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Simply Perfect Alabama Garden

A design for easy but stylish living makes the best of site and city in Stewart Dansby’s garden

Written by Ethne Clarke
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  • Matthew Benson

    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

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    One of Mary’s four-season Southern gardens is the setting for Stewart Dansby’s home in Redmont Village. The house is “Tudorbethean” in style, a nickname given to houses built of brick and half-timbered in the upper stories in the English Tudor style. From Stweart’s front door, the whole city spreads out before you. Wisely choosing not to compete with this fine vista, Mary focused her efforts on the back garden.

    A double staircase connects the elevated porch to the garden level; the area is divided along its length by a stone path. An old red oak tree is at the center of the area. “Everything had to be worked around that tree,” Stewart recalls. “With its stature and great age giving such a presence to the house and the garden, it influenced our use of more mature plants for the hedging that runs along both sides of the garden. Using bigger specimens also meant that I got instant privacy, so it’s doubly worth the extra expense.

    A double staircase leads down from the terrace to the pool in Stewart Dansby’s Redmont Village garden.

  • Matthew Benson


    The contours of the site slope from one side of the property to the other: The upper level was designated the swimming-pool terrace, with a native stacked-stone retaining wall and broad steps leading to the lower lawn beneath the old tree.

    The stone-edged pool––set in mown grass––turns a functional feature into a soothing decorative element.

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    Poolside Art

    Regional flavor takes form in a sculpture by Birmingham artist Frank Fleming.

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    Spa Pool

    A spa pool is tucked into the dense greenery between house and pool, flanked by a formal boxwood parterre. Again, this is a four-season garden for the South, with masses of shrubbery and foliage making a visually cooling statement; the glossy leaves of magnolias and boxwood have a rain-washed look that refreshes the eye.

    The spa pool is set in a densely planted area that gives a sense of privacy while adding to the garden picture.

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    Signature Plants

    Many designers rely on plants that they know will suit both site and purpose. For Mary Zahl, foliage plants are the backbone of her designs. “The climate is hard on flowers,” says Mary. “And foliage is much easier.” She values hellebores for their leathery leaves and sculputural seedpods.

  • Matthew Benson

    Ground Cover

    Zahl also uses ground covers like the purple-leaved bugle, Ajuga reptans, and canary yellow creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummulaira ‘Aurea’, to fill the gaps between paving stones and to make shade-tolerant blankets below shrubs and trees.

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    Homeowner Portrait

    A self-proclaimed “Birmingham Booster,” Stweart uses his home and garden to show visitors what is so special about the Magic City’s hospitality; yet the property easily doubles as his refuge, where he can enjoy a cool drink on a sunny terrace.

    Click here to see another Birmingham garden designed by Mary Zahl. 

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