The hands-down hit of last December’s Junior League Holiday Tour of Homes was a grand mansion on 1.6 acres of south Siesta Key bayfront. Inside, tour-goers gushed over the owners’ vast and clever collection of Christmas collectibles. But perhaps their most enthusiastic responses were saved for the spectacular gardens that fill the entire property, offering a variety of fragrant surprises around each corner.
The home (named Springbank) and grounds belong to Russell and Chris James, indefatigable gardeners who are transplants from New York. "When we lived in New York we were apartment dwellers, so we didn’t have a garden," Russell says. "When I semi-retired and we moved onto this property, it gave us both the time and the place to indulge ourselves."
And indulge themselves they did. Beyond their gate, a gracefully winding drive reveals a pond that reflects a weeping willow and passing white clouds like a looking glass to the sky. The water ripples lightly under a gentle breeze. Flowering trees radiate color and waft delicious scents, some spicy, some sweet.
Across the pond is a glass greenhouse. Outside it, beds of silky roses sparkle with morning dew and bumblebees buzz through the sky vine. As you follow a meandering path through the park-like setting, colorful flowerbeds, cool shady alcoves, canopies of flamboyant bougainvillea, walls cloaked with climbing roses and natural groves come into view.
When the couple bought the property three years ago, it had quite a history, but it had suffered from obvious neglect. It was originally part of a larger parcel sold in 1901 by the U.S. government to William Hodges and subsequently sold in 1904 to Frank Guptill, an early homesteader at historic Spanish Point. Three homes were built on the property, two in 1913 and one in 1917. The house on this lot, formerly owned by the governor of New Hampshire, had been torn down in 1995. "When we purchased the land, it was mostly a wild tangle of weeds; but it had several existing native cedars, which we preserved," Russell explains.
The Jameses are quick to credit landscape designers Michael Gilkey and Michael Gilkey Sr. for expanding and accenting their vision with additional small flowering trees, orchids and annuals with several bloom cycles. "We were fortunate to have the benefits of the Gilkeys’ design skills, knowledge of indigenous flora and understanding of existing conditions," Russell says.
Gilkey says Springbank was very much a collaborative process. "Even the best designs can be sterile without the homeowners’ input," he says. "A successful garden is one in harmony with the house and in harmony between the owners’ needs and the design for their garden, too. This garden’s personality is the direct result of the Jameses’ vision."
Working side by side, the landscape designers and their clients divided the space into areas cleverly related and arranged to provide unity and flow, proportion, balance and rhythm. The result is a comfortable and harmonious composition.
Great gardens don’t just happen, and the Gilkeys observed existing conditions carefully and analyzed their strengths and weaknesses to determine how Springbank’s would develop. "Besides the location and the trees," Russell says, "one thing that appealed to us was the natural elevation changes particular to those of Indian middens [giant mounds of discarded shells, fish bones and tools used by the Indians who lived along the Florida coast from 1000 B.C. until the 1700s.] Site test pits from the past indicated aboriginal occupation between perhaps 500 and 1500 A.D." Russell says food remains found on the site indicate the Indians lived by fishing, shellfish gathering, and hunting. They even found fragments of ancient ceramic pots and bowls used to cook and store those foods.
A contractor by trade, Russell James also oversaw the construction of the couple’s home. "With its circular drive, fountain, flower-filled urns and sweeping staircase flanked by a pair of holly, the house has a Northern feel. "We wanted the front garden to complement the architecture," he explains. "Michael capitalized on the property’s linear quality and elevation by lowering the pond and contours, which creates the illusion that the house is set on a hill."
Although the configuration gives the garden the Northern look the Jameses sought, its plantings are suited to the local climate. Trees provide structure, color, form, texture and interest; and the many selections encompass numerous mature trees-including silk floss, white geiger, royal poinciana, golden dew drop, magnolia, jasmine, African tulip, coral tree, a variety of acacias, black olive and gold trees-and a natural preserve of oaks, palms and ferns. "The concept was to transition from the front of the home to the tropical garden behind the house, yet keep the flow going," Gilkey says of the area facing the bay, where the home’s lofty veranda offers an aerial view of the lush grounds and shafts of sunlight stream through stately trees.
Under coastal oaks and coconut palms, stone steps ascend from the water’s edge to a shady nook where foxtail palms and giant lilies sway in the warm breeze. Further up, a limestone path bordered with variegated ginger passes by a strangler fig and connects both front and back gardens. On the other side of the pool terrace, where a wide collection of orchids thrives under Chris’ tender touch, a little sanctuary, complete with a stone bench, holds the ashes of gone but not forgotten pets.
"We do all the work ourselves," Russell says. "Chris tends over 100 rose bushes. She takes great satisfaction in growing them and giving them away. I enjoy growing and planting our annuals, mostly impatiens and hydrangeas. We both get a lot of pleasure from caring for the garden and seeing it mature. It’s therapeutic and rewarding. The beauty and peace of the property instill a sense of comfort and serenity."