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Where to plant your dollars

Last year, U.S. gardeners spent $38.4-billion on supplies, equipment and plants. That averages $457 per household, according to the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt., which conducts an annual survey of about 84-million households. On plants alone _ both indoor and outdoor _ shoppers spent a whopping $10-billion.

Many gardeners, especially those new to Florida, know how frustrating it can be to buy new plants, only to discover a few weeks later that they've selected the wrong plant for the wrong place. It's a costly mistake.

But there's good news for Tampa Bay area gardeners. There are some terrific shopping alternatives where you can save money and get expert advice from the people who actually grew the plants you will buy. Plus, you'll help support local horticulture programs. How does 20 plants for $20 sound? Too good to be true? Read on.

PTEC: The best-kept secret

The half-acre garden center at Pinellas Technical Education Center in St. Petersburg is a shopper's paradise. About 5,000 plants are usually in stock, most ranging in price from $2 for a 1-gallon pot to $4 for a 3-gallon. Don't expect to find long checkout lines. This center is one of the best-kept secrets in town.

Plants are cultivated and grown by PTEC's environmental horticulture students, who are eager and knowledgeable in helping with plant selections. Working at the center is part of their education, and every dollar a shopper spends supports the program. The center specializes in native plants that are drought- and heat-tolerant, pest-free and low maintenance: a gardener's dream.

"We are always experimenting with new and different things," says Greg Charles, chairman of horticulture programs at PTEC. "It's not a garden center that has the same thing every time you come in. You just have to visit." Don't miss the student-maintained Florida-friendly garden near the center, which shows plants at their mature size.

PTEC's program is practically legendary in the local horticulture community. It introduced Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia) and beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) to our area, and it's one of the few locales where you can buy salt-tolerant coastal plants such as sea oat (Uniola paniculata L.), slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum).

PTEC's garden center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays; 901 34th St. S. Call (727) 893-2500 for information. Cash or checks accepted.

Masterful sales

There are numerous plant sales this fall throughout the bay area. These events are great opportunities to talk to the experts and learn more about Florida gardening. A word to the wise: Wear sunscreen, comfortable shoes and a hat, bring a wagon or garden cart to tote your purchases, carry cash or your checkbook and arrive early for the best selection and to avoid checkout lines.

Shoppers usually turn out in droves for the Pinellas County Master Gardener plant sale at the Florida Botanical Gardens, 12175 125th St. N in Largo. Held every fall and spring, the event is the gardener's equivalent of a frenzied Saturday morning yard sale. You will be amazed at the mammoth selection of indoor and outdoor plants at discount prices. Up to 75 master gardeners and professional horticulturists are on hand to answer questions, plus you'll be able see displays on butterfly gardening and composting.

Cultivated and grown by master gardeners, plants in 4-inch to 3-gallon pots cost $1 to $3. Some larger plants cost more. All proceeds benefit the master gardener program. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 2 for the public; members of the Botanical Gardens and volunteers can shop the presale at 8 a.m.

Master gardeners in Manatee County will also host a plant sale, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 2 at the fairgrounds in Palmetto on 17th Street W.

"We try to pick more unusual plants that you don't find in the garden center," says Jane Morse, environmental horticulturist at the Manatee County Extension Service.

Thousands of tropicals and exotics, native plants and more are priced from as little as a quarter. "You can't get those prices anywhere else," she says.

USF's really big show

One of Tampa Bay's largest plant and garden supply sales takes place Oct. 9-10 at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens, at the southwest corner of the Tampa campus at Pine and Alumni drives.

More than 60 commercial growers and local plant clubs and societies will offer a variety of plants, including palms and cycads, orchids, cactuses and succulents, bonsai and native plants.

"We can't compete with Home Depot (on price), but we offer the more unusual plants and expertise on how to grow them," said botanist Kim Hutton. "You won't find anyone more passionate and knowledgeable than these club members."

Master gardeners from Hillsborough County also will provide information and advice. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 9 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 10. Admission is $3, free for botanical gardens members and children younger than 12.

On the block

If you enjoy auctions, don't miss the Oct. 15 plant auction and fundraiser beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Florida State Fairgrounds, 4800 Highway 301 N Tampa (use Orient Road entrance).

Sponsored by the Hillsborough Cooperative Extension Service and the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, the auction will feature a huge array of shrubs, trees, ground covers, house plants, hanging baskets, flowering annuals and perennials, herbs, dish gardens and gardening supplies.

Plants will be sold in lots, so be prepared to haul away numerous plants if you win the bidding.

"It's a great place to get plants because the nurserymen donate them and almost everything goes for wholesale or lower," says Sydney Park Brown, a horticulture agent with Hillsborough County. Leave your credit card at home; only cash and checks will be accepted.

The Growers Association also sponsors a similar auction 6 p.m. Oct. 25 in the tropical garden plaza at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo. Proceeds benefit a new inspiration garden and scholarship fund. Orchids, palms, trees, tropicals and bedding plants will be available.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County. If you have garden questions, e-mail (put "Garden" in the subject line); or write Yvonne Swanson, Garden Writer/Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

The compacted roots from a potted beauty berry plant. PTEC, on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg, usually has about 5,000 plants in stock. Most range in price from $2 for a 1-gallon pot to $4 for a 3-gallon.