In the years she lived in London, England, with her husband Paul and their two children, Sue Efron visited countless English gardens, especially admiring the more contemporary designs that emphasize informal mixings of flowers and shrubs.
Then she saw something very different – a gravel garden – which started out as a hardscrabble plot, yet brimmed with beautiful flowering plants and succulents that were placed in gravel and thrived with almost no care.
Efron was captivated by the garden’s tropical appearance, low-water requirements and hearty nature. “I loved it, especially its environmental sensitivity,” she says. So when she and her husband built their winter home in a spacious, traditional neighborhood in midtown Palm Beach, Fla., she knew she wanted the landscaping to mirror the same principles.
Efron took her concept – which she admits seemed “a little wild” for the environs – to Keith Williams, a partner in the renowned Palm Beach landscape architecture firm of Nievera Williams Design.
Williams embraced the idea, and today the Efrons’ property, a block from the Atlantic Ocean, is a piece of art, all soft colors and mesmerizing forms, with lovely pockets of space for privacy and socializing.
The project has won admirers and praise far beyond the Efrons, picking up an Award of Merit for Environmentally Sensitive South Florida Landscape Design in 2014 from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
From the moment Williams sifted through dozens of Efron’s photographs of gardens, including those from the family’s house in Larchmont, N.Y., he was enthused by her philosophy and her innate passion for plants.
“I knew I would be able to do things that most of my clients wouldn’t get or understand. We got away from the traditional garden and invented our own style,” he says.
According to Williams, the original intent was to create a sustainable but lush landscape that would bloom during the time the Efrons are in Florida from winter into early spring. “That was a challenge off the bat,” he laughs.
In the two years since it was planted, in a parched- looking half-acre space, the garden has grown naturally into its own – with the help of the Florida warmth and humidity – appearing as if it has always been there.
Williams’ business partner, Mario F. Nievera, was captivated by his colleague’s take on the project. “The gardens at the Efrons’ house are so beautiful,” says Nievera, the firm’s founder. “Keith’s creativity and capabilities in landscape design far exceed my own.”
These are not words to be taken lightly, coming from an award-winning landscape architect whose own work has been lauded by clients around the world, including projects as far away as Shanghai, China, and media coverage in major design magazines such as “Architectural Digest.”
At the front of the Efron home, Williams laid a visual feast of tropical blooms and potted succulents, such as agave and aloe, which grow more beautifully the less they are watered.
Weaving through the softly colored landscape is a path of crushed and rubble coral that leads to a gracious plantation-style mahogany door. Not a single hibiscus or formal planting is to be seen. As Williams says, “These are plants that don’t take much maintenance or water.”
The rear of the home, where most of the Efron’s socializing occurs, is subtly divided into garden “rooms,” each with a vista – a dining pavilion, pool area, and a covered loggia, the perfect place to gather for casual meals, especially when the Efrons’ family visit.
The loggia, with a floor of hammered limestone, is the most lived-in room of the entire property, furnished with simple wicker furniture, a plaster tree trunk-shaped chair, a mosaic Moroccan dining table, and a fascinating coffee table fashioned from an old wrought-iron door.
A purple Vanda orchid hangs on one of the loggia’s columns, placed there by Shawna Price, of Garden Couture in Palm Beach, a like-minded soul who helps Efron maintain the landscape.
Williams worked alongside the home’s architect Peter Papadopoulos, of Smith and Moore Architects in West Palm Beach, to ensure proper sunlight for the gardens and the interior of the house.
The loggia area, with a sheer waterproof covering, doesn’t diminish the sunny seating area in the home’s adjacent interior. The cabana, next to the pool, is a showstopper – a metal design that replicates the slatted roof of an orchid house with palm tree supports.
The merging of paving, landscape and architecture helps define each area of the back property. The plants were chosen to be at their best – in texture, shape and color – when the Efrons are here in mid-winter. “We wanted it to be beautiful, without looking contrived, and still feel like a garden,” Williams says.
Flowering plants – pink oleander, graceful bromeliads, periwinkle blue plumbago, and Texas sage – subtly define the outdoor spaces. Luxuriant blooms of bougainvillea climb on trellises up the home’s white walls, providing, as Williams says, “a pop of color.”
On the south side of the yard, the branches of a massive old banyan tree hang over a simple spa. Nearby is a hammock, which Efron says “gets claimed quickly” when the Efrons’ children visit.
Grass – so needy of water and nutrients – is placed just around the swimming pool, with nearby palm trees sporting bleeding heart vine.
An elegant concrete dining table and wicker chairs are set under a pergola covered with flowering bougainvillea, a glass lantern creating a soft mood. Williams designed the area for maximum views of the garden, house and pool. “You’re experiencing everything at dinner at night here,” Williams says.
And then there’s the “secret” garden – a sweet, small courtyard that is walled from the rest of the property and visible only from the dining room and family room.
The high-impact plantings here are designed to be viewed close up: bromeliads, Mondo grass, and a small lipstick palm with a bright red trunk, placed amid a circle of coquina walking stones.
The passion that Efron feels about her plants, as fresh and genuine as her gardens, set the tone for Williams. “She said the garden would be more important to her than the house,” Williams muses. “Working with Sue was inspirational.”
Efron’s desire for low-care but beautiful plants that didn’t hog water, and would bloom in the Palm Beach winter, was a challenge. And what a great thing that turned out to be. As Williams notes, “I love a challenge.” nieverawilliams.com
Image Credits: Photos by Michael Stavaridis.