Atlanta’s gardens are typically associated with traditional Southern foliage like hydrangeas and magnolias, making the modern creations by landscape designer Brendan Butler all the more remarkable. Butler’s signature mixes of boulders, conifers, Japanese maples, hardscapes, and grasses have shaped the landscapes of contemporary homes around Atlanta (including the courtyard of Jane Fonda’s former penthouse at Copenhill Lofts in Poncey–Highland), as well as the exterior of establishments like Hotel Indigo, Rumi’s Kitchen, and Miso Izakaya.
On a chilly December day in Buckhead, he was waxing philosophical about a sculptural garden of black-granite boulders, native ferns, and mood moss he installed beside a modern home by the Dencity firm. It’s all based on a natural vignette Butler had stumbled upon near the Chattahoochee River, with the stones representing mountain peaks and, per the client’s wishes, harkening Japan.
That country’s famed gardens—like a nature preserve near Butler’s Decatur home—are wellsprings of inspiration for the self-taught owner of Brendan Butler Landscape Design. Alongside his four-person crew, Butler has a backlog of big jobs. But he resists the urge to grow quickly, saying: “For me, each garden is a personal endeavor that I can put my heart into. I want to be one at a time. I want to be there.”
“It’s a very departing look from the typical lawn,” Butler says of this complex Old Fourth Ward property (above). At the street corner, an asymmetrical Cor-Ten steel wall echoes the West Architecture Studio home’s use of ipe wood and serves to slow the yard’s slope. Elsewhere, a bank of holly trees beside the lawn provides screening. “We kept that area really simple,” Butler says. The same can’t be said for the amoeba-shaped, boulder-punctuated island surrounded by compacted slate dust, or the planter within a water feature that resembles a small-scale mountain scene. “It’s definitely a viewing garden,” Butler says of this facet. “It’s meant to be viewed from an angle or certain angles, and it’s just like a piece of art, a painting on a wall.”
Occupying a corner lot in Edgewood facing a MARTA station, this modern home by West Architecture Studio (above) called for a drought-tolerant Xeriscape garden with blue dune grasses, various shrubs, and trees to complement board-formed concrete planters and slab walkways. “The whole key in this design was to get the right contrast in colors,” Butler says. “Even in the winter, it’s still interesting.”
The floating steps made of large Elberton granite slabs (above) define this project for a midcentury modern home on Castleway Drive in northeast Atlanta. (Each piece had to be torched to remove headstone-like slickness). A flowing bed of stones hides buried drainage while emulating a river. Boulders represent mountains, and low-maintenance mondo grass a sea or meadow.
This article appears in our Spring 2018 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.