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Flower of friendship

After recruiting other gardeners for the Earthly Paradise tour, two friends put their own green thumbs on display.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2002

Neighbors Caroline Hill and Tracey McBride share a weeping yaupon holly tree, car pool duty, the finish line of several marathons, a sense of humor and a love of gardening.

"We're like sisters who found each other late in life," says McBride, 39.

For four years, the two have recruited South Tampa gardeners to join the Rose Circle Garden Club's annual Earthly Paradise garden tour, coaxing homeowners to open their gardens to a parade of 700 visitors.

This year the two get their just desserts: their own stops on Saturday's tour.

Hill and McBride have been busy fertilizing, snipping and planting, readying their gardens for guests.

"Now we know what we did to these people all these years," jokes Hill, 40.

The Earthly Paradise garden tour started out as a way for members to explore each others' plants and gardening habits, says Collins Guyton, this year's tour organizer.

It has since expanded into an annual event.

For a $10 ticket, visitors get a bird's-eye view of gardeners' private Edens.

"I love gardens that are true to the house," says Hill, president of the 75-year-old garden club.

"It's like when the frame matches the picture," says McBride, vice president.

That's a theme reflected in Hill and McBride's neighboring yet contrasting homes. Their gardens were designed by the same landscape architect, yet show the subtle nuances of their individual personalities and tastes.

Hill's front lawn is deep green and shady with a variety of ferns, bromeliads and a thick cache of cardboard palms flourishing under a shady live oak tree. A meandering brick walkway finds the back yard, by way of the anise hedge, oak leaf hydrangea, monster-sized stag horn fern and white azaleas. The white arbor supports a climbing Pandora vine and hanging baskets with purple and pink blooms. Hill's coup de grace is a beloved moon gate built by her father; an idea pulled from a magazine.

Her backyard is smaller than McBride's yet more free form and filled to the brim with a variety of flowering plants, along with a tree house for the children.

The Charleston-style garden, a match to her southern-style two-story beige house, boasts a square, red brick fountain, home to fish and aquatic plants, bordered by a Japanese boxwood shrub.

Meanwhile, McBride is trying the plush, bright green sea paspalum turf in her front lawn, remarkably resilient to drought, sun and the pummeling dished out by two young sons and a Jack Russell terrier.

Two round sculpted Miami royal supreme gardenia bushes jut out from layers of hedges, framing the white columns and red front door of her traditional home. Creeping fig blankets the front wall that borders her property.

McBride's backyard is manicured elegance. There's a long pool with a lion's head fountain and statuesque potted plants. The sparse look is punctuated by a rainbow-hued butterfly garden, an archway covered with flowering petria vine and knot-work hedges filled in with blooming perennials.

In keeping with McBride's sense of humor, the rose bed on the east side of her home boasts a sign that reads, "My garden is not dead. It's sleeping."

Despite contrasting styles, the two women's homes share a fence, gate, shrub and brick walkway.

"Bless our husbands, they tolerate our craziness!" says McBride.

Her husband, Gordon, and Hill's husband, Stephen, golf together often and are great friends, too. The families, close for more than 10 years, even vacation together.

In August, Hill purchased The Garden Party, long-time home and garden accessory store near Fred Ball Park. McBride is her best customer.

"Timing is everything," Hill says wryly.

She knows about timing. Eight months pregnant, she juggles two school-age girls, a 5-year-old son, her home and business.

And, of course, gardening.

Her garden is one of seven in a tour with stops along Bayshore Boulevard and on Davis Islands.

"We've got a garden for everyone," says Guyton.

The tour rolls on from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a tea party from 2 to 4 p.m., complete with quartet at Fred Ball Park. The club offers a $10 boxed lunch for purchase in addition to the free cookies, tea and lemonade.

"We have so much fun," says Guyton, of the nearly 50-member club's fundraising event. Many participants don large hats, and they dress in their tea-party best.

Garden tour proceeds go the upkeep and maintenance of Fred Ball Park, Rose Circle's pet project. Members work closely with the city parks department, planting shrubs and flowers. Most recently, the club paid for the repainting the park's signature gazebo. The Rose Circle Garden Club is a member of the Tampa Federation of Garden Clubs.

-- Earthly Paradise garden tour tickets can be purchased at The Garden Party, 2832 S. MacDill Ave. Call (813) 831-7176 for details.

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