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Almost Eden

Another in an occasional series about artists and their gardens.

Kim O'Brien and Rob Morey create a living as artists, but their time away from the studio forges a different sort of creation. Their garden, a haven for plants, animals and birds, is a living canvas of harmony and balance.

A bell rings in the distance, the early morning downstroke that begins a fugue of animal response.

Dogs bark, cats mewl and birds twitter; the message is passed like drumbeats through the jungle of trees, vines and ferns:

Breakfast is served!

Here is a peaceable kingdom, an acre of home and garden in the Driftwood neighborhood, created by artists Kim O'Brien and Rob Morey from a nondescript house and conventional yard. Now a menagerie of flora and fauna lives there in balance and accommodation.

O'Brien and Morey have made a place for stray dogs, cats and birds, often ill or badly injured, which have happened to come the couple's way. The garden, their safe haven, has been designed as much for the animals' needs as for the pleasure of the human residents.

"With our lifestyle," O'Brien said, "a lot of this was necessity. That's the way the decks and walkways were built."

O'Brien refers to the immense main deck, claiming 3,500 square feet of former lawn, a secondary deck of about 500 square feet and more than 200 running feet of walkway, added over a decade to replace paths that stayed continually muddy and messy from canine traffic.

What they discovered, said O'Brien, is that these man-made elements "could establish the structure and aesthetic for a garden."

Both structure and aesthetic are controlled as well by a canopy of mature oaks _ live, water and silk (not, technically, oaks) _ that keep much of the land in partial or deep shade.

Within that context, which also included 38 palm trees, they planted a profusion of tropical plants, fruit trees and berry bushes that sustain visiting wildlife and give the artists a respite on their work days.

In 1986, after living in Orlando for years, O'Brien and Morey bought the house in Driftwood. She grew up in that neighborhood, part of the large, extended Gandy clan.

She remembers at age 10 peering over a wall and considering the house and yard, which was a stone's throw from her own home.

"This place has possibilities," she thought. "I could live here someday."

After graduating from college, she moved to Orlando, where she taught painting and was the curator for the Orlando Museum of Art. She met and married Morey, a glass and wood craftsman who had grown up in South Florida.

They began collaborating, with O'Brien designing leaded glass doors, windows and panels and Morey executing those designs. Their work became sought after by clients throughout the United States. They were ready to leave Orlando, "because it had become so congested," said Morey, and realized their business allowed them to live anywhere.

"We came back here at first because Kim's father (businessman Ralph O'Brien) was very sick," Morey said.

"This house had just been sold to someone else, but we put a back-up contract on it anyway," O'Brien said. "The first sale fell through, and it was ours. I felt it was meant to be."

Soon after, they acquired a lot next door that another resident used as a citrus grove. They fenced the perimeter and began work on the house and yard.

They built a 72-foot, gated pergola from the street to the house, which nestled into a corner of the property, and installed 7,500 bricks under it and beyond, creating a shady driveway and courtyard that blended into the main deck.

A studio was added nearby, and the first aviary was installed.

"I've always had birds," O'Brien said. "I was the one who hatched chicken's eggs for science projects."

Her first garden area, around the entry courtyard, became the prototype for most of the garden, based on the realization that, because the land was too shady for the flashier flowering annuals and shrubbery, visual interest would have to come from the texture and shape of plants. In went several varieties of ginger, anthuriums she grew from seed, dracena and self-heading (bush) philodendron.

In the beds formed by the walkways, they added syngoniums, vining philodendron and tree ferns that now run rampant, choking out weeds and climbing up oaks and palms. Staghorn ferns and orchids, the only plants Morey gives special care, sway from limbs.

Along the walkways, in sunny patches, O'Brien and Morey have planted tropical fruits. Banana, papaya, carambola, pineapple and mango supplement the half-dozen old citrus trees in feeding the birds, squirrels and snakes that inhabit the garden.

The usual avians, blue jays, mockingbirds, cardinals, woodpeckers and grackles, have taken up residence, lured by birdfeeders the artists installed, and seasonal fly-bys such as hummingbirds, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers and cedar waxwings drop in.

