Tour the pockets of verdant foliage and subtropical oases during the 43rd Garden Walk presented by the Garden Club of the Upper Keys. CAROLYN DePAULA/Keys Weekly

The Florida Keys are known for their panoramic views of the sea. Narrow strips of land, connected by bridges, invite all to “ooh” and “aah” at the vast expanse of the waters around them. 

However, there is more than the aquatic: the Keys are also home to pockets of verdant foliage and subtropical oases which delight the senses. 

Established in 1952, the Garden Club of the Upper Keys promotes, protects and conserves the terrestrial sanctuaries of the island chain. In addition to offering support, encouragement and education on native plants, gardening, and conservation, each year the Garden Club hosts the annual Garden Walk. 

The walk, in its 43rd year, provides locals and visitors with a peek into some impressive local gardens, each bearing a signature from its creators. Set for Saturday, Feb. 17, local gardeners showcase their artistry, at once imaginative and functional, with master gardeners at hand to function as tour guides. 

“The Garden Club of the Upper Keys is pleased that this year’s featured gardens represent the full spectrum of the unique beauty of nature found in the Florida Keys,” said Pat Uhl, Garden Walk organizer. “Each visitor is sure to be delighted in learning about new plants or old favorites that thrive in our environment.”

The St. Justin Prayer Garden at MM 105 invites one to meander along the courtyard of the Key Largo Catholic Church to see screw-pines (Pandanus utilis for the botanist), or screw palms, which are neither pine nor palm. Along the way, encounter mosaic artwork, interesting architecture, statues, as well as a peaceful fountain, culminating in a leafy prayer garden. 

Rest the body and soul while admiring from top to bottom: gumbo limbo, West Indian mahogany, Jamaican dogwood and black ironwood in the upper canopy. A few foreigners also welcome among the natives: black olive tree and coconut, Christmas and areca palms. Other natives include the satin leaf, blolly and wild coffee, and the ubiquitous plumeria and hibiscus. The balance of native and non-native, hard and soft, man versus nature, all in harmony as is fit for a prayer garden.

As participants continue their journey through the flora of the Upper Keys, they will meet an active older couple who lovingly created and nurtured a bromeliad fairyland. The property features dozens of different species of bromeliads, and the friendly floral archway invites one to explore the lush surroundings among the narrow pathways. Miniature buildings dot the landscape, accompanied by delicate succulents, which only here appear to tower over anything. Not one to shirk its responsibility of carrying the moniker of fairyland, this garden showcases a pruned fig tree in the shape of an umbrella, shading a children’s area. 

The whimsy is found everywhere, with the repurposing of used sneakers into flower planters, and the face of the 1980s movie extraterrestrial E.T. painted on a sea grape tree. It takes two to tango in this enchanting garden, and the Blue Tango is its star (for the Latin-inclined, the Aechmea dichlamydea trinitensis x A. fendleri). Garden walkers are bound to stop for a moment and take in the beauty of hot pink stems contrasted with violet/indigo “arms,” called bracts, jutting out in different directions, commanding attention. This diva can bloom for five months or even longer under proper conditions. Lime green leaves frame it just so, like a fountain of serrated sprays.

Bromeliads are gracious, collecting water with their distinctive shaped leaves, inviting aquatic insects and microorganisms to overstay their welcome. To return its spirit of generosity, the careful gardener provides filtered light and loose organic soil mixed with small bark chips or sphagnum moss to increase porosity.

Casa Arboleda at MM 103 is a celebration of nature in all its wild beauty. A master gardener herself, the owner and her husband meticulously cultivated the land to feature 350 species of plants, including more than 150 native species. Labels are throughout for the hopeful gardener, rookie or veteran. Plants are given the opportunity to thrive by being placed where they are most likely to. It seems only fitting the owner’s late mother was a celebrated educator, as principles of education apply here as well. Food plants delight at every turn, from governor’s plum to papaya, mango, a grafted Key lime/Meyer lemon tree, a potted moringa, coconut, Mandarin and Valencia oranges. 

A lover of Thai cooking, lemongrass and Thai ginger are conspicuously placed. A red mangrove is placed in the pond to provide natural filtration. 

Crustacean Plantation at MM 93 puts as much weight on its local fauna as its flora. Transforming rocky land into lush green surroundings, the couple is vigilant to protect the natural environment by pulling out invasive species of plants as soon as they appear. As stewards of what they were entrusted, they take their job seriously, their home offices overseeing their sprawling property in all its green grandeur. 

Home to hundreds of hermit crabs, the couple manages social media pages which document their adventure of conservation and getting to know these crustaceans. Followers all over the globe send shells for the hermit crabs to live in, whose original homes are often scarce or destroyed by increasing human encroachment. Crustacean Plantation is in essence a sanctuary for these native creatures. Gardeners and crustacean caregivers write shell donors’ initials on the shells so they can follow their hermit crabs.

Tickets to the private garden tours are available until Friday, Feb. 16 at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, Key Largo Flowers and Gifts, Island Home Nursery and the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce for $30 apiece. Tickets are also available at

Purchase tickets on the day of the event at Francis Tracy Garden Center, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m,. where there will be many vendors’ booths with arts and crafts, plant sales, jewelry, and art show by the Art Guild of the Purple Isles. Delicious food from purveyors such as Cousins Lobster Food Truck, Mallory’s Bakery and El Taquito Placero Food Truck will be there to titillate taste buds. 

Carolyn DePaula
Originally hailing from the tropical island paradise of Aruba, Carolyn, now a longtime resident of the Upper Keys, knows the islands and its people quite well. With three kids and a husband who was raised here, she also continues to enjoy the many events the Keys have to offer. Carolyn has always had a passion for language, reading, history and writing, her mom having been an editor and her father a translator. An FIU graduate, Carolyn believes in learning something new each day — preferably while enjoying a large cup of coffee with her dog on her lap.