Far off gardens have exciting ideas we can adapt
On a trip to Philadelphia, David and I spent a good bit of time in the Ambler Arboretum gardens at Temple University. After we soaked in the last of the iris, peonies in full bloom, mountain laurel and mayapple in the woodland - all those treasures we don't see here - I noticed something that really surprised me. There were many tropical plants and some of them were my favorites from Florida. Of course, the school has greenhouses where they can keep these plants in the winter. But I had never thought of making an Aechmea blanchetiana the focal point of a mixed container, until I saw four such gorgeous arrangements in the school gardens.This is one of the few bromeliads that likes full sun. The leaves are dull green in the shade but turn a rich red in full sun in Florida. Near Philadelphia, they are an iridescent gold at the beginning of summer. They were surrounded by millet and other plants we can't grow here in the summer, but I came home, turned over a large pot where one plant had turned into five or more and started to work. My plants were much larger, so I cut the leaves back a bit. Then I surrounded them with blue torenias, wispy white Diamond Frost Euphorbia, blue ruellia instead of millet, and duck foot coleus hanging over the edge. Mine have not grown gorgeous yet, but I'm working on it. Actually, many summer bedding plants like caladiums, coleus, ageratum and some of the salvias are tropicals that will grow as perennials here if we don't have frost. On our way home, we stopped to visit friends near Washington, D.C. Guess what I found in the carport of the hotel? Once again there were tropicals in pots, this time white Bird of Paradise surrounded by caladiums at the base and crotons with ornamental sweet potatoes just beginning to spread. I went to the desk and asked what they did with those plants in the winter. I was told they use them as houseplants in the lobby. They had only been outdoors for a few weeks when I saw them. I wish we had stopped by the National Arboretum in D.C., but we're like horses heading for the barn when we turn toward Florida. v vToday's pick is the white Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia alba, which is quite a different plant from the one with the yellow and blue flowers. Its leaves are the same shape, but this variety can grow to 30 feet. The flowers are white with a bit of blue in the center, interesting but not nearly as showy. When young, the white Bird of Paradise makes a nice houseplant and can add a tropical feel to the landscape. It does best in full sun to partial shade and poor but well-drained soil. In windy places the leaves soon look ratty, and the whole plant looks scrubby as it gets older. At that stage you can separate some of the offshoots and start over. As long as it stays low enough, it makes a nice tropical container plant. v vNow's the time to answer a question about rust on the leaves of fig plants. This occurs frequently and gets worse as the year wears on. The leaves that are really rusted will drop off, but new ones usually come to replace them. And in the fall it doesn't matter, because the leaves are going to drop in any case. Bob Gerstein of B & B Hobbies nursery says raking up the fallen leaves will help reduce the rust. You can also spray with a fungicide that contains copper if you wish. Figs are fascinating in that the flower blooms inside the fruit and you never see it. Different varieties have different flavors. The plants are also sensitive to nematodes. Planting them between a walk and a wall or cutting out the bottom of the pot and sinking the rest helps. It also helps to put great amounts of organic matter around the plants as mulch: grass clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves, pine needles, newspapers - anything that will decompose. Many houseplants enjoy a summer vacation in the shady garden during the rainy season. Just don't forget to bring them back in or at least prune and control them. Some can take over your yard. Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, author and freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com. Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.