Nov. 14 2018 06:00 AM

Bringing back the landscapes lost to Hurricane Irma has been the focus of one Florida Keys landscape designer over the last year.


When Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys in September 2017, it came with a fury that many who lived in the area never expected.

One of those residents was Trish Cox, a landscape designer by trade. She was among the thousands who had to evacuate the island in advance of the hurricane. Nothing could have prepared her or her neighbors in Marathon, Florida, for what they were to encounter when they returned.

“We were hit a lot worse than we ever thought we would be last September,” she recalls. All things considered, compared with other residents of the area, she was among the lucky ones. “Our home on one side of U.S. Highway 1 didn’t flood. On the opposite side, every person that had a one-story oceanside home flooded. If you were in a two-story, you had 6 to 8 feet of seaweed or sand in your yard.”

She describes those who had homes on the opposite side of the highway as hers as “complete devastation.”

For someone who is used to growing plants, seeing all the dead vegetation was particularly upsetting. “On our entire island, nothing was green for months and months. After we got out of the rainy season, we had so much salt intrusion everywhere that things didn’t want to grow.”

What was once a vibrant landscape of colorful plants, green grass and well-groomed landscapes was left dead, brown and in disarray. In the aftermath of the destruction, Cox worried about her business as a landscape designer, but luckily, that concern very quickly proved unfounded.

Called to action

“I didn’t think I’d have any work for the longest time, but I immediately started getting phone calls,” says Cox. In fact, she and the landscape contractors she works with have all been extremely busy since they were allowed back on the island. “We’ve all been working very hard since the hurricane.”

For Cox, that means seven days a week, often starting her days at 4 a.m. That may seem a little extreme, but when you also have a five-year-old son that you homeschool, well, you just might need to start your day that early if you are going to get any designing done.

“Yep, I do all of this with a five-year-old,” she tells me. But the neat part is that landscape design is part of his education. “I bring him to job sites when it’s safe and appropriate. He’s with me learning about plants and meeting all kinds of people from different ethnic groups.”

She admits it’s a bit different having her son along on the job, but it doesn’t seem to interfere. Heck, the arrangement probably has her and her son the envy of many working moms and little adventurous kids. “It’s an interesting situation, but it works really well,” she says. “I’m so glad I get to do that and expose him to something he loves, too.”

Bringing beauty back

The first phone calls that came in after the hurricane were from people who had homes in the $2 million and up range. Key Colony Beach, another island of ritzy properties just across a little bridge from Marathon, also had a huge need. “Almost every condominium owner on the island has called to have me design. Most of the homes are right there on the water. I’ve worked on half of them.”

She says she started hearing from people about three weeks after everyone got back on the island, “which was really an impressive speed.” She felt extremely fortunate that there was not more damage to her own property. Downed fences and palms were everywhere. Just one street over from her place, high winds had taken good portions of peoples roofs and some spent the last year living in RVs in their driveways while making repairs.

Homeowners were not allowed back into the Keys for over eight days after the storm hit. “If water got into your home and you had no electricity and no AC, it was so hot that everything started to grow mold. You’d go into a house that had moisture and the walls would be moldy. Even if there wasn’t a lot of other damage, a homeowner would have to tear out all the drywall.”

You’d think that living in Florida your whole life would prepare you for such devastation. Cox recalls living through Hurricane Andrew back when she was a child in Homestead, growing up on farmland, where she first became interested in horticulture.

At 11 years old, she endured three months with no electricity, using the family swimming pool to wash clothing. “It was like a third world country for a long time, so, yeah, I’ve been through this once before — but I never in my life thought I’d have to do it once again.”

Cox’ father owned a nursery and a fruit farm and while she was growing up, would help him out. That’s where she developed a love for plants and working outdoors and realized that maybe she could make a career out of it.

“My mother was an artist and my father a nursery owner so it just made sense that I would want to create outdoor environments that people would want to be in,” she says. “It’s like an extension of your home and a reason to be in different areas in your yard and make everything so usable.”

After Irma, she helped out a client who had been wanting a garden prior to the hurricane. Every winter the client’s family would come down, grandkids and all, and play games together. When Cox designed the space for them, she recalled imagining the entire family gathering together. “I get a little wrapped up in what my clients’ needs are,” she says. I get really immersed in seeing how my clients are going to use the space long-term.”

As one of the community’s main designers, she works with a handful of landscape contractors. A year after the hurricane, she is finally able to see the fruits of their labors when she takes a drive over the bridge form Marathon to Key Colony.

“Things are green again. It started raining a few months ago, and things like our royal poinciana trees that for nine months we wondered if they would die, they finally started reviving,” she says.

Something's missing

It’s been an eye-opening experience for Cox, seeing the way people react to a lack of landscaping. “To see people and how much losing their landscaping affects them … they could have a $3 million home and all the money in the world, but when I came out, what they really seemed concerned about was everything being brown. They just could not handle the fact that there was no green anywhere.”

The day before our interview, she had gone to a client’s home where she was still working on repairs. That client had gone to the mainland right after the storm and purchased a new alocasia. She told Cox she just had to have it in her yard because “she needed one thing that was green.”

Cox does not turn away clients who are still in the home repair stages post-Irma, but advises them that finishing that new roof or exterior painting before you move forward with the landscaping is important or the plants will get damaged.

I don’t think Cox quite realized how important her job was until the hurricane.

“It is interesting that people seemed so devastated over their landscaping loss,” says Cox. But then, many of those losses easily totaled as high as $100,000.

