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College Hill provides cool settings for garden tour

It takes me a while to become acclimated to the hot weather when summer finally hits. By the time August rolls around I'm right at home in the sauna. But now, in early June, I'm looking for air-conditioned coffee shops, shady parking spots and tree-lined streets to walk down.

So it was not with a normally light heart that I went looking at gardens on the hottest afternoon of the year so far, firmly in the 90s. Fortunately for me, I was previewing the College Hill Architectural & Garden Tour, and College Hill is famous for havens of shade behind its stately facades.

I have walked by Sharon O'Neill and William McKeighan's yard at Roosevelt and Lewis many times, the garden spilling all the way out to the street. But I had never wandered up into its arms. When I did this hot day, walking up the driveway on the Lewis side of the street, I caught sight of a tall carving of St. Francis to my left, a cardinal in his hand.

The scene immediately took me to Assisi, where you can always find white birds miraculously perched on a statue of St. Francis just as they were around him in life, giving

audience to his preaching. I've never been in a place that is so imbued with the spirit of a person.

While I lingered in a reverie that spanned the continents, I heard water trickling. A side backyard didn't seem like the place for it, but I walked in a bit more deeply and saw a waterfall spilling into a small pond. The thrill of miracles — and the cool — deepened.

Sharon is a master gardener, and her yard is all little glades of shade.

"It's designed to be a four-season garden and it has lots of shade," Sharon told me. "I got tired of waiting for flowers to bloom all the time, so I've done a lot with different colored foliage and textures."

Among the plants in her palette are autumn ferns in the back and cinnamon ferns in the front, and red dragonwing begonias that can take some shade.

"When I first started 19 years ago, I was into a lot of pinks and blues, but I've found the strong colors show up better — lime green and oranges and reds and yellow. The only pink is in the area of the backyard that is surrounded by the deck fence, and I call that my secret garden." It's there that the pinks can be admired up close.

"For continuity around the yard, because it's kind of busy, I use red-leafed red begonias and try to combine those with lime-green moneywort. I like ground covers a lot because it reduces the weeding." Buttercups are her favorite right now for their long-lasting yellow flowers.

Sharon told me that artist Gino Salerno carved her St. Francis statue out of an Austrian pine that once grew in the yard. I wish I could say I'd done anything worthwhile with my dead pines.

I found more literal coolness on the north side of Douglas, at 328 N. Pershing. There Linda Wilson has literally potted up the backyard. There's no grass — just decks and paths, and pots all over them.

"It just kind of gradually happened," Linda said of the transformation. "I guess it was probably sometime when the kids started leaving and stuff.

"I love it."

So do I. An old Coca-Cola cooler serves up airplane plants, and when a breeze finds its way between the pots, the temperature drops many degrees below whatever the thermometer reads.

I probably don't need to add that it's shady.

Linda brings her houseplants outside in the summer (they live in the dining room in the winter), and has perennials in pots that live outdoors year-round. Leaves that fall from the trees provide a natural mulch. Then she adds fresh annuals to the pots each spring.

"I like to arrange them and put different things in different pots. I guess it's just relaxing to me."

Linda uses mostly plastic pots because clay doesn't last that long, and when you have this many pots, you're always replacing some.

And if you are wondering, yes, Linda waters all the pots by hand.

"When I go on vacation, I ask my grandson and daughter-in-law (to water), and she gripes about it every time that I need some kind of system."

But, like a good daughter-in-law, she does it.

When an old elm tree died, Linda's husband, Ed, built a knee-high bench over it where their Scotties like to sleep and, which, of course, offers another level for pots.

You'll also see that Linda likes red: a red shovel, a red Gerber daisy, red petunias, red chairs that hold pots, a red wagon. Other splashes of whimsy: a pair of concrete giraffes from Burrton, and a pair of black Crocs knock-offs hanging from twine by the back door, holding begonias.

You've probably admired Linda's plants at the State Fair — she has a bunch of blue ribbons from entering her houseplants and flowers. She had started noticing that "my plants look better than theirs," and has been competing for ribbons with her Swedish ivy, asparagus ferns and miniature roses ever since.

Three other gardens are on the College Hill tour next weekend. Their owners and addresses:

* Marc and Charisse Bachrodt at 300 S. Clifton. This is one of my favorite streets in Wichita — stately and lush.

* Paul and Maxine Miller at 333 S. Crestway. I wrote about this garden — white picket fence against a red house — back in 1999 when other owners lived there. It's a front-yard as opposed to a backyard garden. And it has a flying pig.

* Daniel and Mary Wheeler at 237 N. Crestway. This garden was on the recent master gardener tour as well. It is a fresh garden with a swimming pool and an extensive drainage system to help deal with water.

Tickets to the tour cost $5 and include a booklet with house and garden descriptions and history. They are available at Watermark Books before the tour, and will be for sale at each garden on the day of the tour. Hours for the tour will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 12.

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