Set back from the road and up a wooded slope resides a sublime, decades-old garden that has been meticulously maintained. In the mid-80s, as the homeowner was collecting ideas for the house she was building on a 2-acre plot in the Mountain Brook neighborhood of Shook Hill, she saw George Gambrill’s show garden at the Junior League of Birmingham’s Antique Show (now Antiques at the Gardens at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens). Soon after, she contracted the designer to replicate his formal show garden behind her house, along with landscape architect Nimrod Long to help with the site planning.
George aligned the central garden with the main center rooms of the home. The view from inside the house looks out to a manicured, stepped lawn that leads the eye up to an antique statue. To emphasize this garden focal point, the designer crowned it with Lady Banks roses trained over an arbor amassing into a billowing array of blooms. Unfortunately, George passed away before he could complete his work on the grounds. The owner then brought in garden designer Mary Zahl, who created a 20-foot by 24-foot courtyard that flows out from the living room.
In 2014, landscape architect John Golightly Wilson finessed the existing courtyard into a retreat better suited to the owner’s lifestyle. “I was inspired by the tone of the Gambrill-designed garden,” says John, who managed to both animate and soften the hard space at once. “I re-created similar elements here with a central area and one strong focal point surrounded by green.”
By leaving the existing walls alone and reworking the flooring into a paved rug woven of Pennsylvania bluestone and banded with Alabama limestone, John brought depth and interest to the overall space. He then built a fountain into one bank of the wall to create the necessary main point of interest. A low boxwood hedge inside the walls provides lush, year-round greenery. During the spring and summer, confederate Jasmine clings to the walls, white Baptisia springs up from behind the boxwood, and clematis vines hang over the doorways in the walled garden. Through John’s straightforward-yet-elegant approach, the courtyard complements George Gambrill’s grander garden without copying or competing. And for the homeowner, it’s the perfect place to host a cocktail party or simply slip outside to take in the soothing sound of the fountain.
John Golightly Wilson’s Courtyard Must-Haves
Design the floor. “Have fun with the paving. It’s easy to use different materials to create ‘rugs.’ Here we used limestone and bluestone, but any combination of surfaces can work as long as they complement the house. For a softer touch, use grass like an area rug set into a stone or brick border.”
Take chances with plants. “In a courtyard, you have a limited amount of garden beds. Be adventurous with your selections. This doesn’t have to mean exotic though. I used a Virginia Sweetspire that pops over the hedge and provides seasonal color and a graceful shape.”
Edit, Edit, Edit. “You don’t want to get too complicated in a small space. I chose materials that coordinate with the home. And I paid close attention to the smallest details. Even the drain grates became an asset to the overall look.”
Install a fountain. “Water features can be a blessing and a curse. They can be as simple or as complicated as desired, but they do need regular maintenance. In this one, we are always pulling out acorns.”
Design: Golightly Landscape Architecture, 205.212.8048, golightlyla.com Landscape Contractor/Maintenance: Landscape Services, Inc., 205.991.9584 Masonry: Carrigan Stone, 205.323.0031, carriganstone.com Fountain: Aquatic Gardens, aquaticgardens.com, 205.995.9466