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For a classy garden wedding, it's back to school

The bride wore white, the bridegroom wore black, and the couple posed for photos in a garden surrounded by roses. Pretty traditional wedding, right?

Wrong.

After their photo session last Saturday in the courtyard garden at Hillsborough High School, William "Bo" Orr and Hillary Bridges moved on to the auditorium to exchange wedding vows, then to the cafeteria (can you say food fight?) for the reception.

The only thing traditional about this wedding was the seriously old-school ties.

Hillary's granddad, Lamar Bridges, graduated from Hillsborough in 1946 after interrupting pep rallies and algebra to serve in the Navy during World War II. Her mom, Linda Bridges, graduated from Hillsborough during America's bicentennial. Some of Hillary's aunts and uncles are graduates, too.

Bo? He graduated from Armwood High, as did Hillary, but he's connected to Hillsborough High as well. His dad, Bill Orr, is the principal.

School ties not withstanding, who in their right mind goes back to high school for one of the most magical days of their lives?

"We were discussing places that were affordable," said Bo, a 29-year-old journalism teacher at Armwood. "We talked about the (Florida) aquarium. My mother suggested Hillsborough High. … Hillary loved the idea."

Hillary, a 23-year-old accountant who grew up surrounded by her family's rose gardens, said she wasn't so keen on the idea initially.

"At first I was like, 'Oh. A school.' But I didn't go to high school there. And it's a high school with a beautiful rose garden and a beautiful building. You don't think of that when you think of a high school.

"Once we decided, I did have people saying, 'You're getting married at a high school?' But we didn't want a cookie-cutter wedding. We wanted something to remember."

Principal Orr doesn't know whether it's the school's first wedding ever, but it's the first in his eight years at the helm. He loves showing off the distinctive Gothic Revival architecture, circa 1927, and the results of a recent three-year, $25 million renovation that stripped away years of wall, floor and ceiling coverings to reveal original wood, barrel vaults and stained glass.

He's immensely proud, too, of the garden, a tranquil courtyard oasis full of scarlet rose blossoms, feathery passion flower and giant yellow Mexican sunflowers.

"Two or three times a day, I pause at one of the big windows in the hallway and look out at it," he said. "It's calming."

That's crucial for a guy in charge of 2,000 teenagers.

Back in the spring of 2009, he may as well have pulled the shade on those windows. During the renovation, chunks of concrete, rebar and other construction rubble were tossed into the unused courtyard, a rectangle surrounded by four red brick buildings. The space was a sandy eyesore, a far cry from the garden called Positive Park it had been a few decades earlier.

On Earth Day in April 2009, Hillsborough students took it on. Kids from the Environmental Club and Junior ROTC joined forces with other teen and adult volunteers to replant Positive Park. Today, thanks to donations from businesses, nonprofits and individuals, and the work of current students including Yulie Choi, Joseph Hall, Davis Nguyen and Thomas Manteiga, it's wedding picture perfect.

To make sure of that, school nurse Janice Vogt, a gardener who helped to resuscitate Positive Park, set about adding special touches several weeks ago. Because I'm hoping that one day my kids will want wedding portraits in my garden, I took notes.

"I planted bridal veil Clerodendrum, musical notes, Philippine violets and lightbulb plants because they're white, and they're winter bloomers," Janice said.

Eighteen yellow mums added bright fall color to the mulch pathway leading into the garden.

But what the kids dubbed the "secret garden," a corner with a jasmine-covered arbor "front door," was struggling. It had such potential, and it wasn't happening. Plants were dying in the full-on glare of all-day sun. Those that survived were a haphazard jumble.

Janice solicited the help of Manny's By the Bay nursery, which suggested transplanting and regrouping plants to form a natural pathway through the area.

"An area going nowhere became a path going somewhere," Janice said. "And we added lots of hardy, super heat-tolerant plants" including Louis Philippe rose bushes, heliconia, walking irises and foxtail fern.

About six weeks ago, Janice cut back the dozens of rose bushes and fed them Mills Magic fertilizer to guarantee lots of blooms on Bo and Hillary's big day. She also turned off the irrigation system (a recent gift from the Hillsborough Alumni Foundation) a few days before the ceremony so the spray wouldn't batter all those new blossoms.

How did it look through the lens of a camera?

"I was skeptical when Hillary told me they were getting married at Hillsborough High School," said wedding photographer Lisa Hunt of Lisa Hunt Photography. "I thought I was really going to have to dig into my bag of tricks to come up with some artistic shots.

"When they showed me the garden, I was thrilled. It was perfect. Beautiful. Romantic.

"If I had to give it a grade, I'd give it an A-plus."

Check out what other Tampa Bay gardeners are doing at digginfladirt.com and facebook.com/digginfloridadirt. Contact Penny at pcarnathan@tampabay.com.

For a classy garden wedding, it's back to school 11/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 8:50pm]

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