Is it more difficult to tackle an undeveloped lot or go back in and do a complete renovation of an existing property?
There probably is no one-size-fits-all answer, but Oliver Ray, Ph.D., owner of Photoscape in Fort Myers, Florida, says the renovation of a waterfront property in Cape Coral challenged his design skills because some existing beds had areas of total shade, right next to areas in total sun.
Fortunately, Ray’s specialty is creating areas of great color without blooming plants. And, he succeeded well enough that the job received a merit award from the National Association of Landscape Professionals.
“We do a lot of high-end landscape renovations or total reinstalls,” he says. “It’s a niche we’ve developed. We find the people we work for want lots of color, but they don’t want annuals, so we bring out vibrant color, for the most part, without going to blooming plants.”
With this job, Ray adds this was the second home Photoscape had done for the clients. And, after doing the front and side yards of the property in this project, the company later went back and installed lighting and re-landscaped the backyard.
Ray explains that he uses the same approach to just about every project. Working with PRO Landscape Design Software, he takes an extensive gallery of photos of the work area, then meets with the clients to learn their likes and dislikes and any desires they have for their property.
“It’s a full question-and-answer session,” he says. “Or at least it was that way in the beginning. Now, probably 95 percent of our clients have seen our work online or in person, and they’ll say, ‘I like that job you did on Gulf Shore Boulevard about six months ago. That’s the look I’m looking for.’”
Once that’s done, Ray gets to work, eventually providing the clients with both a digital PowerPoint presentation and a bound hardcopy of his designs for their property.
Another secret to his success: he doesn’t take a growth palette approach. Or, as he says, “What people see in the design is exactly what the installation will look like the moment we walk off the property. No waiting a year to 18 months for the ‘wow factor’ to appear.”
In this case, the clients were particularly interested in giant Foxtail Ferns, giant Bromeliads in a host of colors, Emerald Blanket, Crotons and various Alocasia (Elephant Ears).
“They wanted a lush, full tropical look,” Ray says.
Working with a team of seven men, Photoscape spent an entire day tearing out much of the existing landscape.
“We left the Royal Palms,” he explains. “They’re probably 35- to 40-feet royal palms. Everything else came out.”
A big issue with the install, which began on a Thursday morning and finished in mid-afternoon two days later using a crew of nine, was irrigation and drainage. Ray says the client had very soggy planting beds.
“We always remediate planting beds,” he says. “We dig out old soil. It may have no nutrients left or too much mulch. We then come back with a one-third/two-thirds mix of topsoil and potting mix that we have made for our company.”
The newly designed beds are then mounded. Ray explains that mounding not only provides drainage, but allows for a good display of color as the taller plants go in the back and the low-profile ones are closer to the front. He also placed boulders in several locations for additional visual interest.
“We also pride ourselves on irrigation that people can’t see unless it’s actually running,” he says. “We do a lot of low-moisture irrigation with emitters and drip lines.”
Photoscape installed some 6,500 square feet of new turf, with new irrigation to service it, as well.
Along with coming back to do the lighting and backyard, Ray explains that the company continues to maintain the project. At one time, Photoscape limited its maintenance clientele to commercial properties and large estates, but based on repeated homeowner requests, that’s no longer the case.
“Whether it’s a $20,000 installation or a $300,000 installation, they want those plants warrantied and cared for,” he says. “So, now we maintain 90 percent of the installations we do. We come in once a month and trim, fertilize, do pest control, weed, put down new mulch if needed, check the irrigation and then test the soil.”
And, this property continues to shine. Ray says he’s most proud of the fact that — being a waterfront home — the company has gotten numerous calls from boaters interested in having Photoscape do their work based on what they’ve seen from the water.
“We’ve probably had 20 installations we’ve done because of boaters going by,” he says. “You not only get the street traffic but you get boat traffic, and it’s been a nice billboard for us in the Cape Coral area.”
His own favorite part of the job: his use of Japanese Blueberry topiaries in one bed on the property. Ray explains that he has one grower who provides them, and he likes his topiaries large and substantial.
“It’s a beautiful plant and atypical of South Florida foliage,” Ray says. “It has these floating saucers of leaves that are quite unique, and it gives a peaceful, Zen-like feel to the garden.”
Along with finding the best answer for the sun – or lack of same – in each planting bed, Ray says the $46,000 job was a real learning experience because it was the first time the company didn’t send in its tear-out crew at the same time as its installation crew.
“When we did tear-out on the same day as we started the installation, it was always a bit of a goat rodeo,” he says. “We just had more people than we could control or give tasks to, and we had people doing polar opposite tasks.
“We’ve done it this way ever since, and it’s made a huge difference,” Ray concludes. “It just works for us.”