Small-Scale and Savvy
An imaginative landscape renovation reclaims a lawn for living.
Cynthia Massey calls her residence a garden home, for lack of a better term to describe the contemporary concept of more floor space and less lot. But the original tangled wilderness she saw from her back windows certainly did not meet the definition of a “garden.”
“The backyard was a narrow area with a significant grade, and it was invaded by kudzu,” Cynthia says. “It was completely unusable.” While there was a patio, the space was small and encircled by a retaining wall, giving the sense of being in a hole. Its claustrophobic feel and plain brick construction seemed mismatched to the home’s newly updated, expansive, and sophisticated interior.
Realizing the backyard needed a serious upgrade, Cynthia didn’t just hire a landscaper. Instead, she sent out a garden mayday. As a result, an ad hoc group of first responders—landscape architect Lois Mash, interior decorator Tommy Porter, and Rodney Griffin of Gardens by Griffin—convened to rescue the outdoor space, “I put together what I considered to be a dream team,” Cynthia says.
Each team member brought certain strengths to the project. Lois provided the structure, and her training and experience emphasized the gritty details. Her initial advice was to order a site survey so that the team would know exactly what the problems were and where they were located.
Tommy contributed an artistic imagination that found the key to opening up the garden’s beauty. “He had the idea to take the retaining wall back and open up and flatten out the yard,” Cynthia says. Pushing back the retaining wall, which required removing close to 200 tons of dirt, provided a flat expanse that allowed the team to create a dream outdoor living space.
Rodney’s role was to color within the lines of the team’s concept. He fulfilled more of Cynthia’s garden wishes—an herb garden, flowering shrubs to provide blooms to cut, and even fruit trees‹with plants selected with an eye to space, low maintenance, and color (the garden features hues of blue and white, with the occasional yellow), as well as an emphasis on native species to attract birds and bees.
“In the beginning, they asked me for ideas,” Cynthia explains. “They told me to dream big and tell them anything I’ve ever dreamed of having.” Her outsized wishes for the space included a fireplace, an arbor, a kitchen garden, a water feature, and an al fresco dining space.
With imagination and intelligence, the team made her wishes come true. Now this petite patch of earth is a place of beauty and practicality, giving new meaning to this garden home.
Through a savvy use of space, a small backyard is transformed into a tranquil outdoor retreat, as seen in the rendering of the garden plan.
Built into a hillside, Cynthia Massey’s home and garden presented a special challenge with water and drainage during construction of the new outdoor space. Moving tons of dirt would affect the property’s drainage, which was never adequate to begin with. “Every time it rained, it was a disaster,” Cynthia says. “The mosquitoes were so bad (because of standing water), I’d have to have a transfusion after being outside.”
And it wasn’t just rain runoff at the root of the mess. During construction, the contractor, Rodney Griffin, found two natural springs contributing to the garden and patio’s water problem.
To remedy the issue of way too much of a good thing, Rodney designed two French drains to collect the excess water and, using that principle of downhill drainage, direct it away from the property. (French drains, by the way, aren’t European. They’re named for a 19th-century American farmer, Henry French.)
Now the water that once pooled on Cynthia’s patio runs off harmlessly to the storm drains on the street.
The contours of the lot contribute to the garden’s lushness and sense of depth by providing a backdrop of greenery and blooms, including espaliered apple and pear trees and lollipop-shaped awabuki ‘Chindo’ viburnum on the high wall, white drift roses over the fountain, and winter gem boxwood and gardenias at patio level.
The Massey Garden received the 2013 Alabama State Merit Award from The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).
“I had ideas of what I wanted, but I never imagined how fabulous it would be.” — homeowner Cynthia Massey
Landscape Architecture: Lois S. Mash, Greenview Studio, Inc. Birmingham, 251.923.7367 • greenviewstudio.com; Design Consultant: Tommy Porter and Scott Martin, Porter Bros. Tommyporter2710@gmail.com; Construction and Plantings: Rodney Griffin, Gardens by Griffin 205.965.3607 • gardensbygriffin.com