When Bill and Martha Brooks bought their little acre of heaven in Brandon 36 years ago, there was nothing around but citrus trees and cattle pasture.
Their son hunted in the groves.
Raccoons camped wherever they felt like it.
Once, Bill even had to chase a couple of confused cows out of the garage.
"We were the only house on the street," says Bill, now 68 and retired from a management job at ALCOA in Plant City. "We paid $17,500 for the land and the house. Now it's all developed. I wish I had bought every lot out here."
The couple's corner lot on a dead-end road across from Limona Park is still thick with live oaks, tangerine, lemon and grapefruit trees.
Orchids flash their lavender blooms like goddesses among the greenery.
A three-tier waterfall cascades into a kidney-shaped pond teeming with the fattest, tamest koi imaginable. The couple put in the 3,000-gallon pond two years ago and surrounded it with a 60- by 14-foot deck that rambles beneath the shade of an old grapefruit tree. There's a gazebo with an outdoor sink, seating area and two big rocking chairs in front of the water.
Martha filled the trees with wind chimes and butterflies, and decorated the garden with porcelain elves, candle lanterns and feeders for the squirrels and birds. "It's not a fancy place," Martha says, "but it makes you have a warm, warm feeling."
The Brookses share their humble slice of Brandon paradise with their three tiny papillon dogs, Gidget, Bridget and Midget. Their yard will be featured on this year's pond and garden tour sponsored by Pondscapes, the South Tampa business that helped them design and install the pond and sold them their massive koi.
"These fish will eat out of your hand," Bill says. "And they'll let you just rub them, especially the big white one. She's my pet."
To prove his point, he wads up a slice of whole-wheat bread. The fat school surfaces at the hint of food, their colors the intense reds, yellow and corals of blown glass. Some are as big as a man's forearm. They allow a stranger to stroke their backs, toss bits of bread into their mouths.
"I bought them big," he explains. "I didn't want to wait for them to grow because I wouldn't be around to see it."
Martha edged the pond with sea grapes, palms, ivy and plants that she and her cousin hauled up from a nursery in Homestead. At 61, she works as an accountant for the Hillsborough Medical Association. She and Bill redesigned their garden, and built the deck and pond in memory of her mother, Mary Warren, who died in 2002 at 86.
"My mom was a gardener, she knew the names of everything, and she worked in her yard every day until she got sick and died," Martha explains.
"All the orchids were hers and every year, right about now, close to my birthday and Mother's Day, a whole bunch of them start blooming. I don't know whether it's a coincidence or whether this is just when they bloom."
Their son, Michael Brooks, a Hillsborough County firefighter and amateur taxidermist, gave them a garden spade that says "Angels Watching from Above."
Surely they are. Everything is oversized in this yard: the staghorn fern hanging from the grapefruit tree, the lemons as large as softballs, the 10-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty that Bill lights up at night. Complete strangers sometimes stop to take pictures.
People tell them their yard should be in a magazine. "We entertain out here as often as we can," says Martha, an ardent cook and painter. Her paintings hang throughout their house, inspired by her love of plants and the outdoors. "It's a little piece of paradise here."
A little piece of what was once a bigger paradise - one that few can remember anymore.