Sarasota Herald Tribune: 4 Questions for a Pro

We were honored when the Sarasota Herald-Tribune selected Michael Gilkey, Jr. in to interview for their “4 Questions for a Pro” feature in May 2011. Their questions and his answers follow in their entirety.

A licensed landscape architect who took over his father’s company, Michael Gilkey focuses on residential properties, with designs that reflect the physical requirements of a site and the needs of the owner. He is also a contractor: His company is able to do the actual installations, not just the planning and design. Correspondent Chris Angermann met with him at his Ashton Road office to talk about his profession and how he approaches his work.

Q: What is landscape architecture?

A: The field is very broad, covering everything from stormwater management to road alignment. The scale can be as large as a state or national park. Our firm specializes in residential design, a small corner of the field. Most landscape architects don’t work at the scale we do — 100- to 200-foot lots. We use the ground plan to define space just as you would in the interior of a room, breaking up areas with trees, shrubbery and other physical elements that include walkways, garden sculpture, swimming pool — anything on the exterior of the house.

Q: How is landscape design different from other kinds of architecture?

A: Regular architects define space through walls and furniture; we define space and create emotion with plant material, which is going to change year after year. If we don’t understand that, we get in trouble. There are many examples of failed landscape architecture because horticulture wasn’t taken into account.

We’re working on an assessment right now for a community, and nearly a quarter of the oak trees will have to be removed because they were placed within 10 feet of the houses. Ten years ago, when they were planted, these trees were beautiful; but now they’re causing damage to foundations, driveways and sidewalks. You can have fun with shrubbery and make mistakes. You can go in next year and replant the shrubs. But with a tree — an oak tree will live 200 years — you have to put it in the right place with appropriate maintenance so it will be there for generations to come.

Q: Are all landscape architects primarily focused on horticulture?

A: Actually, there is a huge gap between landscape designers and master gardeners and horticulturists. They’re like the Hatfields and the McCoys — they don’t get along. Gardeners and horticulturists are well versed in how to make things look pretty, but they usually can’t define space or create emotions. They can’t fix problems, improve water circulation or create a feeling of variety. That is done through design. Many landscape architects. on the other hand, don’t want to be constrained by any scientific or horticultural rules.

We’re sitting right in the middle. I believe that horticulture is to landscape architecture what structure is to regular architecture. You can’t push the bar of a design without understanding the structural integrity of a building. You can’t do a good landscape design if you don’t understand horticulture.

Q: What about existing homes and properties?

A: New installations are great because you have a blank. You may have an existing tree, but all in all you can impose your will on the site. But with a renovation, things are already there — walkways, trees, vegetation, infrastructure and the building. You’re not just taking what the house has to offer and making it better; you also have to deal with problems — bad views, for example — and fix them through design solutions.

What’s fun about renovation is the before and after, because it’s somewhat magical. The first day after we’re done, it looks like a bomb went off — everything has been removed. After a week, when the landscape is in, the clients are amazed at how things have changed, how different the property feels. And after a month’s time, when you go back and talk to them, they have a hard time remembering what the house used to look like.