Editor’s note: This story, one of our staff favorites mentioned in City & Shore’s 15th Anniversary issue, first appeared in the November 2015 issue of the magazine.
By Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub
City & Shore Magazine
Photography by Thierry Dehove
Harvey Tatelman sits on a low rock in his Japanese garden while photographer Thierry Dehove takes his picture. After a few shots, he gets up with the energy of a teenager despite two knee replacements.
Tatelman, 90, has a sharp mind as well as an agile body. Although he retired from the fashion business 32 years ago, he keeps mentally and physically active. He reads at least two books a week, plays bridge, gives lectures and weeds and trims his garden. He also is a branch director of the Community Emergency Response Team, a program that trains volunteers in basic disaster response skills so they can assist others when first responders are not available.
When he lectures, he tells the audience that plants are like people.
“They like light, they like food and someone to care for them.”
We met six years ago when Tatelman first created his Japanese garden at his Mizner Falls home in Boynton Beach for his wife, Claire, who was recovering from breast cancer. He wanted me to see how a Zenlike retreat could be created on a zero lot line 25-by-50-foot space. Inspiration came from The Morikami gardens, west of Delray Beach; the Portland Japanese garden; and photos from Time Life’s Miniatures & Bonsai, a book he used while studying bonsai at The Morikami.
“It was the last house in the development,” Claire 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.
Japanese philosophy is inherent in his design. He points to a section in A.K. Davidson’s The Art of Zen Gardens, a well-used paperback that explains the history and philosophy and step-by-step instructions. In Japan, where space is at a premium, these small gardens offer relief from high-density living and evoke serenity. Tatelman translated this idea into his zero-lot-line space.
“Gardens were symbolic of this greater outside; people could contemplate them and regain some perspective on life; they could enter a different mood for a while, depending on the type of miniaturized scene they chose to construct,” according to the book.
His improvements include a rock garden, additional plants and a dry garden with gravel and rocks that is raked to portray moving water.
“I am never done,” he says. “I keep adding. I am artistically inclined and never finish a project. I built the rock garden by the bridge. You can take a path behind and get a different perspective. I added 4,000 pounds of pea gravel.”
In a Japanese garden, everything represents something in miniature because spaces aren’t large. In addition to a traditional Buddha, he points out the fat Buddha, which is a symbol of happiness, and four round stones with Chinese letters to represent the four seasons.
The basics from his first design include a waterfall (now upgraded from a ½- to 5-horsepower pump), koi pond, wood bridge over a dry riverbed, a pair of metal crane sculptures and lanterns. The garden features several orchids, bonsais in pots, including one with a crooked trunk he calls the “one legged plant” that cost $1 at The Morikami and took 3½ years before it bloomed. The bonsai he is most proud of is a bougainvillea with a strange curved trunk that looks like a person standing on one leg. Tatelman loves all of his plants but doesn’t know most of their names. The one he does know is the divi divi, an elegant tree that frames the waterfall. The national tree of Curaçao has feathery leaves.
“This is my hobby,” he says. “This is my life.”
He and Claire sit out on the screened porch every day around 4 or 5 p.m. to enjoy a glass of wine and thank God they have each other. A friend often comes over to sit and meditate alone.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as pleased with the garden as the Tatelmans. Neighbors and the Homeowners Association question his improvements and periodically check on the garden, which is hidden from view and backed with a privacy wall.
“I can’t keep them out because fences are not allowed,” he says. “People complain. They are jealous because I had permission for the garden from the developer before I bought the house. No one else can have one now because the HOA prohibits them.”
He tells me to sit quiet, close my eyes, listen to the water and the wind and meditate for a bit. Suddenly the world seems peaceful far away from South Florida’s urban sprawl, traffic and crowds.
A neighbor who enjoys the garden feels the same way: “I think your home is beautiful,” he says, “but the backyard is worth even more.”
How to get the look at home
Create a series of small vignettes. Each one tells a story.
When selecting plants, look for those with varying shades of green.
Add sculpture such as lanterns shaped like a pagoda, a Buddha and stepping stones with Chinese letters.
A reflecting pool works well when it contains koi for
A waterfall produces relaxing sound.
Although it has to be raked, a gravel garden adds a
—Charlyne V. Schaub