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Greenhouse Whimsy: The Cape Fear Garden Club puts on 62nd annual Azalea Garden Tour

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The 62nd Azalea Garden Tour, presented by the Cape Fear Garden Club (CFGC), will delight the public this weekend with 12 private gardens, plus Airlie (Saturday and Sunday only). An official event of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, the presentation of these gardens is one of the most popular garden tours in the South.


WHIMSICAL HUES: Donna Starling, member of the Cape Fear Orchid Society, takes in her breathtaking orchids, which will show as part of the Azalea Garden Tour. Photo courtesy Donna Starling.

Sandra Kittinger, chair of this year’s tour, said the nonprofit CFGC has raised $1.2 million in the past 20 years, which helps fund horticultural scholarships for students at UNCW and CFCC. Substantial grants also are given each year to Audubon North Carolina and other worthy nonprofits (applications for grant disbursements are online at

Kittinger, whose own inspiring home overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, is proud of the selections for this year’s theme, “Coastal Gardens from River to Sea.” “The variety will inspire every avid gardener, with gardens ranging in styles from classical to modern and formal to whimsical,” she says.

The focus, of course, is the azalea! Tour participants may attend the Friday morning, ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. There will be a parade of the 2015 Azalea Belles, an introduction of Azalea Queen Mallory Hagan (Miss America 2013) and Azalea Festival celebrities.  There will be a reception at the nearby Dr. Heber W. Johnson Rotary Garden (parking at Legion Stadium, 2221 Carolina Beach Road, with free bus shuttle service).

Garden tour ticket booklets will be stamped at each event. They contain a county map, which shows the location of each beautiful garden, parking tips, descriptions, and acknowledgements to the many Wilmingtonians who make this event possible, especially the garden tour owners themselves.

On the tour, one can see the greenhouse whimsy and winding garden paths at the residence of Donna and Britt Starling. When the Starlings renovated their home from “shabby chic to Caribbean modern,” they recycled the beams, windows and doors to create a very livable 13-by-26 foot outdoor greenhouse, resplendent with its own shabby chic chandelier. A member of the Cape Fear Orchid Society, Donna installed the proper climate controls for the ultimate in orchid culture. She nurtures several different slipper orchids (paphiopedilum) and moth orchids (phalaeonpsis)—the latter a favorite of greenhouse growers. Donna loves the large classic white Malibu Mystere and the spotted purple Sonata Spots.

Outside tall live oaks shade the Starling residence, both front and back. Donna has shaped the gorgeous dense boxwood into a Zen framework around her formal entry patio. Evergreen liriope surrounds a flowing fountain. Needle palms line the walkway to the backyard. A shaded path winds through the woods, which are festooned with azaleas, camellias, fatsia, gardenias, hostas, and Japanese yew. A red-doored garden shed, which once served as a playhouse, is backed with a yellow slide and provides a fun exit to the rear. A discerning eye will spot three garden fairies, which once represented the Starling children, Michael 15, Kitty 14 and Jules 10, now almost grown.

The whole Starling family enjoys entertaining on the outdoor patio around a modern black gas-fire pit with blue-glass insert. The patio is surrounded by variegated bamboo, adorned with tiny twinkling lights. Nature lovers, the Starlings have bird- and butterfly-friendly plants, especially the trumpet vine and butterfly bush. There are two bluebird houses and feeders for other treasured birds, such as the brilliant red cardinals, which are so prevalent this time of year. Nearby is a flame azalea, one of the few deciduous azaleas on the tour.

Other landscapes in the tour have these rare finds, especially Airlie Gardens, the epitome of southern gardens, with its 67 acres filled with over 100,000 azaleas, camellias, statuary, and the 465 year-old Airlie Oak.

Also, be sure not to miss the labyrinth and waterfalls at the Lower Cape Fear Hospice Heritage Garden; the life-size copper giraffe at the home of Michael Murchison and Barbara Sullivan (author of Garden Perennials for the Coastal South); the intimate courtyard at the Camellia Cottage Bed and Breakfast of Paula Tirrito and Steven Skavroneck; Kinzy and Jeff Tippett’s shared garden with her parents, Bill and Maxine Hobbs (retired teacher and former colleague); the sparkling pool surrounded by tropical plants of Beverly and Carroll Thomas; the trio of petite gardens maintained by homeowners, Allan Donald, Marie and Tom Douglas and Signa and Wray Stalvey; three mature bald cypress at the Hogan Family Garden; and the stone-enclosed pool and nearby dock on Pages Creek, enhanced by the Resh Family Garden.

Tickets for the tour are $25 and are good for all three days. They can be purchased at any of the participating gardens, as well as a host of establishments around town, which are listed at


Azalea Garden Tour

Fri. – Sun., April 10-12,
Gardens open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
(910) 390-0605

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