Sprawling oasis on St. Francisville spring tour of gardens

— Kathleen Baker is such an avid gardener that when she ran out of space around her home, she started planting the ravines.

She ties a rope around her waist to help her climb out of the steep valleys.

“It’s so far down,” she explained.

But the ravines are only part of Kathleen and Bob Baker’s country garden. Dotted with native plants and trees, clustered plantings and rare plant specimens, every section is a vista, lovingly established by the couple over nearly three decades.

“When we bought the property in the ’80s, you couldn’t walk through it. It was nothing but briars and undergrowth,” Kathleen Baker said. “We just started clearing everything ourselves by hand. We didn’t even know a ridge was here. We found a pond.”

A neighbor down the road later told Baker she often wondered who in the world bought that “nasty old hollow.”

The Bakers cleared one area at a time until the 13 acres were pretty much under control. Only the trees are original to the property.

“I had no intention of doing what I did,” Kathleen Baker said. “It just grew.”

In 1998, the Bakers, who were living in Baton Rouge, built their home on the country property.

Over the years, they added a shop, a barn, a “garden shed” that looks more like a grown-up playhouse, a second story for the house and a fabulous outdoor kitchen.

On Saturday, May 3, the Bakers’ garden will be one of eight open for visitors at the St. Francisville Spring Garden Stroll presented by the Feliciana Master Gardeners of the LSU AgCenter.

Kathleen Baker taught kindergarten in Baton Rouge for many years. Her husband retired from Exxon Marine at 44, but consulted for another couple of decades. Both are now retired and devote many hours each week to their garden.

“I come out in the morning with a cup of coffee and walk around and piddle,” she said. “It depends on how much needs doing.”

She originally started planting and then decided what “extras” she needed, like bridges connecting planted areas. “I never do anything in the right order,” Kathleen Baker said,

The actual plants are very important to the Bakers, who grow many unusual varieties of well-known plants along with a number of plants that normally do not do well in the Felicianas. They have rare azaleas, rhododendron and all sorts of wildflowers.

The garden area is surrounded by a nearly transparent fence, built to keep out unwanted visitors like moles, voles, chipmunks, armadillos, raccoons and deer.

Kathleen Baker designed and built planting areas up to the fences. Beyond the area is natural vegetation.

“You have to have a stopping point,” she said. “The fence is my stopping point.”

Well, almost. Sometimes she just can’t resist undertaking a new area.

“I’ve moved the fence three times,” she said with a laugh.

The garden is filled with interesting items artfully placed among the plantings. There are empty wine bottles planted top-down in the ravines. They, along with old cedar limbs, help prevent erosion on the steep inclines. Baker formed old barbed wire into large balls that she uses as garden sculptures.

At the front of the property is a large vegetable garden maintained by Bob Baker, who loves building things on the property. He’s always thinking up another project.

“We don’t have any more space to build any more things,” Kathleen Baker said with a laugh.