Many of those properties are ones Cox may have worked on or designed just 18 months ago and some 18 years ago. She began her career as a landscape designer 19 years ago, after earning a degree in horticulture and landscape design from Central Florida Community College before going on to earn a bachelor’s Southeastern University. She may not have had to pay for her education at Southeastern, but she earned it by working as part of the campus grounds crew. She also has a master’s degree from West Coast Bible College and Seminary.

She spent a few years after completing her associate’s degree working for a landscape design/build firm in the Florida Keys before deciding to go out on her own, forming Trish Cox Landscape Design. She’s lived in Marathon for the last 17 years.

Working at the firm was a great experience, she says, “but in the end, I wanted more freedom,” she says. “So, I ended up going out on my own and designing. Over the years, I’ve built relationships with contractors all over the island.”

She works as a subcontractor for a few different landscape contractors in the area. They know her well and call her with projects. She’ll also recommend them for installation jobs. “They do their thing, and I do my thing, but it works really well,” as she describes it. “I enjoy working with all the different crews.”

People find her online or via word-of-mouth. “I don’t do any advertising,” she says. “I’m able to get all kinds of work on my own, and also through area contractors.”

Cox designs her landscapes using Autocad and also creates a “plant book” for her clients so they’ll have a picture of everything that’ll be in their design to “make sure they’re happy.”

She’ll then offer contractor recommendations based on who she thinks would be right for the job. During the installation, Cox is on-site inspecting everything and making changes as needed. After it’s finished, she does a walk-through with the client.

Since the hurricane, Cox has designed at least 50 landscapes, but not all of them have been installed — that will have to wait until the home repairs are completed. “Even if a contractor is being careful, they are never so careful that they don’t kill my plants,” jokes Cox.

She wants to be the last person to go onto the site, and she lets her clients know that … even if they aren’t so patient. And she believes there’s still more work out there to be done.

“I think that there are still a lot of clients who are fixing their homes right now — average people with average-sized homes. Those are the kinds of calls I am getting a little bit more of right now.”

Cox says she keeps her design prices affordable. “Even if you can’t afford an installer, my designs are so readable that homeowners can install them themselves, piecing things together over the course of a year or whatever they need to do. My goal is that whoever needs help with their landscaping, they can call, get a plan put together and get advice on what the best plants would be to put in their yards.”

On the island, iguanas have to be taken into consideration when choosing plants, because they will eat just about anything. It can be a problem for clients with homes close to the water. “That’s been a real challenge that over the years has gotten worse and worse,” says Cox. The iguanas are the reason why she tends to stay away from a lot of flowering plants and that “the color is always in the foliage.”

The Keys are a good environment for growing, according to Cox; tropical plants thrive pretty well. “We can grow just about anything here with the help of good irrigation systems. It’s warm here most of the year, so I love to use orange birds of paradise, crotans, cordylines, like that. We can grow old man palms, lipstick palms, licuala, all kinds of unique and interesting plants here.”

Cox always asks her clients how they plan to use their home. If it’s a vacation rental, they won’t want exotic plants. If kids will be in the home, she’s careful not to use plants with thorns. “I always make sure the landscaping that’s going in is really appropriate for what they want.”

Whenever possible Cox will integrate native plants into a design, especially near the water. Native plants usually are incorporated into 25 percent of the design unless a higher percentage is specified by the local building department.

Settling in

Lately, things have settled down a bit for Cox, which means she may be able to put in a six-day work week instead of a seven-day one. Before the hurricane, she was doing about 55 to 60 percent of the business she’s doing now. It’s been a bit of a blur.

“Now, I’ll say to my husband, ‘I’m not really busy this week,’ and he’ll look at me like, ‘Are you crazy? You’re so busy you’re up at 4 a.m. every day.’” But it’s not as busy to Cox as it was six or seven months ago when work was hard to keep up with, and she couldn’t take a moment off. “Now we’re at a point where it feels like a great pace, but it’s still double what it was the year before last at this time.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kristinsmithely@igin.com.


A Tale of two neighbors

One of the most rewarding post-Hurricane Irma projects Trish Cox was able to design was for the Owens family in Marathon, in the Florida Keys community where she resides. She designed the family’s landscape 17 years ago and the hurricane decimated 90 percent it.

So, when it came time to redo it, they went all out. They had a lot on the property they had been wanting to one day make into a garden for their grandchildren to come and play in.

“That was an interesting project because not only did I know them and they were family friends, but I had done their maintenance for years when I had my own small maintenance company, which I don’t anymore,” says Cox.

Cox described Mr. Owens as being very particular. She would draw up a plan and he would redraw the plans and write up all the plants he thought would work. “It was great and then I’d have to sit there and explain to him why certain plants would work here and won’t work there.”

Cox had more back and forth on this design than any other in her career. “When we actually laid out the plan he would stand out there with me. And every single plant we’d lay out and he’d go ‘a little to the left a little to the right.’” In the end, she says, it turned out beautiful thanks to his collaborative effort.”

Then she had the opposite end of the spectrum, just down the street. This client hadn’t even been to his home in three years. It was on the water, and he wanted to use synthetic grass everywhere. Cox took pictures, came up with plant quantities laid them out for the installer. Another contractor came in to lay the synthetic grass. “We did all this work and I don’t know if he has ever once seen it. We did all this work over the telephone. He just sent me a check and said good job,” she says.

Trish Cox has a before and after page on her website showcasing the work she has done post Irma at www.trishcoxlandscapedesign.com/before-and-after-hurricane-irma.

Cox also recently added a new page to her website called Design My Yard. The new page allows potential clients from all over the state of Florida to send her surveys, photos and measurements of existing landscape plant locations so that a design can be completed even if they are outside of my current location. “I hope that this addition to my website can bring affordable landscape designs to anyone and that is what’s next for my business.”