Tropical plants highlighted at master gardener plant sale

April 28, 2005
MARY STREETMAN JANAK
Victoria County Master Gardener Intern

The spring Master Gardener Plant Sale will be held in conjunction with the Annual Garden Tour this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. near the 4-H Activity Center and Victoria Educational Gardens at Victoria Regional Airport.

In addition to plants propagated and nurtured by master gardeners, there will be those grown in the new green house at the education gardens - and highlighted plants which will be identified in the five garden tour gardens on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Come early - rumor has it there will be several thousand plants to purchase. And don't forget to secure garden tour tickets at the advance purchase price of $15 by bringing this article or the accompanying coupon to any of the ticket outlets. Otherwise, ticket booklets are $18 today through the tour and $5 per garden both days of the tour this weekend.

Of particular note will be striking highlighted foliage and tropical plants in the garden on Willow Way in Colony Creek. That majestic-looking Mediterranean villa across from the clubhouse is no mirage. It is the home of Robby and Tami Burdge. Their garden will be featured this weekend on the garden tour, which is sponsored jointly by Trinity Episcopal School and the Victoria County Master Gardener Association.

A visit to the Burdge garden is like being transported to a faraway tropical paradise. This lush tropical landscape is due in part to the nine varieties of palms that are strategically placed. These include queen palms, both Chinese and Mediterranean fan palms, bottle, Bismark, windmill, pindo, Pygmy date and sago palms. Of course, sagos are botanically not palms at all, but cycads. However, since their fronds are reminiscent of palms and they are commonly thought of as palms, we will count them anyway since all nine contribute to a wonderful tropical aura that makes you feel like you are in an exotic locale.

Adding palms to your landscape, especially large ones like those you will see in the Burdge gardens, can be very costly. But one of the plants in the master gardener highlighted plant sale this year is the Pygmy date palm, Phoenix roebelinii, which can provide a lot of impact without destroying your budget. Normally growing only from 2 to 4 feet high, and 2 to 2 1/2 feet wide, this small frilly palm grows upright with a single trunk and with a "poof" of fronds at the top, looking very much like its much larger cousins. These can be seen lavishly planted in the Burdge gardens, in containers and in the ground. Container planting may be the best bet since Pygmy palms can only withstand a low temperature of about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Container planting would allow you to move your palm to a sunny indoor location should a hard freeze visit your garden.

These palms and other lush, green tropicals abound, but the Burdge gardens demonstrate that a tropical landscape doesn't have to be just green. Blooming tropical plants provide bright spots in the landscape as well. These include bougainvillea, both yellow and reddish-orange ixora, coral carnival oleander, red firecracker fern, the exotic pale pink bloom of the variegated shell ginger and two varieties of birds of paradise, the more common one with blue/orange blooms and a larger variety with white blooms.

One of these blooming tropicals, Ixora coccinea, another of the highlighted plants, may be more familiarly known as a houseplant. The most commonly grown ixora, the coccinea family, has clusters of tiny red, yellow, orange, pink or salmon blossoms similar to penta blooms, but its paired leaves are smaller, glossy and more leathery. Actually, this ixora is a small slow-growing shrub that grows to around 3 feet. If given full sun, warm nights, high humidity, a reasonable amount of water and good organic soil, it will reward you with a profusion of blooms until frost. It can die back in a hard freeze, but generally will come back out.

While spectacular in bloom, these are still not the only tropical color additions. Color can also be found in the stems and foliage of a number of shrubs and ornamentals of tropical origins. These include golden bamboo, variegated shell ginger, purple fountain grass, Hawaiian Ti plant, Tropicanna, and Abyssinian red banana.

Variegated shell ginger or Alpinia zerumbet variegata is a highlighted plant that will provide garden color even when not in bloom. Like its more common plain green cousin, the variegated shell ginger produces an exotic, porcelain pink grape-like bloom in spring. However, shell gingers bloom on the previous year's growth. Should yours freeze, it will grow back out, but you will miss that season's blooms. Still the variegated variety will provide color in your garden through its long, bright green and yellow striped leaves. It is also more moderate in size. While the solid green version can reach 10 feet in height, the variegated variety stays around 4 feet tall. Both like rich, moist, organic soil and both have rhizomes. The rhizomes produce new shoots that flower, die and are replaced by more new shoots. One small specimen can grow over the years into a rather large patch of plants. If they become too numerous, share them with your friends. These ginger plants are easy to grow and are happy in either sun or part shade.

Last, but certainly not least, purple fountain grass, or Pennisetum setaceum Rubrum, is another highlighted plant. A commonly used ornamental grass with purple foliage and a rosy-colored flower/seed plume, it too adds color to the landscape, but is not planted so much for its bloom as for its colorful foliage and graceful fountain shape. Though not normally thought of as a tropical, it does require a warm climate to overwinter. It is listed as cold hardy in Zones 9-11. In a colder climate it is grown as an annual; but since Victoria is Zone 9, it will do just fine in most winters and can be grown as a perennial. It has low water requirements and will grow to about 3 feet tall and 18 inches wide. Try planting a few clumps in a sunny flowerbed to add color and texture.

Each of these plants and a number of others mentioned will likely be available as highlighted plants at the plant sale this Saturday. Try these to add a touch of the tropics to your landscape.

And while you are at the sale, stop by the educational gardens to see what's blooming and for some gardening ideas. As always, it is open to the public - and FREE for a tour this weekend.

Check the mailbox in each garden area for information about that garden, the plants and planting information. Sign the guest book at the entrance, and let us know what you think of our gardens. Comments and suggestions are always welcome - as the gardens aim to be the community''s educational garden.

We look forward to seeing you on the garden tour, at the plant sale and at the educational gardens. This weekend will be a true gardener's delight.