One of Karim Tahiri's earliest memories is waking to the soothing, rhythmic crunch of his uncles raking the gravel paths in his grandparents' garden in Fez, Morocco.
Karim was one lucky little boy. He grew up in colorful Casablanca, about 185 miles west of Fez, and split his summers between his fraternal grandparents in Fez and his maternal grandparents in southern France. At every home, he and his family lived in the garden. The fragrance of fruit blossoms sweetened their meals, the gurgle of fountains cooled them in the dry heat of the desert, and he and his cousins played among apricot trees in France and olive trees and date palms in Morocco.
"We have tried to bring some of that European Mediterranean lifestyle here," Karyn Sbar, Karim's American-born wife, says of their home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of South Tampa. "The United States is a great country, but some cultures just do some things better than us. Where Karim's from, they make gardens a place where you live."
Karim and Karyn are the owners of Tampa's Soleil Design Build, which designs and builds homes in South Tampa — he's an architect; she's a general contractor — and Soleil Green landscaping. Theirs is one of six gardens visitors can roam April 15 during the 20th annual Earthly Paradise Garden Tour, a fundraiser for the 85-year-old Rose Circle Garden Club.
Like the gardens of Karim's childhood, there's something to awaken every sense in their back yard. The effect is obvious: Karim, Karyn and their three children radiate a happy energy; they're as relaxed as they are charged with enthusiasm.
"People think of gardens visually, but they're also sound, smell, taste and touch," Karim says.
Adds Karyn: "Whenever Karim goes out in a garden, he breaks off a sprig of rosemary or verbena, crushes it up and breathes it in, then puts it in his pocket so he can walk around with it."
Of course, for Karim, gravel paths were a must. Theirs are a soft gray granite, a color that blends seamlessly with the earth tones of their hardscape as well as the forest and emerald greens of Australian tree ferns, crinum lilies, foxtail ferns and creeping fig.
"Gravel is low-maintenance, way cheaper than pavers, and it allows for percolation" of water into the soil, Karim says. "It's a good texture for the landscape. I rake it — it's therapy to me."
The kids — Sophie, 18; Ryan 15, and Maya, 6 — have grown up in this home and their parents guessed that raking for therapy might not hold the allure for them that it does for their dad. So they made sure the garden was a place where they can play.
"We have two Cuban royals (palms) planted as goal posts for Ryan," Karyn says. "He's a great soccer player; he's shot into that goal for years. If he kicks from the corner near the koi pond, it's a nice, long shot."
Kids' parties often gravitate to the chess set — the garden variety. Karim made the "board" from pavers, spray-painting the black squares. Karyn ordered the 3-foot plastic queens, rooks and knights from wholesalechess.com. Overlooking this kingdom is a treehouse perched in an oak.
When the family moved to Laurel Road in 2000, the back yard had just three oak trees. Now, beds of varying depths contain giant philodendron, shell ginger, bougainvillea and petrea vine. There's lots of mint — a Moroccan favorite — and fruit trees in containers. Tucked among the foliage are handmade Moroccan fountains and statues of tall wading birds.
The porch's high ceiling provides a shady spot for al fresco meals alongside a 6,000-gallon koi pond brimming with 25 fish — many of them older than the kids. The fish's prodigious, um, output, is why the nearby shrubs are so lush and green, Karyn says.
Their garden is as much a cultural experience as a sensual one, a bridge for a family with ties to France, Morocco and the United States, Karyn says.
"Karim has three homes, so it's hard for him to feel at home in any one place. I don't want him to feel homesick," she says. "But when he's in the garden, he's at home no matter what country he's in. He has the sound of the water, the green of the trees and plants, the smells."
It's not Morocco or France.
"But after a day out here," says Karyn, "it's easy to forget that."
Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Find more local gardening stories and photos at www.digginfladirt.com, or visit www.facebook.com/digginfloridadirt to chat.