Paul Soniat walks through the rose garden and past a reflecting pool full of water lilies at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park. In midsentence, the conversation abruptly stops. He is distracted by two wooden planters that look oddly out of place in the formal garden.

“I just don’t know if these barrels fit right here. They belong somewhere else,” Soniat mumbled to himself as if lost in thought. “Oh, wait,” he declared. “It’s no longer my responsibility; I’m not here anymore. I just can’t let it go.”

Soniat retired in November after 41 years as the director of the 10-acre botanical gardens, but the lush green oasis in City Park that he established and nurtured is never far from his mind.

“I wish I had refined the collection a little more, added a little more variety and possibly a better design,” he said, looking across an expanse of grass near the rose garden. “It needs to be a little fuller.”

Visitors, however, seem lost in the beauty of the 2,000 varieties of plants from around the world he added to the collection.

Only Soniat sees what’s missing.

Just a young sprout

The year was 1982, and it was by sheer luck that Soniat was connected to the botanical gardens. He was landscaping a home of a member of the Friends of City Park conservancy, and that person suggested he apply for the director position.

“It sounded good, but the reality was that there was nothing there, no revenue, nothing,” said Soniat, who grew up Uptown and graduated from De La Salle High School before earning a horticulture degree from the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). “I think they offered the job to several other people, but no one wanted it.”

The conservancy secured five years of funding to hire Soniat, and he started with only the remnants of a 1930s rose garden, a potting shed and two employees who were more than twice his age and contemplating retirement. Soniat said park officials put a fence around the grounds and told him good luck.

“We didn’t have an entrance, and we didn’t have the ability to charge money at that time,” Soniat said. “There were people sleeping in the garden when I got here.”

‘Diamond in the rough’

Although Soniat was young, he knew he had a diamond in the rough.

Coleen Perilloux Landry, the chairperson of the Live Oak Society who recently presided over a ceremony naming an oak in the garden for Soniat, worked closely with him for 40 years and credits his vision and perseverance for making the botanical garden a world-class facility.