Designing Mind

By Ilene Denton April 1, 2010

Michael Gilkey is a second-generation Floridian who took over his father’s landscape architecture company in 2005. His work on a Cherokee Park residence in collaboration with Jonathan Parks Architect won an Award of Honor in 2009 from the Florida chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and a Design Excellence Award from Residential Design & Build magazine.

Was landscape architecture your destiny?

I was digging holes when I was 12 years old. Dad later brought me in as a draftsman, and when I saw “the magic behind the doors” that went into design, I fell in love with landscape architecture.

Where do you start?

An intensive assessment of the property: where do we need to buffer, where are the good views? I look at the soils, light, water, drainage patterns. Any design, no matter how wonderful it is, fails if we choose the wrong plants.

Are there trends in landscape design as there are in interior design?

Yes. Everything is going to sustainability; using plants that require less care makes your yard look better. Many more native plants are being cultivated. We’ve been going to natives—not Myakka State Park native—a dressed-up native. I love for my yards to be certified Florida-friendly and people not know it.

What kinds of plants accomplish that?


Butterfly gardens. They’re wonderful for color, for ecosystems, for the birds, the pollination of insects, and they provide color in all but wintertime. My favorites are milkweed and blue porterweeds, a few pentas, a couple of larger plants like plumbago and clerodendrum. I mix them together like an English garden, like a big bouquet. For Florida-friendly yards, you need to get past the mindset that your yard is going to be beautiful 365 days a year. The plants need to go dormant; they need to run their natural cycles. When my butterfly garden loses its leaves I’m happy, because I know in springtime they’re going to be flush.

Should we be cautious about using tropical plants after this winter’s big freeze?

People forget that we have this type of weather every 10 to 20 years. There’s a full [growing] zone difference between Siesta Key and Lakewood Ranch; on the southern end of Siesta you can almost get away with plants they use in Naples and the upper Keys. We’ve always used U.S. 41 as our line of demarcation; west of 41 we can plant coconut palms and be OK. Eastward, we use other, more cold-hardy plants that have a tropical feel: birds of paradise, cast-iron plants, varieties of aloes and even some varieties of bromeliads and ixoras.

Are you a home gardener? I love to piddle in the yard. It’s a Zen experience being one with the plants; it’s very therapeutic.—Ilene Denton  


What’s Next? PETAL Power

Each year, the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association showcases a handful of superior Florida-grown ornamentals as Florida Garden Select plants. Among the 2010 picks is this showy Giant Apostles’ Iris, Neomarica caerulea “Regina,” which grows four to five feet tall with spectacular purple-blue flowers flecked with white, mauve and yellow. Best of all, in view of this year’s wicked winter, it thrives in temperatures as low as 20 degrees. Check out all the 2010 Florida Garden Select plants at

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