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Communique: "Bloomin' Beautiful" Azalea Garden Tour, April 13-15

Sydney Penny (Left) & Cathy Poulos


Listen to Sydney Penny and Cathy Poulos talk about this year's Azalea Garden Tour from the Cape Fear Garden Club, April 13-15.  Eleven gardens are in the mix and tickets include entry to Cape Fear Museum.

The Ribbon Cutting Ceremony is at Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre at 10:00 am on Friday, April 13--park at Legion Stadium and take the shuttle provided.

Please note: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated Cameron Art Museum as the location of one of the gardens and of the Wet Paint Sale. That location is CAPE FEAR MUSEUM on Market Street.

See our extended conversation below. 

Gina:     Sydney, the first thing I'm going to ask you about is the fact that you were the Azalea Queen. You know how a president is always a president?

Sydney: Yes.

Gina:     A queen is always a queen.

Cathy:    That's right.

Sydney: I'll take that.

Gina:     Wouldn't you say? Tell me about when you were the Azalea Queen. When was that?

Sydney: It was in 1999. I had done a film here the previous year and was invited to come back as the Queen. It was an incredible experience. Anyone who stands and watches the events or sees the parade or sees the entourage go by with the police escort must wonder, Wow, what's that like? That seems so exciting. And it is. It really is. It's a wonderful way to see the town. I met so many fantastic people, a lot of whom are still friends now. My husband, Rob, and I were just so touched and stunned, I suppose, at what a hospitable, warm, inviting, beautiful town this was. So when we had the opportunity a few years later to move here, we jumped at it. It's a great place.

Gina:     Someone who was in your court- is that what it's called?

Sydney: Yes.

Sydney:  One of the Queen's Courts. So there's always eight ladies that come from different areas in the Court. And one of the ladies that year in my Court was Beth Troutman, who is this year's Queen.

Gina:     That's very cool. Royal blood. This year you are in a completely different role. Tell me about that.

Sydney: Completely different role, yes. This year I am the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour chairperson. So that means that I have been entrusted with the 65th iteration of this tour and it's been a fantastic experience leading up to this point and I think that the tour over this weekend is going to be spectacular. I'm so grateful to our club and the committees that have helped put it together and of course all of the amazing homeowners, garden owners that have opened up their lives to us.

Gina:     And you got to do this job with the Garden Tour because you're in the Cape Fear Garden Club?

Sydney: Yes, I am. I've been in the club now for seven years.

Gina:     Sydney, tell me about what can people expect from the Garden Tour this year.

Sydney: This year the tour is a wonderful example, I think, of the spectrum of gardens that you'll find in Wilmington. We have nine private gardens ranging from small boutique yards that people keep themselves. There's a lot of art in some of them. Others you'll see a lot of whimsical touches and features. A lot of lifestyle aspects like outside fireplaces, beautiful seating areas, statuary and tree houses. Many different features that I think people will enjoy and maybe be able to find a way to incorporate into their own gardens. We also have some large gardens that are very stately, sort of traditional. Well established yards, including one that has about a hundred azaleas that I hope are going to hang on for the tour. We also have two public gardens. Airlie gardens will be open to us on Saturday and Sunday as well as the Mount Lebanon Chapel. They have agreed to open the chapel.

I know a lot of people wonder what that beautiful little building is out there. So they're going to be able to also see that. And the Cape Fear Museum Park will also be on our tour and that's quite special to us because our club gave them a beautification grant in order to be able to plant that park. So we're proud to be able to show some of our actual philanthropic work on the tour. The museum is also offering free admission for the days that it's on the tour and we'll hold our wet paint sale, which displays all of the work that was created in the gardens over the weekend by the various planar artists that are going to be painting.

Gina:     Those artists will be around at the various gardens on the tour?

Sydney: That's right. As you go through the tour, you'll be able to see them working. They're staking out their spots this week to see exactly which gardens they want to paint in. I'm very curious to see what their take on these beautiful yards will be.

Gina:     I know previously the painters have often captured Belles as well as the gardens.

Sydney: Absolutely. Azalea Belle means “beautiful azalea” and they're placed in the garden to kind of exemplify the blooms that we're celebrating with the bright colors and their beauty and grace. They're our ambassadors and so they're a major part of the garden tour and they usually do end up in a painting or two.

Gina:     Cathy, you're the president of the Cape Fear Garden Club.

Cathy:    That's right.

Gina:     How long have you been with the Cape Fear Garden Club?

Cathy:    I'm going on my 20th year.

Gina:     Tell me a little bit about the work. This is a big fundraiser for the Cape Fear Garden Club.

Cathy:    It is. It's our largest fundraiser. We do it annually. We have deep roots in the community with the tour. It originated with the festival around Greenfield Park. It originated, I think with people putting private gardens on tour, much smaller, but it has evolved into a North Carolina event. It's a statewide event really, and we're very proud to have this as our major fundraiser and it does allow us to give back a lot to this community. I think Sydney mentioned the beautification grants that we give and that as well as some scholarships and conservation projects. We maintain Battery Island year round with an Audubon officer and plus our Battery Island Committee is coming up and doing a bird cruise in May. They also go and clean up that island twice a year. I think they just recently brought back 650 pounds of trash off the island. It's kind of sad to think of that, but these are the kinds of things that we need to do to protect our environment and our community as well as the beautification that we do.

