Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

He built a mountain view in Fla.

Despite a tiny site, boulders, pines, waterfall produced a haven.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Harvey Tatelman refuses to listen to those who complain that there's no way they can have a great garden on a zero-lot-line property.

The 20-by-50-foot Japanese garden behind his home west of Boynton Beach, Fla., proves the naysayers wrong.

"The Japanese have a way of looking at life," Tatelman said, with one of those genuine smiles that appears to come from deep inside. "When you go to Morikami gardens, it's so restful. I wanted to create the same feeling here."

He created the beautiful, restful garden as a haven for his wife, Claire, who is recovering from breast cancer. It has all the elements of iconic Japanese gardens - the soothing sounds of a waterfall, a pair of metal crane sculptures, lanterns, a bridge over a dry riverbed, and a collection of elegant bonsai trees.

No wonder. He was inspired by the Morikami gardens, west of Delray Beach, Fla.; the Portland Japanese garden; and photos from Time Life's Miniatures & Bonsai, a book he used when studying bonsai at the Morikami.

"It's very peaceful and relaxing," Claire Tatelman said. "I love to sit out there in the patio, watch the water coming down, and enjoy the peace and quiet. When I was ill, I would sit in the back, take a book, and spend the whole afternoon out there."

Six years ago, the Tatelmans moved from a country-club community with a 1,480-square-foot patio that faced a golf course into their zero-lot-line home - where a wall of a structure is built right on a property line - in Mizner Falls, Fla.

"It was the last house in the development," she said. "I liked the house, but there was no view except a wall, and it looked terrible. My husband said, 'I will build you a view.' "

And that's exactly what he did.

The project began before the home was finished. Tatelman drew a sketch of what he planned to do in the garden and submitted it to the builder. Knowing how difficult homeowners' associations can be, he asked the builder for a signed prepurchase agreement approving his plans.

"At that point, the builder is committed," Tatelman said. "He is the board and can give you whatever you wish in writing. Later, when the board questioned me, I already had the approval in writing."

One of the first steps in building the garden caused quite a stir in the neighborhood. An 18-wheeler dropped off a load of Florida boulders in front of his house. Tatelman couldn't carry them, so he enlisted the help of a friend, whose son knew a couple of football players willing to haul the large rocks.

"I laid the waterfall out according to my sketches and we started to build it," he said. He used a combination of mesh and concrete that acts like a pattern to hold the rocks. It took 30 bags of concrete to stabilize what he calls his "mountain." The water is run with a small pump.

"It was a lot of trial and error, but I knew what I wanted to do," he said. "Before you solidify the rocks with the concrete, you have to take a hose to see how the water will flow so you can change it if you don't like the way it looks."

Tatelman never went to school to learn landscaping or building, but before he moved to Florida from New York he had built four rooms in his basement. His creative ability was honed by years he had spent manufacturing women's handbags and working for some major designers.

His bonsai knowledge came after he took a class at the Morikami from Norman Nelson in the early '90s.

"Norman Nelson was a real guru," he said. "He was probably one of the tops in bonsai. It was a great loss when he died."

The main trees in the garden are Norfolk pines, which he talked a wholesaler into selling him. Two on the edges of the property are allowed to grow normally; the rest he styled into bonsai, which he trims once a year. One of his favorite bonsai trees is the Brazilian rain tree, which closes its leaves at night.

Despite having two knee replacements, he planted all the trees except for the eight supplied by the builder.

Tatelman said he wanted to show what could be done on a zero-lot-line property, sometimes called garden or patio homes, without spending a lot of money. He estimates the garden cost him about $4,000; a landscaper who saw the property said he would have to charge at least $25,000 to duplicate it.

"I didn't want a Florida look," he said. "I wanted it to be a reminder of my college days when I went to Vermont, where I climbed a mountain and saw a stream with pine trees. I loved the view and never lost sight of it."