This Sandy Springs couple’s garden shows how patience makes perfect

They took the transformation one step at a time
Sandy Springs yard
Gateways, arbors, and paths lead visitors around three acres of rolling terrain. At right, the “Miss Liberty” steel sculpture is by Russell Whiting.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

It’s hard to imagine that Mike and Lee Dunn’s rambling Sandy Springs garden was ever anything less than pristine. But when they bought the property 17 years ago, the yard—“garden” would be too kind—left much to be desired.

Lee recalls unimaginative, builder-grade landscaping dominated by “meatball shrubs,” while Mike still winces over rotting, collapsing railroad ties used to help control drainage. They both wondered how they’d ever tame the three acres of rolling terrain into a series of defined, intimate spaces. Fortunately, the Dunns had the patience to take the transformation a step at a time.

Sandy Springs yard
This sculpture is “Blobular Cluster” by Royce Carlson.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Twig arbor
A twig arbor at the entrance to the woodland garden. Below, ivy and climbing hydrangea engulf Lee’s potting shed.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

“The one thing we just had to do before we could truly have a successful garden was to somehow conquer the deer,” Lee says. What began as two or three deer a month grew to two or three a day as the Dunns began planting. They tried practically every deer repellent on the market, but nothing worked. “The property was so large, we couldn’t keep up with them,” Lee says. “I’d lose it every time they’d eat some plant that we really loved.” Finally, by surrounding the yard with iron fencing and installing a deer guard (a series of metal rails that are difficult for animals to step over) across their gated driveway, they were able to keep the hungry varmints at bay.

Sandy Springs yard

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Next there was the issue of drainage. The hilly site was prone to flooding because water ran down to the back of the property, creating huge gullies and washing away mulched paths. Installing dry creek beds managed to redirect the water and solve that problem.

With deer and drainage under control, the Dunns were ready to create the garden of their dreams. However, with three sprawling acres, where to start? “We really didn’t have a plan until we started planting,” Lee recalls. They hired a contractor to create a sunken outdoor kitchen and seating area in a low spot behind the garage. They also sought design advice from landscape designer Tim Stoddard. “He helped us look at the property as a whole, like an artist with a canvas,” Lee says.

Lee Dunn
Lee Dunn enjoys dining al fresco on a patio near the house. She and Mike turned a low spot in the yard into another outdoor seating area, below left.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Sandy Springs yard

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Sandy Springs yard
A 100-year-old faux bois Belgian aviary located in the kitchen garden.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Guided by Stoddard’s vision, the garden became a personal pursuit for the Dunns, and the couple believes they make a great team. Lee points to Mike’s eye for scouting the perfect sculptures, relics, and other outdoor art; he credits her plant knowledge.

Fueling their passion was a decision to subdivide the garden into various themed “rooms.” The “welcome garden” ushers visitors through a white arbor along a path to the wide front porch. In back, a similar entrance beckons them to the kitchen garden, where an antique aviary commands attention among roses, hydrangeas, and perennials—as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables. Then there’s the cutting garden, the white garden, the woodland garden; each makes the large property feel more manageable.

“The size of the garden can still sometimes be overwhelming, and once in a while I’ll say we have way too much on our plate here,” Lee admits. “Then the next day, I’ll say to myself, ‘Wow, we really do live in paradise.’”

Sandy Springs yard

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Sandy Springs yard

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Sandy Springs yard
A sculpture by David Cook, which Mike calls “Lee Lee” after his wife’s nickname.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

Sandy Springs yard

Photograph by John E. McDonald

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

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