Home & Garden

Coffee-table book honors Miami-Dade’s top gardens

Mark and Elizabeth Worsdale walk in their garden.
Mark and Elizabeth Worsdale walk in their garden. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

If you could tour Miami-Dade’s gardens, you’d discover unique paradises created by those who have a passion for plants and an appreciation of time and place.

But in lieu of making this trek, you can enjoy The Gardens of Miami without leaving your favorite chair. This newly released book was created by The Villagers, a nonprofit group that raises funds to sponsor historic preservation in Coconut Grove.

A committee of more than 30 members took 2 1/2 years to complete the elegant tome.

“We set out to show the diversity of the county’s gardens as a reflection of the diversity of our population,” says Dolly MacIntyre, who has been a Villager for 50 years and whose vision sparked this fundraising project.

Those working on the book weren’t looking for just grand vistas and pretty blooms. The selection committee of about eight people was eager to have the book illustrate the diverse blend of styles, attitudes, plant materials and scale that area gardens represent, says Julie Petrella Arch, the project co-chair.

“We wanted people to be inspired by the spirit of gardening in Miami-Dade and to go beyond the stereotypical palm trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea,” she says.

Gardens in the book were selected from more than 100 candidates located by word of mouth, participation in the Villagers’ annual garden tour and nomination by owners and friends. After careful vetting, 27 were chosen for the book.

Tony Ulloa, a Coconut Grove commercial real estate broker, says he knew his inclusion in the book was a sure thing when Sheila Revell, the chair of the selection committee, visited his home to deliver artwork. She immediately recognized that the 1925 home with its well-shaded garden would be perfect; in the book it’s designated “Oasis In The Grove.”

It began when Ulloa bought the Coconut Grove property in 2002, having moved to Miami from Brussels to be near family. At the time, he didn’t know much about tropical plants. He hired a landscaper who put in tall palms to create a cooling canopy and shady yard. He did the rest himself.

“Learning to garden and cook, I became Martha Stewart on steroids,” he says. He started buying gardening books and experimenting with what worked in the sun and the shade. He found himself with orchids and, with the help of a friend, learned how to grow them.

“This garden was a long slow process. I painstakingly put each plant and each orchid where I wanted it,” he says.

Today the garden is a combination of soothing vistas and cozy spaces. An artistic neighbor has helped him define an outdoor living area with copper railings depicting mangroves. The grotto around a pool with waterfall has become home to bromeliads. And, of course, there are the orchids.

“I baby them and put them in their places. If something is wrong, I clip it away and basically treat my plants like children or well-loved pets,” he says.

Working or relaxing in his garden is a way to disconnect and make the world go away, which is so important in the dizzy, dazzling place that is Miami-Dade County.

Joanna Lombard, a registered architect and professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture, wrote the introduction to the book. It serves as a 100-year history of gardening in Florida.

She begins with the early botanists and enthusiasts who came to South Florida and fell in love with its unique ecosystem. These include people such as Robert Montgomery and David Fairchild, who had a deep appreciation for what made Florida special — coastal dunes, virgin hammocks, pine rocklands and mangroves.

After learning about what was here naturally, they traveled the world to collect exotic plants that you can still see today at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which Montgomery founded and named for his friend.

Here visitors were introduced to the plants that had been imported. Over time, these have been adopted and adapted by those who want to add a bit of color and pizazz to their backyards.

In fact, some of the plants that have become synonymous with South Florida are really immigrants from foreign lands.

For example, the Royal Poinciana is from Madagascar; crotons and hibiscus are from Asia; and ixora, from India. Even the iconic coconut palms are imports, but nobody really knows where they originated, says Petrella Arch.

What’s made it possible for Miami-Dade to sustain such varied plant life is the county’s unique micro-climate — different from that even of Broward, Monroe and Collier counties.

In fact this micro-climate is unique in the continental United States and comparable only to the northeastern coast of Australia, Petrella Arch says.

Even within the county there are micro-conditions that gardeners must take into consideration before planting. Depending upon their location, they may need to adapt to the sun and salty air of the beachfront, prevailing breezes that may blow across a patio or the humidity hanging in a poolside grotto.

Consider the home of Elizabeth and Mark Worsdale, deemed “A Personal Sanctuary” in the book.

Mark learned much of what he knows about gardening working a summer job as assistant in the rare plant house at Fairchild when he was in high school. “I got tremendous exposure to all sorts of tropical plants and met interesting people who loved plants,” he says.

When shopping for a place to live in 1978, the land was more important to him than any building on the property. So he and his wife, Elizabeth, settled into a small ranch house on one acre of land in South Miami that was inhabited by only a few pine and fruit trees.

“My wife, who is artistic, saw the potential, the bones as they say, of the house. I saw the bones of the property,” he says.

Over time, “through sprints of inspiration,” the Worsdales have turned their garden into a place worthy of inclusion in the book. Using ponds, mosaic tiles, winding paths, shady spots to rest and exotic trees, palms and other ornamentals, they’ve created a personal statement in nature.

Five years ago, Mark was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Instead of leading him to put his rakes and shovels away, the diagnosis compelled him to adapt his garden by adding raised beds that he can tend easily.

In spring these are filled with vegetables; in summer showy sunflowers, marigolds and zinnias are in residence. He also uses his raised beds to educate and encourage others with physical limitations.

“Here my friends and I are free to continue sharing our love of gardening,” he says.

Now that the book is available to the public, the members of the Villagers are proud of what they’ve wrought.

“We wanted our book to look beautiful, and I think we’ve met that goal,” says Petrella Arch. “But we also wanted to tell a story and provide education and inspiration for area gardeners. I hope we’ve accomplished that, too.”

Learn More

“The Making of a Garden Book — Tales from Behind the Hedges” will be presented by Elaine Mills, co-author of The Villagers’ “Gardens of Miami.” The program is at 8 p.m. May 16 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. For information, call the store at 305-442-4408.

To Get the Book

“The Gardens of Miami” is a 9-by-12-inch hardcover, 264-page “coffee table” book showcasing Miami’s gardens. It contains almost 400 photographs by Steven Brooke, an introduction by Joanna Lombard and text by Elaine Mills and Julie Petrella Arch. There are also sections that highlight Miami’s public gardens and garden organizations.

Price: $60 plus $4.20 Florida sales tax (no tax on out-of-state orders); a shipping and handling fee of $5 per book will apply if applicable.

Ordering options: Go online to thevillagersinc.org and print a book order form that includes mailing instructions.

For information: Contact info@thevillagersinc.org