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Picturesque Courtyard Garden

Big ideas bring enchantment to a courtyard garden

Written by Cathy Still McGowin
  • Jean Allsopp

    Downsizing from a family home on a large suburban lot to a garden home means less maintenance. But it can also mean less privacy. Birmingham, Alabama, residents Judy and Jim Carns didn’t let narrow lot lines infringe on their planned lifestyle change. Instead, they built a home with a walled garden that offers plenty of seclusion as well as an enchanting setting that never fails to delight guests.

    Photography: Jean Allsopp

    Garden design: Max Garcia and David Swindal, GartenFest, LLC, 205/414-6740,
    Interior design: Kitty Rochester, 205/902-6243.

  • Jean Allsopp

    Arched Entry

    When the couple moved in, they had little more to work with than a brick patio and Birmingham’s red clay soil. Enlisting garden designers Max Garcia and David Swindal, Judy asked for privacy, sanctuary, and a garden that looked as if it had always been there. “Even though our house is new, it has an old-world ambience that sets the tone for the gardens,” she says.

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    Eye-catching Garden Walls

    The designers set about adding structure to the existing 10-foot-high garden walls that surround the 3,000-square-foot area. “We didn’t want the walls to look like a fortress,” says Garcia, “so we varied their treatments, adding brick, fountains, planters, niches, and tall foundation plants.”

    At the home’s entrance, a loggia opens onto the front garden. A row of ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae blocks the street view. Another wall covered in creeping fig ivy overlaid with a crisscross trellis of ‘Confederate Jasmine’ separates the courtyard from the neighbors. A burbling fountain drowns out street noise.

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    Bordered by Greens

    Surrounding the fountain, hedges of clipped ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood frame beds filled with Judy’s favorite hues of purple, pink, and lime green. A spray of ‘New Dawn’ roses cascades from the center arch of the loggia. “The blooms are magnificent,” says Swindal. “Even when they fall, they create the most exquisite pale pink carpet. You have to cherish them to the very last petal.”

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    Narrow Garden Path

    An antique iron gate accesses a 5-foot-wide alley that leads to the rear loggia and garden. Dense with ferns, hostas, and impatiens, the border of the sandstone path brims with blooms and texture. “This is my favorite part of the garden,” says Judy. “It reminds me of a narrow alleyway in Charleston, South Carolina. The front garden reminds me of Tuscany—though I have never been there,” she adds with a laugh. “The back garden recalls New Orleans and Savannah.”

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    Antique Iron Gate

    Keys hang from the antique iron gate that opens onto a beautifully landscaped sandstone path, leading to the rear garden.

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    Layering on the Charm

    Much like these old cities, the garden evolved without any strict plan. “Judy would see something in a book, or we would have an idea and we would make it happen from there,” Swindal says. “I’m the dreamer, and Max is the one with the skill to make things happen.”

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    Courtyard Sitting Area

    So Garcia and Swindal worked to fill the back courtyard with Southern ambience. “Because of the tight constraints of the lot and the height of the walls, interior windows looked straight out to the bare stucco walls, so we also had to create a view,” notes Garcia.

    Chock-full of diverse flora, including boxwood hedges framing seasonal blooms, dwarf fruit trees, and "Little Gem" magnolias, the Carns garden provides a constant flow of colors and fragrances that change with the seasons.

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    Furniture with Patina

    Antique French chairs mix with new iron seating throughout and contribute to convivial gatherings. 

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    Bubbling Fountain

    Water splashes from a lion's head set into a brick arch into an aquatic garden brimming with lotus and lilies. The brick helps break up the expanse of the stucco walls.

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    Pop of Color 

    A fuchsia bloom contrasts shiny green leaves.

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    Shaded Arbor and Sitting Area

    An arbor offers a shady spot along the back wall of the back courtyard. “My garden is a mix of formal and casual,” explains Judy. “I love the casualness of black-eyed Susans and sunflowers combined with elegant and dazzling tropicals like orchids and mandevillas.” 

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    Garden Details

    From every vantage, there is something to behold. Judy enjoys the comfort of the loggia, and the front garden’s stone bench is “my little private place where I enjoy meditating and just being still and quiet.” Sometimes, she steps out onto the roof of her second story just to take it all in. “You can see the whole garden from up there,” she says. 

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    Back Loggia

    Extending from the home's dining room, the sheltered indoor/outdoor room offers cushy rattan seating with Sunbrella-fabric cushions.

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    An Array of Flora

    Although the garden is only five years old, mature plantings, climbing vines, and hanging baskets combine in clever arrangements to give a timeless feeling.

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    Lotus Flowers

    A lotus blooms in the back fountain. 

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    Judy Carns poses with Buddy, her cavapoo. 

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    The home's structure allows for plenty of seclusion and solitude behinds its stucco walls.