It took a force of nature to nudge Diane McKernan and her late husband Jerry to do something they could never bring themselves to do.
When Hurricane Gustav toppled 40 trees on their 5-acre wooded property along a private lake, the devastation was followed by a realization. “We had never wanted to remove those precious trees, but since God saw fit to do so, we took this great loss as something positive and began the third major addition to our home—a swimming pool and pool house/guest house,” says Diane. “We had always wanted a pool, but it would have required taking out 20-plus trees, and we didn’t have the heart to do that. We bought the lot specifically for the woodland setting and naturalistic charm.”
Today, that unspoiled beauty is still the overriding impression visitors get when they spend time outdoors at this home, despite the introduction of these major new landscape elements. It took an artistic eye and some careful planning by landscape architect Cynthia Cash to make the changes appear seamless.
“The largest challenge was pretty much the same as with all additions: ?to not let the landscaped areas look like add-ons or afterthoughts,” explains Cynthia, who has worked with the McKernans since they first built this home on a secluded lane near South Harrell’s Ferry Road in 1990. “The new pool design had to work with the geometry and elevations of all the previous terraces, patios and walks. And that is exactly what happened during the creative process on my drawing board.”
In Cynthia’s now-fulfilled vision of the completed landscape, the swimming pool ties the entire house—with a variety of porches and terraces—together. To soften the changes in elevation, she used broad sweeps of brick steps. Most of the hardscape is green flagstone with more accents of brick, a nod to the New Orleans style.
That air of Southern charm actually begins in the front entry courtyard, with its arched openings, fountains and stucco walls all reminiscent of the French Quarter. Plantings are a mix of native shrubs, Southern ornaments like hydrangeas and camellias, and a few well-placed tropical accents.
Diane says some of the most special elements of the garden are the trees and shrubs she was able to choose “in the actual field.”
“Cynthia and I drove to Amite and bounced around in a pickup truck and got out in the field with our mud boots to hand-select live oaks and crape myrtles,” she says. “During the trip I was also able to select a stunning dwarf red azalea named ‘Red Slipper’ as well as ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas.”
Cynthia’s original landscape plan and all its addendums seem to delicately balance the divide between the land’s woodsy personality and Diane’s appreciation of a more formal garden atmosphere. “I do like great textural contrasts, such as a mixture of soft ferns and bold tropical accents,” Diane says. “The current landscape is very simple and ordered but also respects the overall setting of the site.”
Cynthia says her relationship with the McKernans has evolved along with the landscape design, from a professional connection to a much more personal one. “Diane and Jerry have been two of my greatest supporters as well as dearest friends,” she says.
With such an abundance of shade—even after those 40 trees were lost, many more remain—it’s no surprise that some of the plants that work best here are ferns, including holly fern, shield fern, autumn fern, leather leaf fern and sword fern, Diane says. Other plant species have not fared so well. “Jerry loved dogwoods, and we tried so many over the years, and although it breaks my heart, none survive on the property due to heavy clay in the soil,” Diane says.
Over the years, the McKernans have hosted many functions for family and friends in this bucolic setting, from Christmas parties where guests arrived by horse-drawn carriage to weddings in the garden overlooking the lake. Garden tours have also brought other horticulture enthusiasts to their home on a few occasions. But Diane relishes the quiet moments spent looking out on the lake or watching deer graze—even if a doe’s dinner is the ‘Royal Purple’ liriope that is used as groundcover on much of the site.
“Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to live here amongst all this beauty,” Diane says. “It’s like no other place in town, with its wildlife, tranquility, visuals and privacy. … It is nothing but relaxing.”