Josef Forstmayr &The Magnificent 29: Part 1

Josef Forstmayr &The Magnificent 29: Part 1

The Unlikely Gardener
Ashley-Ann Foster

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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“Nature is so powerful that it takes everything back and it is so forgiving.” – Josef Forstmayr

Josef Forstmayr's convivial nature and colourful personality coupled with his flair, creativity and his tourisme de luxe métier have garnered plaudits from movers and shakers at home and abroad. Round Hill's Austrian-Jamaican managing director is undoubtedly The Rock's directeur général de haute vivre et du tourisme.

Forstmayr's garden landscape story is one of romance, and the Unlikely Gardener is thrilled to be able to share a simple sonnet about his journey.

Blossoming Love

A native of Austria, Forstmayr was born with a love of nature and grew up enjoying hikes and nature walks. However, his love of landscape gardening did not blossom until the late '70s when he landed on The Rock.

In 1979, straight out of school, the late Gilly Biles of Coconut Cove splendour appointed Forstmayr assistant manager and his natural light and innate talent shone through brightly. He then went on to a six-month stint at Tryall and then on to the historic Trident. It was at Trident that the garden wave made Forstmayr's landscaping boat float. It was also there that his immense love for Jamaica grew alongside his plant passion.

On August 4, 1980, the terrible Hurricane Allen and its 39ft storm surge ravaged Jamaica taking with it the lives of eight Jamaicans, felling the masterpiece that was the iconic Trident Hotel. Forstmayr recalls, “My love for Jamaica started with the respect for the people.” Recounting the aftermath of Hurricane Allen, he detailed the devastating impact not only on the hotel's physical structure but also on its staff who held the fort by helping to rebuild the hotel with their bare hands, brick by brick. “Seventy-year-old women incredibly strong moving from being housekeepers to carrying huge rocks… everyone was involved. They were so accepting of me. It was really special,” he remembers.

From Casuarina To Coconuts

Post-Hurricane Allen devastation, virtuoso gardener to the stars Harry Nelson was brought in by late hotelier extraordinaire Earl Levy to design and lay out Trident's topiary gardens. Throughout this landscape design experience, Forstmayr became completely fascinated with gardening. So much so that in 1985 he took a leave of absence and relocated to Miami to learn the art from Nelson himself.

Forstmayr's first real introduction to gardening was working with Nelson on Villa Casa Casuarina, the home of Gianni Versace. Forstmayr says, “It was an incredible experience. It was a highly protected area but it needed some strong statements… plants were used to give privacy...”

His Miami experience taught lots of lessons, which Forstmayr did his best to impart throughout the island. “Miami had lost its coconut trees due to lethal yellow disease. It lost its tropical look. However, the state of Florida wanted to remain a tropical destination from a tourist point of view and insisted that all new highways, all new roadways, had to be lined with palms… few of the palms are indigenous to Miami,” he explains.

In the late '80s, Forstmayr in collaboration with the late great patriot Tony Hart got to work, and through the Coconut Board of Jamaica pushed hard to encourage and ensure that coconuts were planted islandwide so as to maintain Jamaica's natural look and feel. Their effort saw the Coconut Board providing free coconut trees to those who were interested. It was through this endeavour that many hotels such as the cashmere-chic Round Hill became repopulated with coconut trees after the local lethal yellow disease scourge. To Forstmayr's delight roads are now being lined with royal palms. However, an interesting titbit is not only that these palms don't particularly like marl but also the high elevation at which they are planted makes many nutritionally deficient as their roots stretch to find optimum water supply.

Forstmayr returned to Jamaica in 1986 and had the pleasure of again joining his garden mentor Nelson on the landscape recreation of Half Moon Hotel between 1989 and 1991 under the watchful eye of legendary hotelier, the late and beloved Heinz Simonitsch. A history lesson — “On The Rock during the 1980s and 1990s there was no great nursery…all of that stuff came in with Harry and Half Moon started with seedlings. This was before people started to spend money on landscaping. In mid- to late-90s we became a bit more sophisticated with leading world landscape designers.”

Twenty-nine

Forstmayr's beautiful Round Hill cottage is more than picturesque. Shakespeare would deem it “no more yielding but a dream”. For those of us who have both garden admiration with a twinge of garden envy we would all like to know his landscape secrets. From listening to Forstmayr there's no secret, it's all him, his flair, his sense of style and je ne sais quoi. However, he advises with humility that he has always copied what other people are doing and has deep admiration for the great Jamaican pros Linda Sunderland and Suzanne Spence.

There's as much history as there is beauty in Forstmayr's garden. The Old Man's Beard hanging from the nuanced limbs of its stately trees was collected over 20 years ago from a magnificent ficus tree on the grounds of a historic St Elizabeth church of over 300 years old. 

Join me next week as Josef Forstmayr reveals more landscaping titbits .


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