A Garden Vision

Through trial and error, a south Charlotte couple creates a beautiful, functional garden
The Burkes’ garden attracts wildlife year round, like this anise swallowtail, which is drawn to Gail’s butterfly bush. One of her favorite places to buy plants is the Ross Perennial Plant Farm south Charlotte.

Gail and Laurence Burke built their house in 2007, a grand, brick home that sits at the bottom of a large hill in a sleepy neighborhood less than a mile from Carmel Middle School. The Burkes intended to spend their retirement here, when they weren’t traveling or visiting their three grown sons. They planned to pursue their master gardener certifications together and spend their days working in their garden. When they moved into their new home, only Gail, a former teacher, was retired—but the couple decided to follow through with their vision for the garden, even though Laurence continues to work in insurance.

They worked with their builder’s landscaper to design most of the hardscapes, including a reflecting pool, a patio, and sweeping terraces with a central staircase cut into the hill behind the house. It was an ambitious project, especially for gardeners whose previous experience was primarily just maintaining existing landscaping. “This was the first time where we really had a clean slate,” says Gail.

It wasn’t long before they realized the project would require much more than planting and upkeep. The lower lefthand side of the property, below the terraces, sits in a floodplain. And although the house itself was never at risk, there were serious drainage issues with the land at the bottom of the hill, which was wild with underbrush; a channel of water formed with every heavy rain. So while the Burkes worked on the terraces and the gardens surrounding their home, they also had to find a way to keep their lower yard from becoming a regular washout.

After much trial and error—the beds have been replanted three times—the couple has created a colorful, functional backyard haven. Gail, who earned her master gardener certification in 2013, planted a thriving garden that offers beautiful views all year long from every window of the home. And Laurence, who helps with many of the more labor-intensive tasks, cleared the thicket and installed a rocky shade garden that has a calming, Zen-like feel. The result is a beautiful, multifaceted garden that’s just as inviting for a sunlit stroll as it is for stretching out on a bench in the shade with a good book.

Facing the home, on the right side, a gated arbor draped with vines welcomes visitors. Deep beds against the home and the fence line burst with shrubs, greenery, and perennials in bloom, including roses and dahlias. Hummingbirds busily gather nectar from flowering shrubs, and the reflecting pool gurgles with a pottery fountain. Circling around to the back of the house, a fragrant herb garden with thyme, mint, basil, and other herbs sits just outside the sunroom. On the left side of the home, an espalier magnolia tree hugs the bricks, and more roses bloom in shades of yellow, pink, and orange. This is also where Gail propagates her perennials, which she sells at the Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary’s plant sales in the spring and fall.

The terraced gardens have a beautiful, organic quality that contrasts well with the orderly feel of the bricked beds that contain them. Overflowing with thousands of plants, they burst with everything from perennials like butterfly bush to more unusual varietals like an enormous, fragrant ginger plant. Each bed has a color scheme, from blooms in shades of red, yellow, and purple in the bed closest to the house to shades of pink, yellow, and blue in the lower terrace.

At the bottom, the space that once held the wild, wooden thicket now displays a graceful shade garden with gravel-paved walkways, large rocks, small brick patios, and benches. On the right side, a dry creek bed designed by Laurence has solved the property’s drainage issues. Now, as water flows down the hill toward the Burkes’ home, it flows into the dry creek bed, where drains direct the water to the creek at the lower end of the property.

The Burkes are happy with their space, but Gail is quick to point out that, like most gardens, theirs is always changing. “It’s never finished,” she says. She admits she’s running out of space in her garden for the plants she finds that she wants to adopt. Now that their garden is full, many of them end up in her sons’ yards, which she and Laurence are working on now.“That’s my favorite feature,” says Gail. “The idea is that when we have a real downpour, the rocks reduce the speed of the water and spread it out so you don’t have channels made.”

“Wherever I am, and that includes traveling, I buy plants. I’m a plantaholic,” Gail says. “There isn’t hardly a plant that I don’t love.”


The shade garden and gravel paths at the bottom of the Burkes’ property were once an untamed thicket that flooded with every rainstorm. Now it’s a pleasant place to sit with a book or take a stroll. 


The shade garden and gravel paths at the bottom of the Burkes’ property were once an untamed thicket that flooded with every rainstorm. Now it’s a pleasant place to sit with a book or take a stroll.




The Burkes’ garden is pleasing to all five senses, with bursts of color from fiery-red dahlia blooms, smooth, glossy magnolia leaves, fragrant ginger blossoms, and the sounds of bees and hummingbirds collecting pollen and nectar.




The terraces give way to the Burkes’ shade garden and dry creek bed, which the couple installed to help solve their property’s drainage issues.


The garden was a stop on this year's Wing Haven garden tour.



Categories: Feature