In the Garden

The River Garden

On the banks of the Chattahoochee, an inspired oasis rises from the mud

Photo: Emily Followill

A view of the water from the back stone terrace.

Taylor and Deidra Smith built their home atop eleven-foot river-stone pilings to raise it above the Chattahoochee River, and their rolling lawn and native gardens had long been the site of streamside gatherings. A stone terrace and fire pit overlooked the water, and dense plantings of redbuds and azaleas, hawthorns and hollies, helped turn the residence into a secluded retreat inside Atlanta’s city limits. Taylor, the former president of the Atlanta Falcons, and Deidra, a self-described “farm girl” who owns both a cattle company and a clothing store, viewed the property as a reflection of their own outgoing personalities. “We are welcoming people,” Deidra says, “a throw-the-doors-open-and-light-a-big-fire kind of couple. Living here was perfect for inside and outside entertaining. It was the best of both worlds, at least until the Chattahoochee decided it would party with us.”

The shitting area's concrete table and faux bois chairs, unmoved by the flood.

Photo: Emily Followill

The sitting area’s concrete table and faux bois chairs, unmoved by the flood.

That was in September 2009, when a roaring flood sent the Hooch twenty-five feet above flood stage, swamping the Smiths’ sequestered oasis and leaving behind mud up to five feet deep.

“As bad as it was, the flood provided an opportunity to reevaluate what was already an impressive space,” says Missy Madden, cofounder with Todd Yeager of Atlanta’s Bellwether Landscape Architects, the firm Deidra brought in to undo the river’s wrath. “The Smiths knew how they used their property, and knew they had a chance to personalize the landscape in a way that might never have come along if not for the water.”

Last summer, Bellwether completed a renovation and reimagination of the Smiths’ Chattahoochee property. Madden and Yeager focused not only on moisture levels in the floodplain soils but also on the couple’s lifestyle. Personalized design ideas ranged from an Italy-inspired front lawn, where Deidra starts each day with a dog-walking and paper-reading ritual, to a kitchen garden lush with ingredients for the Smiths’ favorite dishes—beets and carrots, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and herbs. “Deidra brings together the exactness of a builder and the eye of a designer,” Yeager says. “She knows the look she wants, and it’s a treat for us to work with someone who’s able to articulate a true vision.”

Which helps explain the cell-phone pictures. Avid travelers, the Smiths often find themselves surrounded by terrain far different than the Chattahoochee’s moist soils and tangled, nearly subtropical growth. But that doesn’t keep alluring landscapes from catching Deidra’s eye, and she frequently relayed those details and vistas back to Bellwether as the redesign evolved.  “It got a little crazy, I’ll admit,” Deidra says. She sent photos of window boxes in Spain and of plots of catmint and lamb’s ears from friends’ homes in the North Carolina mountains. Perhaps the most challenging request came in the form of pictures of vast fields of lavender in the Tuscany countryside.

The Smiths relaxing by the fire pit.

Photo: Emily Followill

The Smiths relaxing by the fire pit.

“Oh, yes, we remember those,” Madden says, laughing. “But it wasn’t our job to re-create Italy on the Chattahoochee. We needed to understand what she loved about that scene, and work from there.” To adapt the scale and expanse of the vivid Tuscan colors to the exigencies of Georgia’s clime, Bellwether put in sprawling pockets of dense perennials—toad lily and little joe-pye weed, Walker’s Low catmint and flag iris. “It gives that ‘field effect,’” Yeager explains. “You walk away with the essence of what Deidra loved about that scene from so far away.”

For the Smiths, those essences—the emotions evoked by color, the moods enhanced by scale and drama—are the harvest of their vision. “I didn’t want to tame the river,” Deidra says. “I wanted to tailor it. We tried to keep its wildness and beauty without taking away from how we live. I just wanted it to feel like home again.”