Written by Cathy Still McGowin
Photography by Jean Allsopp
Notched into a sloping Alabama hill in Birmingham’s historic Redmont neighborhood, the garden of interior designer Mary Finch and her husband, Ed, graces a 1926 home that is pure Country French. The garden complements the house’s decidedly Gallic flair—it even has a court for pétanque, a French lawn game. “Perhaps the most French thing about this garden is the amount of French wine we’ve shared here,” Mary laughs. Indeed, her visits to French wineries and travels in Provence inspired the garden’s feel.
Trading ideas and making sketches, she’s sipped a glass or two with Birmingham consulting gardener Norman Kent Johnson, who helped her design the garden while retaining its rural charm. Much of its original structure—poured concrete walls, stone paths, and herringbone brick terrace—was intact when the couple acquired the pretty property in 2004. “This is a wonderful 1920s garden that still had its original bones,” Mary says. The gardens were bare except for overgrown, decades-old wisteria that smothered everything. “We just started cutting,” she recalls.
Walls and walks needed repair, but with so much already in place, Mary and Johnson built on the garden’s existing foundation. “When we bought the house, it had a very rural feeling, which we liked,” Mary says. “So nothing much is manicured except for the boxwood borders, and we even let them go sometimes.”
The home and garden lie below street view at the front, but the rear of the house takes on a proud prominence. “French gardens are typically pancake flat,” Johnson says. “But here, just under the crest of Red Mountain, the original architect created a series of terraced garden rooms with wonderful views across the valley to the slopes of low-lying mountains in the distance.”
Re-creating order, Mary and Johnson carved out new spaces, added ornament, and replanted beds with new perennials. Today, a gated opening in a boxwood hedge serves as the garden entry. Steps beckon visitors to the garden below. There, a grassy courtyard is framed by an allée of potted vitex, low boxwood hedges, and stone pathways. Vintage bistro sets dot the lawn and terrace, and a stone-topped French table is often set for entertaining. “The house doesn’t have a formal dining room,” Mary says. “So this is it.”
After dinner, pétanque awaits on a court one level below. Mary initially resisted that idea. “Now, when our grown children come home, we usually find ourselves in a lively game,” she admits.
Steps, hedgerows, and the wall of the house provide demarcations between garden rooms. Ornaments, gates, benches, and a fountain offer pauses and create interesting axis points. A new boxwood parterre below the home’s main terrace is a truly formal space where blue salvia, prolific in summer, echoes the earlier blooms of vitex and hydrangeas. “The color scheme is inherent,” says Johnson. “When you look down the hill at this house, there’s a vast amount of slate roof. Combined with the smoky blue hues of the mountains beyond, you have a shadowy palette of blues, grays, and greens. We chose colors to harmonize with the existing mood.”
Plantings are part wispy, part manicured; the lot is hilly and broken into terraces; ornaments are of both French and Italian origin. And the picturesque scene wouldn’t be complete without its views.
“The French are historically good at bringing ‘home’ to wherever they are,” says Johnson. And so it is here, with Mary repurposing favorite period pieces from former abodes. One addition, a 1920s copper fountain, drops into a pool, filling in a once awkward spot.
Before moving here, Mary had only dabbled in gardening, but this property afforded a blank canvas she couldn’t resist. “There’s always something changing,” she says. “It’s exciting to see a new leaf emerge, foliage change, or a flower about to bloom.”
Whether relaxing on the porch watching the fireflies come out or serving cocktails for conviviality with friends on the terrace, Mary gives Country French style a Southern accent. She says: “My love of all things French has turned into a lifestyle—in the way we entertain, in our garden, and in our home.”