Six bare stalks from plumeria plants boarded the plane with them. Today, cold hardy bananas, windmill and sago palms, hibiscus and elephant ears join the late summer-blooming plumerias in a tropical resort-style back yard that surrounds their 20-by-40-foot in-ground pool.
"They flower every summer and have the most beautiful smell," adds Dee.
Even though the couple lives in a York County neighborhood where azaleas, hollies and camellias are the norm, Jim and Dee prefer anything that makes them think of sun, sand and swimsuits.
"Dee and I hate cold weather and long for warm tropical climates and have been big Jimmy Buffett fans for the way he sings about living a tropical-based lifestyle," says Jim. "I've always been into plants, so I was naturally attracted to tropical plants, especially after getting our pool."
Developing a garden around the pool is a gradual and time-consuming process. Jim isn't in a hurry because he wants to see how things fare before he puts everything in motion.
"Every year I add a few things," says Jim. "One of these years I'll put in a tiki bar."
For now, Jim is content to expand his gardens, especially the banana plants that make you think you're somewhere else.
"Nothing says 'You're not in Virginia anymore' like several large banana groves," he says. "Even though the stalks will freeze if you don't dig them up in the fall, the corms in the ground will sprout several new stalks in spring and grow like weeds – 10 to 12 feet tall in a couple months."
"And, each year the grove will expand with more trees. I also like red and dwarf varieties of banana, but they are not cold hardy and must be brought in before the first freeze."
When it comes to palms, Jim has learned to expect the unexpected. Last winter, he worried five sago palms were gone because they lost all their fern-like foliage. He wraps them with burlap and Christmas lights to provide a little extra heat when it's really, really cold but even then it's a guessing game as to what will appear when warm weather returns. He likes how they surprised him this spring.
"Every one sprouted new growth as soon as it got warm, and they look great again," he says.
Windmill palms, he finds, are extra cold hardy, keeping their foliage intact without added protection.
Now that he's got what it takes to grow bananas and palms to his heart's content, he's working on adding color throughout the garden. Hibiscus of all kinds — the trumpet-flowering kind and the ones that produce dinner plate-size flowers — are among his mainstays for summer-long color.
"It's hard to beat hibiscus flowers for a tropical environment, although I'm trying with new angel trumpet plants I bought this spring," he says.
Dee spends a lot of time in their back yard but she quickly admits Jim is the gardener in the family. A kindergarten teacher with summers off, she prefers floating in the pool while Jim weeds, mulches, waters and coaxes plants to meet his expectations.
"We entertain a lot throughout the summer. That's the best part," she says.
Jim agrees, saying the pool and its plant companions are the backdrop for many weekly and special occasions: Friday happy hours, wedding and graduation parties and neighborhood cookouts.