Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith opened Landcraft Environments in Mattituck 22 years ago after cutting their teeth designing and installing landscapes on Long Island. They were a little ahead of their time.
"We wanted to be a little different, so we would always finish off our projects with tropicals in containers or annual plantings," Schrader said. "We started using tropicals you could only get in Florida and growing seeds that no one was growing at the time."
Before long, the duo saw a need for a local supplier and opened a wholesale greenhouse. The business grew from there and now supplies nurseries throughout the Northeast. Plants born at the nursery live out their lives in residential gardens, municipal landscapes and botanical gardens up and down the East Coast from Washington, D.C., to Maine, and as far west as central Pennsylvania.
The greenhouses sit on acres of beautiful gardens, which are used to test new plants and harvest seeds to breed others. Among Schrader's favorites are the hardier tropicals. "I like colorful foliage plants like cannas and elephant ears," he said, "but the most exciting thing is that we can grow a trunked fan palm on Long Island."
For those wanting to incorporate tropical plants into their gardens, Schrader recommends starting with canna.
"It's the most readily available, you can buy them as bulbs or as plants, and they're pretty foolproof: To overwinter, just dig them up and store the bulbs in a place that's dry and cool," he said. He also likes Acalypha, with species known by the common names chenille plant and copperleaf.
"Start off small, maybe just in pots and containers," Schrader advised. "Trial some things, and if you find some things you like, mix them into a shrub or perennial border."
He points out that most people already are using tropical plants, but might not realize it.
"They're basically annuals -- anything that's not going to make it through the winter here," he said. "And as people get more and more into gardening, they tend to want more unusual things."