Camille Butrus and her late husband purchased their Mountain Brook, AL, home in 1996 and spent two years restoring the house and completely redoing the gardens with the guidance of garden designer Mary Zahl and architect James Carter. It was this garden transformation process that ignited a true passion in Camille for gardens. James designed a garden pavilion, which has been featured in newspaper articles and magazines, and Camille's garden was part of the 2002 Open Days program and was recently on a Southern Garden History Society tour. We're thrilled that Camille is part of our Society of Fellows, traveling with us to inspiring destinations on tours and supporting our educational programs.
You’ve traveled with our Fellows on several tours; what has your experience been like traveling with our community of garden enthusiasts? Any particular gardens that have left you truly inspired?
The Garden Conservancy’s tours have been some of the best trips I have ever taken. I have traveled with interesting groups and I have had wonderful trips, but none match the Garden Conservancy's tours. Everything is perfectly planned from the beginning to the final goodbye. The gardens we have visited vary from small gems to fantastic estates. The gardeners and hosts have been so generous with their time, their gardens, and their knowledge. I have met so many interesting, accomplished people and I have learned so much, eaten so well, and had such a wonderful time! I cannot wait till we resume the tours. I have long thought that gardeners make the nicest companions, and the Conservancy’s trips have confirmed that.
I was inspired by many of the gardens we visited but the greatest inspiration came from Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers, on the Hudson Valley, NY, tour . It is thrilling to know that a dedicated and passionate staff and team of volunteers are rescuing from ruins what had once been a premier garden. Their task is monumental and worthwhile. The Untermyer restoration brought clearly into focus the heart and value of the Conservancy’s mission: rescuing important gardens.
When you purchased your home in Mountain Brook, AL, you and your late husband completely redesigned the gardens. Tell us about the process; what are some of your favorite design elements today?
When we purchased our home in the late 90s, it was obvious that the house and the gardens needed a lot of work. How much work, we didn’t realize until we were well into the second year of the pre-move renovation. The house was built of locally quarried limestone in 1931 and, at one time, had beautiful gardens. Unfortunately, several owners who came after the original owners did terrible things to both the house and the gardens. The house is set on a low ridge of a gentle hill in the foothills of the Appalachians and the lawns slope away from the house; there are lots of old and beautiful trees and a local arborist told me that the cryptomeria in the front of my house is likely the largest and oldest in Alabama. Neither my husband nor I had any idea what a major undertaking we had chosen. We had just returned from a trip to San Francisco where I had visited Filoli and had my first exposure to garden rooms and meandering paths. I thought both were wonderful and I wanted to include them in my property. Those were my wants but I had no idea how to get them.
We were lucky to have Mary Zahl design the gardens and James Carter rescue the house and design a pavilion to anchor the Italian garden. My husband insisted on having some sort of storage building, and the pavilion presented the solution. It was built on the side of a natural slope and its front faces the Italian garden and the back side, which is on a lower level, and opens onto a woodland perennial garden and provides ample storage space. The local quarries are no longer active and our architect James Carter found matching stone in Indiana so the pavilion looks as if it had been built at the same time as the house. In order to situate the Italian garden and the pavilion, we had to remove a swimming pool and just about everything else in that area. Except for the mature trees that provide wonderful shade for the nearly four acres, the only original plant elements are a huge stand of Japanese yew and a very old stand of Pieris japonica 'Mountain Fire'. Native azaleas and japonicas have filled in nicely in the last 22 years and I have been especially pleased with the Italian garden and its pots of citrus. November 30 was our first freeze of the season and I picked a basket full of ripe, delicious satsumas the afternoon before. The Italian garden is simple, very easy to maintain, and looks great year round. The pavilion is everyone’s favorite place for conversation and drinks, and nowadays, with the need to entertain outdoors, it fits perfectly with the way we live.
Easter in the Italian garden with a clad copper statue of Miss Liberty, an entrant in a contest to be the Statue of Liberty.
As your beautiful gardens make evident, you have a true passion. How did your interest in gardens begin?
I’ve always had well-maintained yards, but it wasn’t until this house that I became interested in gardening. Seeing the design take shape and realizing what a difference it made in the beauty of the house was exciting. Over the years, I have been involved in politics as well as in the local children’s theater and the local art museum, but none of those activities gave me the pleasure that I have found in gardening—in planning, installing, and maintaining my garden. I frequently find that I go out in the morning just “to check on things,” and, three or four hours later, I come inside and am surprised that so much time has passed. When I started, I knew nothing about plants and gardening, but Birmingham has a large and friendly gardening community, and so many wonderful people helped me then and still do. Of special note is my neighbor Louise Wrinkle, who, among her many kindnesses, introduced me to the Garden Conservancy. For several years, I served on the board of Aldridge Garden, a public garden nearby that was donated by the late Eddie Aldridge and his wife, Kay. Eddie was a legendary gardener and plantsman and was particularly known for his work with oak leaf hydrangeas. Working with Aldridge Gardens, I learned what a public garden can mean to a community.
You’re a generous supporter of our education programs. Thank you for helping us bring some of the most important voices in the garden world to audiences around the country! What do you hope our members and broader community will gain from these enriching educational programs?
All of the Conservancy’s programs have been educational and I am grateful for all I’ve learned from the tours, the Open Days program, the frequent and welcome emails, and the newsletters. The Conservancy's educational effort is superb. The Conservancy puts together some of the best and brightest garden voices as resources for its members and for the garden community at large. With travel currently restricted and so many events canceled, the webinars are a wonderful way to help home-bound gardeners continue learning and having new experiences.
Throughout the challenges of this past year, many are emphasizing the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have you been looking to nature for solace during this time?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have my garden during the isolation of Covid-19. Walking along the pathways and seeing new growth and blooms has been comforting. It gives me the feeling that things may actually return to normal some day.
The isolation and inability to travel unexpectedly presented an opportunity for me to tackle a problem area that I had neglected for too long: the north edge of my property. Behind the house and the perennial walk, it is a wide swath of land that I had always envisioned as a croquet lawn, all green and carefully mown, but in reality more closely resembled a rice paddy. I called my horticulturist, who is also a remarkable landscape installer, and he commented on the magnitude of the drainage problem I was facing. After some weeks of back-hoeing and removing clay and the remnants of a buried asphalt parking pad or tennis court, we found, still intact, the original 1930s terra cotta drainage system that was later covered with asphalt. Truckloads of gravel were brought in and then truckloads of soil and the area has been properly seeded and is well on its way to being a perfect croquet lawn. This project has made me so happy, and I doubt I would have done it had Covid-19 not called a halt to many of my usual activities and opened the door to a project that I have very much enjoyed. My grandson has suggested that he turn the area into a lacrosse field, but that is not going to happen. My marble statue of a lady is already missing an arm.
Any other remarks you’d like to share with our Fellows?
I strongly recommend the garden tours. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to see—and walk through—beautiful gardens, to meet the interesting gardeners as well as the fellow tourists, and to expand one’s garden knowledge. And, what’s more, they are lots of fun. At the end of each touring day, the talk at dinner is so rich, animated, and delightful. The tours teach us why the Conservancy’s mission is so vital.
Photos from top to bottom: Camille on the library patio; a 20 year-old ivy tree (Fatshedera lizei), which has just bloomed for the first time; and cat's whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus), which are planted every spring