“People Want Versailles on a Postage Stamp”
How landscape artist W. Christian Busk meets his creative challenges in Southwest Florida
The grassy driveway is one of Busk's signature looks.
Have you ever really stopped to look at a well-designed yard? Do you see the layers of plants, the textures, the way things move in the wind? Do you notice the canopy of branches or the way that everything is scaled so that the trees don’t stick out, gangly, like awkward teenagers? Are your eyes drawn to certain things? Are they diverted from others? At night, do the lights illuminate the trees and play off the pools? Does the entryway invite you in?
These are the things that celebrated Naples landscape architect W. Christian Busk considers when he transforms yards from bland, builders-grade plantings into places of wonderment. It’s no easy task in Southwest Florida, where towering homes often stretch to the lines of undersized lots. “People want Versailles on a postage stamp,” Busk is fond of saying. Still, he manages to craft landscapes that look as if they come straight out of paintings: regal fountains, golf course-perfect lawns, ambling walkways, conversation-provoking furniture arrangements.
Busk, owner of the Naples-based W. Christian Busk Landscape Architect Inc., started designing 30 years ago. Here, we learn a little bit about what makes his mind work and discover that there’s a lot more that goes into his craft than a homeowner might ever expect.
Busk initially pursued a career in golf course management. As a teenager in the Palm Beach area, he’d gotten part-time work at Lost Tree Village, an up-and-coming golf course community, and then helped build the course at the Eastpointe Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens. He enrolled in the University of Florida’s School of Agriculture, where he studied for two years until an unexpected summer trip forced a reconsidering of his future.
I had an opportunity to go on a summer trip with all these architecture and interior design and contracting students. We went all over the place—Georgia, New Orleans, Houston, Boston, New York. I got so excited about architecture and interior design that I went to my parents and said, “I want to change majors.” Of course, here I am going into my third year of college, but I went ahead and changed colleges right away. I guess I was just yearning for something that wasn’t in the (golf management) program. It was exciting to talk about architecture and building and doing beautiful things. It just turned on this engine inside me.
My dad said, “You can’t become a professional student. You have to tell me when you are going to graduate, and you have to finish both degrees.” It was a smart thing to do.
I thought I was going to design buildings, but it was just too much “in the box” for me. I loved creating the landscape outside, the magic of it. But I appreciate architecture, and I do a lot of it in my business.
The challenge of the Florida plat
These houses are built as tall as they can be right up to the lot line. There you go—now make it wonderful. You have to make them as beautiful as they can be and work within our restrictions. You are creating these privacy walls, privacy gardens, water gardens. We are pulling every rabbit out of the hat. You know the architects get their way with the houses and all that. We get the leftovers, and we have to take the leftover pieces and make that sing. It’s just like an orchestra doing a musical score. It’s the musical score of the property.
Existing homes provide an additional set of challenges.
So many people buy a model, and in model landscapes, everyone crams everything right up front so it looks more finished, but those things aren’t going to last over time. You have to tear out all that stuff and use the things that are good and the backgrounds and then just layer everything else in. So it’s a process of weeding out the bad stuff. I try to re-use everything that is salvageable.
Most of the work is creating memory points. We are creating a focal point or vista. We sometimes do that by adding a number of trees that are the same type and maybe then showing up with a texture change … and then we add color for emphasis.
It’s like creating an illusion. It’s like creating those old panels that were the 18th or 19th century art forms that (the French) would paint.
I draw everything. Some projects get over 1,000 pages of scratch paper, layer after layer, making the most of these sites. Where do we get height? Where do we create the layers underneath?
Much of our focus is on where the views are from the inside of the house. These homes will have a kitchen garden. You look out the kitchen window, and there’s nothing there, so you are creating a vista garden there. Then there’s the master bath, and, more times than not, we are creating a privacy garden off the master bath.
