On Friday, Feb. 28, you can spend the day touring five unique properties from Key Largo down to Lower Matecumbe Key to get some inspiration for your own garden, or just satisfy your curiosity on how other folks live.
Your annual chance to do more than just peek over the fence, and actually enter and walk around that interesting property you've admired, is once again here courtesy of the Upper Keys Garden Club. At the end of your self-guided tour, you can stop back at the club for music, refreshments and plants on sale.
Here is a peek at properties that will be on view:
At Sunset Reef, Martha Meroni has made a durable, easy care, yet beautiful garden by using the right plants -- mostly natives -- in the right places in her bayfront Key Largo property.
After Hurricane Wilma devastated the property, Martha had to start from scratch. "I love natives, and am very environmentally concerned, so I used the textures and colors available in natives, but gradually added some others just for more color" Meroni said.
Interesting tree limbs and stumps left from the storm's wrath now house orchids, ferns and bromeliads. When her front yard had to be dug up to accommodate the sewer line, she added a rock lined garden featuring an array of interesting bromeliads and large pots of culinary herbs.
"I keep finding new areas to make gardens" said Martha. She has small garden nooks scattered around the lot, some in unexpected places. "I'm always adding, and sometimes things don't work, so you just redo," she said.
Out back, along the bay, Martha uses "hardy plants that are wind and drought tolerant, like native grasses, because the conditions are so harsh out here." When a huge piece of driftwood floated in on the tide, she just dragged it up into the garden and planted bromeliads in it.
Martha keeps a good log of all the plants she puts into her garden. The current tally of plants takes up nine pages.
Gardens of Palmera
As Bill Sears takes you down the path of his jungle-like garden, he acts as a walking, talking encyclopedia of native and tropical plant information, including all the Latin nomenclature. A guided walk through this property should count as at least one credit toward a degree in horticulture.
"On this side of the house, I have natives, on the other side are the exotics and fruits," said Sears at the outset of our tour.
"Here's jabaticaba; see how the fruit grows directly on the trunk," Sears said on the first stop. "Pop it in your mouth and squish down on it," he said after handing over one of the small, almost black orbs. "But spit out the seeds," he continued.
He also has mangoes.
"Sometimes we have them from May right through September," said Sears. Bananas, papayas, star fruit, figs and even grapes, with their vines twining through the surrounding trees, thrive in his jungle.
In fact, Sears has more than 100 species in this garden, which continues in lots across the street on one side, and on the other, across the canal onto the opposite bank. His collection includes many exotic palm specimens, and a few small water gardens pop up here and there.
On the native side of this garden, "you can really go for a walk in the woods," Sears said as he followed the narrow twisted paths through his vast collection of native trees and plants.
"Here's a native thatch palm that I rescued from the canal," he said. "It was on the bottom, in the salt water, and it still survived when I planted it."
Old Road Gallery
Dwayne and Cindy King have spent the last 15 months "hauling out lots of stuff to make a good environment for all of the native trees that were here," said Cindy. The pair of sculptors have set up shop in a median property that was overrun with piles of logs stacked everywhere by the previous owner.
"And we are doing this all by hand, so as not to disturb then natives," Dwayne said.
Eddie, who was hired to help in this process, greeted us cheerfully and passed the time of day as we went through the area he was clearing.
"I see you've been Eddie-fide," joked Dwayne. "He's a great help."
The enthusiasm with which he and the Kings describe their plans is truly contagious.
The garden is still a work in progress, in it's "infant stage," Cindy said. Already, it is a magical little woodland to stroll through, peppered with artwork, pottery, hanging orchids and wind chimes.
"We want to keep it native and add some tropicals," Dwayne said. "But it will remain mostly a native hammock."
The couple said they intend to have it open for customers of their adjoining gallery to enjoy.
"We're even going to have wifi," Dwayne said.
Dwayne and Cindy work in the adjoining gallery, and visitors can see the pair at work on their commissions as well as purchase smaller items made for sale.
As you approach this exquisitely done garden, a flood of color greets you in the form of the brilliantly hued bougainvilleas, tall as trees, that line the drive. You get the sense that you are entering a very special place.
"The first landscape architect we called wanted to cut everything down," said Mary Barley. "I said, 'no way!'"
So, instead of just removing the old growth natives, she found ways to incorporate them into a modern design with a distinctively Asian feel. Along one fence line, the stand of sea grapes were cut into simple topiary shapes and under planted with walking iris.
The former owner was an orchid and bromeliad collector, so these plants were also incorporated into the new design. Large ferns hang in mature trees.
The plantings are simple, easy care, and many natives, with pops of color in just the right places.
"It took 10 years to get it to look like this " Barley said.
Pathways are done in herringbone patterns with stripes of smooth, blue, river stone borders separating them. Primitive looking stone statues, some set against bamboo fencing, bright pottery, and a tiki hut, hint at the south Pacific. Simple teak furniture on patios and lawns add to that feel.
A curved, stone lined lagoon winds in from the bay, and a pool is built into a raised concrete patio at the water's edge.
You won't miss this dramatic entrance: their custom deigned white metal fence has barracudas, angelfish, trigger fish, and all manner of their tropical fish buddies, swimming along in schools across the gate.
"Artist Theresa Thompson and my husband Steve collaborated on that design," said Kathy Holmes.
The Holmes have been working on the property for 10 years now.
"It was a vacant lot with Brazilian pepper and Norfolk pines growing wild, and it had a straight driveway going down one side. We called it the runway," joked Kathy.
"We wanted natives in the garden. We have no irrigation system," Steve said. So the couple went about removing the invasives, leaving only the gumbo limbo trees, and planting a new garden, as well as building a house.
They used simple, easy care materials around these natives. Coral rock lines the winding paths and wood mulch from a local tree guy is used as a ground cover.
Dozens of colorful crotons line one side. Steve propagated each one. He also planted some palms that he grew from seed he collected.
"Steve's orchard," as Kathy calls it, sits in the center. The mango, Persian lime and Meyer lemon trees he planted are still young, but doing well.
Sunset Reef has lawn between the house and the bay, and several large palms provide some shade. A kidney shaped planting bed, containing a couple of palms, mimics the kidney shape of the swimming pool adjacent to it.
A visit here, and a chat with the Holmes, who are clearly proud of their undertaking, will give you renewed faith in your ability to create your own paradise.
At the Club
The Garden Club of the Upper Keys headquarters, located at mile marker 94 bayside, will be buzzing with live music, a garden tea party, plant sales and unique vendors from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on the day of the tour. A show of local artists will be displayed in the clubhouse.
Tickets for the five-garden, self guided tour cost $25 each and can be purchased at the Club on that day, or at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, mile marker 106 bayside, Key Largo Florist at mile marker 99 oceanside, Islamorada Chamber of Commerce at mile marker 87 bayside, or The Banyan Tree shop at mile marker 81 oceanside.
For more information, go to www.gardenclubupperkeys.org.