VIBRANCY, LIFE, ART: Walk through secret gardens and artful landscapes at 2019’s Azalea Garden Tour, April 5-7

Laura McCabe has been counting down to this weekend’s Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour for a while now. Literally, she’s been posting photos of the developing landscape around her family’s home almost daily on Facebook. “She’ll post something when she’s not having a meltdown,” her husband Duncan quips.

Garden map illustrated by Diana Krause-Anderson
AZALEA GARDEN TOUR: The McCabe’s Garden map, illustrated by Diana Krause-Anderson, will be passed around to visitors.

“Exactly!” Laura agrees with a laugh—“when things just don’t seem to be going the way they should be.”

Roughly 3,500 people will descend upon the McCabes’ New Orleans Place home over the course of three days, April 5-7. Ten other gardens will be featured along the tour, which opens with a free ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, 10 a.m., at the home of Steve and Linda Smits (1925 S. Live Oak Parkway). Immediately following the ribbon cutting, Cape Fear Garden Club will serve punch and over 5,000 homemade cookies at the Azalea Queen’s Garden Party at the Smits’ garden.
While most of the tour is self-guided, folks will need to board the ongoing trolley at Harbor Way Gardens (Seawater Lane) to visit the Secret Garden on the list (with the last trolley leaving at 4:30 p.m. daily).

It is the McCabes’ first year participating in the Cape Fear Garden Club’s largest fundraiser. Laura’s theory is it’s the best year to join because of perfect spring weather (though, they’ve been prepping since December)—and the fact most gardens look pretty impressive, considering the damage sustained after Hurricane Florence. In fact, the McCabes had multiple felled pine trees to clear. But, now, almost every inch of what could be a mini-nature preserve comes to life with vibrancy, life and art.

The McCabes moved to Wilmington in 1997, and like many gardening enthusiasts, have since collected several ideas and inspirations throughout the years leading to their tour debut. It’s a lot of hard work to prepare for the garden tour, and there’s a five-year waiting period before a garden can reappear.

“Paul Hill was at one home about two years ago and we fell in love with his metal heron sculpture,” Laura notes. The McCabes secured a bird sculpture to oversee one of three of water features. “We’d always ride [on tandem bike] through the gardens, going ‘God, I wonder if we’d ever be good enough.” Thus, it’s only fitting they have life-size “Ribbits” by Andy Cobb featured on their garden path, riding a tandem bicycle, nonetheless. It’s a way for the McCabes’ personalities and experiences to be commemorated in their gardens. Their travels are also represented, as seen in glass sculptures of koru unfurling ferns in the rain garden, inspired by their trips to New Zealand.

“Two years ago at Airlie Gardens they had the ‘Imagination Exhibit’ by Matthew Leavell.” Laura points to a 5-foot-8-inch metal flower. “[‘Whimsey Flowers’] was on display, and then we commissioned a second [similar] one that’s in the backyard.”

A massive, well-used steel fire pit comes from South Carolina’s Carolina Kettles. Duncan reads its inscription: “Here’s to nights we will never remember with friends we will never forget.” A 360-degree waterfall by Josh Rickards is from Creative Cascades, and a large fish statue Laura picked up from Hong Kong years ago is at its center.

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Laura stops to note the patches of grass they just sprayed with a nitrogen fertilizer to “green up” for showtime. “Normally I’m not a grass person,” she admits. “Duncan cuts it with a weed eater and that’s more than enough. But people kind of cheat a little bit and put down a perennial rye in the fall or the winter.”

A new Blue Sky Vine is starting to come up in front of Duncan’s woodwork shop, while the old vine—though brittled and browned—remains. Of course, their white and fuschia azaleas are in full bloom. Some “picky folks” might catch on to some imperfections with a gardenia or an offness to any number of plants. However, the McCabes are self-ascribed “opportunistic gardeners.” “If something wants to grow we let it,” Duncan says.

Laura’s garden guru friends, like Carolyn Thomas from Gardens by Design and Nina Brown from Stone Garden, have been indelible points of contact in her preparation for the tour. “[Carolyn] and I are both on the [Friends of the Arboretum] board,” Laura says. “She has come over and offered all sorts of free advice.”

The McCabes will have labels for their plants, ornate grasses and flowers, like the St. John’s-wort around their palm tree out front. It often stumps people.

“No one knows what it is,” Laura notes, “it blooms lovely yellow flowers, so it’s intended to be a ground cover—and you have to cut it back in the winter.”

Laura and Duncan have planted camellias and native oak leaf hydrangeas, which are pollinator friendly. They’re perfect for the three busy bee hives located in the very back half of the lot, cut off from the main garden tour. It is also where “the girls” from their brood of chickens graze and scratch.

There’s more to come for the McCabe’s mini nature and art walk this weekend. Find them and other stops on the CFGC Azalea Garden Tour at

Tickets are now only available at Friday’s ribbon cutting and each garden during the tour—if not sold out.

The Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour has raised more than a million dollars over 61 years. Proceeds benefit beautification and horticultural efforts in New Hanover County, fund UNCW and CFCC scholarships, as well as conservation efforts at Battery Island, a National Audubon Society Bird Sanctuary.

Cape Fear Garden Club
Azalea Garden Tour
Friday-Sunday, April 5-7
Various locations • Tickets: $35

Don’t forget to check out all the other Azalea Fest happenings, including Main Stage Music, Juried Art Show and Sale, and read all about this year’s Azalea Queen—all in this week’s encore!


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