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In the Florida garden, spring arrives early and with lots of color

You know how we usually don't do winter until January — a few weeks after the official start? And how we're already sick of summer a month before summer arrives?

Welcome to spring.

Sure, we may have another freeze or three to weather, but your head can be in that most wonderful season because your nursery's is. The independents are already stocking some of their spring plants, and the rest are due in just a few weeks. This is when we see the cool new plants; the hybrid twists on tried-and-true but ho-hum favorites; and the stuff we could never before grow here because it gets too hot.

If you just can't wait to start shopping (I couldn't and I didn't) consider this crazy idea from Reese Bernier, nursery manager at Duncheon's Nursery in Land O'Lakes. She loves this time of year for planting perennials because she says they enjoy the cooler temperatures as much as we do.

"If you wait until March, April or May, the heat and the lack of rain are really stressful," she says. "I like planting now so they have a chance to get well-established roots before it gets so hot. They can handle all that stress a lot better."

That goes against my every instinct, but Reese makes such a convincing case, I went ahead and put my new SunHosta in the ground last Sunday.

This new hosta is one the hot new plants that has folks at Duncheon's (and at Kerby's Nursery in Seffner) excited. Both places sold these sun-lovers for the first time last year and had such good customer feedback, they loaded up on more as soon as they became available.

"It's the only hosta bred for Florida's full sun," Reese says. "They were especially popular last year with the snowbirds and the people moving down here from up North — they missed their hostas."

The variegated leaves of the SunHosta have green centers that look like as if they were filled in with strokes from an artist's paintbrush. The shades of green are framed by cream-colored piping that grows brighter in full sun. The effect is striking enough to make this hosta worth its foliage alone.

Stems rise about 18 inches from the base plant and each stem produces several lavender-tinged white, sweet-smelling blooms. They're one of the few fragrant hostas, Reese says.

At Kerby's, workers planted some in the ground last March and they're still doing great, says co-owner Mark Kerby.

"They're so easy," he says. "They do well in full sun or shade. They're not picky; they'll work anywhere in the garden. If it gets cold, they'll go dormant, but they'll come back."

They're also drought-tolerant and should do fine in slightly sandy soil. The base can get pretty big, about 3 feet wide, so if you get more than one, give 'em room.

• • •

Over at Colorfield Farms in Wimauma, owner Anne Pidgeon's excited about the Crocosmia hybrid she picked up at a show.

"It has the most brilliant orange flowers," she says.

She hasn't had time to give it a test run through all of our seasons, but she says it has been doing very well in her full-sun garden.

I happened to get my hands on what looks like the same variety last September. My corms sprouted quickly and the plants have been loving their pots on my full-sun patio. I didn't cover or move them when we had our freeze flirt a couple weeks ago, and they soldiered through beautifully.

There are eight species of Crocosmia, a member of the iris family. They're native to South Africa, and they're drought- and cold-tolerant. They produce tall, sword-shaped leaves and even taller stems topped by vibrant orange, yellow or red blooms, depending on the variety.

I've read that when some Crocosmia are especially happy, they can be invasive, which is why mine are in pots. I'm done with living dangerously!

Here's a look at some of the other new spring plants coming to Duncheon's, Kerby's and Colorfield Farms. I chose these nurseries because they're known for variety and because you should be able to make it to one of them without packing a lunch and a tent.

Duncheon's Nursery & Landscaping: 2720 Land O'Lakes Blvd.; Land O'Lakes; (813) 948-1890; www.duncheons.com

• Geranium cumbanita and Geranium sansarita are new hybrids that tolerate heat and humidity better than other geraniums, Reese says. They should last through July, and if you move them to a shady location after it gets hot, they'll probably be good to go back in the sun by October. Both come in vibrant pinks and reds.

• Tumbling Tom is a fun new cherry tomato plant with cascading branches — perfect for a hanging basket or as the spiller feature in a thriller-filler-spiller container. Reese says it has done well in trials and looks stunning when covered with lots of little red tomatoes. She has already bought one and plans to protect it over the summer for a possible new start in the fall.

• Just before Halloween, Duncheon's brought in Phantom and Black Velvet petunias. They flew in on little bat wings and flew right back out, Reese says. These almost black petunias are striking — I especially like Phantom, which has a yellow stripe slashed across its dark petals. Duncheon's will have more of both varieties, plus another Goth petunia, Black Jack, in about two weeks. Yes, these are short-lived, but sometimes, gardeners just gotta have fun.

Kerby's Nursery & Landscaping: 2311 S Parsons Ave., Seffner; (813) 685-3265; kerbysnursery.com

• Lorapetalum, that blush-colored shrub prized for its foliage, hot pink pompon flowers, and its ability to stand up to cold, got a lot of gardener love after the January 2010 freezes. But now that we all have Plum Delight, the most common variety, gardeners are asking, "What have you done for me lately?" Mark says: New, patented hybrids with more color. Ever Red Sunset grows to 5 to 6 feet tall, has a deeper color and a red flower; Purple Diamond grows to 3 to 4 feet and has purple leaves that actually keep their color most of the year (unlike older varieties); Purple Pixie is a ground cover. Layer the three — tall, medium, short — and you've got a colorlicious display. Mark says they like pruning and fertilizer, and bloom the most in cooler months.

• Nandina is another plant that got big thumbs-up for cold tolerance. It's beloved for its foliage, which can bring lots of bright color to your garden — reds, oranges, pinks. Kerby's has Fire Power, Flirt and Obsession.

Colorfield Flower Farms: 8221 State Road 674, Wimauma; (813) 833-2545; www.colorfieldfarms.com

• Salvia coccinea 'Summer Jewel' from Takii Seed is a compact salvia that's gotten rave reviews in trials. It does well through heat and humidity, and although we're used to coccineas that reseed, at some cost to the mother plant, this one has a mom that keeps her youthful good looks, Anne says. "It stayed looking good longer than the reds we use," she says. It should have arrived this week, but call ahead to be sure.

• Dianthus Amazon series are a few years old but still new to a lot of gardeners. It gets a flower stalk up to 2 feet tall — great for cut flowers — and will bloom through late summer, although it's not a huge fan of summer conditions. Anne has it in cherry and neon purple.

Join in more garden chat at www.Facebook.com/digginfloridadirt, or check out Penny's blog, www. digginfladirt.com. Reach Penny at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com.

>> Garden notes

Make a fairy garden with the kids at the Fairy Garden Workshop hosted by the University of South Florida Botanical Garden. Participants get all the goods needed to get their garden started, but it's up to you to lure the fairies.

When: 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: University of South Florida, Pine and Alumni drives, off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, just north of Fowler Avenue;

cas.usf.edu/garden

Cost: $40 for public; $35 for garden members. Reservations required. Call (813) 974-2329.

In the Florida garden, spring arrives early and with lots of color 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:30am]

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