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"Turn a few heads with these underused plants," by the Whistling Gardener

Every year I try to move my customers a little farther out of their comfort zones to experiment with some plants that perhaps they are unfamiliar with or are afraid they will fail to make grow. Mostly, I am talking about the focal or “thriller” components of a container planting.
Steve Smith’s tropical patio. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Every year I try to move my customers a little farther out of their comfort zones to experiment with some plants that perhaps they are unfamiliar with or are afraid they will fail to make grow.

 Mostly, I am talking about the focal or “thriller” components of a container planting. Traditionally, gardeners have gravitated to the green “Spikes” or Dracena - which work well, are fairly inexpensive, and can often last more than one season. But let’s face it folks, green spikes are so yesteryear. It’s time to move to the edge and try something crazy and different that will give you five to six months’ worth of entertainment and have your neighbors looking over the fence in wonder.

Here are a few ideas to have some frivolous fun with…

Egyptian Papyrus — Nothing says exotic, in my book, like an Egyptian papyrus plant. The triangular green stems can grow up to seven feet tall and are punctuated at the top with a tuft of filaments that remind me of an exploding firework on the 4th of July.

We start these early in our greenhouses so you will have a nice well-established specimen by the middle of May, which can then easily double in size by the end of the season.

Papyrus is actually a water plant that can be put into a shallow pond for the summer, but it will also grow just fine in a moist and rich potting soil. I will often flank my sunny entry with a pair of these in large bright red pots, combined with lots of fluffy and spilly yellow, red, and orange colored flowers. They are a real show stopper.

Red Bananas — These bold and dramatic plants require a good-sized pot to balance out their mass. I always snag two five gallon ones from the nursery for a couple of containers on my back patio, but you can also start with a less expensive one-gallon size. Both sizes will quadruple their size by the end of the summer, so you get a lot of bang for your buck.

I just love it when the sun shines through their translucent leaves, exposing their venation. The dark red leaves offer ample opportunity to make some awesome color combinations around the edges of the container.

Colocasia/Alocasia — These are commonly known as taro or elephant ears (again, they can grow in water but don’t have to) and come in green or dark maroon foliage with violet or even red stems. Big, bold foliage is their hallmark, which of course I just love. With ample food and water their leaves can reach two to three feet across.

Kangaroo Paws — I discovered these a few years back and they are just a hoot. The foliage looks like an iris, but the flowers are held tall (two to four feet above the foliage), they come in yellow to orange to red, are fuzzy like a kangaroo paw, and last literally all summer. This is a plant that you simply cannot resist touching. These are perfect for a sunny and drought tolerant planting, so try combining them with some trailing verbena or gazanias or do the minimalist thing and surround them with black Mondo grass.

This summer move away from the tried and true and have some fun with the above plants. They will give you many months of enjoyment and despite some of their higher costs, when you amortize it out over the season, it is only pennies a day. That’s cheaper than a latte!

Sunnyside’s classes will be starting up again with “Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers” on Saturday, May 25th, at 10:00 am, along with an event, “Free Container Planting Day” also on Saturday, May 25th, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. More information about the class and the event can be found at www.sunnysidenursery.net.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and you can send your gardening questions to him at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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