Just off a Whitfield Estates street lined with ranch homes and patchy lawns hides a lush Mayan rain forest. A Sarasota native and self-taught landscaper, Cameron Cardy owned an electronics business in Fort Lauderdale before retiring to Southwest Florida in 1986. His Spanish-style home, believed to have been designed by architect Ralph Twitchell, was built in 1926 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The garden that engulfs the property—three-fourths of an acre—is an original Cardy creation, 21 years in the making.
From the sidewalk, passersby see only dense palms peeking over the property’s retaining wall and iron gate—a mere hint of the garden inside. Through the gate, the oak- and palm-shaded front yard gives way to a bright oasis of a patio, where a nearly 10-foot-tall potted cactus stands guard over the pool. In fact, it’s 13 plants, all aptly named Peruvian monstrosus, planted en masse by Cardy to create the illusion of one enormous plant. He admits to an affinity for cacti—just one of the traits he’s acquired from innumerable trips south of the border and beyond.
Cardy’s landscaping is modeled on his passions for both the desert and the jungle. But impulse also shapes his garden. Visiting wholesalers throughout the state (he won’t reveal which nurseries he frequents; “I don’t want to give away my trade secrets,” he says), Cardy says his selection method is simply to “look and see what appeals to me.” The result is a triumphant mishmash of foliage: staghorn ferns, bougainvillea, Alexandria palms and date palms, tiny cacti and towering live oak.
Describing his collection, the usually taciturn Cardy lights up, affectionately rattling off scientific species names as though they were his grandchildren: Phoenix reclinata, Euphorbia milii, Arecaceae adonidia merrillii.
When he purchased the property 21 years ago, Cardy faced a forest of “the wrong things”: invasive, needy or otherwise problematic plants, including neglected citrus and nuisance punk trees. Clearing the land down to the dirt was his first order of business.
Then, with his newly clean palette, Cardy began to fill his canvas, scattering plants to assemble a wild but well-balanced garden, like a Jackson Pollack painting in shades of green. He prefers intuition to preconceived design. “I like to do it randomly, then come back to a center point,” he says of the layout. He points out two palm trees, carefully spaced and perfectly upright, surrounded by an erratic assortment of smaller plants. “It’s organized, just sorta,” he explains.
And even the layout itself is flexible. Many of the plants are in pots because “a lot of times I want to move them around,” Cardy says. His off-the-cuff approach has resulted in a garden that’s been featured on the covers of publications from as far away as Europe.
Beginning at the pool, a red brick path meanders through the shady back yard. The path, like the home’s driveway (once shell, now brick), was designed and built by Cardy.
He’s even outfitted his miniature rain forest with matching accessories. A world traveler, Cardy has amassed countless international artifacts that he has arranged as lovingly—and spontaneously—as the plants themselves. “I’m a fool about pottery,” he says, indicating the mud-colored clay bowls reclining against tree trunks or holding plants of their own. He makes a point of buying pieces from the artisans themselves. If he spots an object he likes at a store, he may travel to remote locales to purchase the same piece firsthand from the craftsman. The garden’s artifacts suggest quite a few trips to Mexico and South America.
Following the path away from the pool, you hear the sound of running water. A four-foot, hand-carved stone fountain from Mexico, arguably the garden’s centerpiece, sits in sun-dappled shade in front of the property’s one-room guesthouse. Nearby, handmade Mexican benches—some stone, some mesquite—invite a moment of meditation.
Cardy prefers hardy plants, cacti and palms among them, that don’t require constant tending. Among his favorites is the crown of thorns, which blossoms continually without a lot of care. Over-watering, in fact, is its biggest threat. The succulent’s bright pink flowers pop against the predominantly dark-green garden.
“If they don’t work for me, I don’t bother with them. I’m too old to learn,” Cardy says of his foliage collection. Still, he doesn’t shrink from a challenge. His current project has him reading up on—and experimenting with—the desert rose. “It gets spindly on me,” he laments. “I’ll be darned if I can get it to grow.”
Twisting and turning, the brick path eventually leads to the far corner of the yard, where the back wall of the house faces what looks to be a homey Spanish hacienda. The tiny structure is, in fact, the laundry room. On the opposing walls of the two buildings hang substantial ornamental slabs. Hand-carved sandstone from a remote Mayan artisan, perhaps? “Fiberglass,” Cardy grins. He purchased the faux-stone wall hangings from a friend who rents out pieces for sets in movies and TV shows. Surrounded by authentic mesquite benches and Mexican pottery, the Hollywood imitations hold their own.
Cardy has created a tranquil sanctuary that invites rest and repose, but like many gardeners, he seems to enjoy working more than savoring the results of his labors. “I’ve never sat out here,” he admits as he walks past fountain and benches to his door. “Looks inviting. I do like to look at it. But it’ll never be done.”