Recently back from a trip to the Caribbean, Jeannie Schwartz and John Macci still had the exotic scent of orchids and plumeria lingering in their imaginations when they stepped out their back door to take in the familiar sight of their own backyard. An immaculate, newly finished stone and concrete patio and in-ground pool greeted them. But the project they had worked so hard on now seemed drab compared to the sights they had just enjoyed. Schwartz and Macci knew something more was needed to make their backyard equal to the lush tropical locales from their travels.
"We wanted it to feel like our home away from home," says Schwartz, a school director with the Baltimore School of Massage.
Yet how to achieve the Caribbean feel they sought was beyond the couple's expertise. While attending the Maryland Home & Garden Show, Schwartz and Macci found just the person for the job.
Justin Milio, owner of Nature's Artisans, knew intuitively how to interpret the couple's desires when they asked him to design a garden to complement their backyard hardscape.
"Most people already know a lot more about gardening than they think they do," says Milio, whose firm earned awards in 2013 and 2014 at the Maryland Home & Garden Show, from the likes of Chesapeake Home + Living, the Maryland Horticultural Society and fellow landscape designers. "They just need someone to pull out of them what they want and translate that into something real."
Located in Kingsville, Schwartz and Macci's home sits on a quiet plot down a winding lane, where riders on horseback set the easy pace of traffic and living. The backdrop of the home was essential to Milio's design considerations when he first came to survey the land.
"We're in this very rural, wooded setting. I have to think about what fits this space," he says. "I would never put in an ornate French garden here — it would just be out of place.
"Instead I have to design a more natural garden that works with the surroundings."
Schwartz explained that the family wanted plants that would fill in the space around the pool while also concealing a neighboring driveway. Macci, who works for BGE, sought a space where he could pay tribute to his mother by planting roses, her favorite flower. But the couple also requested that the garden be low maintenance. While a garden full of annuals might have provided the vibrant color they were looking for, with busy schedules and a young daughter to care for, Schwartz and Macci didn't have time to do the yearly replanting that approach would have required.
So many provisos might have seemed a tall order to some, but Milio and his crew accepted the challenge.
"He just had a vision," Schwartz says. "He drew a plan that included every little line, every little flower."
Milio said the process of designing the couple's garden started as it does every time -- "with a conversation." Instead of dictating a design, Milio says, he tries first to understand what a client wants and then considers the options.
After starting with a concept in mind and browsing pictures as examples, he conceives of a design borne from the style of the surrounding architecture and the function the plants are expected to fulfill, Milio says.
Next, Milio considers aesthetics, giving clients a color palette and various textures from which to choose. Usually, Milio says, there isn't just one right plant for a space, nor is there an endless list of choices. Instead, clients might be able to decide among three or four options that will contribute form and function to their garden.
When landscaping Schwartz and Macci's backyard, Milio was faced with the challenge of finding plants that would be in peak bloom during the summer, when the pool would be in use, but that could also provide visual interest year-round.
"What's carrying this garden through the summer is the texture of the foliage," Milio says, pointing out the variegated grasses that border the walkways and the nearby juniper bush, with its long, feathery ends of new growth.
"We prune the juniper by hand to keep it natural," he says.
Indeed, nothing about the garden feels contrived. By blending non-native plants such as palms, banana trees and butterfly bushes with native species, Milio has created a space that squares perfectly with its surroundings but that also exudes enough of the exotic to let Schwartz and Macci feel as though they are on holiday every time they step outside their back door.
"If you sit in one of the lounge chairs facing a certain direction, you can't even tell you're at home," Schwartz says.
After a few laps in the pool, one might feel just as inclined to take a lap around it to more closely examine Milio's handiwork.
Low-lying clusters of red and yellow lantana dot the sides of the entryway. Close behind them, Macci's beloved rosebushes are interspersed among daylilies, which lend the garden much of its tropical feel. Lounge chairs bask in the sun, which is splintered only by the shadows of arching thin-bladed, light-green grasses. These give way to the taller broad-leafed burgundies of a smoke bush, one of the "anchors" of the garden, according to Milio.
On the far side of the pool, a statue of a large Maryland blue crab hugs a mound of grass, looking as though it has just climbed safely ashore. Scaling a trellis next to it is a vine of light-purple bougainvillea, a cushion of deeper purple- and red-striped oriental grasses waiting below, ready to catch any petals that might fall.
Around the stone diving board at the deep end of the pool, the bright red foliage of a bird of paradise calls out. The gurgle of the pool pump is heard somewhere, but it is not immediately apparent where, owing to Milio's efforts to camouflage it behind coneflowers, Asiatic lilies and butterfly bushes.
Schwartz and Macci's garden, with its native and non-native influences and Caribbean accent, is "so natural," Schwartz says. "It's been wonderful to watch it fill in and change."