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THE gardens OF key west.

A COURTYARD GARDEN

To lounge around the pool of the historic Marquesa Hotel, embraced by the surrounding courtyard garden, is reason enough to come to Key West. This award-winning garden grows behind the aqua-colored main building, which was built in 1864 as a private residence. Later it became a boarding house, where, it is rumored, Gloria Swanson spent some of her childhood years.

The garden sneaks into every little niche of the grounds. Orchids cling to the trunks of grand travelers trees and hang from the branches of a unique collection of palms. There are great gatherings of heliconia, orange sherbet-hueds and Hawaiian cordylines. Merlot-colored allamandas blanket lattice walls; and pots of blooming bromeliads perch on the end of each step of a stairway, creating a rising wall of tropicals. Creeping ficus steals across the stairs that lead up to an elevated waterfall garden, which sends the soft sound of gentle rain across the courtyard. You couldn't ask for a more beautiful and serene setting to wake up to while on vacation.

TRANQUILITY FROM THE ORIENT

The Oriental-themed garden at Villa Mill Alley is so magnificent it could be a Hollywood set.

Three fountains provide soothing sounds along a path to a Moon Gate, which, according to Chinese legend, is the opening to a better life. Fu dogs are positioned on either side of the gate, and at their feet a large flower bed, bright in golden shrimp plants, vivid crotons and yellow ixoras, reaches into the "cocktail area" of Chinese garden sears made of porcelain stoneware with ornate blue motifs. A cobalt-blue bridge crosses a stream that flows from a large koi pond to a pagoda-style pergola, the perfect spot to sit quietly and take in the many details of this garden, from statues of elephants and cranes to ornate lanterns that light the garden by night.

Tom Davis, agent for actress Mary Martin, hosted celebrated guests at legendary dinner parties in the open-air dining pagoda, here in this garden he loved so much.

AN ARTIST'S PALETTE OF FLOWERS

Everyone dreams of a house behind a white picker fence with bright flowers draping over and peeping through the evenly spaced slats. Artist Richard Matson's little street garden is such a place.

The densely planted garden caresses the front of his two-story home, which was built in 1890. One could never guess that this lush collage of flowers is a container garden! The secret is camouflaging every smidgen of dirt and pot in a cacophony of flowing blossoms--golden dewdrops, deep-purple porterweed, spicy red jatropha and much more. A princess plant blooms near a bird of paradise Richard rescued from a Key West trash heap. It's a pint-sized garden of enormous beauty, which I discovered just by strolling Old Town.

A GARDEN OF KEY WEST MEMORIES

The backyard paradise of Tony Falcone was sown with patience, grew with the common plants he loves and overflows with memories of his life in Key West. He feels lucky he was "planted" here back in 1975 when he and his partner opened a small shop that has become an island landmark, Fast Buck Freddie's.

Each of two outdoor rooms on the back of his 1860 house looks onto its own garden. Off the "meditation room," a brick path is framed in a weaving of huge birds nest anthuriums, areca, lady and fancy-leafed fishtail palms, all accented with large, white paper lanterns. Water trickles into a tiny goldfish pond shaded by gigantic travelers' trees and a schefflera, which has grown from the little potted plant Tony's mother gave him when he opened his store to a 30-foot-high tree.

The "pool garden" features a peekaboo planting pattern, with cutouts in the deck that hold Christmas palms and corn plants. A flowerbox overflows in white firecracker plants and red pentas, and shelves are filled with orchids, gifts from friends to commemorate special occasions. "My garden is Key West magic," Tony says, and I agree.

Two years. ago, I was spending a weekend at Key West's Marquesa Hotel when owner Carol Wightman showed me an award the hotel's new garden had just won. "There are so many gorgeous gardens in Key West," she said. "You should write an article about them." A friend of mine encouraged me to think bigger and write a hook about the gardens, and that turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Carol introduced me to several artistic gardeners and a famous landscape architect on the island. From there, the "coconut telegraph" took over, leading me to 57 different gardens. Soon I was immersed in an exotic world of ultra-tropical plants and rare palms, intriguing stories and histories and, most important, meeting and making friends with the residents of Key West whose imagination and zest for life know no boundaries--I'm thinking of the gardeners who dressed up as planter boxes brimming in tropical flowers and praded Duval Street during Key West's annual Fantasy Pest. Here's a peek into four of the gardens in my book.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Frawley-Holler, Janis
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Words:836
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