The wind, the sun and wildlife have worked alongside Charlie Livio and his partner Jerry Allyn to create a private retreat, protected by a berm covered with greenery, in the old Coral Ridge section of Fort Lauderdale.
“Over the years we’ve learned it’s so much better to work with nature than against it,” says Livio.
When they moved into their home almost 20 years ago, the backyard had a shuffleboard court that Livio describes as looking like a runway. A broken down barbecue pit graced the backyard. A small cement slab patio sat outside the dining room window. The front yard had nothing but a royal palm with a hedge full of stickers around it. And don’t forget the melaleuca — there was plenty of it.
“The yard had great expanses of lawn and old landscaping that was not native and not attractive,” says Livio.
The two began by deciding what was important to them. Their list included privacy, pretty vistas and lots and lots of wildlife. Livio, who is the town horticulturist for Oakland Park, drew up some plans and they went to work.
Today when you pull up to their home, you can hardly see the house from the street. It’s a white brick mid-century ranch, but it’s tucked behind a densely planted berm gently rising from the front yard.
To create privacy from the street, they had about 20 cubic-feet of topsoil dumped in their front yard. Then with rakes, shovels and “a lot of sweat equity,” they built their berm. Next they selected plants to cover it.
“I like lush tropical settings but Charlie prefers more formal settings and native plantings,” says Allyn. So originally the berm was planted quite formally.
But when Hurricane Wilma blew through the neighborhood in 2005, the berm took a beating from the wind. “Today what you see is nothing like what it was back then,” says Livio, who hopes the plantings that currently cover it will survive the next serious storm.
Now when you approach the house, five robellinis in a row protect the street side of the berm. They give plenty of privacy and are hurricane resistant, says Livio.
But walk around to the house side or view the berm through the living room picture window and you see what Allyn calls a natural hammock. Here, shade-loving plants do well at the foot of a gumbo limbo tree. And two 15-foot-tall clumps of chubby, blue-green Buddha belly bamboo provide additional cover from the sun.
“We got a bug to get bamboo,” says Livio who made sure to plant the clumping variety that doesn’t spread. “Plant running bamboo and you’ll curse the day you put it in the ground,” he says.
In the understory of the berm, there is xanadu philodendron, trailing purple lantana with its delicate flower clusters, blue plumbago and the oversized tropical leaves of monstera deliciosa with its cob-shaped fruit.
There’s also plenty of wild coffee that has grown just about anywhere a bird dropped a seed. Like all volunteers in the garden, it’s welcome if it pops up in a good spot.
Although natives are encouraged in this garden retreat, invasive species are not. So when Livio sees carrotwood growing from seeds that have fallen out of a neighbor’s tree, he removes them. “I’ve pulled out hundreds over the years,” he says.