Backyard on the bayou: A University Acres couple’s garden makes the most of its wooded waterside setting
‘I make him carry his cell phone when he goes down there,” says Charlene Stovall, motioning toward the swampy overgrowth down the hill behind this University Acres home. “We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife—bobcats and coyotes and red foxes.”
But John Stovall can’t keep from exploring the farthest reaches of his backyard. After all, that wild-looking patch of ground along Bayou Duplantier is where he’s just as likely to find a new piece of fallen cypress for his outdoor sculptures as he is to spot an interesting bird. It’s the last frontier for this garden enthusiast who has slowly shaped the couple’s home landscape into a woodland wonderland, complete with winding stone paths that lead to colorful new vistas around every curve.
The Stovalls’ garden was part of the Friends of Hilltop Arboretum’s Spring Garden Tour in mid-April, an event that was postponed twice during the height of the pandemic and threatened to be thwarted again after a week’s worth of spring rain. But the sun came out just in time, and some 300 visitors descended on this hillside hideaway along with two other gardens in the neighborhood.
Like the parties this couple likes to throw in their backyard, the tour was an opportunity for John and Charlene to share the story of how this space came to be what it is today. The couple were living in Old Goodwood when they discovered this home for sale in 1989. The house had been built in 1970 on a 1-acre lot that backs up all the way to the bayou. “No one can build back there, so it’s really private,” Charlene says. “It wasn’t the perfect house, but it was the perfect yard. We just had a vision for it, and little by little, it came together.”
Though the yard was heavily treed right up to a back patio near the house, the couple didn’t race to reinvent the landscape. Instead, they chose to work with the terrain they had—until that terrain began to change on its own. “In Hurricane Andrew, we lost 12 trees,” Charlene says. “Then there were more in Katrina and Gustav. As the trees gradually started falling, it opened up the perfect spot for putting in the pool.”
The ever-evolving setting made an ideal muse for John, who not only had ideas for how to fill in the yard with plants but also found inspiration about a decade ago to start creating three-dimensional artworks for the garden. He welds together everything from dental X-ray equipment—John is a retired dentist—to lawn mower parts and drilling pipes to build these modern sculptures. “I like making things,” he says.
On a trek around this yard, one learns quickly that every plant has a purpose, and every object has a history. An architectural fragment discovered at a garage sale is attached to a tree with a hanging plant below it. The stump of a gum tree that was hit by lightning now serves as a plant stand. A plow share contributed by a rice-farmer friend sits atop a camshaft. An array of 8- to 10-foot-tall azaleas, planted by the home’s original owners, puts on a springtime show in hues of white, lavender, salmon and the traditional Formosa magenta.
Among the other plants in abundance here are feathery nandina and round-leafed ligularia, sweet olive and native azaleas, Algerian ivy and Chinese bloodroot. The towering assemblage of trees includes hackberry, swamp maple, magnolia, oak, ash, hickory and the Taiwan cherries brought to University Acres by now-105-year-old neighbor Julia Hawkins.
In the lower area of the yard beyond the garden fence, a grove of tall camellias is believed to be around 50 years old, and wild muscadine vines and blackberry bushes provide snacks for animal visitors including deer as well as those formidable foxes, bobcats and coyotes. Holly ferns and sensitive ferns pop up where sunlight refuses to shine. Down by the water’s edge, a massive wild palmetto seems to beckon.
And new tales are being told in the soil every day. The ice storm that hit Baton Rouge earlier this year appeared to have conquered many plants, but as he walks the paths, John discovers small elephant ears just popping up and beginning to unfurl, and evidence that armadillos have been invading his violets.
“I spend hours a day out here,” John says when asked to quantify the effort required to maintain such a large space. Sure, there’s pulling weeds and watering, and picking up plenty of sticks after storms, but he and Charlene also say they love to sit near the pool and look out on the backyard. They enjoy many an al fresco meal on the pool deck, even in summer, as the hot sun sets on the opposite side of the house.
Another of John’s favorite spots is a wooden bench he built closer to the swamp. From that perch, he watches for birds—he has seen and heard barred owls, warblers, Carolina wren and other more exotic species during migration season—and simply soaks in the nature that surrounds him.
“My mother was a gardener; she grew up on a farm in Indiana,” John says of his inherited green thumb. “I have just always enjoyed gardening myself. I like being outside and watching things grow—seeing the way the garden transitions throughout the year.”
See more photos from this garden in our gallery below: