An Overgrown Lot Transforms into a Tropical Winter Vacation Spot

“I roll a design in my mind over and over again until it feels right,” says Craig Reynolds, owner of his eponymous landscape architecture firm based in Key West, Florida. “I believe there’s a fingerprint or a pattern on every property that makes sense and feels natural. I keep designing until I find that.”
That was Reynolds’s approach to this tropical retreat, which began as two empty adjacent lots. The owners envisioned their vacation home on the property and engaged both the landscape and structural architects at the start of the project. The gardens were to be a central focus of the property, so the owners wanted both professionals involved with the siting and design of the house.
“It’s not typical to work in tandem with the architect in placing the house on the site,” explains Reynolds. “This project was unique because the owners were focused on the garden. I worked with the architect and was able to say things like, ‘Don’t put any rooms here. Make this side bigger. Make that side smaller.’” That input ultimately led to an L-shaped house built to the sides of the property, allowing the pool and gardens to take center stage. The owners wanted a guest wing and a main wing. The L shape and subsequent plantings give the illusion of two separate residences. But both wings maintain their privacy while still retaining views of the swimming pool.

“I roll a design in my mind over and over again until it feels right,” says Craig Reynolds, owner of his eponymous landscape architecture firm based in Key West, Florida. “I believe there’s a fingerprint or a pattern on every property that makes sense and feels natural. I keep designing until I find that.”

That was Reynolds’s approach to this tropical retreat, which began as two empty adjacent lots. The owners envisioned their vacation home on the property and engaged both the landscape and structural architects at the start of the project. The gardens were to be a central focus of the property, so the owners wanted both professionals involved with the siting and design of the house.

“It’s not typical to work in tandem with the architect in placing the house on the site,” explains Reynolds. “This project was unique because the owners were focused on the garden. I worked with the architect and was able to say things like, ‘Don’t put any rooms here. Make this side bigger. Make that side smaller.’” That input ultimately led to an L-shaped house built to the sides of the property, allowing the pool and gardens to take center stage. The owners wanted a guest wing and a main wing. The L shape and subsequent plantings give the illusion of two separate residences. But both wings maintain their privacy while still retaining views of the swimming pool.

The shallow shelf at one end of the pool invites homeowners to cool their heels away from the tropical Florida heat.

House placement was only the first piece of the puzzle. “In any design, there are elements you must balance: house size, access points coming out of the house, property size, off-site views you want to hide, setbacks . . .” says Reynolds. “You take all these things, synthesize them, and then start moving the puzzle pieces to find the right fit,” he says.

Those large elements place certain limits on the design, but within those constraints, the landscape architects must discover and then create what the owners envision. This includes learning what design styles they like as well as their must-have features. Reynolds gleans this information in three ways. “When I meet with clients, I ask as many questions as possible. Then, I show them picture books of my past work. We flip through them and I ask them to tell me both what they like and don’t like, because knowing what doesn’t appeal to them is just as important. Finally, I ask them to send me images they like.”

From these Q&As and image reviews, Reynolds discovered that the couple wanted a casual garden. “They didn’t want something highly designed. They wanted it to feel homey,” he says. Privacy is a major component to creating that homey feel. “I design from the outside in,” he says. “I take care of privacy first and then work my way in toward the house.”

True of most Key West properties, the pool is a central feature. Part of the couple’s must-have list was a temperature requirement for the pool. “The husband is a member of a polar bear club so the pool had to be 62 degrees [Fahrenheit] all the time,” explains Reynolds. A gray aggregate finish covers the pool’s interior. Ming green marble tiles line the shallow shelf, where the couple can place plastic Adirondack chairs, allowing them to enjoy the coolness of the water without being fully immersed in the pool. Coral coping outlines the pool’s shape. Oolitic limestone, native to Florida, serves as stepping stones around the pool’s perimeter and leads away to various entry points around the house. Heat- and drought-tolerant zoysia grass grows between the stones.

An outdoor shower was another request. The direction from the couple was to keep it utilitarian rather than fancy. “I made it as simple as possible,” says Reynolds. “It’s just a copper pipe running up a palm tree. It operates with a simple pull chain.” A relaxing hammock was another customer request, so a teal hammock sways between two coconut palms.

One of the more challenging homeowner requests was installing an edible garden with citrus and mango trees. “Those trees are messy, so they couldn’t be near the pool. But they also had to be in a spot that got sufficient sunlight,” explains Reynolds. He ultimately planted key lime, Valencia orange, Meyer lemon, and mango trees in an out-of-the-way yet sunny spot near the master bedroom.

An abundance of palms—coconut, Christmas, sugar, lady, cabada—encircle the property. Their spiky green thatch stretches up to the welcoming sun while their sand-colored trunks root into the sandy soil. The garden is a sea of green, interrupted every so often with an eye-catching color from variegated croton, purple crinum lily, and pink muhly grass. Gardenia, jasmine, and bougainvillea provide fragrant reminders that you’re in the tropics.

“My design process is largely intuitive, so it’s hard for me to explain. I don’t go to the client until I’ve thought everything through.” From thought to plan to execution, Reynolds transformed an overgrown jungle into an ideal oasis.

Article written by guest blogger Ronda Swaney.