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Diggin' Florida Dirt: Earthly Paradise Garden Tour blooms ideas to take

There’s no grass in the front yard of Keith Roberts’ 1947 bungalow in South Tampa. Instead, he makes use of sun-loving tropicals, including cardboard palms, shell ginger and a bougainvillea standard.
There’s no grass in the front yard of Keith Roberts’ 1947 bungalow in South Tampa. Instead, he makes use of sun-loving tropicals, including cardboard palms, shell ginger and a bougainvillea standard.
Published Apr. 3, 2016

I'm grateful for garden tours for so many reasons. They pollinate (ideas!) without making me sneeze. They indulge my inner voyeur (what's behind that fence?). And they're Pinterest Live, with humans you can speak to, plants you can sniff and, if you're lucky, stuff to eat.

One of my favorites, Earthly Paradise coming up April 10, invites the hoi polloi into the private oases of some of South Tampa's most beautiful, oldest — and newest — homes. It always includes a Musical Tea Party; this year, a Dixieland band will play under the oaks at Fred Ball Park on Bayshore Boulevard while cheerfully weary garden tourists recharge with munchies catered by Chavez at Home.

The Rose Garden Circle's 24th annual tour includes five homes, each with an interesting story.

"The Gary and Margo Harrod home on Bayshore Boulevard has the garden with beautiful brick walls entwined with Stephanotis (Madagascar jasmine), which encloses a paradise of roses that are a glorious profusion of color and fragrance," says garden circle member and publicity maven Jan Miller.

"We have a gardener-artist extraordinaire — a home with topiaries combined with beautiful mosaic works of art lovingly placed throughout the garden."

I got a sneak peek at yet another treat on the tour, a Key West-style bungalow enveloped by tropical blooms and palms accented by mid-century modern flourishes. Keith Roberts bought the circa 1947 house nearly 20 years ago and, from the beginning, used scale and an abhorrence of mowing grass as his guiding design principles.

"My instinct has been toward tropical plants. Once every 10 years, I pay the price when a freeze hits," he says. "I used to cover almost everything, but now they're too big. And most of it doesn't die. You just have to suffer through a few months of plants not looking great."

Keith's Lesson 1: Clearing and planting can be drudgery. Tough it out. On the other end, you get the joy and relative ease of maintaining established plants.

Keith's Lesson 2: The more mature the plant, the better it survives a freeze. Don't give up too quickly, even on tropicals, when plants freeze to the ground.

Keith's Lesson 3: Design with your lifestyle top of mind. Keith throws killer bridge parties, has the aforementioned aversion to mowing and values privacy. His landscape caters to all three values.

His bungalow is small, about 1,000 square feet, on a lot that's about 50 by 100 feet. So, Keith tries to avoid trees and shrubs that, at maturity, will swallow everything. When you've invested in home accessories like colorfully striped awnings and a fun screen door, why hide them with shrubs?

The exception: the palms that wrap his back yard like a cocoon. They're a chore.

"I have the fishtail palms for privacy. Keeping them at a reasonable scale is a project. Once a year, I have the largest stalks removed," he says.

Because he entertains fall through spring, he turned the back yard into a place where friends can happily gather. A deck extends deep into the space. Along one side, a quietly gushing fountain pours into a pool filled nearly to the brim with large river rocks. Mid-century and industrial-inspired furniture and art add a few hundred square feet of living space to his home.

I've already made notes about the ideas I'll take from Keith — one being the navy blue privacy fence along his driveway, a great color I'd never have considered.

I can't wait to steal from the other four houses. Er, borrow. If you buy a ticket, it's not stealing.


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