East meets west

 Japanese and Caribbean horticultural and design influences have blended seamlessly to create a peaceful and intimate garden in Cayman.

Working alongside designer Tom Balon from Vigoro Nursery, homeowner Naoko Shaw has enjoyed creating a beautiful garden that incorporates a distinctly Caribbean feel while imbuing the space with elements of Japanese serenity throughout.

“My friends will tell you I was never much of a gardener,” reveals Naoko, who is originally very much a city-dweller having lived in her native Tokyo, as well as New York and London. Now, however, the garden in Cayman has become something of a passion for her, inspired by the speed at which she is able to create such a beautiful space.

“I love the fact that everything grows so quickly here, unlike gardens in more temperate climates,” she explains.

Naoko and her husband Cliff purchased their Cayman property in 2004 and she says she fell in love with the Cayman-style garden that originally surrounded the beach-front home.

“It was really charming and quite unstructured, with sand that gently sloped to the ocean, and coconut trees throughout,” she says. Sadly, Hurricane Ivan swept ashore just a few months later and the entire garden was destroyed. The couple realized that a sea wall was necessary to protect their property from further storms and, once installed, they were able to call upon the services of Tom to assist with creating the garden of their dreams.


Naoko had a blank canvas from which to work and gave Tom basic suggestions as to how she saw the garden evolving.

“I wanted lots of texture and greenery but minimal color,” she says. “I was looking for a structured ‘jungle’ with a tropical feel.”

Once plans were drawn up, Tom set about translating the ideas from paper to reality.

“Naoko wanted to see the ocean through the foliage of her garden, so we set about planting trees, such as silver buttonwood, that would give height but also allow for light and space,” he explains.

“Then we looked for plants such as bromeliads and agave which would add interesting textural elements and integrated hard-leaved plants with soft grasses for interesting architectural features.”

Tom says that the key to the success of this garden has been to get the design right from the start. The garden is very low maintenance and only requires a short service once every two weeks, with a more intense service perhaps once a year. 


Plants used in the garden are generally resilient and resistant to salt water, given their proximity to the ocean, and normally happy to grow with the minimum amount of care.

“You can always keep a garden looking beautiful if you are willing to put in thousands of dollars every year; we wanted a garden that would pretty much take care of itself,” Tom explains.

The back garden opens up onto a large and airy pool with a stone and wooden sun deck, situated against a backdrop of lush foliage. There is a definite feeling of privacy but, at the same time openness, to this unique and peaceful garden.

Following along the length of the property, you pass coconut trees embedded in their own little sand garden, a nod to the garden’s distinctly Caymanian-style past, and lush trees and shrubbery that frame the gorgeous vista of the ocean.

Continuing through the garden, you are guided to a cozy wooden cabana that houses luxurious deck furniture in which to lounge and reflect on the beauty of the location. Next to the cabana runs a walkway with a wooden pagoda built across the top in the same dark wood as the cabana itself. Your eye is immediately drawn along the length of the pagoda, which is heaving with flowering bougainvillea of every hue, and which connects the main house to a guest house next door.


“We recently had a wedding held here for a friend and you could glimpse the bougainvillea in full bloom throughout the pagoda – it was a truly beautiful sight,” Naoko says.

 One of Naoko’s favorite aspects of the garden is a delightful Japanese-inspired pond that contains coy carp, along with a gently tumbling waterfall and papyrus accenting the design.

“It’s located just outside our bedroom, so I can come out here in the morning and enjoy the peace as I drink my coffee,” she says.

Walking around the garden, Naoko indicates various plants and trees that she has planted, generally from a small plant in a tub purchased at one of the garden stores in Cayman. These have now grown into good-sized trees or shrubs including a well-appointed ornamental pink ginger plant with aromatic leaves, a lofty breadfruit tree with deep green foliage, and majestic silver palms (Bizmarkia nobilis) with oversized leaves that add a dramatic design element.


Around the front of the house are even more exciting features, such as a collection of orchids entwined into a piece of wood that Tom cemented into the ground. Its location is well-shaded, so Naoko is not sure when the orchids will flower, but when they do, it is certain to be a beautiful sight. Brassavolas, Vandas, Phaleonopsis and Dendrobiums are all intertwined in this stunning feature.

As we head to the front entrance of the house we pass another water feature, this time a small collection of rocks with ferns sprouting from the surface that you would think is part of the fabric of the ground rather than a manmade piece.

“I wanted it to look as natural as possible,” Naoko explains. “I wanted to hear water when I first walked up the garden path.”

A hidden ocean-front oasis, this stunning garden continues to grow and develop.

“My first mandate to Tom was that I wanted a garden with little or no color. My garden is now filled with color and I love it. It’s so exciting to see the garden continue to evolve,” she says.




Stephen Clarke