The right plants in the proper place can conserve water and protect the environment.
More than a decade ago, a busy professional bought a house in Winter Park with a big backyard. The first year she mowed it. “The second year, I decided never again,” says Kathleen Kiely. Xeriscaping and native Florida plants were an emerging trend, so she made a decision that changed her landscaping and, in part, her life.
During the next few years, her yard metamorphosed into a tranquil, easy-to-maintain, critter-friendly space with palms and other native trees and seasonal wildflowers. She undertook the work herself, after going to the Internet and the Orange County Extension Office for information. “It seemed like a fun hobby that answered eco-friendly tendencies,” Kiely says. “You have a choice. You can raise roses or you can raise native plants.”
We all have a choice in our landscaping, but therein lies the problem. Central Florida’s subtropical environment sustains a vast array of greenery. Drive around any established neighborhood, and you’ll see the variety: a cactus and succulent garden exists happily next door to a lush tropical tangle of ferns and palms; a tree-shaded expanse of bromeliads thrives beside a sunny swath of thirsty, beautifully manicured lawn. How to choose?
Adding to the confusion is the fact that landscaping is no longer just cosmetic. We are encouraged to select plants that not only look good, but also save energy, time and money, while protecting the future of our state’s resources.
While Kiely’s commitment brought a huge change to her surroundings, many less-extensive choices can create environmental friendliness in an existing yard. Even if you live in an area with a home-owner association-mandated landscaping plan, take heart. Proper maintenance can make conventional, manicured lawns more amicable to the environment.
“Most people’s yards are already Florida friendly,” says Kelly Greer, Orange County representative for Florida Friendly Yards, part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). What’s more important is how people manage their yards. “People have to understand how much water to put on the yard, and how to put the right amount of water on the right plants.”
One of the most valuable tools in the home landscape is a rain gauge, Greer says, because conservation protects the state’s water quality and improves landscape health. Grass requires more water than landscape plants, so reducing the area of lawn is a good start. When we water more than ½ to ¾ inches at a time, she says, the water seeps below the root zone, out of reach of the plants. Overwatering encourages a shallow root system, increasing stress during dry periods. For good health, plants need to work for their nutrition, just like people.
Kiely’s decision to change her landscaping has been deeply rewarding, she says. A sign in her front yard proclaims that it’s been certified a Florida-Friendly Yard by master gardeners. “I feel like this is what my little part of planet Earth is supposed to be.”
For more information on Florida Friendly Landscaping, visit orange.ifas.ufl.edu/fyn/index.html and floridayards.org/fyplants