Fate brought Tim Macksey to a career in landscape architecture. "I was majoring in marketing at Michigan State in 1971 when my dad, who was a developer, asked if I wanted to come to Sarasota and help him with a project that became Lake Arrowhead. I planted the landscaping and discovered I loved it."
Since then, Macksey has been creating gardens of mystery and excitement, and his residential and commercial landscapes, such as the entranceway of Lake Arrowhead off Beneva Road, are always showstoppers. Using Florida native plants, his designs feature low-maintenance landscaping, little water and no chemicals.
Macksey, a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, designs gardens the same way an artist paints. Before selecting plants, digging and planting, he actually takes a paint wand in hand and draws a garden on the ground. "I view myself as an artist painting a landscape," he says. "I like to create the kind of places where people will literally stop their cars and stare, wondering what’s behind the first intimate garden they can see."
Case in point: the garden rooms surrounding his own home behind Riverview High School. Designated by Sarasota County as a Certified Florida Yard, the property requires little irrigation-Macksey estimates he uses a third to half as much water as other homeowners-and overflows with healthy plants indigenous to the area.
When Tim and his wife, Clare, bought the one-quarter-acre lot 12 years ago, their goal was to build a family home surrounded by a garden that would shield them from the street and neighboring houses. In his mind’s eye Tim saw a mix of edible and native plants, tropicals, and butterfly- and bird-friendly flowers. And so it began.
"Most houses are built on compacted soil," Macksey explains, "which is fine for the foundation of the house but bad for gardening." To ensure good drainage and natural filtering, he used sandy loam for the yard, then topped it with several inches of recycled mulch to encourage the production of topsoil. "As I planted various specimens, I added specific elements to the potting mix that I knew the plant would require. And other than the drip irrigation system-which consists of one main PVC line fitted with plastic tubing that supplies water as needed to 10 different zones-that’s it," he says. "I feed routinely with organics. No chemicals, no pesticides."
Macksey designed the house and yard as a whole. The orientation of the house, a natural hedge of cinnamon camphor (an aromatic fast-growing evergreen shrub that separates his house from his neighbor to the east) and a multitude of trees-bananas, avocados, kumquats, oranges, palms, oaks, crape myrtles, East Palatka hollies, magnolias, papayas and weeping podocarpus-guarantee privacy.
From the road, the home is almost completely hidden from view, but a glimpse through a winding path’s lush growth reveals small garden rooms. The curving design appeals to Macksey’s aesthetic sense. "You can add elements of surprise with serpentine walkways because someone walking through the garden doesn’t know what’s around the bend," he says. And indeed, surprises arise at each turn. In the courtyard-like entry, visitors are greeted by a cascading waterfall and a pond surrounded with giant irises and dense colorful bromeliads.
"Besides adding movement, the water provides ‘positive noise,’" Macksey explains. In intimate coves decorated with statuary and rocks, magnificent staghorn ferns cling to trees, angel trumpets sway gently, their fragrance carried by a vernal breeze, variegated ginger stands in graceful clusters and green ferns in many shades and textures add to the verdant background. Native butterfly plants and flowers jostle for attention, and vines arch over pathways, providing portals to the next magical outdoor space.
When plants overgrow the original master design, Macksey doesn’t hesitate to move them to another part of the garden. "Gardeners are often reluctant, even timid, about moving plants," he says. "There’s nothing wrong with changes. If you don’t like where it is, dig it up and put it somewhere else. A garden is dynamic, and part of the fun of working the yard is being able to change the look for what you want to achieve.
"You have to be flexible. I knew I wanted something beautiful with low maintenance that would give the house privacy. Over the years, the property has evolved into a series of gardens that work in harmony with the total environment. But what I really love is that it is full of surprises. You turn a corner and something beautiful and unexpected is right there."
Recently, Macksey reconfigured his pool area by transplanting a number of palms and ferns as well as laying over 6,000 bricks to replace the previous decking.
Macksey applies the same principles whether designing his own garden or one for clients. "It’s a matter of using the design process based on what each person wants to achieve," he says. "You need to establish the look they desire and figure out which plants will produce that result, as well as how many plants it will take. I usually take clients to quality nurseries so they can hand-select special plants or trees." This is especially helpful for Florida newcomers, he adds, giving them a chance to learn about what flourishes here.
"I am a professional, but I am also an artist," Macksey says. "Gardens should speak to you in the same way a work of art touches something deep inside."