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The Self-Taught Gardener: Fifty shades of cool

We can learn a lot from Southern gardeners as we face warmer weather here in the North, such as how to create the illusion of cool.


A weekend in New Orleans for my niece’s wedding, when November temperatures reached unseasonably into the eighties, led me to consider the most important element of garden design in the age of climate change—respite from the sun. The importance of this element is new to northerners but has long been understood by southerners. Soon after my arrival in Louisiana, as I sat leisurely on my friend Heather’s deep porch in Covington, sipping water, not sweet tea (although more than one Coca-Cola replete with chipped ice was consumed over the weekend), I came to remember what I loved about life in the South: how the weather sets the pace for what one takes on each day and reminds us to take it easy at midday.

Shade, whether cast by a deep-set roofline over a shuttered porch or by plantings that frame the sky, is essential for living in warmer climates. But as I looked out over Heather’s garden, and as I crossed Lake Ponchartrain to go back to New Orleans (a 23.8-mile long bridge over the lake also has a cooling effect) and later rambled about the Garden District, a revelation suddenly took me by surprise. I realized that what I took for shade was often the illusion of shade. Southerners, masters of illusion (unless you think the War of Northern Aggression was just that), often provided the elements of shade — live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, vines and alocasias that called to mind the tropics — to imply shade, even though such plantings were set at a distance and actually provided minimal respite from the sun.

The crape myrtles are topped by a canopy that provides little shade but seems to imply shade nevertheless.

Gardens here are often created as private enclaves with plants providing the outer barrier and the space in the interior is sunny and light-filled. It is as if one finds oneself feeling cooler by simply seeing plants that call to mind shade and tropical breezes. On a still day, I swear that such plantings, motionless down to the Spanish moss, managed to create such a tactile mirage that I imagined feeling a gentle breeze blowing across my brow. (On more than one occasion, a breeze was provided, through the other great garden element of the South, the swinging porch seat.)

The large leaves of taro add a tropical effect to gardens and make one feel breezes that never materialize. Photo: Lee Buttala

Observing this while tooling by the old house once owned by New Orleans writer Anne Rice on my way to eat a much too large lunch at Commander’s Palace, I was convinced that taro plants, with their large elephant-like ears, were keeping me cool, even though I was simply seeing them through cast iron fences. Somehow, walking down the sun-drenched sidewalks at midday, the visuals were keeping me cooler. Crape myrtles in side gardens and in front of antebellum mansions do not expand their canopy until they reach twenty-five feet in the air and were certainly at a distance from me, but somehow had me convinced that they were keeping me cool. Ferns atop brick walls and dark green broadleaf evergreens pushing between the rails of iron fences added to the illusion.

Anne Rice’s old house in the Garden District of New Orleans calls to mind shades of a different variety, the unearthly inhabitants of her novels. Photo: Lee Buttala

Of course, the most significant contributor to this illusion were the most beloved of Southern trees that actually did cast shade, although not always overhead, sweet bay magnolias and live oaks. The shiny black-green evergreen leaves of the sweet bay magnolias implied shade even when they were reflecting the midday sun back at me. Something about their color and density cooled me visually and the scent of their blossoms also has lowered my temperature as I inhaled their sweet fragrance. And the live oaks, covered in Spanish moss, were the equivalent of 25,000-BTU air conditioner units. Just seeing them standing across the street or framing the view of the second story of an old mansion kept me cool.

Greenery pushing through the cast iron fences of New Orleans somehow adds to the illusion of shade. Photo: Lee Buttala

The last element to keep one cool is one we turn to regularly in the heat – water. I felt its effect from the sight of Heather’s pool from the porch above and from the rills and long-water feature of Longue Vue Garden, an Ellen Biddle Shipman garden built in the middle of the last century and well worth a visit. Water is the grand master that makes us understand the art of illusion and its effectiveness. Who, upon seeing and hearing water, has not felt their blood pressure lessen and their temperature lower?

The use of water as an element to cool the spirit is put to good effect at Longue Vue House and Garden. Photo: Lee Buttala

I left New Orleans, and all that the South stands for, to arrive back in the frosted North with a thought that took me by surprise. In an age where we have been asked to ignore the science behind global warming, maybe a little deception is worthwhile if it allows us to keep our cool.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.