Walking through the gates of Casa Luna feels like stepping into an old-world European village.
Meandering cobblestone pathways and wooden bridges juxtapose against babbling brooks and eclectic, lush landscaping that includes century-old trees, fragrant flowers, climbing vines and secret gardens.
The four-acre residential development on South Church Street features Tuscan-inspired villas that fuse with a Caribbean ambience.
All the foliage – about 50 plant species in total – is cultivated on-island at Growing Beauty Wholesale Nursery.
Splashes of exotic color and tropical scents blend effortlessly with the four ponds and three streams, creating a richly layered atmosphere.
Veteran landscape designer and horticulturist Sandy Urquhart is the mastermind behind Casa Luna’s verdant outdoor space.
He supervised all of the land planning, including the orientation of the villas, and spent the better part of a year plotting it all out.
This involved many auto-cad drawings as well as a trip to Tuscany for inspiration.
He also had to familiarize himself with the elements such as the prevailing winds, sun shading, land elevation and coastal location.
Sandy worked alongside Hugh Hart of Javelin Holdings, the developer of the project, and architect Eduardo Bernal in order to interpret Hugh’s holistic vision and approach, while F & M Landscape Construction worked onsite to bring the design to life.
“The inspiration came from many discussions with Mr. Hart on the theme and style,” says Sandy.
“He wished to create a Spanish or Italian colonial style with the overall feel of a Tuscan-style village; hence, our determination to have the 18 villas on differing elevations.
“The topography created an opportunity to landscape the differing heights, creating the illusion of a hillside village. The gardens are unique for the topographical changes; for example the highest deck is 17 feet above sea level and the lowest is 12 feet above sea level.”
Each villa has its own style of garden and six have gardens on the second floor.
At the heart of the development lies a central garden and a sloping valley with natural woodland that includes tall trees, wildflowers and shrubs.
Sandy and his team saved a century-old naseberry tree and tamarind tree, which already existed on the property in another spot, by using a technique to place them carefully and safely in the garden; the same was done for a silver thatch palm that he estimates to be 300 years old.
“These three trees were root-pruned six to eight months before they were lifted into their locations in the gardens and this exercise was carried out individually by a crane,” he explains.
The central garden overlooks a winding stream that leads to a residents’ lounge and gym nestled underneath a pool and deck that overlooks the sea and a private sandy cove.
The village is subdivided into hamlets (an English term for a small group of homes), which are comprised of four or five villas. Within the hamlets are courtyards made of natural stone.
Spanish tiles and 17th century bricks – the latter taken from an abandoned prison building in Jamaica – are found in the courtyard, while stone columns came from a Cayman quarry.
Fragrant flowers and plants surround the courtyards and villas, like wild jasmine (Plumeria obtusa), pride of Barbados (also known as peacock flower or by its Latin name, Caesalpinia pulcherrima), and ylang-ylang trees (Cananga odorata).
Sandy handpicked the boulders that envelop the water features dotted amongst the hamlets, including those that surround a 30-foot waterfall that flows into a pond.
Aquatic and semi-aquatic plants have taken root, such as a rare lipstick palm (Cyrtostachys renda), which has deep red-colored stems and can grow up to 30 feet in length. Fish will eventually be added to the ponds.
All around the development, the plants are delightfully casual and colorful, with many offering plenty of shade and screening from the sun and wind, such as endemic broadleaves called geiger trees (Cordia sebestena var. caymanensis).
These medium-sized trees bloom reddish-orange flowers throughout most of the year.
There are also plenty of mangrove shrubs (Concocarpus erectus), which make great hedges for privacy.
Both species of plants have an extremely high tolerance to salt water, making them hardy seaside trees.
There is also wild cinnamon (Croton nitens), which grows up to 20 feet high, and cabbage trees (Guapira discolor), that are reminiscent of billowing willow trees found find in temperate climates.
“They have a graceful quality as they cascade over the various ponds and streams,” says Sandy.
Exotic plants surrounding the perimeters of the villas include old man palm trees (Coccothrinax proctorri), which are from the same genus as Cayman’s unique silver thatch palms, also on the property.
“The old man palm is considered a collector’s palm and is loved by children as it resembles a cuddly teddy bear and is very tactile,” Sandy adds.
Some of the plants along the beach include seashore dropseed trees (Spartina patens), seagrape trees (Coccoloba uvifera), silver sea-oxeye daisy flowers (Borrichia arborescens), sea lavender (Argusia gnaphalodes), spider lilies (Lantana camara), beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae), seaside sapphire (Sesuvium portulacastrum) and blue passion flower (Passiflora caerulea).
The overall landscape design did not come without challenges for Sandy and his team.
He had to make certain that the plants would create privacy for villa residents without obscuring views of the sea or block out the sunlight from the villa interiors.
The three wooden bridges scattered around the development, which are made of a South American hardwood from the jatoba tree needed to be sized and scaled correctly in order to meet building codes and be well-lit at night.
Sandy also had to work on the plant list years before the actual landscaping began which was an exercise in patience and confidence to choose the correct plants.
Finally, during the implantation phase, he and his team had to shape all of the ponds, streams and the waterfalls in order to give the correct pitch to the sound of water.
The irrigation system is also well thought out and eco-friendly. All of the villa rooftops and the surrounding decks run their rainwater into two huge underground cisterns that supply the ponds and irrigation system.
Sandy has gone quite the distance to produce native indigenous and endemic plant material in all areas of the gardens to attract wildlife.
“Many of our plants are food for butterflies and moths as well as birds and bats; this attraction has already started with the arrival of our first parrots,” he says.
Just like a fine Italian wine, Casa Luna’s landscape should age beautifully, producing a bouquet of foliage with fresh aromas, earthy notess and a complexity in depth and character.