Thursday, March 31, 2016

Afton Villa Gardens: the plantation, the gardens, the gardener and the book

Afton Villa Gardens: the plantation, the gardens, the gardener and the book
By Anne Butler

Afton_ArchNewly established contemporary gardens can showcase the latest in horticultural research, the newest plant varieties, the most up-to-date techniques. Old gardens, on the other hand, those glorious few left from the 19th century when gardening benefitted from unlimited labor, rich soil and the happy climate of south Louisiana, have a charm and character that can't be matched, the secret shadows and sun-dappled parterres of plantation pleasure grounds adorned with latticed summerhouses and brick pathways, with always a pleasant scent perfuming the air.
But combine the two, the historic and the modern, and the result would be magical, only attainable through a certain vision for what might be appropriate and a sensitivity to the spirit of the original without slavishly attempting an exact recreation. And that's just what the incredible grounds and gardens of Afton Villa are today, not so much a restoration as a rebirth, all thanks largely to Genevieve Munson Trimble.
Only one who dearly loves gardens and gardening would have been so bold (or foolhardy) as to undertake such an overwhelming project requiring not only fortitude but plenty of funding as well, for Afton Villa was a wreck in 1972 when Gen Trimble and her late husband Bud saved the property from development. The Afton Villa house, a fairytale Victorian Gothic castle with towers and turrets and forty rooms, had been lost to fire in 1963, and the extensive surrounding gardens, though brought back from ruin time and again through their history since the 1840s, were in sad shape.
afton-courtyardThe Trimbles not only determined to undertake the project, but persevered through four decades of voracious deer and marauding wild boar, pond levee blowouts and the savage winds of hurricanes uprooting enormous trees and altering the understory sun/shade dynamic more than once.
With the invaluable assistance of eminent landscape architect Dr. Neil Odenwald and hardworking head gardener/manager Ivy Jones, they worked a miracle, preserving and rejuvenating the gardens of Afton Villa not as a restoration but "as a reflection of their own sense of garden design." Today the famous half-mile oak allee, landscaped terraces and garden rooms, including the "garden in the ruins" on the brick foundations where the home once stood in this area historically known as the garden spot of the South, are among the St. Francisville area's most popular tourist and wedding destinations. And all it took was forty years of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention some 8,000 tulips, many thousand daffodils and narcissi, masses of bedding plants and azaleas, more than 250 pots filled with blossoming annuals, and some magnificent Italian statues overseeing with aplomb the house site that has been transformed from a place of tragedy into a place of beauty.
afton-villa-bookNow LSU Press has published Genevieve Munson Trimble's book, AFTON VILLA; BIRTH AND REBIRTH OF A 19-CENTURY LOUISIANA GARDEN, with gorgeous color images by several Louisiana photographers and from the author's personal collection. Successes, failures, struggles and triumphs, Mrs. Trimble includes it all, including her explanation of the necessity of respecting the soul of the old landscape. "We resolved to restore the spirit of the original garden, and to protect it as well. We would beautify, enhance, even superimpose our own ideas, but at the same time we would be very careful never in any way to obliterate the original footprint of the garden or the house. Whenever possible, we would use old nineteenth-century plants and ornamentation such as might have conceivably been contained there originally, but in the interest of practicality, availability and maintenance, we would be willing to make substitutions, so long as they were compatible with the spirit of the garden. What do I mean, one may ask, when I say the spirit of the garden? To me it means the ambiance that permeates or surrounds a garden. At Afton, I am referring to the almost indefinable aura of past grandeur and, even more than this, the ability to have sustained and risen above the rigors of unbearable tragedy."
This gracious gardener, she of the perfectly coiffed white hair and ever-stylish colorful outfits, hesitated in despair upon entering the avenue to Afton for the first time after the death of her husband in 2004. And then she caught sight of the old oak that stood alone at the end of the drive overlooking the ruins, planted by Bartholomew Barrow in 1828, witness to war and reconstruction, deaths and depressions, neglect and the ravages of winds and fire. And the old oak still stood, proud, covered in the resurrection fern that springs back to life after each rainfall, "symbol of endurance and a triumph of nature to overcome all disasters that would befall. Wasn't this, I thought with sudden clarity, exactly what had drawn Bud and me here in the first place? It was Afton Villa's miraculous ability to have risen, phoenixlike, out of the ashes of tragedy....I could not leave this garden behind."
book-signingMrs. Trimble has received widespread recognition and many prestigious awards for her rescue of the Afton Villa Gardens as well as a number of significant projects in New Orleans. Her book is available at area bookstores and online, and the West Feliciana Historical Society in March joined the Southern Garden Symposium to host an immensely successful book-signing reception at Afton Villa.
The gardens of Afton Villa are open for public enjoyment seasonally, six months of the year; closed July, August, and September during summer heat and hurricane season, also closed January and February in the dead of winter. Other extensive gardens in the St. Francisville area that may be visited are Rosedown State Historic Site's 27 acres of 19th-century heirloom plantings and Imahara's Botanical Garden. A number of fine private landscapes are shown on the Spring Garden Stroll April 30, sponsored by the Feliciana Master Gardeners of the LSU Ag Center.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and
Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara's Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state's most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville's extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special