There's a secret gem hidden behind the wrought iron gates of Farmingdale State College on Route 110. The teaching gardens there rival many public botanical gardens I've visited, and they're all maintained by students of the horticulture program for which the school is renowned. (The gardens are open to the public from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.)
Graduates of the program include local horticultural superstars Vincent Simeone, an author and director of Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, and Maria Cinque, a lawn and garden expert and author who was one of the first female agricultural extension agents in the United States.
There are annual beds, mixed shrub borders, an ornamental grass garden, a beech hedge garden, a rose garden, herb garden, conservatory garden and a tropical garden, maintained under the ever-watchful eye of Richard Iversen, whose PhD is in floriculture and ornamental horticulture.
Iversen is a celebrated professor of ornamental horticulture at the school, where he began teaching in 1981. He left and returned several times, most notably to teach at the University of the West Indies in Barbados and serve as director of education at the Andromeda Botanic Gardens there. When he returned to the states in 1996, he brought with him an unparalleled expertise in tropical horticulture, which he immediately implemented in the teaching gardens at Farmingdale State College.
Digging up tender plants at the end of each season is quite a chore (some of the plants have 30-inch root balls,) but it affords students the opportunity to reap valuable educational rewards. Where else in New York can one learn firsthand the process of balling and burlapping a 6-foot tree fern?
Students enrolled in propagation classes create new plants from existing ones for the following season, summer garden interns do most of the seasonal planting and fall-semester students dig up plants during a marathon Saturday lab. Some of those plants are overwintered in a dry state, some as small-rooted cuttings and others in the greenhouse.
Iversen likes to use coleus and Acalypha wilkesiana to "weave other plants together." There are hundreds of cultivars, all wonderful for their foliage color, he said, and, although somewhat exotic here, they are common landscape plants in the Caribbean. Iversen recommends using majesty palm and Chinese fan palm outside in pots around swimming pools to give Long Island backyards a feel of the tropics.
"I don't think you can have a tropical garden without any of the elephant ears," Iversen said, noting a penchant for Xanthosoma, Alocasia and Colocasia.
A cheap and easy way to get elephant ears into your garden? "Go into a grocery store that has tropical produce and buy yautia, which is the edible tuber of Xanthosoma," Iversen advises. "Look for a fresh one that's not dried out, plant it and large foliage will come up."
The Xanthosoma cultivar grown ornamentally, 'Chartreuse giant,' is bright yellow-green; the tuber you'll find in the grocery store will send up plain green leaves but will be large and exotic-looking, nonetheless.
Ready to bring the tropics to your garden this summer? "Listen for the weather," Iversen suggests. "You don't want to put things out too early when nights are cold. Wait until lows are above 55 degrees. If plants were indoors or bought in the houseplant section of the nursery, they might have been grown under shade cloth in Florida and won't take kindly to an abrupt change in climate, so harden them off in the shade or under gauze or cheesecloth for a bit."
And because our season is so short, "you'll want the display to be full by the Fourth of July, so you might want to get something a little bit larger," he added. "Or if you're using containers, use fresh media with fertilizer in it to encourage rapid growth."
Iversen also advises fertilizing in June with a liquid feed product because tropical plants use a lot of nutrients.