Footprints of the Past: St. Francisville’s Afton Villa Gardens
It is the kind of place where you would walk in a dream—if your dreams are very good—gardens worthy of the gods carpeted in white and yellow flowers, almost transparent in their delicacy. The dream is shaded by giant moss-covered oaks. Its crumbling ruins suggest a mysterious past.
Afton Villa Gardens, just north of St. Francisville, combines formal Italian geometry with lazy Louisiana oaks. It features 100-year-old azaleas, ponds, terraces, and a valley planted with daffodils. At the center of it all stands the ruins of a great Gothic Revival mansion destroyed by fire in 1963.
Thanks to the wealth of its vast cotton fields, Afton Villa was once the most imposing estate in the area; its owner David Barrow (1805-1874) was the wealthiest man in West Feliciana Parish.
Barrow’s second wife, Susan, spent eight years creating a 40-room mansion and elaborate gardens spread over 25 acres. Mrs. Barrow also had a hothouse where she grew flowers for the house and pineapples for a tropical treat. Mrs. Barrow had been impressed by Gothic architecture on a tour of France. Her design for the house, complete with castle-like towers and turrets, made it a bold stylistic departure from the typical Greek Revival Louisiana plantation.
“The stucco exterior of the fairy-tale castle was painstakingly incised and sanded to resemble stone and was embellished with carved cypress.”—The History, aftonvilla.com
“She even wanted to surround the house with a moat,” says current owner Genevieve Trimble. “Thank God, she didn’t. Someone must have told her about the mosquitoes.” Thanks to the Trimbles, who bought Afton Villa in 1972 to save the gardens from real-estate development, anyone can enjoy a walk through one of the grandest landscapes in the South.
The entrance is a meandering half-mile road lined by thousands of azaleas in shades of red under a double row of more than 250 live oaks. Italian sculptures of Diana, Apollo, Hospitality, and Abundance, rising above beds of ‘Ivory Floridale’ tulips (or another species of flora, depending on the time of year), greet visitors approaching the ruins. Within the walls of the fallen southern castle is a “ruins garden” inspired by Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in the south of England. Here, white and purple delphiniums bloom with Carolina jasmine and snapdragons. ‘Monte Carlo’ and ‘Golden Oxford’ tulips create a sea of yellow. In another bed, ‘White Triumphator’ and ‘Maureen’ tulips float above white, blue, and yellow pansies. (The plantings inside the ruin walls this year include 13,000 pansy plants.)
To the left of the ruins lies a formal boxwood parterre with a maze of flowers typical of a 19th-century southern garden: camellias, sweet olive, magnolia, fuscata, and hydrangeas. One of the original azalea bushes used to graft thousands of plants on the estate survives here. The variety bears the name “Afton Villa Red.”
Beyond the boxwood parterre, graded terraces continue a downhill slope. Laid out in 1848, the “Grand Staircase” leads to one of the garden’s original Italian sculptures near a giant live oak. The female figure shows the effects of time and weather. The fingers have partly crumbled away. “She represents me working my fingers to the bone,” says Mrs. Trimble with a laugh.
Mrs. Trimble and the head gardener, Ivy Jones, planted the ravine at the bottom of the hill with 100,000 daffodils over the last 20 years. “‘Silver Chimes’, ‘Delibes’ (with the orange cups), ‘Exception’, and ‘Yellow Sun’ daffodils have naturalized best,” points out Mrs. Trimble.
The Trimbles hired Jones to help when they first took on the 250 acres of overgrown land in 1972. “We hired him for two weeks and he has worked here now for 36 years,” Trimble laughs.
Along with Jones, Mrs. Trimble credits landscape architect Neil G. Odenwald with the resurrection and success of the gardens. Dr. Odenwald assisted the Trimbles with design and development from the beginning.
Sadly, Morrell “Bud” Trimble died a few years ago, before the couple could retire to a small cottage on the grounds of Afton Villa Gardens. “I look at the boxwood, and I remember how much he loved cutting it. He loved this garden,” says Mrs. Trimble.
It is evident, the care and passion invested in this place over a century by owners who loved it. “In a week or so, it will change from a yellow and white garden to a blue and pink garden,” Mrs. Trimble says with anticipation.
My own dreams can’t rival this place. I will be back in a couple of weeks to see the blues and lavenders.