by Rebecca Kleinman | Miami magazine | February 22, 2012
Landscape designer Fernando Wong started his career from the ground up—literally. Arriving in Miami without speaking a lick of English, the Panama native with a background in architecture and interior design took a grounds crew job on a whim. His boss, Robert Parsley of Geomantic Designs, discovered his talent for sketching and promoted him to renderings. A quick study, Wong rapidly discovered he had a passion for flora and a solid green thumb. Others soon did, too. “It’s really a story of the American dream,” says Wong at his South Beach studio. “I never would have known I had a knack for gardens if these circumstances hadn’t perfectly presented themselves the way they did.” With a stellar portfolio of projects that span South Florida, a new Palm Beach office and a media expansion in the works, Wong is certainly digging right in.
What’s your main territory? Besides Miami, I’ve done work in the Keys and on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In January our Palm Beach satellite office on Via Mizner opened due to demand on the island. Our next market is the Hamptons.
Palm Beach is known for very traditional landscaping, high ficus hedges and that sort of thing. Do you plan to shake things up a little bit up there? Regardless of aesthetics, it’s a bad time for ficus because it’s susceptible to white fly. We’re creating privacy borders with fishtail and Everglades palms instead. Clients are also more open to rugged, native landscapes versus manicured gardens inspired by Italy and France. For example, we’re working on a young couple’s LEED-certified residence with not only drought-resistant plants, but also an elevated driveway and decking in an organic composite by Resysta that’s better for water drainage and the environment. It’s going to be the first of its kind in town, and hopefully will be a game-changer.
What’s been one of your more challenging projects? This one four-story, 17,000-square-foot home we did in Naples. With so little yard, we had to break up its sheer expanse by installing 22-foot cypresses, which are difficult to get in that size and must be quarantined since they’re imported. Topiary balls in a variety of greens also softened up the home’s modern architecture. Sometimes having less space actually makes the job harder.
What are the most common landscaping mistakes? Planting things that won’t thrive in one’s growing zone, not investing in mature trees, and not planning for down the road and considering how tree roots will grow and possibly destroy hardscapes from pool terraces to driveways.
What’s your clients’ most common request? Get it done by the holidays!
Have you done many commercial properties? Yes. We did the Capri in South Beach, Bristol Tower on Brickell and many donated children’s gardens for Slow Food Miami. A client just commissioned a classic rose garden for the Carrollton School, which his daughters attend. It’s my Lady Bird Johnson moment!
What should every novice gardener know? Don’t incorporate too many colors. I usually stick to two, and one of them is always green! Think of gardens as outdoor rooms. Like, would you put red and yellow together in a home interior? Not unless you’re McDonald’s!
What’s a common misconception about your field? That we just plant plants. Landscape design is so much more, including hardscapes, like pools and courtyards. These can be especially challenging when you’re trying to break up massive, nonfloral areas. We achieve warmth through patterns of mixed materials.
How have you seen landscape design evolve since you first started? I think at first landscape design was an afterthought; it was all about the house. Now clients are designing their homes around the outdoors and having me come in from the very beginning. They’re keener on indoor/outdoor living and how landscape
What other projects do you have in the works? HGTV recently approached me for a program on upscale landscape design after they saw my segment about balcony gardens on their sister DIY Network. I’m excited they’re finally stepping it up. I’m also collaborating with Sarah Harrelson, who was the first editor to publish my designs when she helmed the Miami Herald’s Home & Design magazine, on a coffee-table book.
What’s been a career highlight so far? I’ve been working on this fantastic commission with the firm TEN Arquitectos. It’s a floating glass box design and here are all these world-class architects asking my opinion. It’s a dream getting to that point.
What does that project entail? It’s a building in Bay Harbor Islands that incorporates naturalistic landscapes, but this takes it to the next level since the home, pool and yard are perfectly seamless. There also will be an elevated stainless steel driveway with a bridge to the garage.
What’s your one tried-and-true piece of landscaping advice? Use native plants for the bulk of the job and then accessorize with exotics. When spending upwards of half a million dollars, it’s best to make sure those plants survive. I strive to create gardens that look just as good five years from the day they were installed.
What’s something you constantly have to remind yourself when designing? The struggle is to tame the fantasy and be responsible so beauty meets efficiency in the end. I always ask myself, “Who will maintain these grounds?” Luckily most people don’t have the patience for over-the-top yards