How do you landscape a castle? Well, a moat might be nice for a start. That's what homeowners Kurt Lucas and Ron Butine thought when it came time to add some water and garden elements to their 4,700-square-foot Sarasota castle called Palazzo de Colores. Hidden behind iron gates and an enclosed stone entrance porch, the four-foot- deep moat forms the centerpiece of the front-facing courtyard. And how else would you navigate a moat except through heavy wooden doors with rusted hardware and by a wide plank and metal drawbridge-permanently lowered in a guest-friendly gesture.
The 37-foot-long by nine-foot-wide moat is actually a lap pool. Two trickling waterfalls are designed to look like the moat is being fed by a distant river. A few elegant carved stone koi rest in various locations at the bottom of the moat, which is lined with hand-formed concrete that resembles ancient European stone. Neither the moat nor the courtyard is visible from the street.
"There were three must-haves for us when we were building," says Lucas, who is an interior designer. "We wanted a clock tower, turrets and an interior courtyard that would feature a moat. The courtyard is visible from nearly every room of the castle and this outdoor space has become my favorite room of all. In the early morning I run, come home, make coffee and jump into the moat. There's nothing like it. And at night this place is purely magical."
They've hosted parties for 150 in the courtyard, and even a formal afternoon wedding. Bride and groom Gina and Shawn Dehart and their attendants crossed the moat and processed into the castle for the ceremony. "The whole event had a marvelous Cinderella quality," remembers Lucas.
The moat courtyard is strictly symmetrical, something Butine and Lucas are sticklers for, and features topiaries in stone urns, wrought-iron round tables and chairs, garden statuary, and antique architectural elements (such as a rusted French iron cemetery cross) tucked amid container plants and castle crevices. Creeping fig scales the 18-foot-high courtyard walls and iron bonnet awnings cap the doors that lead from the courtyard to bedrooms. In a year, the metal awnings will be thickly threaded with flowering vines.
Landscaper Scott Younkman set the gardening scheme and Alice Brittingham, who works at Lucas's firm, JKL Design Group, assisted with creative ideas. "What we wanted to avoid was any hint of tropical ambience," explains Lucas. "This castle is meant to look hundreds of years old, and it's European in character. The garden areas should be formal, refined and sculptural. We do have hibiscus, but they are hibiscus trees all the same color and all in a row."
Lucas says the stand of podocarpus along a side property line will be uniformly box cut as soon as the shrubs grow to the right height; Italian cypress trees, tall and slim, function as green sculpture at the front of the castle. Flanking the main entrance are a massive pair of urns on pedestals that hold cascading bougainvillea and various seasonal flowers and vines. Small ornamental trees and a St. Francis of Assisi stone statue in a flower bed complete the front entrance. Creeping fig is just beginning its climb up the walls at the front and sides of the residence. "We painted the castle brown for a contrast between the earthy color and the green vine," says Lucas. "The creeping fig is extremely important to the look of the house; it's meant to nearly cover it."
Is a man's castle ever finished? "You must be kidding," Lucas says with a laugh. "We're taking down the old wooden back vine-covered fence and redoing it. And our next project is the terrace off the dining room. We have a three-tier fountain ready to be installed and then we'll need plants and sculpture. I'm the inside designer and Ron takes care of the outside. He knows a lot more about plants than I do, and he's making the castle grounds and courtyard look better and better each month that goes by."