Gardener: Work is ‘a campaign’

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- White azaleas bloom at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow on Friday, March 22, 2013. 3/22/13 MAGS OUT/INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT/GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT/225 OUT/10/12 OUT/IN REGISTER OUT/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/ ADAM LAU
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- White azaleas bloom at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow on Friday, March 22, 2013. 3/22/13 MAGS OUT/INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT/GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT/225 OUT/10/12 OUT/IN REGISTER OUT/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/MANDATORY CREDIT THE ADVOCATE/ ADAM LAU

Self-professed curmudgeon Craig Black spends most of his days digging in the rich soil at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens or shuffling plants from one spot to another.

This time of the year, Black is carrying bromeliads and other plants from his greenhouses to the gardens circling the big house.

“It’s a campaign,” he said of his daily task. “You never know what the day is going to bring.”

On a recent visit to the plantation, Black was planting a bromeliad in one of the front path gardens.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what kind this is,” he said as he pruned the large potted plant before placing it in the soil.

And that uncertainty and wonder keeps Black motivated and passionate about caring for the plantation grounds.

With more than 1 million plants under his care, Black, a lanky, slim man who is usually wearing the same brown hat and accompanied by his dog Chip, never dreamed he would spend more than 35 years as the gardener at the popular tourist location.

Originally, Black’s wife, Linda, was hired as the gardener and Black was hired to help with maintenance around the property.

“After we started having children, I took over the gardening,” Black said. “And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Black, an artist and sculptor, has been a fixture at the plantation, working seven days a week from dawn to dusk.

“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Black said.

That lifestyle, which includes not owning a vehicle and living on the grounds, means he can devote much of his time to the lavish, plush gardens.

Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly said he wouldn’t describe Black as a curmudgeon, but as an man who tends to the “eccentric and fantasy” in his personal style.

That personal style is evident to anyone passing by Black’s house on La. 44 in Gonzales.

The house is decorated with elaborate, colorful concrete sculptors and a water fountain.

The eclectic house is a far cry from what tourists see at the Houmas House gardens.

Kelly said Black’s work in the gardens must fit the “old-world designs” that one expects in a plantation setting, “but he’s more of a bohemian in his personal life.”

Black’s fantasy touches can be found throughout the 38-acre site, which includes several fountains, lush greenery and rich colorful flowers.

Kelly said it’s those year-round pops of color that tourists comment on the most.

“People are always surprised that there is always color even in the dead of winter,” Kelly said.

Color, Kelly said, is what makes the gardens pretty and inviting.

This time of year, much of that color comes from the bromeliads Black is planting.

An early blooming season for azaleas means most of the vibrant flowers are fading, but more colorful plants are there to take their place.

“As an artist, he brings his art into the garden,” Kelly said of Black. “He treats the garden like his canvas.”

Black said he is fortunate that Kelly encourages him to “go to the excess” in the gardens.

“Kevin walks out of the back door dreaming of new ideas every day,” Black said.

Kelly’s love of water features also gives Black an outlet for his creative side.

“Water in a garden creates feeling,’ Kelly said. “Fountains drown out the outside world.”

Black uses a machine to “throw the concrete needed” to build the elaborate water features dotting the gardens.

Around each of those water falls and fountains are thousands of plants.

“You don’t really plan a garden in south Louisiana,” Black said.

With constant weather changes, like the late season frost last week, Black said, he has to be prepared for anything.

He uses up to 50,000 bedding plants for the fall garden.

“We move fast around here,” he said. “You have to be prepared for something to fail.”

Behind the plantation sits several greenhouses filled with tropical plants, orchids and flowers ready for planting.

One of the greenhouses is filled with an orchid collection of more than 1,000 plants. The orchids sit in open, lava rock-filled pots.

Black said it’s not difficult to grow orchids “if you plant them in rocks instead of dirt.”

With so many plants to care for, Black doesn’t have a favorite plant.

From the pansies to the herbs and vegetables planted for use in the plantation’s restaurant, Black said he has to treat them all the same.

“You can’t be afraid that something’s going to die,” he said. “Plants die. You have to be willing to try new things.”

Spring is Black’s favorite time of year in the garden because “everything’s in transition.”

In addition to bringing the bromeliads out from the greenhouses, Charlie the cockatoo made his first appearance of the year last week.

Charlie sits in a cage not far from the Japanese-style gardens.

While many think the elaborate Japanese-style garden is out of place at a Southern plantation. Black said it was common for plantation owners to come back from “grand trips overseas” and build European or Japanese-style gardens to show others what they had seen on their trip.

“You didn’t have a camera, so they would build what they had seen,” Black said.

It’s a favorite spot for brides, he said.

The Japanese garden is also a favorite spot for tourists.

Rose LeFlamme, of New Haven, Conn., stopped on a recent trip to the plantation to snap a photo of the waterfalls in the Japanese garden.

LeFlamme and her family were making their second trip to the plantation in the last year.

“We just love the gardens,” she said. “We were here six months or so and couldn’t wait to come back.”

She described the gardens as peaceful and colorful.

Black said that peaceful feel is just the result he and Kelly are looking for.

One of Black’s favorite spots in the garden is the sugar kettle waterfall near the visitors exit. The water feature includes bricks and a sugar kettle from an old sugar mill and thousands of plants.

“Something about it all works,” he said.

Black added the first waterfall to the gardens eight years ago.

For Black, being the gardener at Houmas House isn’t a job.

“If you don’t love this work, you don’t last,” he said.