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Formal Birmingham Garden
A serene setting for the vintage home of Camille Butrus
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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
The Butrus house, in particular, shares many architectural features with Hidcote Manor. Under Mary’s tutelage, the landscape borrows some of the Hidcote formality, with distinct garden rooms shaped from evergreen hedges, areas of water and lawn balancing each other, a shady woodland, a pavilion, and several comfortable areas for sitting out. “Camille’s garden is definitely the most Italianate of my garden designs,” says Mary.
“We bought this house for the screen door,” says Camille Butrus, only half-jokingly. For the screen door is, indeed, a thing of beauty, its oak frame complementing the handsome oak front door. “The house was like a beautiful woman with bad teeth!” Camille explains. “We had to do exhaustive renovations to bring the house back to its glory.”
Boxwood and ivy frame the entrance to the Butrus home.
Plants chosen for their foliage decorate the entry terrace.
Camille and Paul engaged Birmingham architect James Carter to guide the work and design extensions, including a garden pavilion that borrows its appearance from the garden room at the southern end of the house. This deliberate echoing of architectural forms helps to unify the house and its garden setting.
When it came to the garden, Camille knew what she wanted, just not how to get there. “Because this house looks so like an early 19th-century English manor house, I felt it needed a formal garden to set it off, but I didn’t know how to articulate this. So the first contractor planted all these daylilies,” says Camille. “It was all wrong.” Following Carter’s advice, Camille contacted landscape designer Mary Zahl, asking for a one-hour plant consult. “And that’s how I sucked her into the vortex, and she’s not free yet!” laughs Camille.
The pavilion offers a view of the classic fountain.
Mary’s first big job was to remove an old swimming pool. “Then we had to convince Paul that it was worth the expense of installing good drainage on the site, before putting in the lawn and formal pool and fountain that serve as the central focus,” says the designer. These elements are set on an axis with the entrance to the garden room at the south-facing end of the house. The cross axis is marked at one end by an open-sided pavilion and at the other by a statue representing Libery, reputedly one of the original entries in the competition for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. “This lady was probably thought to be too voluptuous for a Northern setting,” opines Camille.
The sculpture said to have been an entry in the competition for the Statue of Liberty graces the Italianate garden of Paul and Camille Butrus.
The Butrus house is sited on the high point of a shallow ridge; the land slopes away from the house in back, creating a lower-level garden where a small stone terrace overlooks another expanse of lawn. A double herbaceous border flanks a stepping-stone path and a stairway connecting to the pavilion on the upper level. Foxgloves, phlox, and white-variegated caladiums grow in the cold shade, as do hellebores. “You have to learn to garden where you live. I’m still working on that,” exclaims Camille.
The small herbaceous border in the lower garden designed for shade-loving plants.
The crosier, or young frond, of the native fern Matteuccia sturthiopteris, locally known as the fiddlehead fern. Hydrangeas and ferns are among the signature plants used liberally by Mary Zahl in her designs for Birmingham gardens.
Hydrangea quercifolia is a native plant to the region.
In the lower garden, an antique marble statue emerges from the greenery.
Homeowner Camille Butrus
For Camille Butrus, her garden is a retreat. “I can go out in the morning in my dressing gown to do 15 minutes worth of weeding, and four hours later, I’m still out there. It’s my therapy.”