Fernando Wong, the award-winning landscape designer behind the new tropical oasis at the Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club, looked at 175 pictures of banyan trees before he found the right one for the club’s courtyard.
The trunk of the sprawling 100-year-old tree had to be split into five sections so it could be trucked down from Hobe Sound. But no other tree would do.
“The structure of the branches fit the site,” he said simply.
Wong prides himself in not having a signature style, instead letting each individual site inspire him.
“Always, the landscaping is the frame for the architecture,” he said.
From Digging to Designing
Wong came to landscape design accidentally. Though he studied architecture and interior design in his native Panama, until his early 20s, he had never really considered landscaping.
“My dad encouraged me very forcefully to be an athlete,” he explained. “I was a swimmer and a pentathlete. From 19 to 24, I traveled a lot, all over the world, competing. But I knew I needed to become an adult and make a living.”
A friend in Florida offered to sponsor him if he wanted to immigrate. The job: working on a landscaping crew.
“He was digging ditches,” explained Wong’s partner in business and life, Tim Johnson. “He taught himself English by watching South Park.”
Johnson said the owner of the landscaping company saw Wong “doodling” and immediately took him off the crew and sent him to the office to start designing.
Seeds of Change
Similarly, Johnson never thought he’d be working in landscape design. The two met on Lincoln Road in 2002, when Johnson, a Wall Street veteran, was running his own public relations firm. Three years later, Wong opened his own design firm out of their spare bedroom, but it wasn’t until the Recession hit in 2008 that Johnson joined the firm.
Today, Fernando Wong Outdoor Living Design has offices in Miami Beach, Palm Beach and the Hamptons and does work around the world.
The landscaping project at the new Four Seasons in Surfside is the firm’s largest to date, and presented unique challenges. Wong had to frame two very distinct architectural styles, the graceful Mediterranean revival club built in 1930 and the gleaming glass towers of the new hotel and residences that wrap around it. Early designs had to be rearranged to allow unobstructed access for fire trucks.
When Wong first signed on to the project in 2012, the nine acres between the club and the Atlantic was an “arid desert, just sand,” he said.
The property now boasts 240 new palms and 250 shade trees. The firm spent nearly $1 million just transporting the banyan and 13 other specialty trees, including a nine-story kapok, a rare Moreton Bay fig and nine massive seagrapes, each 20-feet wide.
Some Trees Stay
The firm moves a lot of big trees, but they’re almost always saving trees that were slated for demolition, Johnson said. And sometimes, they’re presented with spaces that already have stately trees worth designing around.
That was the case with a Miami Beach home with a sprawling oak in the back yard, its gnarled branches contrasting with the clean lines of the contemporary home and Wong’s linear design. That design turned Florida’s most common tree into a striking specimen in the middle of the garden.
“One of the things I tend to do is design in three dimensions and sometimes that includes large specimen trees that are already there,” Wong said.
Wong likes working with intricate spaces. He was commissioned to design the landscaping for the 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, opening in December in the Design District. The project was complicated by the fact that the space has to accommodate events, and the landscaping can’t draw attention away from the art.
“We wanted it to be a backdrop,” he said. “My landscapes are very, very quiet.”
Tricks of the Trade
Landscaping trends and tips from Fernando Wong and Tim Johnson of Fernando Wong Outdoor Living Design.
1. Watch the water.
People today are more mindful of where irrigation water is coming from, and where rainwater will go. Some are opting to spend more for cisterns to collect rain for irrigation. They’re also opting for permeable driveways and paths. Wong uses a lot of stepping stones with grass in between them instead of concrete pathways.
“That way, not all of the runoff from the roof runs into the street and causes floods,” Wong explained.
2. Fake grass is cool.
New synthetic sods are vastly improved over the old, bright-green, plastic stuff. They don’t require the irrigation or chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can make real grass a bad choice environmentally. Newer products even incorporate a few brown blades, to keep it real.
“We were against it at first, but it’s really very nice,” Johnson said. “You really can’t tell the difference. And it drains better, because with the gravel bed underneath it, you’re essentially creating a French drain.”
3. Native is often nicer.
High-end property owners are increasingly asking for natives in their landscapes, for environmental reasons and because they can thrive in ways exotic ornamentals just never will.
“We recommend them for their reliability,” Johnson said. “And they’ll need far less irrigation.”
4. Accessorize the yard.
Many of Wong’s clients are now asking for their landscape designs to include more than just plants, chairs and a barbecue. They want pizza ovens and outdoor televisions, entire outdoor rooms devoted to living and entertaining.
“Our clients travel a lot,” Johnson said. “They want that resort experience in their backyards.”
WORDS BY SUSANNAH NESMITH / PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICK GARCIA / PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT: RICARDO MESTRE / HAIR AND GROOMING: ANDREA ECHAVARRIA