Landscape Designer Mary Zahl
Stately shrubs for structure, spreading trees for shade, classic fountains for refreshing the spirit. These are among features of the gardens Mary Zahl has been designing in Birmingham for the past nine years, drawing on her broad knowledge of plants and experience of English and European gardens to create private landscapes that are ideally suited to each house and client. “As a designer, I am most concerned to create gardens appropriate to the style or period of the home and to the owner’s abilities to tend them. I want the garden to reflect their personalities and the character of the house,” is how Mary describes her design objectives.
Many of Mary’s Birmingham projects are for houses built in the 1920s as part of the development of the exclusive Mountain Brook neighborhood, an area known for its mix of various Revival styles––Tudor, Georgian, and French, to name a few. For these historic properties, Mary developed a design language in which the layout has all the elegant refinement of a classical formal garden––gently rising stairways, spacious terraces, and broad straight paths, all executed in fine stonework––softened and given modern livability by a well-considered use of plants.
Gardens for the South, says Mary, are often limited to spring and winter, because during the summer and much of autumn, the outdoors is generally regarded as off-limits, thanks to humidity, heat, and mosquitoes. But she has made a career designing four-season gardens for Southern clients, relying on a tried-and-tested repertoire of evergreen shrubs, shade trees, perennials with long-lasting foliage as well as shorter-lived flowers, and refined water features for the cooling ambience they bring to the landscape. “You just know in summer you may not want to garden actively, but you may wish to sit outdoors––if nothing else, as respite from air-conditioned stuffiness. A well-structured green space, dense with shadows and pale flowers, is just the place to do it.”
Originally from Florida, Mary came to garden design via a brief career in nursing. She credits travel in Europe, specifically in England in the early ‘70s, as the foundation of her garden education. While her husband, Paul, an Episcopal minister, completed studies at the University of Nottingham, she made sightseeing trips, combining bus and train travel with hiking. “The best way to learn about garden design and plants is through observation, and you certainly see more––and remember more––on foot.” While in England, Mary started designing gardens for friends, including Dr. George Carey, who at the time was the Archbishop of Canterbury; he enlisted her help in the restoration of the gardens at historic Lambeth Palace in south London.
In 1988, the Zahls moved to Charleston, South Carolina. One year later, Hurricane Hugo hit, and Mary’s design career began in earnest as she tackled the restoration of more than 100 devastated gardens. “I went from planting flower gardens to replanting trees,” recalls Mary.
In 1995, her husband’s work took them to Birmingham, and in her landscape design here, the influence of England shows. Mary has visited gardens throughout England, but the one that had the greatest influence was Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. That garden, made in the early 1900s by American expatriate Major Lawrence Johnston, surrounds an 18th-century stone manor house. Johnston, like many garden-makers at the time, was influence by the formal Italian gardens of the Renaissance. This early influence can be traced in Mary’s designs for the particular two gardens––that of Camille and Paul Butrus in Mountain Brook and Stweart Dansby’s in Redmont Village.
Photography: Matthew Benson
Landscape design: Mary Zahl, 412/259-8121