Gina:     I think it's important for people to know that the Cape Fear Garden Club isn't just about having martinis in the garden.

Sydney: We'll do that too.

Gina:     Tell me about the ribbon cutting.

Sydney: Our ribbon cutting will be at 10:00 on Friday morning at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. It's going to be a beautiful event. We have 140 belles in our belle parade this year. Randy Aldridge and WWAY will be hosting it. We're going to have live music and a very special guest. I'm just going to say that much. So I hope that people will come. It's free admission for everyone. We hope you'll buy a ticket to take our tour, but if you just want to come to the ribbon cutting, we'd love to have you. And of course afterwards we also have our punch and all of our some 10,000 homemade cookies that our club members make for everyone to enjoy afterwards.

Gina:     So everyone's making cookies right now in the Garden Club?

Cathy:   That's one of the requirements of our membership. Buy your Garden Club tickets, sit in the gardens as a garden sitter and make, this year I think three or four dozen cookies. We don't want to run out. We want to make sure there's plenty for everyone. But they're beautiful too. We've had some cookie workshops for the members if you're not that comfortable baking an elaborate cookie, to show how to decorate. Like they might be in the shape of a hat or something fun. But you definitely want to check out the cookies.

Sydney: Sure. You can have one of mine that's not going to be very pretty at all, but it tastes good.

Gina:     It's all that matters. What time did you say on Friday morning?

Sydney: It's 10:00 AM. It starts at 10:00 AM, our doors will open at 9:30 and we would love people to come early. The Ashley High School Chorus is going to sing, the Kevin Kolb Trio will be playing and we'll be introducing some of the Azalea Festival entourage and some of the other celebrity guests that are going to be joining us.

Gina:     And there is a special guest who will not be named right now?

Sydney: A special guests to be named later. We know who it is, but you don't.

Cathy:    I might want to make sure that we mention that the parking is at Legion Stadium and then they ride to the ampitheater.

Gina:     Is there a bus or shuttle?

Sydney: Yes. We have parking available at Legion Stadium and then buses that will be shuttling everyone back and forth. So it's a very quick process. There will be no public parking at the amphitheater, so that's the best way to do it.

Gina:     That's fabulous. What a nice setup.

Sydney: It is. It's great and it's such a beautiful spot and actually it's very special too because it was at Greenfield Lake that the idea of the Azalea Festival was born. It was in the middle of the Depression and folks were not feeling too happy and it was, I believe Hugh Morton that said, "Hey, why don't we celebrate this beautiful plant that makes us all so happy in the spring and remind everyone that there is still hope out there." And I think the spring does that for, for all of us every year. So I think the purpose of the Azalea Festival continues to this day and we're pleased to be a part of that.

Gina:     Was there anything else that we've left out? Is there anything presidential? So I'm sitting here with a president and a queen.

Sydney: I think I outrank her.

Gina:     I think so.

Cathy:    I think so. I've never been a queen.

Gina:     But is there anything that I've missed out on either of your part?

Cathy:    Well, our club is coming up to almost a hundred years old. We were founded in 1925 and I mentioned that we are one of the oldest and probably the largest Garden Club in North Carolina, if not in the country. We are 400 members strong, but we are very multi-faceted. We do all sorts of projects other than this tour. One of the other things that we're very proud about is our Beautification Endowment Fund that we started in 2012 and we hit our hundred thousand dollar benchmark this year and that is another way that we give back to municipalities- New Hanover County and Wilmington- for beautification. We focused on Hugh McCrae Park last week. We just had our Plant and Azalea Ceremony there. If you go to Hugh McCrae Park and you look around the gazebo area, you'll see how this has been really enhanced with gorgeous azaleas and other kinds of blooming plants. It really is a special spot and we look forward to the future and doing a lot more of that. And celebrating our hundred years in 2025.

Sydney: The public can certainly help us in that endeavor because we are a 501c3. So anyone who would like to help our efforts of our committees or the endowment can donate to the Cape for Garden Club or to the Cape Fear Garden Club Beautification Endowment.

Cathy:    I know your theme is “Bloomin' Beautiful.”

Sydney: Blooming Beautiful. Yes. I was thinking of My Fair Lady and it seemed to pop into my mind.

Gina:     And where will you be, Sydney?

Sydney: I will be everywhere. I will be. I'm going to try to take in all of the gardens at least once and my mom is coming out from California and she's never been here for the whole festival, for the tour or I think even in spring. So this is going to be fun to show her the town.

Cathy:    Hopefully you'll be able to relax and the committee will do all the grunt work this weekend.

Sydney: That sounds good to me.

Cathy:    It is a time where you want to sit back and just enjoy all the work you've done.

Gina:     I bet you all are already in the planning phase of the 2025 celebration.

Cathy:    We already have a committee designated to our centennial and what we really hope to do is do a major project that would be permanent, maybe in the downtown park that they're creating here. We're looking at some different things, but it will be good and we'll have a big celebration and we'll invite everybody to celebrate with us.

Gina:     With cookies?

Cathy:    More cookies. Maybe some champagne for this.

Sydney: Whoa, we're upgrading from punch? I like that.

Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright