WRITTEN BY Bek Mitchell-Kidd
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE BY Sunscapes Landscape Design, Inc. Gerry Crouch, FAPLD and Judy Drake, APLD
Located on the southwest side of Jacksonville is a movie-opening-worthy allée of centuries-old live oak trees that act as a red carpet leading to a place that transcends time; you can almost hear the swaying Spanish moss whispering to the past and making you want to exhale.
Gerry Crouch of SunScapes Landscape Design, hired by the Florida homeowners to design the gardens, says, “The live oak trees are more than 100 years old which we considered a valuable asset, providing a wonderful foreground to the new home.” Business partner Judy Drake adds, “The trees create a sense of arrival to the site and also partially obscure the view of the house from the street.”
The arrival sequence to the front of the house has four large crape myrtles surrounding the parking court, creating more of an “inviting terrace” feel which allows you to temporarily forget it is where you’re supposed to park your car.
The residence was built a decade ago and was inspired by the magical Rosecliff mansion in Rhode Island. Commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles.
There was a pre-existing house on the Florida property, which was relocated downriver, so there was very little grading required on the site. However, shortly after the new residence was built, the owners had to rectify some omissions they felt had been made in the original design—they enlarged the kitchen and family room and added both a workout room and an outdoor firepit area.
Based on the client’s wish list for the grounds, Gerry says the intent was to “create privacy from neighboring lots on each side, a beautiful arrival court for parking, gardens appropriate to the house in the front yard, a pool, a dock, a folly by the river, and space for two young sons to play.” Judy adds, “The planting on the back side needed to be less formal than the front, keeping the river as the primary focus.”
The plantings are both lavish and refined. The color scheme for the garden is various shades and textures of green. “We planted simple boxwood hedges around the primary portion of the residence to anchor the home and provide a constant foundation,” Judy says. Gerry adds, “The simplicity is necessary because the house is opulent, and this allows the architecture to shine.” SunScapes also notes that the Rosecliff mansion is planted in a similar way.
“We plant flowers in masses, but not like a perennial bed, as that style does not lend itself to northern Floridian gardens,” explains Judy. “Here, we have to plant so everything looks equally good 365 days a year. There is no letup in the winter months as there may be in other parts of the country.”
To that point, there are no seasonal color plantings, and the color palette is intentionally subdued. Several exquisite pots around the front and the pool are primarily planted with green, with occasional dashes of white.
The clipped borders are boxwood and “G.W. Pringle,” a dwarf variety of podocarpus. Gerry says, “We like the contrast of the clipped formal plants with a rougher texture plant material behind, and, occasionally, a plant that blooms, such as roses, or agapanthus, which grow well in this area.”
This plays out well throughout the landscape, with green hedges used to avoid the predictability of the same plant. The landscape provides a mix of formal (clipped hedge borders) and informal—or a little wild—with big swaths of agapanthus and roses.
Less an edge and more a nod to the past is the hypnotic Belgian block granite edging. It is simple, beautiful and mesmerizing in its purpose to invite people to meander. Judy says, “It is primarily a northern building material, reminding us that Rosecliff is a northern house, but we used it as you would see a border brick in a Charleston garden, with a flat and upright course of the brick-shaped blocks. We affectionately call it a ‘Charleston border,’ so we pay homage to the two worlds of a northern house in the South.”
Without a doubt the showstopper is the folly. Part of the original plan for the site, like any star with true talent and passion, it is captivating. It was designed by the client’s architect to be a copy of a gazebo in the park opposite the church, in Cuba, where the client was baptized.
Gerry says, “This folly meant a lot to our client, and he wanted it placed near the river. A great deal of thought went into its placement to assure it did not feel contrived or block the view of the river from the house. It is incorporated into the landscaping to feel like it has always been there. The structure is primarily used by the owner for reading or quiet contemplation.”
Nearby, Barlow Tyrie benches also provide a place for reflection. Judy concludes, “It is a unique home and garden, quietly elegant, providing peace, serenity, yet a functional living space, for the homeowner in every direction.”
SunScapes says, “Moss is a natural phenomenon on live oak trees throughout the South (of North America). It does not hurt the trees, in that it’s not a parasite. However, at times the moss can get so prolific that it can obscure adequate light to the leaves, and a branch may die. Occasionally, owners will have their trees ‘demossed,’ but this is a labor-intensive, costly activity, and not done frequently.”