There is a way to garden that stimulates native habitats, preserves our lakes and serves the planet.
In Central Florida, we are blessed with a year-round growing season, which is an intoxicating draw for gardeners who find bliss in the repetition of digging, watering and pruning. For many of us, it is a spiritually restorative activity.
The appeal of Florida gardening has attracted a great many plant varieties to our nurseries, but we are wise to be wary of some of these selections because while they may all be beautiful, some may not be the best choice for our environment.
Educated gardeners and longtime residents know to avoid invasive species, which consume the landscape and bodies of water unbridled, without a lasting winter freeze to slow their roll. While spreading aggressively, invasive plants eventually kill native and Florida-friendly species, crowding them out and stealing the nutrients and water they need.
While that may sound extreme, it’s becoming a reality in beloved neighborhoods where natural landscapes have historically thrived. The Butler Chain of Lakes in Windermere is now completely ringed with torpedograss, cited by the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants as one of the most serious weeds in our state, forming monocultures and quickly displacing native vegetation.
Other insidious intruders include Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, punk tree and Japanese honeysuckle. To help Floridians identify invasive species, the University of South Florida launched FLIP, the Florida Invasive Plant species mobile field guide, which can be found at plantatlas.usf.edu/flip and includes both Latin and common names of plants, as well as photos to make identification easier.
The team at Biosphere Nursery in Winter Garden, which has specialized in lakefront restoration since 1975, is particularly adept at spotting some of these plant invaders.
The fragrant blooms of the Florida-friendly Rangoon Creeper vine (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
“We’ve been working with homeowners for decades to help get their lakefront gardens healthy by removing exotics, and planting non-invasives that also attract wildlife, and teaching them natural gardening techniques so they aren’t feeding the lake with fertilizer,” says Zen Silva, general manager of the nursery.
If homeowners decide they want to restore their lakefront, they need to apply for state and county permits. The team at Biosphere can walk homeowners through that process.
“Lakes are a state resource, and Orange County is heavily regulated in terms of protections, while other Central Florida counties have fewer regulations,” explains Dave Nunlist, Biosphere project manager.
Dave Nunlist and Zen Silva of Biosphere Nursery (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
In the late 1980s when Biosphere’s founder Jim Thomas, a fourth-generation Floridian and environmental activist, was looking for the best plants to incorporate into various restoration projects, he had a difficult time sourcing them. So he started cultivating native plants species himself. That’s how Biosphere in its present form, a serene, sprawling nursery on Tilden Road, came to exist.
Initially, the nursery wasn’t open to the public, but after the Biosphere team started participating in Leu Gardens’ annual plant sale, “people just started showing up,” says Silva. “So we opened the retail space eight or nine years ago, and our following has grown.”
The plants at Biosphere are never treated with insecticides. “They get a little fertilizer, maybe, but other than that, they’re on their own,” says Nunlist.
In comparison, plants available at big box stores have been sprayed with neo-nicotinoids, the most widely-used insecticides in the world. They are detrimental to bee and insect populations, and therefore antithetical to Biosphere’s mission. The plants available at the nursery, which are all Florida natives or Florida-friendly, help attract butterflies, bees and other wildlife.
Native Dune Sunflower (KERI BRYUM/LEU GARDENS)
Gardening in and of itself is always a good thing, and while the invasion of non-native plants is a threat to our natural environment, there is a way to garden that serves the planet, stimulates natural habitats and helps to preserve—and even clean—our lakes. Keep in mind that plants absorb phosphates from water and can help maintain the delicate balance of our lakes.
One local resource for in-depth information is Harry P. Leu Gardens, an enduring beacon of all things gardening—offering beautiful, imitable garden environments and classes on seasonal veggie gardening and much more.
“In all our classes and on our tours, we include information meant to encourage wise choices for Florida gardens. We highlight natives and Florida-friendly species because there is a growing interest in these plants,” says Keri Byrum, Leu Gardens’ assistant director.
Their class “Transplanted Gardener: New to Florida Gardening?” is well-suited to educating newcomers on the unique qualities of our environment and the importance of natives. Typically, it is new gardeners who are most likely to unwittingly plant a gorgeous exotic that soon takes over and spreads throughout their garden.
“But remember,” Byrum says, “ ‘native’ doesn’t mean zero maintenance. All plants benefit from some TLC. The word ‘native’ can be confusing because a plant that’s native to one place isn’t necessarily native to another. Gardeners should connect with groups like the Florida Wildflower Foundation and Florida Native Plant Society to learn which plants really belong here.”
Ready to jump in and learn? The UF/IFAS Extension Service is offering an Introduction to Florida-Friendly Landscaping class for only $5 on April 11 at the Jessie Brock Community Center in Winter Garden. Call 407-254-9200 for details.
For more information about native and Florida-friendly plants, check out these websites: