November 23, 2014

Conversation

If you live in Naples, you've seen David Driapsa's work-though you may not know it. And landscape architect Driapsa would like to keep it that way. The Ohio native is a passionate adherent of the "natural style," preserving the character of the native ecosystem whenever possible. Driapsa initially came to Southwest Florida in 1986 to work for Pelican Bay's planning team in Naples, where he was instrumental in creating award-winning landscape work that remains Collier County's best point of reference for developers looking to preserve native vegetation in planned communities. The University of Arizona alum has always been more of a desert rat, but Southwest Florida's unique vegetation and rich botanic history eventually won him over. Co-chair of the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Landscapes Historic Preservation Professional Interest Group, Driapsa is currently working on a biography of pioneer gardener Henry Nehrling, whose work forms the exotic backdrop for Caribbean Gardens in Naples.

Q: What are your favorite manmade landscapes in Southwest Florida?

A: The Edison Winter Estate-it's uncommon to see such an old garden in Southwest Florida. Edison cleared the property of native vegetation and started from scratch. Nehrling's Tropical Gardens and Arboretum is another favorite. In contrast to Edison, Nehrling used artistic judgment to retain and edit the native cypress dome and pine forest. Then he ornamented the woodland with an understory of colorful exotic vegetation.

Q: Any favorites among your own projects?

A: Bay Colony in Pelican Bay is a fabulous piece of real estate. The Ritz-Carlton had already been built in the northwest corner of the community, and it was decided early on that the architectural theme would be fashioned after the hotel. The gatehouse and the bridge in Bay Colony Shores were built as Mediterranean-themed monuments and revived Mediterranean [style] in Naples. The natural setting is unsurpassed in Southwest Florida. The planting is lush, and nature is present everywhere. My cultural landscape report for the Edison estate is another favorite. Edison was a meticulous record keeper, and his archives enabled me to create period drawings illustrating how the estate looked in the years 1887, 1904, 1910, 1924, 1930, 1948 and 2001.

Q: Any others?

A: The planting design of the four miles of Pine Ridge Road between Airport-Pulling Road and the Vineyards was challenging and rewarding. It was an ugly, chaotic roadway before my design was installed. The new trees create a sense of repose and beauty.

Q: What wilderness elements do you use in your landscapes?

A: The coastal beach strands, the inland xeric [moisture-deficient] scrub forests and the hardwood hammocks of the interior. Each of these natural habitats has interesting plant associations suggesting how a manmade landscape may be composed. Nehrling and Edison recognized this long ago. Nehrling worked on a research project for the Barron Collier Corporation in the 1920s to come up with a planting scheme for what is now Everglades City. The soil has a high salt concentration from the seawater, and Collier's people couldn't get anything to grow for landscaping. Nehrling investigated vegetation growing along the shoreline and on the coastal islands to formulate a list of suitable plants that would tolerate the salt. But Collier fired him because his investigations were taking too long. Nehrling commented that, had the company allowed him to continue and taken his advice, Everglades City would have been one of the most beautiful and unique cities in Florida.

Q: Why are ornamental plants so popular?

A: The commercial horticultural industry here has become terribly monotonous and faddish. The planting of commercial properties and most homes consists of a list of 20 common plants. That's peculiar when you consider the thousands of native and exotic ornamental plants that will grow here. After years of declining commercial sources, the public is asking for ornamental plants-and businesses like Home Depot are meeting that demand.

Q: What's the worst landscaping trend in Southwest Florida?

A: Eliminating the landscape architect from development planning. It's too common to bring the landscape architect in after the site has been designed to "shrub it up." In better projects, I've designed the roadways, building sites, parks and open space as a system, with a team of architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, biologists and horticulturists.

Q: How can landscaping enhance the cookie-cutter architecture so prevalent here?

A: Planting itself does not make the landscape. Naples is nice-looking, with landscaped street medians and imposing mansions, but the public landscape is disjointed. Compare Immokalee Road between U.S. 41 and I-75 with the Champs Elysées in Paris. Both roads were designed through human decision-making. But which one of these roadways do you prefer? There's no substitute for excellence in planning.

Q: What can modern-day landscapers learn from pioneers like Nehrling and Edison?

A: They loved the frontier wilderness, but they also understood the value in humanizing the landscape. Their gardens surrounded their cottages, which were as much a part of the landscape as their plants. The combination of neat cottages, picket-fence enclosures, simple entry gates and lush vegetation spilling over into the streets created a charming, if not rustic, subtropical urban landscape. That's the landscape picture they created in Southwest Florida.