Natchez native gets lost in love of landscape

Published in Natchez The Magazine

Shirley Petkovsek’s garden has little rhyme or reason. Much like the mighty Mississippi River, flowers ebb and flow freely throughout the backyard oasis, tucked behind her Wall Street house.

From fragrant antique roses to blue larkspur that pop up unexpectedly, the garden is an eclectic sight.

But it’s the space’s informality that the longtime gardener cherishes.

“I just get lost in it,” Petkovsek said of the sacred time she spends tending to her garden. “It’s just a wonderful feeling to me to be out with the plants and see the beautiful things that nature provides.”

Petkovsek moved into the house in 1976. Since then, she has worked to make the two-story space a comfortable abode.

Adding flowers about the property, she said, was the quickest way to accomplish that.

A self-proclaimed “cottage gardener,” Petkovsek’s approach is anything but formal.

Cottage gardening, Petkovsek explained, is a lot like taking a paintbrush to a blank canvas.

“The landscape becomes the painting,” Petkovsek said.

Once she unlocks the double doors to her garden, it’s evident she has spent some time perfecting her painting skills. 

Verdant patches of Asian jasmine provide a geometric backdrop to the garden, while a rainbow of blooms paints thick strokes between brick walkways and shaded areas beneath the boughs of dogwoods and Japanese magnolias.

Interspersed benches complemented by dainty pillows suggest a feeling of relaxation and refuge.

In the garden’s corners, small sheds — one, which use to serve as a summer playhouse for Petkovsek’s granddaughter — anchor the loosely arranged scene.

“If I find a plant that I like, then I just find a bare spot and there it goes,” Petkovsek said. “As opposed to a formal garden that likes order, structure and defined beds — this is so much more fun to me.”

From a young age, Petkovsek has adored the tranquility offered by cultivating a garden. Unlike her current floral oasis, Petkovsek said her first garden was smaller in size, but still boasted the same theme of eclectic beauty.

“I can remember the first thing I ever planted,” Petkovsek said. “I was just a little girl at the time.”

While her mother was grocery shopping, Petkovsek recalled finding empty coffee cans, soup cans — anything she could find — then filling them with dirt and wildflowers found outside her home.

“With a kitchen spoon, I dug up dirt and filled every container,” Petkovsek said fondly. “I remember being so proud.”

That joy of cultivating beauty through found foliage has transcended throughout Petkovsek’s life.

Like the perennials that pop up on her property without warning, Petkovsek said she’s grown accustomed to being struck with floral inspiration in the most uncanny of places. 

Once while leaving Walmart, Petkovsek saw employees disposing of hydrangeas. And in true cottage-gardener fashion, she saw this as the perfect opportunity to offer new life to a few forgotten blooms.

“I had my son, Hayden, come back with his truck so I could take the hydrangeas back to my garden,” Petkovsek said with a laugh. “I just couldn’t let them go to waste like that.”

Now, those same hydrangeas bloom with renewed beauty behind Petkovsek’s house, accompanied by a number of other floral friends.

Cottage gardening tips

Even though she abides by few rules in her garden — and welcomes a wide variety of foliage — Petkovsek has picked up some handy tricks through the years to keep her yard flourishing.

To be an exceptional cottage gardener, Petkovsek said you only really need three things.

“If you have dirt, water and a kitchen spoon — you can be a gardener,” Petkovsek said. “It’s a lot easier than most people think.”

Once the seed is planted, the region’s rich soil handles the rest.

“In Natchez, we are so blessed with loess soil that is wind blown,” Petkovsek said. “You don’t have to use much fertilizer here.”

However, Petkovsek cautions inexperienced gardeners to be wary of strong sun.

“When you’re looking at that gorgeous seed catalogue and it tells you if a plant likes shade, or partial shade, or full sun, they don’t know what ‘full sun’ means in Natchez, Mississippi,” said Petkovsek, adding that drought-resistant plants are often the best option when it comes to summer gardening.

Flowers in the Portulacaceae family, Petkovsek said, are hardy, sun-tolerant blooms. She jokes that if you went on a two-week vacation and not a drop of water touched the ground, these fearless flowers would prevail.

However, some flowers just seem to be a staple of most cottage-style gardens.

