A Gardener’s Garden

Featured in flower magazine, Spring 2009

Featured in flower magazine, Spring 2009

As published in flower magazine

This feature article ran in the spring issue of flower magazine, profiling Mary Zahl, a gardener whose designs speak to the heart, inspire the mind, and recapture what has been lost.

Living in Charleston, South Carolina, during Hurricane Hugo, garden designer Mary Zahl found herself rebuilding not only gardens but people’s hopes, as well. The simple act of recreating a garden became a more profound gesture of reestablishing a sense of beauty and order amid the chaos. “Gardening is life, it’s beauty, it reproduces hope. If you are surrounded by dead fallen trees, at the very least, gardening lifts spirits, gives hope, and ministers to despair,” Zahl says. Older clients, especially, were overwhelmed by the destruction, so Zahl, viewing the hurricane as “God’s pruning,” helped them reframe their experience in a different, more positive light.

But when Zahl first started exploring her love of gardening while she was living in the suburbs of New York and looking for more to do while her three sons were in school, she had no idea that one day she would be play such an important role in the restoration of a devastated coastal community; or that she would one day help maintain Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s garden in London, while her husband, Paul, pursued his Ph.D. in Germany at Tuebingen University. Like so many prominent, successful garden designers, including Zahl’s colleague Penelope Hobhouse, Zahl’s informal education took on a life of its own. In pursuit of her own continuing education, Zahl explored the great gardens of Europe firsthand, read profusely, and garnered knowledge from a range of experts in a variety of different locales, all the while creating a thriving career in garden design over the years.

Moving with Paul from one Episcopal diocese to another, Zahl lived in Charleston for four years, where she worked extensively with the Charleston Historical Foundation. Before the hurricane, Zahl had been working primarily with flower borders. After the hurricane’s devastation, Zahl faced the daunting challenge of recreating what had been destroyed, learning more about trees and becoming more involved with the overarching design decisions in the process. Creating sunny gardens from former shade gardens, reconstructing golf courses, and replanting the tree canopy, Zahl also relied on the expertise of local professionals, brick masons and iron workers as she continued expanding her own knowledge.

Living in Birmingham for almost ten years, Zahl befriended legendary designers Norman Johnson Beaty Hanna, including them at the top of her list of other influential designers, Bunny Williams, Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey, Marco Polo Stephano, and Frank Cabot. “I was given wonderful opportunities in Birmingham and had a chance to work with delightful people, great contractors, beautiful topography, and outstanding architects,” Zahl says. After collaborating in the design of Aldridge Gardens in Birmingham, Zahl says she fell in love with hydrangeas, specifically the oakleaf hydrangea. She also loves roses and typically combines them with annuals, perennials and bulbs. The American beech is her favorite tree, and from her experience living in the coastal South, Zahl developed a special fondness for the live oak.

When designing a garden, Zahl believes it has to capture the imagination, but different people like different degrees of order, so each garden becomes a balance of order and profusion. “There’s no soul if there’s too much order, and if a garden is too profuse, it’s too chaotic to enjoy,” Zahl says. However, Zahl’s highest design goal is to create gardeners who can maintain and enjoy their gardens during all of the seasons; otherwise, Zahl emphasizes, the garden becomes a discouraging proposition. “Gardening in its ideal manifestation is about getting involved with nature, caring about plants, seeing the wonder of nature, and watching the seasonal changes while learning your likes and dislikes,” Zahl explains. Showing her clients how to become gardeners means teaching them how to be self-sufficient: “The client has to live with the garden and be able to take care of it. My imprint is always secondary.”

Working with a variety of individuals in such a collaborative process, Zahl credits her husband’s calling in the ministry for making her a better listener to her clients. Now living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Zahl has created her own ministry as she mentors gardeners to craft not just another pretty garden, but a sacred spot for reflection, a place not only to nurture plants and flowers, but a place to heal the human spirit.


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