Diggin' Florida Dirt: Indoors-out makes for Earthly Paradise

A South Tampa garden tour features a Davis Islands home that takes full advantage of Florida's amenities.
Published April 2 2015
Updated April 3 2015

If it weren't for the walls, visitors might have a hard time deciding whether they're inside or outside Stacey Whidden and Kurt Handwerker's waterfront home in Tampa's Davis Islands.

The taupe rug and matching stone columns in the family room flow seamlessly through floor-to-ceiling glass doors to the matching stone-tiled back porch and pool deck. Shade-muted blues and greens inside become sun-bright cerulean blue patio furniture and Italian glass tiles, and lime-green Christmas palms outside.

Granted, there are lots more plants outside — bougainvillea, hibiscus and orchids provide bubblegum pops of pink. Gingers, mango trees and coconut palms add tropical ambiance. A swimming pool and waterfall sparkle like a blue topaz centerpiece.

I take it back. You'd have to be seriously sensory deprived not to know you're outside!

Stacey, a Brandon native, and Kurt, who grew up in New Port Richey, worked hard to make their home the epitome of all they love about the Sunshine State. They also wanted a safe, beautiful yard where daughter Bianca, now 5, could play. They had a vision, including espaliered vines like those Stacey saw on visits to the Hamptons in New York. But getting there proved surprisingly difficult.

That makes Stacey doubly excited to share their results during the 23rd Earthly Paradise garden tour, the Rose Garden Circle's popular annual showcase of South Tampa's most beautiful private gardens.

"We bought the house in 2011. We were looking for a huge yard and we just couldn't find that in South Tampa. The house had been in foreclosure, so it was neglected and the yard was overgrown. We gutted the house and redid the yard," Stacey says.

At nearly a half-acre, the property on Hillsborough Bay was a rare find — and an oversized mess. Stacey hired a landscaping company, but a string of disasters taught the savvy and successful 20-year entrepreneur that she had a lot to learn.

"We worked with several different landscape companies . . . I ended up creating a whole checklist for hiring a landscape company or any subcontractor working on my home," she says. (See Page 3 for her checklist.) "First thing, you've got to ask more questions. Find out who is actually doing the work. Are they subbing (subcontracting) it out? If so, how long have the contractor and subcontractor been working together?

"You need to check on whether they've had lawsuits filed against them, or judgments or liens. You can do that on your local government website. For example, if the contractor is in Hillsborough County, go to the Clerk of the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County's site. I wish I would have done that before hiring anyone on my indoor and landscape renovation," she says. "It would have saved me a lot of heartache."

Eventually, they found a company that makes them happy — but that doesn't mean the landscapers do all the work. Stacey is transforming a shady walkway above the pool into a colorful orchid path.

"I've always had fresh flowers and orchids inside. When the orchid blooms are done, I take the plants outside and use fishing line to tie them to the trees," she says.

And she and Kurt train the espaliered jasmine vines flanking their front door as carefully as any puppy parents.

"As it grows, we wrap the new vines around the frame and trim the excess," she says. "It's slow going, but it's going to be really beautiful when it's grown out."

(Learn more about espaliering Florida plants at the University of Florida web page edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg273.)

Earthly Paradise visitors to Stacey, Kurt and Bianca's home will get great ideas for bringing the indoors out with garden rooms and colors that highlight nature without overwhelming it.

"We sit outside at dusk and watch the fish jump and the pelicans dive," Stacey says. "Our outdoor area is just as comfortable as the indoors.

"This is Florida! We want to enjoy the view, play outside and enjoy nature."

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