The Giving Tree

Landscape architect Mariah Bakke takes biophilic living to the next level with a treehouse perfect for soaking in the Florida sun.

BY March 31, 2022
Mariah Bakke's backyard oasis
The landscape architect worked with her fiance and their dads to create an oasis in her backyard. “We use this space so much more now,” she says. (Photo by Omar Cruz)

Mariah Bakke, of Viva Landscapes, has a knack for creating verdant outdoor spaces that deliver on beauty and function. In her own Fort Myers home, she and her fiance, fishing guide and photographer John Landry, transformed the grounds from a grassy plot into a verdant botanical garden. With its tropical monsteras and alocasias that blend seamlessly with the native cabbage palms and pines throughout, the backyard showcases her knack for tropical modern design and honors the region’s subtropical climate with a healthy mix of native plants. “There’s something to be said about having your own private backyard oasis, where you can just relax and not worry about anybody around you,” she says. 

Though the yard was mostly barren when Landry purchased the lot about six years ago, the previous owners had built an 8-by-8-foot deck into a more than 50-year-old Cuban laurel that stands on the property. Though the previous owners hadn’t done much beyond installing the platform, Bakke was inspired to finish the job. Rather than creating a standard kids’ fort, the couple wanted to design an elegant lounge area that wouldn’t detract from the tree’s stately presence. The first order of business was to ensure the space would be easily accessible for grown-ups. For that, they added a sloping staircase, made of pressure-treated pine, and Bakke poised a pair of wooden Adirondack chairs (built by Landry) on the deck, leaving just enough room to walk around the perimeter or lean over the wooden railing to peek down at the foliage. A massive pothos (a common vining household plant) scales the trunk and wraps around the tree’s branches, which are also adorned with dangling pieces of driftwood. Down below, she filled the gaps between roots with an assortment of fanning alocasias, heart-shaped philodendrons and rainbow crotons—many of which Bakke planted after they outgrew their indoor pots. One day, she hopes to build onto the treehouse, enclosing the space to create a biophilic guest room or outdoor office. “We use this space so much more now,” Bakke says. “We’re always having people over.”

Extending throughout the backyard oasis, the landscape architect created walking paths, conversation areas and an alfresco dining area, with direct access to the main house through sliding glass doors. A wooden pergola, which her fiance and furniture maker dad built and installed, provides shade, and the wooden dining table (which Landry built with his own father) is often decorated with clippings and coconuts found throughout the yard. “The living environment can create a sense of calm,” Bakke says. “If my backyard was all gravel, it would have a completely different mental effect.”