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Earthly Paradise tour April 13 offers peek at five Tampa gardens

Ken Folkman expected a lot from his yard. • He wanted spaces to which every member of his family could escape. And he wanted the teenagers to want to hang out there — so much easier to keep tabs on them! • "Up North, they have basements; people can spread out to other layers," Ken says. "We don't have basements, so we have to use the yard." • He also needed a place for grownup parties and get-togethers for his and wife Debi's favorite charity, Southeastern Guide Dogs. It had to work for family and other adult-kid gatherings, too. • More than anything, the whole shebang had to be super low maintenance. • Yup, Ken wanted it all. So he rolled up his sleeves and made it happen. • Which is why the Folkmans' yard is one of the five "exquisite gardens" on the 22nd annual Earthly Paradise Garden Tour on April 13.

"Ken designed and installed many of the features himself," tour chairman Laura Gauthier told me. "I think you'll really appreciate his true ownership of everything in this garden."

I do!

I'm also a fan of this Rose Circle Garden Club fundraiser. This year will mark my fourth slipping through gates and past privacy fences for a look at South Tampa's most interesting private gardens.

Thanks to Earthly Paradise, I've discovered favorite new plants and fun ideas for containers. I can ask a gazillion questions of the gardeners, and when I wimp out, I take a load off at the Musical Tea Party at Fred Ball Park, where tourgoers kick back with refreshments and live music.

Plan to drive from one home to the next — locations range from near Kennedy and West Shore boulevards southeast to Interbay and Bayshore boulevards.

Ken and Debi Folkman live in the middle, on West Fair Oaks Avenue.

The couple bought their property 13 years ago and built a South Carolina farmhouse-style home. They had a toddler, Devin, a baby, Jared, a swing set and a lawn.

The grass was the first to go.

"Grass doesn't mix well with oaks," says Ken, a partner with Kenneth Michael & Associates, a head-hunting firm for health care industry financial professionals. "It just doesn't make sense to have it."

He created tiered beds in the front — low-growing plants closest to the street, medium-sized bushes behind them, tall plants in the middle and back. His Florida-friendly and native choices thrive on rain and microirrigation.

"I can walk away for two weeks and not worry," he says.

In one bed, oyster plants (Tradescantia spathacea), with their two-toned green and purple foliage, grow behind a low, fieldstone wall. Yellow-blooming shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea) stand behind the oysters, and Mexican petunias (Ruellia tweediana), create a deep lavender glow in the rear. (Look for the seedless variety of Mexican petunia, available at Home Depot, or you'll soon find it all over your yard.)

All of Ken's plants cozy up to pavers or fieldstones; you'll find no cement suffocating the roots of his beloved oaks! Stones allow the water to seep into the ground, providing both nourishment and drainage.

"You have to take care of the trees," Ken says. "It takes a hundred years to grow something like that! Without them Florida would be … Arizona. Our trees bring down the temperature in the yard 15 degrees."

In the back yard, Ken and his friend Paul Martin dreamed up and installed a lush getaway with all kinds of nooks and crannies for gathering or settling in for quality alone time.

A pebble-tile swimming pool surrounded by 240,000 pounds of Tennessee flatstone — all hauled and laid by Ken, Paul and three hired teenagers — features a zippy slide wrapped around a natural stone waterfall. Sedate swimmers can relax on an underwater bench equipped with jet massages tucked away on the other side of the slide.

Follow the path to a 1,000-gallon koi pond, home to 10 gigantic fish and a dozen rescued turtles. Nearby, sports fans can watch the big game under a thatch-roofed bar.

A fire pit has proven great for bonding over scorched marshmallows.

So, does providing spaces to spread out actually throw water on family flareups? Jared Folkman, 13, says yes.

"If you don't want to see your sister, you can go somewhere else," he says. "If we're both in the house, I'll go outside."

He heads to the koi pond.

Not the pool? I ask, surprised.

"You can't always swim," Jared says.

There is a downside to having such an entertaining yard, Ken notes.

"Sometimes we have to tell people, 'It's time to go home!' "

Penny Carnathan can be reached at Find more Tampa garden stories on her blog,; follow her on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, and on Twitter @DigginPenny.

. if you go

Earthly Paradise Garden Tour

When: noon to 5 p.m. April 13; Musical Tea Party, 2-4 p.m. at Fred Ball Park, 2621 Bayshore Blvd.

Where: South Tampa

Tickets: $20 in advance; $25 day of. Purchase on Facebook (Rose Circle Garden Club), at, or at the Tampa Garden Center, Annie's Garden Shed and Bloom, among other shops.

Information: (813) 299-7488;

Earthly Paradise tour April 13 offers peek at five Tampa gardens 04/02/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 12:19pm]
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