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Best new summer landscape plants for Florida gardens

Spring is right around the corner and even though it's my least favorite time of year to plant, you can bet I'll be out there. Who can resist a fresh start? Spring equals hope that a plant I love just might take off.

But spring also tends to be hot and dry here in Florida. There's nothing more frustrating than squeaking new perennials through weeks of arid roasting only to have them lie down and die when the summer sauna kicks on.

Which is why I find Costa Farms' Summer Showdown trial garden so helpful. The family-owned Hialeah farm supplies retailers around the country, including Lowe's, Home Depot and Walmart garden centers, with houseplants, annuals and perennials. Its summer trials test landscape plants from July through September in conditions they're likely to experience with the average homeowner — namely, tremendous neglect.

Costa Farms doesn't plan to grow all the top trial performers. But its consumer marketing specialist, Justin Hancock, a gardener and former garden writer for Better Homes & Gardens magazine, shared the best of the best anyway.

Some of these plants are brand-new and may be hard to find this year. Look for them online, ask your independent nursery if it can order them for you, or keep them on your wish list for 2015. Others are a couple of years old, so may be more readily available.

For the trials, the plants were started in January 2013 in 6-inch pots and transplanted into the 2-acre garden in early July. No one pinched back buds to keep the plants bushy or prevent them going to seed, or treated them for pests and diseases. They got water when the rain dried up, and fertilizer at transplant and twice more over the next four weeks.

Here are a few that flowered, or foliaged, beautifully without a lot of hand-holding:

Skittles lantana

Justin claims he doesn't have a favorite, but this was the first plant he called out, so I'm guessing it made an impression.

"Skittles has nice, white variegated foliage with orange, yellow and red blooms. It was wonderfully heat- and drought-tolerant," he says.

We have many varieties of lantana, a low-growing, sun-loving flowering shrub with lots of colorful hybrids. In the Tampa Bay area, we treat them as perennials. They're a staple in my garden, but I've never seen lantana with variegated foliage

Skittles comes from Proven Winners, a new variety for this year.

Angelonia 'Archangel'

A dozen or more Angelonia angustifolia planted together can make a flower bed look like an alpine meadow. Archangel, introduced by PanAmerican Seed in 2012, adds an extra wow, Justin says.

"Archangel has some of the biggest flowers I've ever seen on Angelonia. They're nice and showy, and they're a great bee attractor," he says.

Flowers blossom on spikes, just like its cousin, the snapdragon. But while snapdragons are cool-season annuals for us, Angelonia basks in heat. The varieties I've grown get taller — up to almost 2 feet — and bushier than my snapdragons, and while Angelonia are technically an annual, some of mine have lasted more than a year.

The Archangel series includes plants with purple, raspberry or white blooms.

Coleus Mainstreet series

We love the many coleus varieties for their bright chartreuse, burgundy, hot pink or sizzling red foliage. Planted en masse, they create a near-neon display that makes so many neighborhood and shopping center entrances a joy to drive by.

The new Mainstreet series by Dummen USA is "very impressive," Justin says.

"They didn't get big and leggy, they didn't bloom too much (coleus blooms should be pinched back to keep the foliage dense and bushy), and they were big, sturdy plants."

He particularly likes River Walk's glowing, lemon-tinged chartreuse leaves, which light up shady spots, but also thrive in sun. One caution: Coleus are not drought-tolerant, and River Walk is no exception.

Elephant's ears Royal Hawaiian series

For a great tropical look, nothing's easier than great big elephant's ears (Alocasia, spp. Elephant's Ear). Like coleus, this plant wins fans for foliage, not flowers, but not everyone has room for mammoths.

"These all stayed compact — none got taller than waist high, so you can actually use them in large mixed containers," Justin says.

"They fill out nicely, making dense mounds of brilliant foliage. I'm most partial to the Black Coral variety. It has rich purple-black leaves that make a wonderful backdrop to just about any other annual you can think of. I have some of these growing in my garden at home, too, and I could not be happier with their performance over the last seven months."

Introduced by breeder Dr. John Cho, the Royal Hawaiian elephant's ears have been in trials since 2007 and they get rave reviews. It shouldn't be too hard to find.

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Get more Florida gardening on her blog, www.DigginFloridaDirt.com; join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, and follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.

Best new summer landscape plants for Florida gardens 02/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 12:37pm]

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