Mariah Bakke, the 30-year-old behind Fort Myers’ Viva Landscapes, is obsessed with tropical plants. Her backyard is a botanical garden of potted alocasias, swaying philodendrons and massive pothos that scale the length of a more than 50-year-old Cuban laurel she and her fiance converted into an adult-sized treehouse with a private deck.
With a growing reputation as a talented landscape architect, Bakke is responsible for verdant backyards across the region that balance a mix of photogenic tropical blooms with water-saving native plants. Her green thumb is also reflected in biophilic commercial spaces, like Narrative Coffee Roasters’ two Naples locations, where she blends low-maintenance succulents with faux greenery to create an urban indoor-outdoor vibe. “Landscape architecture is everything: It’s the benches, the planters, the site elements—it can make or break a space,” Bakke says. “It also goes into your physical health, the air you breathe and how you enjoy a space.”
Her knack for creating environments that are visually and functionally impactful—a poolscape layered with lime trees for a client who loves to make gin and tonics, or a fortress of mixed palms that serves as a natural fence around a waterfront estate—recently earned her the 2021 Outstanding Young Professional Award from her alma mater, Iowa State University College of Design. In school, she was inspired by Brazilian landscape architect and artist Roberto Burle Marx, whose art-filled urban landscapes and public parks shaped the tropical modernism movement. “There’s such a broad realm of landscape architecture,” she says. “I love to see how it all comes together and how people experience the living environment.”
After graduating in 2015, Bakke took a job with R.S. Walsh Landscaping in Fort Myers, where she bonded with the firm’s owners, Lisa and Bob Walsh. She took on clients and trailed Bob as they designed, installed and managed greenscapes. Aside from serving as a strong influence, Bob taught her to stand firm and not be taken advantage of—a common issue women face in male-dominated fields. “It is kind of intimidating because you have to work with general contractors, and it is a male-dominated field,” she says. “Bob helped me with knowing you’re worthy to be in that field, you know what you’re talking about and to not let anybody minimize that.” Though she left R.S. Walsh in 2020 to launch Viva Landscapes, Bakke still works with the firm.
As Viva Landscapes grows, Bakke has been exploring other areas of the business. She created Viva La Casa to turn dated Fort Myers homes into Instagramable Airbnbs that show how her eye for tropical modern design fits perfectly in Southwest Florida. She’s also been traveling to eco-friendly resorts in Costa Rica to study sustainability, and she has sat on boards for the City of Fort Myers to push for more greenery throughout downtown and lobby for more public green spaces. “That’s why people visit down here,” she says. “They see [the lushness] and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this place is amazing. I want to vacation down here. I want to be here.’”.