It was not love at first sight, at least not for Joyce Chesney. As for husband Bruce — well, that’s another matter.
The Chesneys did not initially share the same enthusiasm for the vegetated grandeur of the Redland acres that comprise their Patch of Heaven Gardens. Joyce had first visited the place about 15 years ago, when it was a 500-animal petting farm popular as a kiddie birthday party venue and a school field trip destination. Owning it was not something she would’ve ever considered.
A few years later, Bruce saw a For Sale sign off Southwest 157th Avenue announcing that the property, a spread of tropical hardwood hammock, pine rockland and historic structures, was on the market. Remembering the tropical beauty of the place, he decided he wanted it. He imagined returning the lush acres to their past glory and renovating the four historic buildings on the property.
“I like nature,” Bruce explains. “I like the critters, the plants, the trees, the fishes.”
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So does Joyce, but: “I kept thinking this is too much, too much. I could see it was going to take a lot of effort. No way was I getting myself into that.”
For a year, Bruce drove by the old petting farm, fantasizing about paradise. Joyce, meantime, remained adamantly opposed. And then, to Bruce’s consternation, the property sold. He was crushed. Or as Joyce puts it, “He just moped and moped.”
The story could have ended there, just another tale of missed opportunity. It didn’t. As fate would have it, the sale fell through and Bruce managed to convince his wife that “this had to be saved. This was too important not to save.”
Which is how, in July 2008, the Chesneys came to buy the first 11 acres of this relatively unspoiled wilderness. (Five years later, they would purchase an adjoining nine acres.) This is also how the Chesneys embarked on a years-long restoration project that has cost them tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of labor.
Patch of Heaven Gardens, just west of Monkey Jungle and next to Castellow Hammock Park, is one of those well-hidden gems of Old Miami that dazzle the minute you walk through the dappled shade of gumbo limbos and pigeon plums. Patch of Heaven, however, has something more: a history and a mission.
The property was originally owned by the Mathesons, the pioneer family that also owned Key Biscayne and large tracts off Cutler Road. The structures currently on the property — a gate house, a cabin, a main house and a repurposed barn — were built by Hugh Matheson in the early 1960s. Sometime in the early 1980s, Elaine Spear bought the tract and opened the petting farm, Patch o’ Heaven, but closed the place down at the county’s request after 1999. Four years later, Costa Farm, the new owners, erected shade houses on the land that had been used as a pasture and converted the structures into worker housing.
When the Chesneys took over, the buildings “needed a lot of work — and I mean a lot,” recalls Joyce Chesney. The tropical hardwood hammock, a native type of vegetation that is increasingly rare in Miami-Dade, was a mess, too.
“The area was filled with exotics. Brazilian pepper, bischofia, they were all over,” Bruce added, shaking his head.
The Chesneys got to work. Offending invaders were pulled out, buildings were restored, a garden created and fruit trees planted. The effort continues on different parts of the property, but Patch of Heaven Gardens has already been used as a backdrop for TV film and video shoots, and the couple expects to start renting the place for different events, including destination weddings. They also hope their property will serve as an example of agroforestry while highlighting South Dade’s history and heritage.
You come through here, and all the troubles and problems just slough off.
Entering the property through the hand-sculpted main gate, you pass a gigantic lychee tree root hand-carved with fish, turtles and other creatures. It’s a symbolic entrance, a tone-setter.
“You come through here, and all the troubles and problems just slough off,” Bruce says.
Nestled in the shady hardwood hammock, a building known as the Gate House looms to the right. When the Chesneys took over, they converted a first-floor pantry into a bathroom and hid it behind a book shelf. The second floor has refinished oak floors and unusual pieces, including old library card holders that have been repurposed as end tables. In the cabin, the Chesneys’ workers repaired the porch and rehabilitated the Dade County pine flooring, adding red pine-paneled walls. Except for the poster bed, which Joyce bought at Macy’s, all the knick-knacks have come from estate sales, including the weaving loom, dresser and various paintings.
But it is the grandeur of the main house that impresses most, though from the outside the building truly doesn’t look like much. With an open floor plan and four sides open to the breathtaking nature around it, the house has skylights that let the fierce Miami light spill through. The entrance includes a bridge over a pond, with waterfalls on either side. The ceiling sports shake shingles, an unusual touch, and two indoor atriums give the impression that you’re truly communing with nature. There’s even an indoor pool.
Each room has unique features. The library, for instance, has a fireplace that shows off a long Dade County pine log as a mantle. Bookshelves, also made of Dade County pine, span one wall, while paneling made of tamarind wood harvested from the property after Hurricane Andrew covers the others.
The furnishings add to the ambience of simpler, slower times. A Monet-style painted chifforobe, bought on Craigslist, stands in one bedroom, giving the space a timeless feel. The 12-foot dining table, one of the few pieces that came with the house, remains as a centerpiece, and the Chesneys have taken pains to complement it. Wood furniture is everywhere, including benches made out of railroad ties and a lamp made of driftwood. The kitchen has been totally redone, with a hand-hammered copper hood, seeded glass cabinets with copper insets and an unusual cut-slate backsplash.
Another structure was originally used as a horse barn, wine cellar and storage area. Today, in addition to the efficiency for the two resident horticulturists, there’s also a media room and a conference room. A fire pit abuts the porch area with its full bar, bench seating, slab tables and a pergola.
The charm of Patch of Heaven Gardens extends beyond the buildings, of course. A distance away from the protected hammock, horticulturists Fred Hubbard and Roberto Del Cid have created the Chesneys’ vision of paradise. A year after the property was purchased, a backhoe cut out blocks of limestone and created a grotto. Water spills from a wall and lands in a 16-foot-deep pool that is home to fat koi. Everywhere, there is birdsong and saplings and wood stump furniture and sculptures that surprise. (A collection of giraffes is placed among some bushes as though they’re nibbling on leaves.)
Patch of Heaven is featured in the recently released Gardens of Miami, a coffee table book produced by The Villagers, a group dedicated to the renovation and preservation of local historic sites. Another Chesney garden — the family home in Pinecrest — appears in the book, as well.
But Bruce Chesney says his work is hardly done. With the help of Hubbard and Del Cid, the couple have planted 200 cacao trees and are monitoring how they will acclimate to South Florida. Their goal is to have an orchard of about 1,000 of these trees for the production of artisanal chocolate. As a local, private-label artisanal chocolate producer, the horticulturists and the Chesneys hope to introduce people to the mystery of chocolate: “how it is grown, harvested, processed and, of course, devoured,” Hubbard explains. If this succeeds, Patch of Heaven would be the only working cacao farm in the continental United States.
“This is a work in progress,” Hubbard adds. “But the lure of it [for the Chesneys] is that is has never been done.”
As the Chesneys continue carving out an area in the back of the property for a future chocolate bar to attract locals and tourists alike, Bruce Chesney admits the cacao trees, as well as restoring this Redland wilderness, is as much a labor of love as a gigantic leap of faith.
“I admit that this is a little eccentric — a lot eccentric is what I am,” Bruce says. “But I think it is important to preserve and make this work as a legacy for future generations.”