Key West's gardens benefit from climate and charm

Tourists are typically drawn to Key West by high-profile attractions such as the Hemingway House, the Conch Train tour and Mallory Square’s sunset celebration.

Few people ever say they want to go to the southernmost city to see the fabulous gardens.

Maybe they should reconsider.

Janis Frawley-Holler, author of Key West Gardens and Their Stories (Pineapple Press, $19.95), says they don’t know what they are missing. Her husband, Darrel Holler, took the photographs for the 128-page paperback, which takes the reader into hidden back yards of private homes, award-winning gardens of boutique hotels and homes once owned by famous folks such as Ernest Hemingway and Calvin Klein.

Janis and Darrell had been going to Key West for years and staying at the Marquesa Hotel. On one trip, owner Carol Wightman mentioned the hotel garden had won an award for its combination of tiered waterfall and exquisite plantings such as Carpenteria palms laden with orchids, a wall of wine and cream-colored allamandas and a trio of travelers trees. Wightman suggested she write a story on this and other local gardens.

Word about her project spread quickly, and in a short time Frawley-Holler had plenty of material. A friend suggested she ought to write a book instead.

The result is a beautifully photographed paperback that is inspirational as well as a garden guide. It includes styles for every taste -— from a hideaway where meditations are held two evenings a week by the light of bamboo torches to a haven for the rare palms of Cuba. Gardens featured in the book are private as well as public.

So what makes these gardens so special?

"These gardens are magical, romantic and epitomize carefree living in a place where the sun’s heat slows the pace of human life but rallies the souls of tropical plants from around the world..." she wrote in the book’s introduction. "The rhythm of life is more Caribbean than American. And so is the cadence of the gardens..."

Many of the homes are small and the homeowners have transformed the small yards into outdoor rooms, Frawley-Holler said in a telephone interview from her home in Longboat Key on Florida’s west coast.

Some of the plants don’t grow anywhere else in the continental United States, she says. Key West is in Hardiness Zone 11, found in Hawaii and the lowermost Florida Keys. It’s more subtropical than South Florida’s Zone 10.

"There are wonderful old fruit trees and flowering trees that sea captains brought with them," she says. "They do more entertaining in outdoor rooms because they don’t have the mosquito problems. Their gardens are very magical."

One of the design ideas that impressed her most was the use of mirrors to make the gardens look bigger. Some were hooked into trunks of palm trees. Others were attached to exterior of homes. One of the smallest gardens, which she dubbed "Caribbean Fling," is surrounded by a fence with baby palm planted in front. Tracks on the fence hold a mirror that makes the tiny palm garden look like it goes on forever.

Key West gardeners also favor chickee huts. One garden featured a tiny round chickee with votive candles nailed up the poles. Another, with a roof woven by Guatemalan artisans, was furnished with an antique Indonesian weaving loom that was converted into a sofa.

The residents of the Conch Republic are also known for their love of whimsy and the gardens are full of it.

Tony Falcone, owner of Fast Buck Freddie’s department store on Duval Street, has an Aztec-inspired crocodile bench by the pool and a rubber gator in the pool.

The garden of Barry Archung and Jan Schoenmaker includes a mural painted in bright greens and yellows on the house’s back outer wall.

But the coup de grace may just be author Judy Blume’s La Fontana di LuLu, a hand-carved figurehead that once stood at the entrance of a local nautical shop.

"They have a lot of fun with LuLu," says Frawley-Holler. "They dress her up and put sunglasses, a hat and a swimsuit top on her and beads around her neck from Fantasy Fest."

Like decorating your home, expressing your personality in your garden makes the difference between the ordinary and extraordinary.

A good example is a house once owned by Jerry Herman, a Broadway producer who did La Cage aux Folles, Mame and Hello Dolly!. The new owner planted the front yard in with a profusion of butterfly magnets -— golden yellow lantanas, pink periwinkles, dark-red pentas, purple wild petunia and blue plumbago.

Among the backyard features are more than 20 orchids on a lattice wall, a potted bougainvillea sculptured into a tree, a large basket of sea shells and coral as well as a metal sculpture by local artist John Martini.

"One of the most important things I learned was you can make a beautiful garden for yourself no matter how much or how little land you have," Frawley-Holler says. "Go with what you feel and what you like and make it unique. You don’t have to have a lot of money to have a wonderful garden."