Casa Baja gardens by Bell Landscape Architecture
Deena Bell Llewellyn, president of Bell Landscape Architecture Inc. based in Miami, has been practicing her profession for 25 years. She grew up in a rural area of north Georgia in a family that valued the outdoors. In college, she originally planned to study medicine, but later transferred to the University of Georgia’s School of Landscape Design to follow her love of nature. She came to Florida during a spring break and decided it was where she wanted to live. “I fell in love with the Art Deco District, and the design and colors of Miami,” she says.
In South Florida, outdoor areas can be as important as interior spaces. That was certainly the case when Bell Llewellyn took on a project that involved an expansive 2-acre yard on a peninsula in Biscayne Bay. She faced several challenges.
The clients had purchased an existing home as well as the ramshackle one next door. The international businessman and his wife kept the first house but demolished the second, along with the sparse landscape on its grounds. That left the lot completely empty. “There was really nothing worth salvaging,” Bell Llewellyn says.
Unlike the yard of the tear-down, the “keeper” house held mature trees and other established landscaping, although it also required new plantings and other changes. “It needed a facelift,” Bell Llewellyn says. “We were tasked with unifying the old garden with the new one.”
To help create a cohesive look for the two lots, Bell Llewellyn moved two large seagrape trees from the yard of the keeper house to the vacant one. “They were 50 feet tall and had a 40-foot spread, so they helped blend old and new,” she says.
Bell Llewellyn worked closely on site planning with architect Ramon Pacheco, who designed an addition for the vacant lot that flowed together with the existing home. The plan also called for a large guesthouse. Bell Llewellyn’s job was to meld the outdoor spaces equally well and develop a landscape that looked mature, as if it had been there for years.
“The goal was to marry the old acre with the new one, and create a spectacular tropical garden on the whole grounds,” she says. “The family does a lot of entertaining, so they wanted different outdoor rooms with different ambiences. But they wanted something wild and tropical and nautical; nothing too manicured.”
Bell Llewellyn used salt- and wind-tolerant native and other coastal-friendly plant species to create the look of an island hideaway and reduce the need for irrigation or fertilizer. “The owners have a full-time gardener, but they’re very environmentally conscious,” Bell Llewellyn says.
She also brought in both tall and smaller palms and shade trees to mix with existing ones. “I wanted a variety of sizes to create a layered look that blends seamlessly together,” she says.
Different Areas, Different Functions
The project on Biscayne Bay required both creativity and practicality, because the outdoor spaces needed to accommodate a number of functions. The first floor of the home is built on stilts, and the open-air area underneath houses a barbecue grilling station and a cabana bath. The homeowners are deeply involved in several charitable organizations for which they host elaborate fundraising events, so they required a large expanse of open lawn where guests can mingle and tents can be pitched if bad weather threatens one of the glamorous gatherings. They wanted an elaborate pool area, as well as a private beach where family and friends could relax together. In addition, they also requested a quiet space to practice yoga and meditation.
A Sensual Feast
At night, breathtaking colored lighting in tones of yellow, purple and blue illuminate the spaces. “The lighting throughout the property is wired to a computer panel with color changing and dimming abilities,” she says. “We used all LEDs to save energy.”
In addition to extensive lighting, there is also an elaborate outdoor audio system. “The landscape appeals to all your senses, both in the daytime and at night,” she adds.
Running throughout the landscape are serpentine walls built of oolite, a native stone that was dug out of the ground on the vacated lot before the addition was built. “The stone is very textural and spongy and naturalistic,” she says. “Moss and ferns, lichens and bromeliads can attach themselves and grow into it.”
The curved structures not only add visual interest, but also serve a practical purpose: During storms or unusually high tides, they act as breakers that protect the sea wall and prevent flooding into the garden. “It’s a very windy site, and both homes had been battered by hurricanes in previous years,” Bell Llewellyn says. “The owners were concerned about protection.”
Staggered stone walkways leading to and from the different outdoor areas are fashioned from precast concrete pavers in a light gray finish that matches the travertine on the pool deck. Tiny black river rocks in the joints add texture. “I wanted the same veining and color as the travertine around the pool deck, but travertine would have broken,” she says. “The pathways needed to be more durable.”
A Grand Entrance
A brick paver driveway at the grand entrance to the home uses a fringe pattern to create the look of an old European roadway. Bell Llewellyn kept a welcoming existing archway as well as a fountain at the center of the space, restoring the water feature with a gracefully curved stone coping surround and glass tile mosaic.
An Enchanted Pathway
Beyond the driveway, a stunning horizontal fountain illuminated in rich color appears to be an enchanted pathway leading to the bay side of the house where the travertine deck surrounds an oversized pool. Gleaming glass tile laid in a geometric pattern adds a decorative touch, and four water features spilling into the pool are both visually and audibly pleasing.
Bronze sculptures of a dolphin and whimsical frogs reflect the homeowners’ love of nature and the outdoors. On the far side of the pool, a garden of tropical vegetation that is salt and wind tolerant creates the look of an island hideaway and reduces the need for irrigation. “We mixed native species with others that will thrive in a coastal environment,” she says.
A Private Beach
Bell Llewellyn hauled in sand to create a private beach along the bay, and as she did in other areas, she planted both large and small coconut palms to blend with the mature existing trees. Salt- and wind-tolerant plants create a garden that shelters the beach.
Instead of leveling it, she kept a hillock covered with clumping zoysia grass. “I thought it was interesting the way the grass had grown over the rocks, so I left it,” she says.
A gas fire pit with gray granite coping is built of the same oolite stone as the curved walls winding throughout the grounds. Adirondack chairs chosen by the homeowners sit ready to accommodate family and friends.
A Lawn For Entertaining
Tropical trees and lush plantings surround the wide lawn, which was left completely open to accommodate social gatherings. “Most of the plants there were brought in new,” Bell Llewellyn says. “The goal was to mix tall mature plants with very young ones, so the garden looks as if it has always been there.”
A Secret Garden
Set back from the main house was an existing landscape follie—a building constructed primarily for decoration—an arched pavilion the owner now uses for yoga and meditation. “You can see it from the arrival court, but it’s tucked away like a secret garden,” she says.
When she began the project, the structure was battered and the grounds surrounding it were choked with weeds. She painted the building the same yellow as the house and cleared the grounds. She tore off the crumbling roof, which she replaced with a graceful bronze trellis that supports flowering vines.
She also surrounded the building with a pond holding water lilies and koi. “We designed it so the structure appears to be floating on the pond,” Bell Llewellyn says. A handcrafted bench carved from a slab of gray granite offers a place to sit and rest, and a statue of Buddha adds to the tranquil ambience.
A Seamless Whole
Today, the finished landscape reflects the original goals of both the homeowners and the landscape architect. It offers varied outdoor spaces that conjure different moods and provide areas for different activities. Native materials and plants combine with others that partner well with them, and manmade sculptures incorporate into a natural environment enhanced by color, light and sound. Old and new blend seamlessly into an organic whole that is pleasing to the senses and is also environmentally responsible.
Architect: Ramon Pacheco, AIA, Miami
Landscape Architect: Bell Landscape Architecture Inc., Deena Bell Llewellyn, ASLA, Miami
General Contractor: Canterbury Homes, Louis Gaines, Miami
Landscape Contractor: Signature Trees & Palms, Keith Lane, Homestead
Paving Contractor: Pan American Marble and Stone, Jorge Garcia, Medley
Lighting Contractor: Bella Luci Landscape Lighting, Felix Martinez, Miami
Outdoor Furnishings: Provided by client