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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Selling the City as a Mecca for Garden Lovers

Selling New Orleans as a mecca for garden lovers
By Karen Taylor Gist
October 10, 2009, 4:54AM

Gardeners of the city, it's your time to shine.

Aquatic plants are among those in bloom now at the City Park Botanical Garden, where the 'Heart of the Gardens' kickoff event takes place Sunday. New Orleans, long known for its food and music, is being marketed this fall as a destination for visitors (and locals, too) to take in our gardens, green spaces, oak-lined neutral grounds and plentiful outdoor art.

"They're our last best-kept secrets, " says Jeanne Nathan, who with help from the New Orleans Botanical Garden and the Contemporary Visual Arts Association of New Orleans is producing a festival of events called arts + gardens + new orleans that spans October and November.

Some of the events (such as next weekend's fall garden show in City Park ) already existed, and some have been spurred by the festival (a Nov. 7 landscape show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art), but the push is on the packaging with a garden-and-art purpose. A Gray Line Tour also has been created with the same focus.

Reasons for the timing are twofold.

"It's so beautiful here in the fall, " Nathan says. Plus, "Telling the story of gardening in New Orleans is the story of gardening year-round. As others are shutting down, we're getting camellias and sasanquas. There's always something in bloom."

As Paul Soniat of the Botanical Garden notes, "Most people outside this region don't really know about our live oaks, our fall blooming season and our early spring."

Even relatively close to home, gardens can be very different. In Baton Rouge, for instance, "It's 7, 8 or 9 degrees colder, so they don't see a lot of bananas and gingers. We have rubber trees and scheffleras and ficus.

"In the Quarter you see things that are not in Metairie, because they're more protected. And we're more tropical than across the lake, where the main limiting factor is freezes.

"By the end of November, we'll be seeing pansies, camellias and sasanquas, and, without a freeze, impatiens and begonias, " he said.

The New Orleans Botanical Garden will be featured in a new Gray Line tour, opening to groups in about a month. The company hopes to make it available to individuals next spring.There's another practical reason for a fall festival as well.

"October-November used to be such a big time for the convention industry, so we never promoted it before; that's not the case now, " Nathan said.

"We lost a lot of first-time visitors (after Katrina), but return visitors still are high, the Convention and Visitors Bureau says. For returnees, you need a new experience. That appealed to Gray Line."

While Longue Vue House & Gardens, the Botanical Garden and Nathan sold Gray Line on the idea for a tour and created a script and landscape-rich route, which, of course, includes both gardens, the final version will be in Gray Line's hands, Nathan said.

After a kickoff event Sunday (see box), the tours will begin in about a month on a group-sale basis, says Greg Hoffman, vice president of Gray Line New Orleans. Gray Line hopes to open it as a regularly scheduled tour next spring, he said.

The emphasis, however, isn't just on tourists, or just on the bus tour. Residents can keep up with the scenery as well. The city Arts Council has created a map (see that makes a great base for a self-guided tour, plotting both public art and gardens. It will eventually be available in pamphlet form.

"With over 200 public sculptures, New Orleans has more public art sites than most cities of the same size, " said Mary Len Costa, interim president of the Arts Council.

Included on the map, she said, are locally made Art in Public Places works funded by the Joan Mitchell Foundation, on display through 2010. Two dozen of the hundreds of the Percent for Art collection, funded by municipal bonds and gathered over 25 years, are there, as well as world-class Sculpture for New Orleans works brought in for a two-year exhibition.

"I think it gives another side of New Orleans. Most of the works are in communities. A lot are in universities, parks, just really beautiful settings. A new setting for art, not commercial galleries. They see the beauty of New Orleans."

And it doesn't hurt that many of the pieces are by local artists.

The Heart of the Gardens campaign kicks off tomorrow at the Botanical Garden with a brunch featuring fresh herbs and plants grown in the garden and the first of the Gray Line tours, which will take a scenic route from City Park and bring riders for a guided walk through the Longue Vue gardens.

But the project isn't just about big public landscapes. The Preservation Resource Center and the Neighborhoods Partnership Network are building an inventory of private gardens as well.

To let them know about charming neighborhood gardens, e-mail recommendations to or to A list will later become public.

As Soniat says, "People are more keen to green space since Katrina. There's especially tremendous more interest in vegetable gardening, different herbs -- any outside gardening."

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InsideOut Editor Karen Taylor Gist can be reached at 504.826.3467 or

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