I love creating hardscapes (inanimate elements of landscaping such as brickwork) that allow people to move through their gardens. That’s the most fun for me—getting the grading right, getting these access points so that people can use their gardens. I don’t want people to just look at it; I want them to move through it. That’s the whole point. You can smell the fragrance … the gardenias, we have these trees that smell like Chanel No. 5 … all these things you start experiencing as you walk through it.
The science of landscape
My major helped me out more than I ever realized. You have to know how everything grows and how everything is put together. We are in hydroponics here. There is no nutritional value unless (the land) has been under an oak canopy for years. We have nothing here. We are creating everything from scratch. Everything has to have fertilizer. We are constantly feeding—it’s like feeding a baby. You have to have proper drainage. Everything is like a bathtub; it will fill up with water. Even if you don’t see (the water) on top, it’s under the soil, and that’s where the roots are.
Gardens have five- and 10-year cycles. They are a process over time. As the canopies grow, they create shade down below. We can add things that would not tolerate the sun conditions that will be happy now.
Then we have to stay in scale. Palms are like foliage on a stick … they keep growing. That’s why you want everything to grow up with it—how do you get things to grow symbiotically? Again, it’s an orchestra, and it’s about pruning and maintaining a garden as it’s growing.
The non-planting part of landscaping
We’ll do the layout of the furniture in the outside room. You have to know how much space they want and what kind of outdoor entertaining they plan to do. Then we create the lighting. We are up-lighting the architecture first and creating a feeling with that. Then we are up-lighting and down-lighting and mood lighting and lighting pathways for safety. We have to get all these mechanical things in there before we can seal everything up.
A lot of times (on renovations), we are brought in after there aren’t any architects or builders on site. If the architects are available and interested, they will become part of the team. Otherwise, we’re doing things like knocking out a window and putting in French doors so the light will circulate. Everything is about circulation and movement and light. You are going from sun to the shaded lanai or trellis area and then the darkness of the interior. So much of it is how you move through space. And then, how do you feel when you are out there? Where are the prevailing breezes? In the summertime it gets so hot, but when we can capture the breezes it just cools things off.
About 15 years ago, Busk pioneered “green driveways,” driveways made of pavers that are laid out in such a way that grass grows between them in well-defined patterns. The result: The bland driveways that dominate front yards look instead like well-sculpted gardens.
Over half of somebody’s site is the driveway. They are just nasty, discolored, fading, mildew-covered blocks of concrete material all over the place. And it doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t enhance the architecture and it doesn’t create a framework, a foundation for what you are looking at. So many people have views out of the front, and it’s great to have green.
Bringing joy to homeowners
Busk works to understand owners’ tastes and intentions for their yards. He remembers in particular trying to discover a client’s style when he happened to see movers bringing ornate furniture to the house.
It was over-the-top Renaissance. So I created a garden that was really, really tight. Allées (walkways) of palms and urns. Everything was styled. Everything had a center point. We created backgrounds. If you looked at every little piece, it had a reason to be in the garden. You just start working with people, and it’s a discovery over time.
People can get a bigger joy out of their landscape than they ever thought (possible) because it’s styled and organized to make the most of their landscape. They never thought the outdoors could have such a three-dimensional excitement for them.
On historic preservation
Busk has had a fascination with old buildings since childhood. About 20 years ago, he started saving old homes from demolition. He moves them to a piece of property in old Bonita, where he’s created a virtual village of rescued and restored homes. They include the Williams-Packard house, built in 1915; a caretaker’s cottage from Koreshan State Park; and the home of Naples developer and former Louisville Courier-Journal publisher Walter Haldeman, in which Busk now lives.
I love taking something that a lot of people wouldn’t mess with and making it something. These structures, they were built to last the test of time. … You want it to last another 100 years. The challenge is you want to make it practical for today’s living without losing the spirit of the home. I just think it’s fun.
I like figuring out the little intricacies of things—figuring out, “How am I going to get a bathroom in here? How do we make this work?” It’s working from concept all the way through to completion. That’s what I do every day. That’s what I do for people.