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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Long Island gardeners bring home the tropics

Chris Foerster, 70, poses for a portrait next

Chris Foerster, 70, poses for a portrait next to a banana tree in the tropical garden in the back yard of his home in Shirley. His garden includes broad leaf Banana trees and elephant ears as well as tiger lilys and a variety of canna lilys and ferns. (July 30, 2013) Credit: Daniel Brennan

When I stepped off the plane in Hawaii in 2008, the first thing I noticed was the scent of what I later learned was Plumeria. Not the taxi exhaust fumes I was accustomed to smelling the moment I opened an exit door at LaGuardia, but a strong, sweet fragrance emanating from a sea of sunset-colored flowers growing from shrubs and small trees that surrounded the airport and pretty much everything else on the island of Oahu.

The scent of Plumeria, whose common name is frangipani, is so powerful one doesn't have to bend and sniff a flower to breathe it in. It hangs in the air and floats to you.

Those heavenly blossoms weren't the only botanical clue that I had descended upon a tropical paradise: Plants a New Yorker would see only in a florist's bouquet or know as a houseplant, like hibiscus, bird of paradise and anthurium, grew in the Hawaiian ground alongside banyan and palm trees.

Although I'm quite attached to my butterfly bushes, Knockout roses, black-eyed Susans and daylilies, I returned home feeling a bit deprived. I know it's possible to grow tropical plants on Long Island, as the horticulture students at Farmingdale State College do each year, but the chore of digging them all up every fall and storing them indoors for the winter, only to plant them again in spring, is a bit more than I can tackle on my own.

But more and more Long Islanders are doing just that -- and living in their own (Long) island paradise all summer long.

A jungle in Nassau

Towering over most of the other flora in Dan Jansen's South Hempstead backyard is a 12-foot-tall Thailand elephant ear. It's only outdone by the 20-foot banana tree right by the front door -- certainly an eye-catcher and conversation piece in the middle of Nassau County, and that's just how Jansen likes it.

"My plan is to stop traffic," he said with a chuckle, and, gauging by the reactions of passersby, his mission has been accomplished. "Mothers walk by with their kids all the time, and I can hear them pointing out all the plants."

Jansen, 51, owns an arbitration-mediation company and has been growing tropicals on Long Island for 15 years.

"When I was a kid, my mother planted constantly," he said, citing the inspiration for his green thumb. "And when I got married, I started growing tomatoes. Then I saw the Joy perfume trees -- Michelia alba and Michelia Champaca. When they bloom, you can smell them in your yard and the two yards next to you!"

Jansen grew those trees in pots and kept them in his sunroom over the winter. That led to experimentation with more tropicals. Now he grows three Trachycarpus fortunei windmill palm trees -- one from Bulgaria -- and successfully keeps them in the ground all winter long, wrapped for cold protection. "They sometimes get beat up," he said, "but in the spring they start growing again and come back bigger and bigger every year."

He also has a 'Babaco' papaya plant growing in a pot, and Datura (angel's trumpets) in the small strip of soil on the sidewalk in front of his house.

"When I was younger, I walked down the block and smelled something wonderful, so I stopped to ask what it was," Jansen recalled about his first Datura sighting. "I took home a round, thorny pod and planted it, and they smell awesome." He warns, however, "if you touch the pod, you'll get welts on your hand, and if you don't pick up the pods when they drop, you'll have plants all over your yard next year."

And that towering banana tree? "I cut it down to 6 inches every fall -- it's so easy to cut, you can use a butter knife!" he said. "Then I cover it with about two feet of mulch and a dropcloth. In April, I remove the mulch and it just spreads."

He nurtures all his tropicals with compost, weekly applications of liquid sea kelp and Flowers Alive! fertilizer, plus an occasional dose of Miracle-Gro. "In spring, I plant them in a spot where there's morning sun and afternoon shade, and leave them there until October 1, then I bring them back into the sunroom," Jansen said. He even set up a 10-gallon fish tank in the sunroom to provide winter humidity for his plants.

