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Key West’s Secret Garden: A Modern Landscape for an Author’s Victorian Cottage

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Key West’s Secret Garden: A Modern Landscape for an Author’s Victorian Cottage

March 13, 2018

Three weeks before last year’s hurricane, Key West–based landscape architect Craig Reynolds completed a new tropical garden for one of the best-known Victorian cottages in the island’s historic Old Town district.

The property is on a quiet lane where five houses share a handful of parking spaces; visitors arrive on foot. In addition to being tucked away, the house has a provocative provenance. It was formerly owned by Nancy Friday, author of the best-selling 1973 book My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies, suggesting a theme for the new landscape: the secret garden.

When the hurricane hit, “trees went down on one side of the property,” says Reynolds. But six months later you’d never know it. The secret garden’s owner, whose primary residence is in New Jersey, decided “we should just keep going, to replant trees, and fix the garden,” Reynolds says. Here’s the result.

Photography by Tamara Alvarez, courtesy of Craig Reynolds Landscape Architecture.

Walls at the edge of the property are built of Miami oolite, a sedimentary rock that is &#8\2\20;softer stone than caprock but not as soft as riprap,&#8\2\2\1; says Reynolds. &#8\2\20;You can sculpt it, but it is also hard enough to hold its own.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Walls at the edge of the property are built of Miami oolite, a sedimentary rock that is “softer stone than caprock but not as soft as riprap,” says Reynolds. “You can sculpt it, but it is also hard enough to hold its own.”

Visible at the left of the gate, a single piece of Miami oolite was set on level, compacted ground to create a tiered effect, softened by plantings. Beyond the gate, a winding brick path leads to the front door.

From the vantage of the porch, looking back toward the front gate, &#8\2\20;the idea is you have to come around a corner to see the house,&#8\2\2\1; says Reynolds.
Above: From the vantage of the porch, looking back toward the front gate, “the idea is you have to come around a corner to see the house,” says Reynolds.

A brick path is edged with layered tropical plants including at left Anthurium ‘Hot Rio Nights’ and on the right Kimberly Queen Boston ferns behind a low edging of mondo grass.

Above: Brick pavers are set in a herringbone pattern on a 45-degree angle with a soldier course border. “Brick is not indigenous to Key West, but because of all the Victorian houses it’s very common, and it looks good,” says Reynolds.

Specimen plants, including at left a gum palm (Dioon spinulosum) and in the foreground Elephant Ear (Alocasia ‘Portora’), create a dramatic tropical backdrop for the house.

The oolite wall continues alongside a brick path that winds around the the side of the house. Behind the wall is planted a Florida silver palm (Coccothrinax argentata) and Aglaonema &#8\2\16;Silver Bay&#8\2\17;, with silvery foliage that lights up a quiet, shady spot.
Above: The oolite wall continues alongside a brick path that winds around the the side of the house. Behind the wall is planted a Florida silver palm (Coccothrinax argentata) and Aglaonema ‘Silver Bay’, with silvery foliage that lights up a quiet, shady spot.

In front of the oolite wall, a mulch of black Mexican river rock serves the dual purpose of being decorative while directing rainwater flow.

Green thatch palms provide shade, their silhouettes echoed by the understory, where the low, bushy shrub Osmoxylon lineare adds texture.
Above: Green thatch palms provide shade, their silhouettes echoed by the understory, where the low, bushy shrub Osmoxylon lineare adds texture.
Mahogany planks on a \10-foot-deep horseshoe porch wrap around the house.
Above: Mahogany planks on a 10-foot-deep horseshoe porch wrap around the house.
The swimming pool and surrounding brick deck are located on the side of the house.
Above: The swimming pool and surrounding brick deck are located on the side of the house.
An oolite wall and steps at the the back of the pool echo a theme.
Above: An oolite wall and steps at the the back of the pool echo a theme.

The new pool replaced “a kidney-shaped pool that was super ugly,” says Reynolds. “With stone on the coping and the coping material, which is volcanic Cantera stone from Mexico, we tried to make it look like an old lagoon that has been there forever.”

Tennessee Crab Orchard flagstone pavers lead from a brick patio through jungle-like plantings to the pool. On the left of the path, the red foliage of Codiaeum variegatum &#8\2\16;Stoplight&#8\2\17; creates a tapestry of color.
Above: Tennessee Crab Orchard flagstone pavers lead from a brick patio through jungle-like plantings to the pool. On the left of the path, the red foliage of Codiaeum variegatum ‘Stoplight’ creates a tapestry of color.

“The owner wanted to have private areas and little narrow paths and views and peeks, and at the same time have a landscape that was very lush with lots of shade,” says Reynolds.

A water feature was sited to enable the owner to sit on the front porch and hear the sound of running water. Constructed of a square piece of oolite, as it ages the fountain will sprout ferns.
Above: A water feature was sited to enable the owner to sit on the front porch and hear the sound of running water. Constructed of a square piece of oolite, as it ages the fountain will sprout ferns.

For more design ideas and growing tips for our favorite tropical plants, see our curated guide to Tropicals 101, including:

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