Urban Oasis

A busy work schedule keeps Doug McGarrity on the road a good bit, so travel usually doesn’t appeal to him as much as staying at home with his wife, Jean. Yet take one step out the back door of the McGarrity home in the heart of bustling Buckhead and you would swear you had escaped to a quiet retreat in the North Georgia mountains. There, off West Paces Ferry Road, the empty nesters have created a garden— with three ponds and a half-dozen gushing waterfalls as its centerpiece—that appears so natural visitors can’t believe it’s not only manmade but also only several years old. “What really gets them is when I tell them all this used to be nothing but lawn and a tennis court we hadn’t used in years,” Doug says.

Now he beams like a proud papa when he surveys the 2.3-acre garden. But Doug recalls wincing at the idea when his landscape designer, Zachary Duff, suggested building a pond on the site of the abandoned tennis court. Doug feared it just wouldn’t look natural. But Duff convinced him to give it a shot, and before long he not only was sold on the pond but also anxious to create more. With no overall landscape plan from the outset, the completed garden resembles a mountain setting where several ponds seem to flow naturally together via rocky streams. In reality, the ponds, each of which operates on pumps and the natural filtration provided by plants and rocks, are self contained as three separate ecosystems.

The garden begins with a gate at the head of the driveway that beckons visitors to meander a fieldstone path, which runs beside a large irregular-shaped pond in one corner of the back yard. There, the peaceful flow of three recirculating waterfalls masks the sound of street traffic and provides the perfect backdrop for a 200-plus school of playful Japanese koi. The always-hungry fish swim up to the pond’s edge, poised for a nibble, when the McGarritys relax on the nearby terrace, surrounded by burgundy-leafed redbuds and Japanese maples.

Through Duff, of Marietta-based Sweetleaf Landscape Group, Doug has developed an interest in plants that helps him relax from the stresses of his job in residential construction. “I’ve always had this passion for Japanese maples,” he says, pointing out the nuances among the 40 different varieties of trees he’s collected.

Once the tennis court was gone and the first water garden completed, Doug was on a roll. He and Duff next turned their attention to an ivy-overrun gully running behind the swimming pool. The two talked about transforming that area into a dry streambed but came up with a better idea: Why not create a smaller pond and rocky stream that looks as if it might be connected to the first pond? Sold. A handcrafted wooden bridge was then built over the stream to connect the swimming pool area to the rest of the garden, which makes for an inviting approach.

Finally, there was that matter of an old dog run in the other rear corner of the yard, which, in light of the other landscape improvements, now stood out like a sore thumb. Because the first two water gardens appear to naturally connect, Doug and his designer were suddenly on to something. They would build a third pond downstream from the other two—only this one, with its pavilion that appears to float on the water, would be no easy feat. “Because it was at the back of the garden, we had no access for equipment so everything had to be done manually,” says Duff, whose workers dug the pond by hand, then hauled in hundreds of tons of rock.

That was last spring. So what’s next on the horizon for him and his adventuresome client? “Nothing,” Doug says. “We’ve run out of room.” Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be more improvements. Take that sample of Mexican river gravel sitting to one side of the garage. “We’re about to re-surface the driveway,” Doug explains. When you create a mountain-like retreat, black asphalt just won’t do.

Sweetleaf Landscape Group, (770) 565-4780; sweetleaf-landscape.com