"I like to plant things that are different, and I like to feel like I'm in the tropics," he added. "When you come to my house, I want you to feel like you're in 'Jurassic Park.' "

A little Cancún in Suffolk

Christian Foerster of Shirley has created a veritable oasis around his backyard pool. The retired military photographer, who has lived in his home since 1971, began gardening in the late 1980s after his lawn mower rusted. "I said, 'The heck with it,' and I put it on the curb on garbage day and I never replaced it," he said.

Immediately, Foerster, 70, started to eliminate his lawn, planting bushes and perennials and spreading mulch about. "It got to the point where I prided myself on not having a single blade of grass on the property," he said, "and when I got bored of everything else, I started with tropicals."

While flipping through a gardening catalog with his wife, Ellie, Foerster fell in love with the exotic-looking plants on its glossy pages and set out for a local nursery. "We bought three elephant ears and some red cannas, came home, planted them, gave them a little fertilizer, a little peat moss, water and voilà! A tropical paradise in no time at all."

Annual trips to Cancún also inspired him.

"What I saw there greatly influenced what I do here," Foerster said. "Subconsciously, you try to recreate the joy and the beauty and the relaxation you get there." Those vacations influenced the banana trees he keeps in his bedroom in winter and sets out by the pool every spring.

Each fall, Foerster cuts down his canna plants, removes them from pots and wraps each root clump in a sheet of newspaper, then stores them in his basement. "People don't realize how easy it is," Foerster insists. "You put it in and then dig it up. That's all."

A feel for the Southwest

If you find yourself strolling down the street in Farmingdale, you might think you're in Tucson. Bill Bensen has a veritable desert in front of his house: He plants more than 60 cactuses -- some of which are more than 20 years old -- in the ground every spring.

In place of the rhododendrons and daylilies his neighbors might be growing, there are scruffy, cylindrical barrel cactuses lining Bensen's walkway. A 6-foot-tall, three-armed saguaro towers over, and Opuntia sprawls out underneath.

Bensen, 55, has been growing cactuses in Farmingdale -- in the ground, outdoors -- for two decades. "I had cactuses growing in pots in the house, and when one flowered I thought it was cool, so I put them all outside and dressed up the garden with the pots," he said. "I had too many plants, so it was at first just a way to clear out the house."

Then, as his cactuses grew even larger outdoors, Bensen made more plants from them simply by cutting off limbs or top sections with a fine-toothed hacksaw and planting the severed section right in the ground.

Every year around this time, Bensen, a steamfitter, begins the migration of plants from their basement winter home to his front yard, gradually acclimating them to more and more sunlight over the course of a week. Then he pulls on his welding gloves and begins the planting -- just one or two each night after work -- mixing sand into the soil to improve drainage. He strategizes to minimize injury, planting the biggest cactuses near the house first and working his way toward the street to avoid having to get in between them, but says he still gets scratched up. "They all have thorns," he said, "and some of the thorns are hooked."

But cactuses are desert plants, and Long Island is no stranger to precipitation. Is that a concern? "They can get flooded and still they'll eventually dry out," Bensen said. "Even if it rains a lot, I don't worry about them," he said, adding that he only gets concerned at night when he first sets them out in pots. The plants are more delicate at that phase, to be sure, but there's another reason for his anxiety: "I once had a beautiful cactus -- 3 feet tall with about 40 blossoms on it -- and we woke up one morning and it was gone. Stolen."

At the end of each season, Bensen digs them all up, pulls woven-plastic pipe-fitting bags over the roots and lays them on the basement floor, where they remain dormant over the winter.

"It's a huge undertaking," Bensen's wife, Karen, said, adding that it's worth it.

"It's always interesting to talk to people as they stop to inquire about the plants," she said. "People just can't believe he actually brings them in each year."

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