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Five Foolproof Plants for Beginning Gardeners

Options are almost endless, but these go-to plants will enhance any landscape

Interested in gardening but don't know how to get started?

Here are five plants recommended by University of South Florida Botanical Gardens that will get your hands dirty and make passersby green with envy. Best of all, they thrive in Hillsborough County weather and soils:

Strawberries
Firebush

Firebush (hamelia patens). What's not to love about firebush? It's a Florida native, has bright red tubular flowers, and is a favorite of the zebra longwing, the state butterfly. It flourishes in full or partial sun, and is easy to grow. Firebush can reach more than a dozen feet in height, but will come back nicely if trimmed in springtime to between five and eight feet.

Strawberries
Tropical almond

Tropical almond (aloysia virgata). This small tree grows quickly, is an evergreen, and has a lovely fragrance. The blooms are not showy, but their pleasing scent floats past on a breeze, without overwhelming. The tree's branches are arranged in tiers, and its leaves turn red, purple, or yellow before dropping in winter.

Strawberries
Pentas

Pentas (pentas lanceolate). Everyone should have pentas in their yard. It blooms constantly and seldom has problems. Butterflies love it. Prune it back to fill out the plant, or to keep it at a preferred height. Don't be misled by hybrids that are more annuals and have no value for butterflies. Stick to pentas lanceolata.

Strawberries
Croton

Croton. This hearty plant adds gorgeous, year-round color to any yard. It seldom has problems with insects or diseases, and can serve either as a specimen or foundation plant. Either way, its bold, variegated leaves draw admiring looks.

Strawberries
Hibiscus

Hibiscus. This plant's large, colorful blossoms add a tropical flair to any Florida landscape. Hibiscus blooms throughout the year, and the blossoms are available in a variety of colors and shapes. The plant is sensitive to cold weather, but temperatures must drop severely to kill them. It's worth the effort to protect hibiscus in an occasional freeze.

Other plants worthy of consideration: The natives wild coffee (psychotria nervosa), Tampa vervain (glandularia tampensis), and powderpuff (mimosa strigillosa), all of which attract butterflies; and hearty non-natives liriope (liriope muscari), St. Bernard's Lily (anthericum sanderi), and bulbine (bulbine frutescens).

USF Botanical Gardens experts advise novice gardeners to consider what type of landscape or garden they are seeking, and to assess growing conditions - light, moisture, and soil type - in the area they plan to cultivate. There are many options, from gardens featuring displays of vivid color, to those that attract butterflies, to ones showcasing a bed of succulents and cacti.

Whatever the choice, new gardeners can't go wrong with the above favorites, assuming they are properly planted and maintained. Need help? Contact USF Botanical Garden or Hillsborough County Extension.

Top photo: A hibiscus bloom at USF Botanical Gardens.

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