Inspired by their favorite Caribbean resort, Bitter End in Virgin Gorda, Dr. Dan and Marian Strickland decided when they retired here from Carmel, California, that their new home would enjoy views of turquoise waters and lush tropical gardens. Their tin-roof yellow-and-white house with its open floor plan and wall of disappearing glass facing Sarasota Bay does indeed enjoy stunning views. Double-decker waterside balconies soar to 28 feet and provide vistas of the surrounding north Sarasota neighborhood, Sarasota Bay, Longboat Key and hundreds of blooms and flowering trees below. And every single room of the 3,500-square-foot house overlooks at least one of their half-dozen different gardens.
The house was designed by Don Soley and built by Breckinridge Custom Homes with Bill Singletary as project manager. The spectacular outdoor spaces are the work of residential landscape designer Lee Miller, who cleverly made the Stricklands’ narrow one-acre homesite seem like five.
Winding stone pathways lure an explorer through six distinct but connecting cultivated environments, including a front yard jungle complete with a water nymph, 15 varieties of banana trees, exotic palms, bromeliads, and two robust cockatoos who screech for joy at their shady, tropical surroundings.
The pet birds, age five and six, have been hand-raised by the Stricklands and spend their days in roomy cages outdoors. Dan is hoping that his first crop of ice cream bananas (which he’s heard are delicious) will appeal to his avian food critics. If not, he’s going to tempt them with his goldfinger variety.
Some of the Stricklands’ garden areas are for entertaining, others complement and extend water views, and still others are constructed to be intimate retreats. And one, a heritage rose garden bordered by a white picket fence and ornamented with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a vine covered trellis, was created just for the pleasure of seeing it through the kitchen window.
From the treetop balcony just outside his office, Dan can see his own private patch of white sandy beach-custom-built by Lee Miller-near the boat dock. "The 300-square-foot beach has just enough sand to make one decent castle," the homeowner laughs. But the couple wanted that particular picturesque element on the property, and they love the hammock looped between two swaying palms. It reminds them of Bitter End.
Marian enjoys flower arranging and selects from her two rose gardens every day. One of the first things the couple did when they moved here was to join Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. They’ve taken courses there; and, of course, they got bitten by the orchid bug. Rather than designate a separate orchid habitat, Marian hangs pots on tree limbs throughout the property. The couple’s gardener, Salvador Reynosa, who is a bromeliad expert, has placed nearly 30 different colorful species of bromeliads in or around three pine trees near the entrance to the house. The pine trees were the only greenery on the lot when the Stricklands bought the property.
The two-year process of designing the spaces, selecting the right plant material and installing the gardens illustrates how successfully designer, builder, landscaper and homeowners can collaborate from the blueprint stage. One of Miller’s early suggestions to move the front-facing garage entrance to the side of the house allowed him to make the front yard usable space.
More and more families are beginning to use their front yards as outdoor living space, Miller explains. "Curb appeal is just the beginning. The house should be set back and given a fringe of screening from the street for both security and privacy. Then the yard can be anything you want it to be, including a place for your pool and patio." A landscaped out-of-the-way motor court can accommodate guest parking.
The Strickland property is secured with electronically controlled wrought iron gates, and privacy is provided by Canary Island date palms, hardy black olive trees, citrus trees and high hedges of vivid pink oleander and hibiscus. A winding brick pathway effectively secludes the house from the street. You don’t see the entrance until you are led right up to the front door.
The large rose garden, located to the right of the entrance, is planted with 10 hybrid tea varieties and four floribundas. All the bushes except the peppermint-pink and white George Burns rose bush (planted in a terra cotta pot), have been grafted onto fortuniana stock, which is the way to keep Florida roses disease-resistant. This garden provides a colorful vista for occupants of the guest house. Small classical statuary, a fountain and graceful arbors provide further visual interest, as do the fragrant white gardenia bushes that flank the entrance to the guest retreat. The Stricklands lived in this little hideaway for three weeks until the main house was complete, and they made sure the view from every window is perfect.
The homeowners fertilize their gardens heavily every two weeks, something they never had to do in California where the soil is naturally more nutritious. Most of the roses were purchased from Queen Palm Nurseries in Sarasota. Bold yellow St. Patrick roses and yellow allamanda vines near the house tie in with the paint color and continue the seamless transition from indoor to outdoor living spaces. All of the garden areas have comfortable seating.
The homeowners wanted minimum upkeep and maximum enjoyment from their Sarasota property. That meant salt- and drought-tolerant sea grape and carissa near the bay. About 25 percent of the property is planted with St. Augustine grass, but landscape expert Miller used it judiciously to make certain spaces inviting and cooling. The jungle garden in the front yard is fringed with grass, but under the tree canopy stone walkways and pine needle mulch are the only ground cover necessary. The native plants came from Crowley’s Nursery in Old Myakka. Charlie and Kathy Crowley are native plant experts whom the Stricklands consult often.
The homeowners are big fans of vines for vibrant color and lush screening. On the property perimeter something is always in bloom, from tropical wisteria to coral and purple passion vines, solanum, sweet-smelling jasmine and one of Marian’s favorites, the white, lacy pithocellorum. In one area of bedding plants, Marian keeps sweet potato vine clipped short as ground cover. Most of the vines and the many varieties of hibiscus came from the Jones Nursery and Garden Center in Bradenton.
The patio, swimming pool and deck area with its outdoor kitchen extend to a private dock, where the Stricklands’ motor boat waits to transport them to Longboat Marina, where they keep their sailboat.
The curvilinear pool was custom-designed by Miller with the homeowners’ two Portuguese water dogs in mind. The animals love to play in the water, so the entire perimeter is a three-step shelf so the dogs can climb out of the water safely. The back yard is terraced, with the swimming pool serving as a retaining wall. The Stricklands chose to do a natural sea wall. The slope in the back yard is so gradual that no steps are necessary from pool deck to the dock.
When the Stricklands lived in Carmel, where Dan had a thriving plastic surgery practice, the couple raised llamas and horses for relaxation and escaped by sailboat to Bitter End whenever they could. When Dan retired from his medical practice and Marian gave up her job as surgery center manager, they decided to move to Florida because they love warm water and heat. Dan was born in Jacksonville and Marian is from Texas. Here in Sarasota, Marian has become actively involved with the Guardian At Litem volunteer program, which advocates for children who are wards of the court, and she has joined the New College Library Association. The couple remain enthusiastic sailors, but now when they escape to Bitter End, they say the beautiful Caribbean resort no longer looks exotic. It reminds them of home.