Family Roots

A glorious garden collaboration in Montgomery, Alabama.

By Denise Gee

Photography by Robert M. Peacock


This gorgeous garden is the product of strong family roots.It doesn't seem that long ago that Bari Levin was engaging her two elementary-school-age sons, Jason and Joel Isenberg, in the beauty and simplicity of nature. In their tiny Birmingham, Alabama, garden, they delighted in harvesting small batches of tomatoes and squash for cooking and, when the rich soil occasionally provided more than plenty, for pickling. At work, Bari was a teacher; at home, she taught her boys homespun lessons whenever and wherever she could.

For Jason, such moments with his mother would help shape his own career in landscape design, which fittingly celebrates the earth's beauty and bounty. Three decades hence, he has become the teacher, sharing his knowledge of organic farming and sustainability with his mother and others, as well as his belief in vegetarianism, a lifestyle Bari since has adopted. Their garden collaboration, averdant oasis in Montgomery, is firmly rooted in their mother-son bond.

With a dream home comes a dream gardenA dozen years ago, the land Bari now choreographs looked quite different. That's when she and her husband, Joe Levin, first stared down a piece of property that would harbor their dream home. The swampy lot was so dense with overgrowth that a person practically bounced off of it rather than walked into it. Undeterred, they forged ahead, aiming to carve out a place of peace. Both had high-stress jobs. Bari had graduated by then from law school and taken a position as staff attorney of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery, where she met Joe, an attorney who co-founded the renowned champion of civil rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bari and Joe carried the weight of other people's lives—and in some cases, fates—on their shoulders, and a meticulous attention to detail meant everything.