Early on, injured wild birds and lost exotics began showing up also, either on their own or left by people.

Today, five aviaries (soon to be six) house parakeets, conyers, quakers, cockatiels, pheasants and love birds, and the air is constantly alive with their conversations.

O'Brien does not keep the wild birds, either releasing them or turning them over to the Sea Bird Sanctuary, though at the moment, one of the aviaries is home to a badly injured blue jay, who arrived several weeks ago with a broken wing. Their veterinarian had to partially amputate its wing, and she is unsure of its eventual fate.

Their dogs and cats were acquired in much the same way.

Over the years, most of the dogs they have cared for have been placed with families, but some have become their pets.

Geezer, an old lab-shepherd mix, was unconscious when they found him, almost dead from worms. Olivia, an Australian shepherd, is blind, and Darryl, of indeterminate mix, was unadoptable because he is subject to seizures and needs expensive medication.

Their veterinarian, who obviously has a close working relationship with the couple, called several years ago when a sickly day-old kitten was left on his office doorstep. They named him Mr. Lucky. Now fat, he spends most days on a sofa.

The house is filled with family antiques, furniture from their travels to Europe and India and paintings, ceramics and sculptures, "trades" with other artists, either for glass work or for O'Brien's one-of-a-kind jewelry in precious metals and stones, which she began making and selling a decade ago.

"I wanted to try something different," she said. "And for some reason, jewelry is easier to part with than a painting."

Morey is finishing up a new jewelry studio for her, with a wall of windows sited to overlook the smaller, sunnier courtyard that is centered with raised planters containing perennials and annuals _ coneflowers, sunflowers, porterweed _ that attract butterflies.

"We have never used pesticides," O'Brien said, "and we rarely fertilize. We water if it hasn't rained in a while."

With so much undergrowth, do they have a snake problem?

"I call it a snake advantage," she said. "There's a balance here. Everything sort of works to the advantage of everything else. The dogs keep the cats away from the birds, the cats and the snakes keep the rodent population down. Birds and spiders eat bugs.

"Of course," she said, smiling, "We feed the dogs and cats on time just to make sure."

Most of the time, the dogs and cats, whose numbers change, keep their individual schedules in and out of the house and studios. Twice a day, they converge for a communal meal on the four-level main deck. The birds' water and food _ seeds and fruit according to breed _ are also refreshed.

It's a time-consuming labor of love, but both O'Brien and Morey say it is a welcome break from the intensity of their work.

Like most artists, they live on a feast-or-famine work schedule.

In fallow times, Morey works on projects that have transformed the small, '50s-era concrete block house. The old garage became a new kitchen, with an intricately patterned, tongue-and-groove beaded board pitched ceiling O'Brien designed and Morey made and installed.

The house is wrapped in glass doors and panels that are examples of the couples' artistry and provide a visual dialogue between interior and exterior spaces.

One of O'Brien's favorites is their front door, a geometric mix of various kinds of handmade glass, a propitiation from Morey after she came back from a weekend trip and found he had sold the previous front door.

"When you make a living making art," O'Brien said, "A certain amount of pragmatism enters into it."

That principle enters, lushly, into their garden, too. Its design success is apparent in the jungle-like density that some find intimidating, especially at night.

"A friend had to leave the other night," said O'Brien. "He found it a little frightening, sort of enclosing."

"That's our favorite time in the garden," Morey said. "With only moonlight. We spend hours sitting and looking at the stars."

It is at its most quiet then, too, except when a hapless raccoon strays in late at night, searching for birds' eggs.

"That's when old Geezer wakes up," O'Brien said. "He starts yowling and gets everyone else going."

Breakfast is, after all, soon.

Kim O'Brien and dogs Bill, Clare and Dingle stroll through the tropical landscape she shares with husband and fellow artist Rob Morey. Some stray animals and injured birds have found a home, or at least a spot for rest and recuperation, within these shady recesses.

Kim keeps busy in the studio creating jewelry pieces such as these; during particularly hectic periods of work, a restful interlude outdoors is a restorative for the artist's body and mind.

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