Iris, geraniums, snapdragons, dianthus and hydrangeas are flowers Petkovsek said tend to provide the most abundant color in her garden.

“I like to stagger my blooms so I have something growing all the time,” she said.

This season particularly, Petkovsek said she has gravitated toward any flowers that add fragrance.

Sweet Holly, which tends to bloom in May or June, offers an especially pleasing aroma.

“The temperature has to be just right for them to come out,” Petkovsek said. “But oh, when they do, it’s just heavenly.”

Adding herbs, such as rosemary and mint, is another quick and easy way Petkovsek incorporates fragrance in her garden.

Sometimes, Petkovsek said she simply relies on the wind to do her planting.

“It’s really nice to have plants that reseed themselves and pop up in unexpected places because the wind blows them,” she said. “I have neighbors who don’t plant larkspur, but it will blow from my garden into their yards.”

Like Petkovsek, Tevah Cardneaux, also an avid Natchez gardener, said she gravitates toward perennials — like cosmos, sunflowers and poppies — to keep her garden blooming each summer.

Herbs, Cardneaux said, are also easy, heat-tolerant plants that any amateur gardener can grow with ease.

“Basil, mint and lemon balm are especially easy,” she said. “Most other herbs do well as long as they have good drainage and plenty of sun.”

In Cardneaux’s garden, vegetables also offer lively color — along with tasty fare for a summertime meal.

This season, Cardneaux, has especially adored Louisiana Purple Pod green beans because of their easy growing habits and the bright purple splash they add to her garden.

“They’re colorful and easier to find on the vines than regular green beans,” said Cardneaux, adding that they can be eaten raw, straight from the vine.

Once you establish your garden’s color, Cardneaux said the fun part lies in attracting visitors — but not in the traditional sense.

Coral honeysuckle is one of the best plants Cardneaux has for attracting and feeding hummingbirds.

“It blooms almost all year,” she said. “You just need a fence or structure for it to grow on.”

Butterfly bush, a perennial flower, also provides a great landing spot for winged visitors.

“The grow fast, and will become covered with butterflies in the summer,” said Cardneaux,, adding that it’s hard to number the blooms that grow well in the Miss-Lou. “One of the best things about gardening in Natchez — and in the south in general — is that you can garden year-round.”

Similar to Cardneaux, Dick Thompson, owner of Live Oak Construction, said it’s rare to find a flower that won’t take root in Natchez’s rich soil.

The Miss-Lou, Thompson explained, boasts a more tropical climate compared with other regions. When it comes to choosing spring and summer pants, he said there is a cornucopia of options.

“The Miss-Lou has a much longer growing season than most areas,” said Thompson, who has been guiding local gardeners in their springtime planting since 1979. “ In the spring and summer, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with garden color.”

For the most colorful results, Thompson recommended periwinkle, which come in white, pink and red varieties.

Gary Wills, owner of Creative Exteriors in Natchez, added “Angel Face” wedgewood blue angelonia to the list as a staple annual flower. This specific variety, he said, can withstand full sun and produces an especially pleasing lavender and white color.

Wills also suggested “Fire Light” hydrangea, which yields a pomegranate-red hue, as a staple garden shrub.

“I think it’s all really pertinent to timing and just a little bit of luck, to have a great summer garden,” Wills said.

A Place to Rest

Strolling through Petkovsek’s garden — which these days, she said serves more as a personal sanctuary — it’s evident that she seeks to capture emotion rather than practicality.

Tucked behind overgrown greenery, a small sign reads “Only my garden knows the secrets of my soul.”

“I usually keep the doors closed, so most people have no idea this is back here,” Petkovsek said. “Looking at the front of the house, you would never know this is here.”

And while Petkovsek lives alone in her downtown home, she is reminded of friends — and those she has loved along the way — when she is surrounded by the bountiful beauty in her backyard garden.

And sometimes — though not often — Petkovsek lets an outsider peek in on her home’s best-kept secret.

“I saw a family from China recently visiting Natchez, and they were taking pictures of a dead camellia bush,” Petkovsek said. “So I opened my gate and let them come in my garden, and they just loved it.”

While watching the family adore the garden, Petkovsek said she realized how lucky she is to have such a beautiful space only a few steps away.