Casey Key Pagoda Garden
Casey Key is a narrow strip of land separated from the coast by Blackburn Bay just south of Sarasota. Homes on the key enjoy both a seaside Gulf exposure to the west as well as views eastward across the bay to the mainland. Discover a new landscape that became a landmark soon after completion due to its strikingly unique features. Step inside to discover why:
"This is the truest design-build project I've ever been a part of," explains Michael Gilkey, Jr., principal landscape architect of the firm founded by his late father in Sarasota. Four years ago Gilkey went to work for a client who traveled the world often, only to come back to their existing home on the Gulf coast. The landscape would be created in 1.2 acres of land, designed for entertaining two or two hundred guests. Design inspiration was based upon the clients' frequent world travels, and many features showcase these memories. This exquisite view is from a terrace that looks out over the rose garden to the conservatory in the background. This is only part of the landscape which also includes an edible food garden and the most stunning of all, an exquisite Chinese garden.
This garden was the only recipient of an Award of Excellence in the residential category in the 2013 Florida ASLA Design Awards. Visit the website of landscape architect Michael A. Gilkey, Inc.
This illustrative site plan designed by Michael A. Gilkey, ASLA, shows the site and the existing house footprint at far left. A single road runs the length of the key, dividing the house from this new project shown in color. The site plan can be better understood when it's viewed in two parts that reflect both eastern and western design elements. At the center are the roof lines of the square conservatory. The left side of the project features the traditional western rose and food gardens. On the right three fabulous pagoda style pavilions identify the Chinese garden with the large koi pond and expanses of Asian style planting. With bay on three sides, the blue roof pavilions quickly became a landmark for passing boaters.
Gilkey teamed up with builder Joe Jannopoulo of Synergy Building Corp to design and build all three elaborate pavilions. To ensure they stand up to Gulf winds and even hurricanes, much of the structure is poured in place concrete. Each one is richly detailed with wood veneers, gilded decoration and fabulous cobalt blue tile roofs. Finials and symbolic figures perch upon the graceful roof lines. These pavilions are positioned to appear as though they are floating upon the koi ponds connected by a series of bridges. At far right in the background is one of the two moongates that provide entry to the Chinese garden.
Gilkey created moongates in the true Chinese style to more cleanly transition from western-inspired spaces to the Asian garden. Walls, partitions and dense planting were immediately integrated into the site to solve the problems of wind and salt. "Plantable space was limited," says Gilkey. "We didn't want it to feel like a theme park due to the number of large elements on a relatively small lot." The gulf side of the key experiences the greatest wind and salt problems so plants for this project must be naturally adapted to these forces of nature. "The biggest challenge was to balance elements for wind protection with our open view corridors." Gilkey imported a massive load of topsoil to apply an 18 inch layer of fertile ground over the entire site to support a much wider range of plants - 200 in all.
The Chinese garden was created on the lee side of the key that looks eastward across the bay to the shore. It's composed of different vignettes or "rooms" that present unique aspects of Asian design. The white limestone seatwalls eliminate the need for railings while offering comfortable resting places all year around. To provide a greater sense of enclosure, tropical flowering trees were positioned within the views to emphasize the seasons just as flowering cherry trees do in the traditional Asian landscapes.
The rocks in traditional gardens of China are eroded over the centuries and therefore highly valued, so Gilkey searched for North American stones that provided similar appearance. The source would be stone shaped by alluvial forces of the Mississippi river on limestone. These boulders aided in creating elevated planting areas filled with imported topsoil. Delivery and placement of such large boulders is difficult under normal circumstances, but for this site with water on three sides the logistics proved mind-boggling. Such design solutions allowed a vast range of plants to be utilized in the design, which attest to Gilkey's second generation knowledge of exactly what will thrive in this challenging coastal climate. "You can't push the boundaries of design unless you embrace horticulture," he says often, an approach that makes his projects stand out due to the deft selection and placement of plant materials that yield a stronger sense of place.
The massive koi pond required nearly two hundred tons of rock shipped from Tennessee and Missouri, followed by six months of construction. The ponds were designed so natural waste from the fish feeds the collection of lilies, lotus and other aquatic plants. They offer colorful fish that glide through the depths as friends and guests relax beneath the sheltering pavilions.
The Chinese garden is ideal for evening gatherings with its subtle structural lighting of the living spaces while further out into the landscape the plants seem to glow in their soft ambient illumination. Limestone seatwall benches provide for comfort and provide a structure for invisible light fixtures. The design challenge was to create spaces that felt intimate to one or two visitors while equally suited to a large reception or private party.
The clients originally requested a greenhouse, but during the design process the focus was changed to a true conservatory built over an enormous 40,000 gallon underground cistern. The cistern collects rainwater that is piped into the irrigation system which also serves to backwash koi pond filters as well. This conservatory houses not only tropical plants but exquisite custom art work that offers a comfortable protected structure for intimate gatherings during inclement weather.
The interior of the conservatory is paneled in sustainable ipe wood. This naturally finished paneling provides a suitable background for displaying custom artwork and other creative elements brought home from the clients' travels. Many of the tropical plants will be moved to this naturalistic indoor environment for the winter months. "It's kept at 68 to 74 degrees at all time," says Gilkey. "We designed a green living wall to hide the air conditioning units, then added five foot square panels of etched painted glass."
Sheltered by the conservatory building is a smaller private garden for meditation and yoga. It retains a subtle Asian character with a collection of bamboo species from delicate weeping Mexican bamboo to giant timber bamboo from Asia. This space features an ipe wood deck and a raked sand Zen garden focused upon a "scholar's rock" that is also a subtle water feature so the sound of it filters through the space. Statuary from the owners' travels can be found nestled into the bamboo roots and culms. The bamboo also provides a helpful sheltering windbreak to render these spaces more intimate and comfortable.