Home & Garden

Small-space gardens take creativity

Larry Lynam trims a tree limb in his garden at his Coral Springs home.
Larry Lynam trims a tree limb in his garden at his Coral Springs home. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Living in South Florida often means residing in a condominium, townhome, apartment or other multi-family dwelling that has little or no outdoor space. But that doesn’t stop avid gardeners from getting their hands dirty. We visit with three locals who have turned a deck, a balcony and a zero-lot-line home into petite paradises.


“The challenge of a small garden is that you always need to keep the overall scale and proportion of it in mind. And everything you plant must have a function,” says Benjamin Burle, who is a design partner with his mother in BurleYates Design.

This mother-son duo was up to the challenge when they added a deck garden to the Key West home and office of Burle’s mother, Debra Yates. She wanted a place off her kitchen where she could entertain or relax with a book.

There was just enough room to build a 7-by-14-foot deck and add a few carefully chosen plants. Because life in the Keys is casual, the design team wanted greenery that was easy to maintain. But because the deck would be used for guests, they wanted it to feel “sophisticated.”

They began by creating country French appeal with simple white trellises purchased at a home improvement store. The clerodendrum trichotomum vines they grew to cover the slats soften the privacy fence that rims the property.

They also created a custom planter that is the same color as the deck so that it blends into the surroundings. Burle filled it with the small leathery leaves of myrsine, as well as a necklace pod plant with seed pods that look like a string of beads. Both are native plants that prove easy to maintain once they are established.

“We strive to use natives in all our projects because we want our gardens to look like they belong,” Burle said.

Other natives include three silver buttonwoods at the far end of the deck and the sea oxeye daisy with its yellow on yellow flowers planted in a white pot.

“We don’t follow what the industry says about which plants are popular plants. We do what’s right for the space,” Burle said.


Farther north, Sy Baskin lives on the 26th floor above Brickell Avenue in Miami. Here for 21 years, he’s grown flowering plants and fruit trees on his 900-square-foot balcony.

Today he cultivates about 100 fruit trees and flowering plants tucked into plastic pots that are relatively lightweight.

“I’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of disappointments on this balcony,” he says. Balcony gardening is particularly challenging given the vagaries of sun, wind and salt air this high above ground. And there’s always the job of keeping the plants watered and fertilized.

Baskin has learned that he must replace each plant about every three years unless some problem causes it to die an earlier death. That’s just the way it is out here in the elements.

“As a balcony gardener, you’ve got to keep yourself from being depressed when things go wrong,” he says. “And you have to have the fortitude to stay with it. But hopefully the joy of seeing things grow and thrive is worth the work.”

And then there are the neighbors. Living in a condo, he’s had to get permission from the building to create his garden. And he’s had to prevent leaves and other debris from falling through on the balconies below.

“We are meticulous about keeping the area clean,” he says.

He’s particularly proud of his citrus orchard that includes grapefruit, Minneola tangelos, Meyer lemons, key limes, and Dancy and Murcott tangerines. He also has a pitaya or dragon fruit; he’s eagerly awaiting the harvest of its red and green spiked fruit. And then there are the banana plants that were split in half vertically by a recent storm. “That’s happened several times,” he says.

Now imagine when Tropical Storm Erika threatened our shores this summer. Baskin felt compelled to bring all the pots inside his condo unit. “That was quite a job,” he says.

But Baskin perseveres. “When I go out on the terrace and putter around pulling off a leaf here or a branch there, it just makes me feel good,” he says.


In a gated community in Coral Springs where homeowner association (HOA) covenants rule, Larry Lynam plants and maintains the 21-by-32-foot yard in front of his zero-lot-line home.

When he moved in 16 years ago, the sandy lot held only three Washingtonian palms, an oak tree and “five or six miscellaneous green plants” put there by the builder.

“This was pretty much in the Everglades,” says Lynam, who is a biochemist by profession and a certified master gardener by vocation. Of course, now that development has spread farther west, he’s less likely to find an alligator in his pool. And he’s turned his front yard into something that stands out in the community.

“My neighbors know me as ‘the person with the beautiful yard’ and that makes me feel I’m doing OK,” Lynam said.

He travels for business so he didn’t want plants that needed to be “coddled” in his absence.

Over the years he’s added Spanish moss to the oak tree and triangle, Bismarckia, foxtail and bamboo palms to the landscape. He’s also planted a yellow elder tree that becomes “a sea of gold” when it blooms, as well as a monkey puzzle tree. The latter has so many spikes on its trunk that even a monkey couldn’t climb it.

It’s a tribute to his grandmother who had one on her property in Alabama. Lynam remembers helping her shuck corn and shell butter beans in its shade.

Because of the property’s thick canopy, the understory is virtually a shade garden. Here Lynam has planted colorful bromeliads, crotons, anthuriums, wild coffee, Malaysian grape, philodendrons, alocatia and calatheas with their variegated leaf patterns.

“We use these a lot because they provide texture and shape to the garden,” he says.

But as always when living in a small space, he needed to take other people into consideration by being respectful of the community covenants.

“It’s a challenge making sure I don’t put things in that will cause problems, like shedding leaves on a neighbor’s property. So I try to be respectful, but at the same time have some fun with it,” he says.

He’s respectful of the community covenants but if he thinks there will be a problem, he goes to the board first. And he keeps one small patch of St. Augustine grass in the swale so there’s something his neighbors will recognize.

“That’s my compromise to the HOA,” Lynam said.