Talk about a dream tenant. John Wheeler lived in the sweet little clapboard cottage on Anne and Frank Folsom Smith’s two-acre bayfront property for 10 years, and over the course of the decade he transformed the acreage into a tropical wonderland.
It helps that former tenant Wheeler is a landscape designer who works on some of the highest-end homes in the region and travels across Florida collecting unusual plant species.
It also helps that the Folsom Smith property is abundantly romantic—built on an Indian midden 20 feet above sea level, with a rolling lawn that ends on a palm-fringed beach. Almost 25 years ago, the husband-and-wife architect and interior designer spent a year and a half restoring and adding on to the 1894 farmhouse on the property. “We have discovered over the years that the land talks,” says Anne. “When you lie on a blanket on the ground, the Indian spirits talk to you.”
But rather than leaving it up to divine intervention, Wheeler and Frank spent a great deal of time talking through which parts of the rambling acreage would be cleared of their thickets of palmettos, palms and undergrowth. “It was naturally a beautiful piece of property with the Indian middens and oaks,” says Wheeler. “God already did his part, and I just had to fill in the edges.”
To satisfy both husband and wife (Anne loves flowers, Frank loves greenery; “we’re constantly battling,” she says), Wheeler created a showstopping display of flower beds—massive bright white impatiens in the fall and winter, vivid pink-and-green heart-shaped caladiums in the hotter summer months. They flank the meandering shell entry drive and surround the house and cottage, a colorful counterpoint to the emerald lawn.
“The lawn is so green, lush and beautiful; it really needs color to give it its punch,” says Wheeler. He used ground orchids, gingers, bromeliads and crinum lilies that all bloom in different seasons, and planted swaths of night blooming jasmine for the fragrance. The result is “very romantic, very inspiring,” he says. “It’s just a special space.”
To screen out a neighboring home and camouflage an FPL electric pole, Wheeler designed a dark, dreamy and somewhat narrow secret garden along the north side of the property. He put in curvy slate walkways and a circle made of paver stones, then “lit it up” with bromeliads, lobster claw heliconia, angel trumpets, orchids, triangle and coconut palms, blue bamboo and more. When asked to identify some of the foliage he installed, he faxed over a two-and-a-half page, single-spaced list of various species of palms, trees, plants and cycads. “It’s our own private collection, one-of-a-kind type stuff,” Wheeler says.
“It’s amazing. We forget that it’s there, that’s why it’s a secret,” says Anne. “I’ll ask myself, ‘Where’s Frank?,’ and I’ll find him wandering back there.”
Wheeler says, “It was a privilege to live in the guest house,” and, in fact, he still maintains his landscape design office on-site. That pleases the Folsom Smiths to no end.
“Is the garden still evolving?” Anne says. “Absolutely, are you kidding?”