As the son of a horticulturist and the grandson of a sugarcane farmer, Dr. F. Todd Lasseigne didn’t have to look far to find his passion. “I think in eighth grade I knew I wanted a Ph.D. in horticulture,” he says with a laugh.
Reflecting on his journey from Thibodaux, Louisiana, to his current role as executive director of Bellingrath Gardens and Home, in Theodore, Lasseigne, whose last name is pronounced lah-SANG, tells a story of academic rigor, extensive travel and gardens. Lots and lots of gardens. He estimates he has visited 85 gardens — in England alone.
After earning degrees across the Southeast, Lasseigne entered the public garden world in 2005 when he was hired to be the founding executive director of the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernersville, North Carolina. “This family foundation wanted to build a botanical garden of all things in the middle of a historic district,” he says. Within six years, Lasseigne and his team had converted “an abandoned Dairy Queen and seven acres of kudzu” into an exhibition that caught the attention of another fledgling garden in Oklahoma. Lasseigne became the executive director of the Tulsa Botanic Garden, and over the next 10 years, oversaw its $20 million development.
Following the retirement of longtime Bellingrath director Dr. Bill Barrick, Lasseigne was hired to run the historic home and garden in 2020. With his decades of expertise, he also brings a casual approach to gardening: “I want to see people garden,” he says. “The general rule of thumb is: Don’t be too timid. Try a lot of different things in your garden. Your thumb’s going to get greener, unfortunately, by killing more plants. That’s because you’re going to learn from your mistakes.”
Speaking of learning, MB decided to bring Lasseigne along to four Mobile gardens to share the lessons, memories and pitfalls gleaned from a life in the garden bed. Use what’s available, he insists, and stay true to your tastes.
“Bellingrath Home was built, in part, with salvaged bricks and ironwork from Mobile,” he points out.
In other words, be bold, be creative and have fun. Bellingrath’s executive director said so.
A British Sensibility
Old Shell Road and Tuthill Lane, Built 1923
This home is amazing. I love the whitewashed brick with those gray-green shutters. In fact, we used this color scheme while I was executive director of the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernerville, North Carolina.
By adding this circular feature, the owner has made their garden so much more inviting. Notice the arch over the main window? That’s the only curved line on the home, and it might have helped inspire this garden design. The homeowner could have built a square bed, but curves in a garden are always going to feel more relaxed than straight lines and corners.
The owner identifies this home as built in the Georgian style, and that’s reflected outdoors. Once those boxwoods fill in and become a low hedge, this garden will have a very formal outline with informal plantings within — that is classic British cottage garden style. At Sissinghurst Castle in the south of England, you can climb this beautiful tower and look down to see the garden’s perfectly clipped hedges, but within the hedges are all of these billowing plants. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition that we’re not used to seeing down here. I think there’s something for us to learn from the English style of planting and design, but we have to find the right plants that will work here.
It looks like this owner has cleverly used gaura, which is the billowing plant you see around the statue. It’s a native that actually grows on Bellingrath Road. We don’t use it in the gardens yet, but we will. It blooms white or pink flowers over a long period of time, and it just sways in the breeze.
I like the two identical planters raised on columns. That’s a bold addition and a reminder to play with height in your garden.
Under the Oak
Oakleigh Garden Historic District, Palmetto Street, Original Structure Built 1867, Renovated Post-WWII
I think one of the coolest things you can do under live oaks is to have fun with texture. Your color palette’s going to be more limited because you’re not going to find a lot of plants that are going to thrive. In this case, the homeowners could have said, “Let’s plant some camellias,” but they didn’t want a bunch of shrubs, they wanted to see their home. And I don’t blame them!
This feels very Deep South to me and absolutely Mobile. There’s an undeniable French and Spanish influence present. I absolutely love that they went crazy with the autumn ferns, which is actually a Japanese fern. You can also see some little palmettos interspersed throughout. So this yard is like a textural gumbo. I applaud them for being a little bold with the ferns because you’re not going to get much turf to grow under a live oak. We all try and we all kill it, and the turf companies appreciate us for continuing to try.
Here’s a fun test: Photograph your garden in black and white. If it looks good in black and white, it’s going to look even better in color. They’ve done that here. This home is so much fun for the eye — the ferns, the oak tree, the brick, the shutters. It’s very sumptuous.
I’m not an architect, but whoever designed this really did a great job. The oversized windows, all of that detail on the front door and the fact that the shutters practically touch — it’s all very evocative.
Foliage on Oak
That plant growing on the oak limb is a native called resurrection fern. It creates spores which blow in the wind. When they find the right habitat, in this case the bark of a live oak, they’ll germinate. Don’t fret — it won’t cause any harm to your tree.
“When people let stuff grow between the cracks of their stepping stones, it creates a kind of romantic feel. I can’t be certain, but this looks like it could be peacock moss, which has little underground stems that run. If so, this homeowner deserves five extra credit points on this little test.”Todd Lasseigne
Not all ferns are created equal. August fern, shown here, is cold hardy, meaning it’ll survive our winters. Holly fern, likewise, is practically bulletproof. But that Boston fern we like to put in a hanging basket? That’s a tropical plant, so don’t expect to put it in the ground and have it survive winter.
What I enjoy about autumn fern is that its new growth is this beautiful kind of shrimp pink. Not everyone does this, but I recommend cutting it all back in late winter, like the end of February or even the first half of March. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be bare for a few weeks, but then you’ll get this eruption of new foliage, it’s going to be this wonderful pink.
