that is covered with a heavy screen grid supporting thin layers of stone – visually appearing as one stream. After draining the stream by turning off the pumps with a remote control, Chris just blows the many tree leaves out of the stream, greatly decreasing maintenance time.

An attractive torii-style arch flanked with Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) marks the entrance to the more natural Japanese garden. Pots of ‘Red Sister’ Hawaiian ti, begonias, and Caladium accent the path.

Besides adding beauty to the landscape, the ten water features provide drinking and bathing areas for birds and wildlife, filling the garden with the soothing, restful sound of moving water, and hydrating the lush vegetation. Other delightful rooms include the circular moss covered garden with Victorian-style statuary, fountain and stone bench and the unique “Birdhouse Condo” atop a tall palm tree stump which created an attractive garden element when the tree died.

Chris built this outstanding greenhouse, which they call “The Zen House,” from repurposed materials. In winter it houses all of the tropical potted plants that are small enough to move. The two circular windows help create the effect of a Japanese moon gate.

Chris and Sharon’s garden is an everchanging masterpiece that just keeps getting better with age. It was a joy to visit this wonderland of flora.

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