HS2G is a Recipient of the American Society of Landscape Architects 2020 Design Award For The Belen Project!
HS2G Landscape Architecture recently completed a botanical garden for Belen Preparatory School. The Catholic institution has a long history. Founded by Queen Isabella II in 1854, in Havana, Cuba, it was expelled by the communist regime, then re-established by the Cuban diaspora in Miami in 1961. It now occupies a 33-acre site in Miami-Dade. Demolition of the old aquatic complex left a bare site at the center of campus. To honor history, the school President wanted a tropical botanical garden showcasing Cuban species. The HS2G was charged with the planting design for the botanical garden, specimen location, bidding, on-site observation, irrigation and lighting.
The deadline was determined by the academic calendar, requiring construction to be mostly complete before the start of the 2019-20 school year. The project was fast-tracked employing a chaotic symphony of heavy machinery and a small army of workers over the summer break: the rainy season. Planting, concrete, paving, irrigation and lighting contractors were on the site simultaneously. Numerous pieces of heavy equipment occupied the 1.5-acre site, which contractors affectionately referred to as “the mud hole”. Coordination was a challenge, as was mitigating damage between trades. HS2G worked daily with the school’s foreman and the contractors to streamline the process. The installation began in June and was complete by October.
For the overstory, HS2G selected mature trees and palms to establish scale, instant canopy. Over 130 specimens were located and trucked in from all over Florida. Species included flowering trees, native and exotic palms, and a collection of rare Cuban palms. Many of these required a crane for installation. Several 40’ Live Oak trees provided shade. The largest specimen, a 60’ Banyan tree, required cutting the tree in half for transport and re-assembling it on site using bars to reunite the halves. This Banyan is now the focal point of the courtyard. The impact was immediate: the canopy provided gathering, seating areas, and outdoor classrooms with the cooling shade necessary for comfort and protection from the blazing Florida sun. Tropical palms, function as focal points, frame views, and form “allees” along walkways. A Cypress dome created using 40’ trees planted together with a group of cycads, transports students back to the Jurassic era. These primitive plants, all gymnosperms, were living together 200 million years ago. Throughout the courtyard, flowering trees provide a pop of color and year-round interest.
The selection of understory plantings posed a different challenge. A botanical garden demanded a wide variety of species from around the world; while, the institutions’ upkeep requirements demanded species that were low-maintenance and drought resistant. Watering is achieved by a low-volume drip-irrigation system, which aids plantings in the establishment period, and later, may be turned off. Cycads were a perfect fit: tough, slow-growing, and exotic. They provide mid-level specimens with a tropical and dramatic appearance. Rare cycads were added to round out the garden’s collection. Shrubs and ground covers were placed to define spaces and emphasize transitions. Color blocks were used to unify or contrast as appropriate. Keeping the school colors in mind, yellow and blue flowering plants were sprinkled throughout. A butterfly garden was also planted at the base of the Banyan. It provides the students a firsthand glimpse of the life cycle of its inhabitants. The abundance of indigenous larval and nectar plants attracts a kaleidoscope of butterflies, which showcases metamorphosis: from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to emergence. The butterflies are flitting gems against lush foliage.
The school President says, “The combination of native species and species from all over the world has created a beautiful and dynamic landscape. Our students are introduced to plants and trees from all over the world, turning our park into a pedagogical masterpiece. Already, our teachers are holding classes outside, using the trees and plants as a starting point for lessons in geography, history, and science. I couldn't be happier with the final product.” The landscape provides much needed habitat for native creatures, functioning as a suburban avian sanctuary. Additionally, the garden serves as a theater for classes in the visual arts.
The botanical garden was designed to foster environmental appreciation, and function as a living laboratory of diverse wildlife. Name tags with botanical names and geographical origins enhance the teaching aspect of the garden. Students learn about biology and ecology through direct observation. The variety of native plants cultivates an appreciation of the delicate balance of Florida’s ecosystem, fostering an awareness of the principles of sustainability.
For more information about the the botanical garden landscape design project, please refer to the Belen Jesuit School article.