This scene has a strong Bellingrath feel, especially considering the choice to use a black cast-iron planter to complement the bench.
This is an artful combination of plants — the height and boldness of the elephant ears against the color and fine texture of the impatiens and creeping jenny. Something to consider is the root volume of your container. Vigorous plants, such as elephant ears, will eventually dominate smaller containers, so keep that in mind when choosing a container and deciding how to fill it. For reliable, summer-long color, impatiens are hard to beat.
Westwood Street, Midtown Mobile, Built 1917
This house reminds me of the home that my mom and dad built in Thibodaux. It almost looks like a bit of a hybrid between a classical Southern home combined with the bungalow period. And that big wrap-around porch — who doesn’t want a big porch?
The thing that I really picked up here is that they’re showcasing their home — and they should. They have some beautiful live oaks around. The garden plantings are mostly informal but then for some reason, which I like, they’re clipping their yaupon tree. And so you have this formal home, in the sense of hard lines, and then you have these informal plantings and trees because that’s how live oaks grow. But then there’s this one specimen which they have sheared to perfection. A three-tiered topiary is also of interest in the backyard (right). It reminds me of some of the English gardens I’ve seen where there are billowing masses of informality tucked amongst formal hedging. It gives you this romance, and they have it here.
Cast-iron plants are ubiquitous down here because they’ll grow in the darkest shade you put them in. They are a popular choice beneath live oaks, as you see here.
Contemplate your garden
Gardens are great for their spiritual properties, so a lot of people find solace and even spirituality just by sitting in the yard. Even if the bench is never used, it creates a certain welcoming atmosphere.
Hanging ferns are the earrings of a house. Some homeowners can grow Boston ferns to this size by protecting them in a greenhouse over the winter, and some use a low-level liquid fertilizer to keep them lush. But don’t underestimate that a lot of people are simply purchasing big, new ferns each year.
St. Augustine grass, with its broad leaf blades, has a classic look. When mowing this month, don’t cut too low. People like to clip their lawns very short here, but if you cut your St. Augustine too low, then your grass isn’t able to use its blades to create carbohydrates for itself. So the taller your grass, within reason, the better.
The rule of thumb with azaleas is that you want to prune them after they bloom but before Father’s Day, so get to it! If you prune after Father’s Day, then you’re potentially cutting off next year’s flowers. Personally, I like to use a Japanese brand of pruners called Okatsune.
“White is the great unifier in terms of garden color. Your flower bed could feature a range of colors, but if you put white together, like here with these annuals, it’ll unify that planting.”Todd Lasseigne
This is the perfect example of the indoor-outdoor experience, inviting the garden into a home. I spy a florist hydrangea and a beautiful little maidenhair fern — this homeowner really adores plants. What a great scene, and it’s all anchored by that wonderful angel statuette.
Besides creating a beautiful, clean look, pine straw allows water to run through it better than a mulch, which will hold water and can lead to rot (especially in a place as rainy as Mobile). It’s also a natural acidifying agent. Most plants prefer to grow on the acidic side, so straw can help maintain that pH level.
Old Shell Road and Margaret Street, Built 1922
This is actually the home of my friend and coworker Tom McGehee, museum director of the Bellingrath Home, so it’s no surprise that he has a lovely home and garden. Knowing Tom, I know that he likes his hedges clipped very finely, and you can see that he’s doing a perfect job of that. The dual topiaries by the door almost remind me of those concrete pineapple elements you’ll often see.
A lot of things make this home standout: the pavers, the well-kept yard, the arch over the door (which you’ll see is duplicated in the window on the right). The yard is wide open and he’s kept the flower beds and hedges low, so this is a showcase home. Full sun means colorful flowers, and you can see Tom is using this to his advantage with maybe some marigolds, rudbeckias and black-eyed Susans. Some say it gets too hot down here for full-sun flowers, but baloney! Just drive around Alabama and see how many plants are growing in full sun — the sky is the limit.
I’ve really come to like different paving options. These look like bluestone panels, which complement the color of the home. Although much more expensive, I prefer bluestone over brick because brick is porous and therefore accumulates much more moss.
Another feature in Tom McGehee’s property: bluestone pavers floating in a sea of pea gravel. Look at all of the different plants and textures and how the Japanese yew has been clipped to fit between the awnings. This is a high-maintenance garden, but it’s what the owner wants, and he’s doing a great job.
Oakleaf hydrangea, an Alabama native shrub, provides a billowing contrast to a pretty formal scene.
Before installing your own path, make sure the area has proper drainage. Otherwise, after a three-inch rain, your pea gravel might end up in the neighbor’s yard!
Statuary in a garden is always a nice addition, and so much of it is about personal taste. This piece just looks as if it belongs, and a lot of that has to do with scale. Often, a small statue is swallowed by the yard. This one fills its space nicely.
“Look how lovely Tom’s courtyard is: Thick zoysia grass, clipped boxwoods on both sides, enormous azaleas creeping in and some rose beds for color. You don’t have a space like this unless you’re going to entertain. It speaks to the personality of the owner.”Todd Lasseigne
Fig vine is an architectural feature around this fountain. Granted, he will have to clip this a lot, so it is an owner-driven element. But let plants soften your hardscape; architects like to think their houses are the end-all be-all, but landscape architects make our homes more livable.
There’s nothing better than the sound of moving water in a garden, but remember, a fountain will need to be maintained. Don’t think it’s something you can plug in and forget about for 10 years. If you understand and accept that, then you can have a beautiful water feature for a long time.