Nestled amidst the hustle and bustle of Seven Mile Beach, Jan and Ken Dart’s garden is a relaxing haven. The chaos of bumper-to-bumper traffic and the shouts of children splashing in the ocean fail to penetrate this lush, tropical terrain; the only sounds are the flow of a nearby waterfall and the rustle of the morning breeze through the towering palms. For most, this beachfront hideaway would be heaven. For the Darts, it is home.
“The owners wanted the garden to be a sanctuary,” explains Elke O’Donnell, manager of Dart’s Arboretum Services Limited, as she meanders through the rainforest-like interior.
“They wanted privacy, they wanted this to be a place where they would come and relax.”
Working with landscape designer Sandy Urquhart, the couple began to detail their vision for the garden, which sprawls across more than 2.8 acres, in 2003. They had bought the home, at the site of the West Indian Club, in the early 1990s and were now looking to transform their backyard into a private retreat.
The Darts’ only stipulations were that the historic palms that lined the drive, known as The Avenue, be maintained; that the garden “vibrate with colour”; and that Ken’s collection of unusual trees be incorporated into the design. The rest was the brainchild of Sandy’s fertile imagination.
“Sandy worked with the Darts to create their dream garden,” Elke says.
“He identified what they wanted and then created it for them. The idea was to recreate the feeling of walking through a forest in Cayman. He wanted it to feel like how Cayman would have felt before all the development, when it was wild and unexplored.
“Construction began in 2006 and took place in three stages. It was meant to start earlier, but [Hurricane] Ivan delayed the project for a while,” she continues.
“We started at the house and worked our way back. It was an organic process; we didn’t want it to look so planned, like square cut hedges. We wanted it to look like it had grown over time.”
Sandy’s design concept was influenced, for the most part, by the stunning landscape of Cayman. The garden, which features elements of both soft and hard landscaping, is home to a plethora of native plants, some of which were rescued from areas earmarked for development.
The British-born designer also relied heavily on Cayman’s industries; he used rocks from on-island quarries to create the garden’s extensive stonework and incorporated works from local artist Karoly Szücs, owner of Artisan Metal Works. The idea was to work with the natural landscape, while minimising the impact on the environment.
Cayman and beyond
“The garden was inspired mainly by Cayman, and the Caribbean, although we have incorporated a lot of other feels,” Elke says.
“Native plants are Sandy’s passion so we’ve used a lot of them. People don’t realise how many interesting plants we have here in Cayman; they’re much more resilient to the climate.
“We’ve salvaged a lot of native trees from areas under development. In fact, our birch tree forest is made up of trees salvaged from Beach Bay during the last 10 years.”
Using this rich Caribbean feel as his foundation, Sandy looked to the four corners of the world to add a subtle depth to his overall design. Unique pockets of the garden reflect this fusion of influences. A dense bamboo forest conjures images of Asian jungles; a leafy archway, covered in bougainvillea and adorned with a hand-carved wooden swing is reminiscent of the English countryside; a Japanese-style stone bridge has its roots in the traditional walkways of Kyoto. The effect is understated, yet visually stunning; it is a Caribbean paradise, with hints of the exotic.
Elke estimates there are more than 720 species within the garden, from bonsai to bromeliads, coconut palms to caladiums, most of which were sourced from private collectors in the United States and Cayman. It is a horticulturalist’s dream; fuchsia bougainvillea and golden orchids sparkle against the shifting palette of moss, emerald, lime and olive.
“We shipped out trees from all over the world during a period of about two years,” Elke explains. “There are lots of exotic trees, lots of different feels to the garden. The owner [Ken Dart] loves really unique and unusual trees so we’ve incorporated a lot of those.”
The diverse collection of shrubs, flowers, trees, groundcovers and flowering plants not only serves as a backdrop for the Darts’ home, but also attracts a wealth of fauna, from the brilliant butterflies, in shades of lilac, sapphire and cream, that flutter lazily through the maze of green, to the docile ducks that have made the pond their home.
Maintaining an ecological balance is essential to the garden’s health and look, Elke reveals, and the garden’s inhabitants receive as much care from ground staff as the vegetation.
“We like to encourage animals into the garden. It attracts lots of butterflies and bees and different birds. We also have ducks that live in the pond. They just appeared one day,” Elke says.
“A lot of gardens tend to be fertilised and sprayed in one big swoop but we like to focus on one area at a time, when it’s needed, because we really don’t want to interfere with nature too much. We want to maintain that natural balance.”
This devotion to balance is further evident in Elke’s attitude toward hurricanes, and the potential threat they pose to the garden’s welfare.
“We have a lot of salt-resistant plants at the front of the house and they’re able to withstand the salt water in the event of a storm surge,” she says. “They’re very resilient plants and it’s been very successful so far. People tend to think that if a plant looks sick, they should just pull it out. But plants are far more resilient than that. Usually with a bit of time and some TLC they can bounce back.”
Behind the scenes
The garden is tended by a crew of five workers and one supervisor; the team spends a day working on one side of the garden, before moving to the other side the next day. Their job is to ensure the garden remains in pristine condition while also constantly upgrading elements of the design. It is a well-oiled machine, according to Elke, who likens the running of the garden to a five-star hotel.
“It’s not the best metaphor, but we always say the idea behind the garden is similar to a five-star hotel. We want you to see the garden, but not see all the behind the scenes work,” she says, gesturing to the extravagant waterfall tumbling gently into a secluded pond.
“We want it to be as if nature just created it. Like with the waterfall, we want you to hear the water before you see it, as if you had just stumbled upon the place.”
So, after more than three years of construction, is the garden now complete?
Not quite, according to Elke.
“We don’t want it to be a garden that you build and then it’s done. We’re constantly upgrading it and updating so it’s never just the same garden.”
“For example, the owner [Jan Dart] loves flowering plants,” Elke gestures to a bed of scarlet blossoms. “So we have a section that we are constantly replanting with flowers she might like. We want there to always be something different, always something new to enjoy.”