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Tropicals Needn't Be Foreign to Your Yard


Just the thought of exotic plants tickles Ed Ruski. Images of spicy foods, intoxicating music, strange lands and beautiful women take root in his head as he assumes a vaguely dreamy look.

"The word 'exotic' makes you think of wonderful things," Ruski said. "It's just hot. . . and when I think of an [exotic] garden, it's lush and relaxing and hypnotic."

Hypnotic may be overstating the influence of exotic, or tropical, plants, but it does say something of their appeal. Ruski, who cultivates a "fairly ambitious" grouping of shrubs and flowers at his Newport Beach home, would like to grow more exotics but mostly steers clear because they can be temperamental.

He should reconsider, says Richard R. Iversen. His book, "The Exotic Garden" ($28, Taunton Press, 1999) is a guide on how to raise tropical varieties from the elephant-eared fontanesii to the deep purple glory bush to the fluted angel's trumpet in any place, any climate.

"Gardeners often assume that tropicals can only be grown as houseplants and often have fussy cultural requirements, [but] this simply isn't true," said Iversen.

"Tropicals may be novelties in temperate gardens, but they're as easy to grow outdoors in the open air as marigolds and zinnias. All you need is the spade and trowel from your garage."

Of course, we have a head start living in Southern California. Unlike the country's northern reaches, our mild seasons are in many ways similar to the exotics' natural environments. But certain steps will help to ensure that your tropicals flourish, even when faced with a frosty fall night or summer day baked by dry Santa Ana winds.

Here are some of Iversen's suggestions for getting the most out of exotics:

* Prepare the soil carefully by adding moisture-retentive organic matter to reduce water needs. Dig the dirt at least 16 inches down so the roots spread easily, and add some fertilizer.

* Before planting, arrange your exotics in their pots so you'll know how these brightly colored, often unusually shaped plants will look together.

* Water the newly planted plants immediately and make sure they get at least one inch of water a week. Two weeks after planting, give them a booster shot of fertilizer. A nitrogen-phosphorus- potassium mix is best for tropicals.

* Exotics tend to be lush and grow fast, so take the time to prune them often. This will also help fight spider mites and diseases as well-pruned and weed-free plants are less susceptible to pests. Also make sure you get a guarantee from the nursery that the plants are free of insects and diseases before buying them.

Iversen notes that tropicals are becoming more popular, no matter where the gardener lives.

"Gardeners are craving new plants, new things," he explained. "I think they have become more sophisticated in their appreciation of foliage, and the tropical plants hold a diversity of different colors and textures and forms.

"They provide a garden that is peaking at the middle to late summer and into early autumn when many gardens are in a summer slump. You've heard of the August doldrums? Well, there are no doldrums in a tropical garden."

One of the reasons exotics are favored is because of their versatility when creating a visually interesting backyard environment. Iversen said these plants should be a first choice if you're adding borders to ponds or just want to spice up a patio.

His book includes a chapter on landscaping and designing (he refers to the striking shape of some exotics as their "architecture") and includes suggestions on how to combine colors, even textures. For example, the coarse appearance of the broad-leafed curcuma zedoaria can make a nice contrast when placed next to a purplish coleus, Iversen said.

Leesa Roth said she could use the ideas. The backyard of her Laguna Niguel home has a long rectangular pond that might benefit from a few dangling exotics.

"Right now, it seems somewhat stark [because] there aren't any cool plants nearby," she said while browsing through an Irvine nursery. "I'd like to get some that maybe drop and float [on the water]. . . . From the way it sounds, tropicals could do that."

No pond at Ruski's pad, but he said he's ready to try something different from his usual assortment of perennials. "My garden isn't bad, it has some nice flowers, but I'm a little bored with it. Maybe some of those could juice it up."

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