Transforming a Suburban Garden into a Tropical Sanctuary

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Wide view of a suburban garden with tropical plants around the bases of a mango tree and an avocado tree with green lawn in the foreground.

By engaging a professional landscape architect, this Florida family transformed an ordinary garden into a natural habitat for local flora and fauna.

Nestled within the tropical paradise of Miami, South Florida, the Herring Residence is an exceptional example of how an evocative planting design can transcend the boundaries of conventional home gardens.

The landscape design fosters an evolving and thriving ecosystem, where respect for the natural biodiversity is evident through the choice of the planting palette. The palette emulates nature, by adding color, texture, and vibrancy through planting to create not only a garden for the Herring family, but also a habitat for native Florida hummingbirds and butterflies.

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The house is oriented toward the east, between the front yard and backyard. The front yard boasts a variety of native species, like pigeon plums and Simpson stoppers, with a stepping stone pathway leading to the front door. Here, a Gulmohar tree (Delonix regia – also known as Poinciana), transplanted from the north to the southern end of the site, offers some welcoming shade from the harsh tropical sun.

Wide view of a path made from concrete slabs and stones from a street to the front of a suburban house with an overhanging Poinciana tree.
A transplanted Gulmohar tree provides shade for the front entry path.

In the backyard, two imposing trees take center stage: a mature avocado tree and a flourishing mango tree. Framing the backyard view, a Plumeria tree has been thoughtfully positioned near the window, while a vibrant bougainvillea adorns the trellis on a short deck extending out from the house.

In the entire landscape, there is a strong emphasis on native plants. Along the street-facing boundary, low-height Fakahatchee grass is planted, considering the lower street elevation. Simpson stoppers are planted along the front end, and as they mature, they are expected to evolve into a natural, living wall that effectively screens the property, and attracts several local birds with their fruity red berries.

Site layout and planting plan for the landscaping of a suburban tropical garden.
The Herring Residence site layout and planting plan.

This layered plant palette at the entrance enhances the visual appeal while framing views of the streetscape. At the north side of the front yard, native pigeon plum trees, known for attracting birds, are integrated with Firespike plants at their base. These Firespikes attract hummingbirds and several species of butterflies that feed on their nectar.

In the backyard, Bayrums are added along the property line, offering generous visual privacy and shade from the south sun. A few accent palms are placed on the southern edge, adding a tropical Floridian character to the garden. Bougainvillea are introduced in pots infusing vibrant shades of color to the pergola.

Infographic showing common names and botanical names of plants used in a landscape plan.
The main species of plants used in the layered plant palette.

Spineless agave plants are chosen as accent shrubs for their drought-tolerant and low-maintenance qualities, and remarkable flower-like appearance, enhancing the overall landscape.

As with the rest of the landscape, a conscious effort is taken to ensure that the ground cover is natural, sustainable, and requires minimal maintenance. Instead of the traditional lawn, alternative materials like gravel and native grasses are introduced.

The Sunshine mimosa, a local mat-forming wildflower species, is chosen for the front yard, which adds aesthetic value while also attracting butterflies and bees. This mat formation effectively suppresses weed growth due to its competitive root system.

Green tropical vegetation in front of a white lattice wooden fence and gate.
Layered plantings along the white wooden fence of the property.

While the Mimosa is a host plant for the Little Sulphur or the yellow butterfly, a few accent Coonties, the only native North American cycads, are placed along the pedestrian access serving as magnets to the atala butterfly which were once feared to be extinct in Florida.

In the backyard, the traditional lawn only occupies the central portion, where there is maximum sunlight. Pebbles are introduced along the edge to create a visually appealing texture, while crushed granite is used as gravel on the pathways. This strategic reduction in lawn coverage significantly minimizes resources and maintenance requirements, creating an ecological and environmentally friendly landscape.

Standing in a prime location in the backyard, there is a massive avocado tree that has a highly unusual and awkward form which lacks visual appeal. Prior to the design, it appeared isolated within the landscape, and its structural integrity seemed compromised. Instead of opting for removal or substantial pruning, the decision was made to leverage it as a prime feature in this space.

An avocado tree with bromeliads and birds nest fern plants around the base and bromeliads and orchids on the trunk.
The old avocado tree has been transformed into a landscape feature.

Now, adorned with a profusion of ferns, epiphytes, and tropical orchids, it is transformed into a lush focal point in the design. Philodendrons are strategically added in the background mixed with a wall of Raphis to introduce lines and textures to the mundane fence.

The ground around the tree is embellished with a vibrant array of bromeliads. These plants are low-maintenance and have shallow roots that grow well in the humid, shady floors of the tree canopy. These tropical treasures are much more than just pretty plants, adding a sense of calm and balance to the garden, purifying the air, and removing unpleasant odors.

A bird bath is nestled into this composition of bromeliads, providing a vital source of relief during hot and dry spells for birds. The result is a charming nook in the garden that embraces insects, butterflies, and birds.

Bromeliads and other tropical plants growing around the base of an avocado tree.
The bird bath amongst the colorful ground plantings of bromeliads.

Challenging the notion of contemporary planting design and tree pruning practices in a residential landscape, the avocado tree allowed for the creation of a variety of alcoves along its tree trunk enabled by its gnarly structure.

Driven by a commitment to preserve and sustain the long-term vitality of the tree canopy in urban Miami, the landscape design by Studio Arth successfully respects and prioritizes the health and importance of the existing mature trees. The design, quiet composition of blurring outlines, enduring materials, and native flora – creates an animated and lively natural ecosystem in a small home garden.

The Herring’s garden, which is a modest 5300 sq ft of open space, now boasts nearly 3500 sq ft of lawn alternatives. Featuring native and adapted Floridian pollinator and host plants like Simpson stopper, pigeon plum, Spanish stopper, bayrum hedges, Muhly grass, fakahatchee grass, monkey grass, Coontie, golden creeper, and firespike as shrubs, blue daze, and sunshine mimosa as ground cover, it is now home to approximately 800 such new plant saplings.

A beige and brown covered deck at the rear of a suburban home with two bougainvillea bushes in large pots on either side.
A deck at the back of the house looks out over the rejuvenated garden.

This residential garden design illustrates that people are increasingly open to renewed forms of design that emulate nature and wilderness. It is a responsible planting design, driven by awareness, which aims to create a harmonious sync with the natural setting.

A home in an urban area can adapt to its native context by recreating a natural habitat for local flora and fauna that was lost over time. The design recognizes that we are a part of the ecosystem, and all species including us are in symbiotic relationship with the environment.

Landscaping must foster a thriving natural environment where all lives matter.  The Herring Residence is not just a home; it’s a sanctuary for local biodiversity, where modern living and nature seamlessly converge.

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