Garden retreat


Special to The Miami Herald

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.

Native thatch palms stretch out their large fans; pink pentas and colorful salvias reseed themselves. Pink and purple ground orchids compete with the fragrant white bloom of the St. Christopher lily and give the berm some color.

“The orchids are one of my favorites and they do well in the dappled shade,” says Livio.

A Jamaican caper has exotic blooms that turn to long seed pods. When these fall to earth, they can start another plant without much oversight.

At both ends of the front yard, double royal palms now tower about 25 feet high. Three of them grew from seeds that planted themselves. “It’s nice to get so much help from Mother Nature. And best of all, she works for free,” says Livio.

In keeping with his wishes to live with nature, Livio did away with grass in his side yards and replaced it with stepping stones and mulch. . It means less to water and mow. Along the lot line you’ll find podocarpus and a low-maintenance juniper.

In the backyard, grass was replaced with plant beds that project into the yard. It was only after removing the grass and planting that they realized their newest flower bed was shaped like Florida’s peninsula and panhandle. They’ve called it “Little Florida” ever since.

In the winter, this is where they grow basil, parsley, rosemary, oregano and chives. In summer, they turn the area over to pink tropical salvia and a summer sunshine mix of cosmos as well as pink and purple zinnias grown from seeds. Livio is careful not to mulch this area too thickly so that when flowers drop their seeds, they come in contact with the soil where they germinate and grow. That way nature does the reseeding.

“I used to spend a lot of money at nurseries but now I use what nature gives me,” says Livio who puts his seeds in envelopes and files them in a gold and red Neiman Marcus gift box. Each envelope is marked with the type seed, the date it was gathered and the necessary growing conditions. These become the basis for his garden the next season.

But right now, stand quietly and you’ll spot monarch caterpillars stripping the leaves from the milkweed. Mockingbirds squabble over the purple fruit of the beauty berry. A yellow sulphur coasts silently on the breeze. Green parrots squawk as they gather in the strawberry guava tree. And even two black racer snakes call this home. “I’ve had to get used to living with them,” says Livio.

Over the years, nature has worked magic in this garden.

“Our yard doesn’t look anything like it did 10 years ago. And 10 years from now, it won’t look like it does now. Nature likes to keep changing things,” Livio says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at

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