Celebrity Landscape Designer Vickie Cardaro

This talented designer to celeb creatives like Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler uses sustainable design for island and coastal homes.

Sand and Surf Wonder

Sand and Surf Wonder

Photo by: Image courtesy of Buttercup Design Group, photo by Vickie Cardaro

Image courtesy of Buttercup Design Group, photo by Vickie Cardaro

Commanding a lovely view of the shore, the remodeled beach house of Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler is complemented by Vickie Cardaro’s natural landscape design which incorporates various salt-tolerant ornamental and dune grasses, cedars, junipers and black pines. 

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Often the ideal landscape design for your home depends on your geographical location, climate zone and seasonal weather. If you live on an island off the northeastern U.S. coast or along the shoreline of that area, your choices of plants, trees and other sustainable vegetation are going to be somewhat compromised by what can thrive in a seaside environment.

Vickie Cardaro of Buttercup Design Group is the type of creative person who can take these kinds of limitations and turn them into strengths. She’s a self-taught expert in this regard because she lives on Shelter Island, located between the North and South Forks of Long Island, and many of her landscape clients reside there or nearby in the Hamptons and other New York coastal communities. 

In recent years Cardaro has achieved national recognition for her stunning design work, particularly her total landscape renovation of the Shelter Island home of Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys and bestselling author, and interior decorator Jonathan Adler. When the couple first bought the property, the yard and surrounding grounds looked desolate; it was mostly an expanse of crab grass with a few white oaks. Cardaro took this unappealing tract and transformed it into a lush, alluring outdoor space that looked as if it had always been there.

Vickie Cardaro, Landscape Designer

Vickie Cardaro, Landscape Designer

Photo by: Image courtesy of Buttercup Design Group

Image courtesy of Buttercup Design Group

Vickie Cardaro of Buttercup Design Group is a renowned landscape designer whose work has been prominently featured in such major publications and digital properties as Architectural Digest, Gardenista, The Huffington Post and other outlets.

Regarding Doonan and Adler, Cardaro says, “I had a good comfort level for the design because I did their first house. The main direction from them was that they didn’t want one blade of grass. They didn’t want to irrigate lawn or to mow it.” The challenge then was to cover a surface area that was an acre and a quarter but Cardaro came up with an inspired plan. She decided, “We’ll do a gravel garden around the pool. For the driveway, the front entrance, we’ll use crushed quahog clamshells that I got in Massachusetts.” She also had long-leaf pine needles trucked up from North Carolina for mulch, which gets refreshed every 18 months or so. She also installed sand dunes around the property. “I wanted to return the site to perhaps what it looked like a hundred years ago, before any development and bulk-heading. I decided to create dunes to add visual interest, topography and as a defense against any water surge.” To accomplish this, she decided on “a very soft sand that had been tumbled by decades of being in the ocean — I got this from an East Hampton supplier that handles dune restoration. We covered every square inch of the property in those elements.”   

Cardaro also added color and texture by planting a variety of hardy ornamental, salt-tolerant grasses and plants in the landscape that would need little maintenance and that were deer-resistant, a major concern because the deer population on Shelter Island continues to be an ongoing problem. Prairie Dropseed grass (sporobolous heterolepsis) was installed in the front of the property and, around the sides and back, features a mixture of Cape American beach grass (ammophilia breviligulata), blue dune grass (leymus glauca), pink muhlenbergia, miscanthus (‘Morning light’), pennisetum (red head, moudry, foxtrot) and festuca (‘Elijah blue’). Ground covers included Artemesia stelleriana (‘Silver brocade’) and variated liriope. 

She also created a side garden off of the master bedroom that showcased a succulent garden and hi-bush blueberries. A grouping of River Birch, cedars and Japanese black pines were planted on a semi-shade slope and dwarf pygmy bamboo was installed above the parking area to help prevent an erosion/storm runoff problem. The result of Cardaro’s painstaking renovation is a masterpiece of sea island landscaping and a natural and artistic extension of Doonan and Adler’s redesigned beach house.

Then the unthinkable happened. Hurricane Sandy arrived and lingered over Shelter Island for two days. Cardaro braved the storm out and even went over to check on her clients’ house at one point.  “I walked over as there was a lull in the storm,” she recalls. “It was like the end of the world. All of a sudden this gigantic rogue wave came and got a little too close to me and I thought, ‘I think I’d better go home now.’” 

When the storm eventually passed, she returned to the property. “Considering the exposure,” Cardaro remarks, “there was very little physical damage to the property. There was no damage to the house. We didn’t lose any trees or shrubs. We did lose the pool fence. We lost some grasses. Big deal.” What was readily apparent was that her landscape renovation was almost hurricane-proof and actually helped protect the house and property. 

Still, Cardaro had to perform some minor damage repair. The existing bulkhead had always stopped short of fully enclosing the property, and consequently a lot of sand was lost out from here during the storm. Afterwards, she had a contractor extend the bulkhead to completely reinforce the shoreline boundary. More sand was brought in and new beds of seagrass were established. “It’s basically closed off now so hopefully we won’t have the loss of the dunes in the next storm,” she states. 

Even though most of the trees Cardaro planted on the property — Japanese black pines, Eastern red cedars and junipers — were salt-tolerant, the extreme wind, aerosol salt and unusual duration of the storm did take a toll and cause quite a bit of brown-out.  However, “the one evergreen that looked as if nothing ever happened was the Hollywood juniper. Those things are as green as they ever were.”

Cardaro continues to experiment and push the boundaries of what can be accomplished through innovative landscape design on Shelter Island and other nearby seaside communities. She has learned from experience how to work with the deer problem when contemplating property designs for new clients. “I’ve got it down to a bit of an art at this point. They tend to not eat boxwoods, ornamental grasses and plants that are very aromatic like lavender and nepeta.” She also favors adding distinctive visual accents to properties such as the addition of pergolas and arbors made from cedar to achieve a more rustic look. Or using custom-made cement rounds or natural stone for paths, walkways and steps. 

There seems to be no limit to Cardaro’s stylish conceptualizations which are both practical in terms of sustainability but also visual knockouts on an aesthetic level. For more information about her work and the Buttercup Design Group, visit the official website.

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