Friday, October 5, 2012

Wildflowers and Weeds

When we moved to our house over 7 years ago, it had a traditional landscape with big lawns in the front and back yards, and traditional shrubs and plants. Maintaining all that grass was labor and water intensive and I soon grew weary of it. I decided to jazz it up with a small flower patch. Over the summer, I dug up grass, little bit by little bit, to accommodate new flowers for the patch. Soon it was a bigger flower patch. Then I got the idea that I could extend the patch all around the perimeter of the yard and shrink the grass.
Big lawn with flower patch and border

It looked great, but the grassy area was still large and required a lot of water and maintenance, and the weeds were creeping in. So, I took a big breath and decided to take the plunge into a grassless yard, planted with only native and Florida Friendly plants. It was a lot of work. I pulled up all the grass by hand (it probably would have been easier to get someone to do it for me, but it was great exercise and got me outside every day). My neighbors thought it was very interesting and I had countless nice conversations with them as they cheered me on, and with strangers who stopped by and ask what on earth I was doing every day. Eventually, the grass was all gone and replaced with pine bark mulch. Then I started adding the plants. At first, it looked sparse. But each year the plants grew and self seeded, and I added more every chance I could get. I chose plants that would do well in our slightly dry and sandy, sunny space. I was also interested in attracting wildlife, so I planted flowers and grasses attractive to birds, bees and butterflies. Most of the plants were native to Florida, but some were not. Many non-native plants are Florida Friendly—that is, they are not invasive, and do not require extra water, fertilizer, or cold weather treatment. We put up bird feeders. The end result (as if there is an end—I am always re-arranging the garden!) is that we have a yard full of flowers, butterflies and bees, caterpillars and spiders, birds, lizards and even the occasional snake, in downtown Gainesville.
No lawn, native plants thriving
My understanding of the importance and beauty of native plants and species has grown over my years in Florida. I have come to understand the interconnectedness of plants and animals in their habitats and ecosystems. Native plants are the ones originally found in that particular area and are adapted to that ecosystem. Florida native plants are well equipped to live and thrive in the heat and humidity, dry or wet, shade or sun, coast, uplands or wetlands of our state. Native fungus, disease, insects and animals control the spread of the plants. The organisms in turn, depend on the plants for food and shelter. They need each other. Our ecosystems are in a delicate balance and once you throw people into the mix, with our constant movement and development, the ecosystems are in danger of disruption. We destroy habitat to build our cities and homes in the country. We bring plants from all over the world to make our homes look pretty. But those plants are not adapted to Florida and need special treatment, whether it be extra water or fertilizer. And when those non-native plants escape into the wild, some of them can become invasive (think kudzu!). They do not have the natural pest and disease controls, and native organisms have not adapted to depend on them. They grow unchecked and soon out-compete the native plants. The ultimate result is loss of diversity as the native species are crowed out and the invasive plant dominates the landscape.

Invasive Exotic Air Potatoes crowding out native landscape (photo from Lee County IFAS, Univ. of Fla)

It may come as a surprise, but water is critically important in Florida, as it is all over the world. We may have a reputation for swamps and lush rainforest-like landscapes, but that is an illusion. We do not have water to spare. 50-70% of our drinkable water is poured onto landscapes and turf farms every day. As water becomes more precious, it is more important than ever to conserve it. Native landscapes can help. Once they are established, native plants can grow on just the rainfall. Other than to get the plants started, I do not water our yard. Pesticides and fertilizers run off of landscapes, into the drains and into the aquifer, further endangering our water resources. Native plants do not need to be fertilized and have fewer pest problems. I do not use fertilizer or pesticides in our yard. I use mulch from pine tree bark, and let tree leaves compost in place on the ground. Both will add nutrients to the soil. If we have nuisance insects, I can pick them off the plant or treat with a soapy water spray. I encourage caterpillars! And when the weather turns cold, I am not outside covering the plants. I am inside, toasty and warm, knowing that the plants in our yard will be fine. My style of garden may not be for everyone. I happen to like a crazy meadow. But you can use native plants in just the same way you use any landscape plant. To people used to a manicured lawn, some of my plants may look like weeds. But weeds are just plants growing where you don't want them. In my yard, they are not weeds--they are wildflowers.

Our lawn-less yard this spring
Consider turning your yard into a "(name of your state here) Friendly Yard". The issues that we face in Florida are faced everywhere. Make your yard part of the solution, not the problem. You can help conserve water, reduce groundwater pollution, create wildlife habitat, and have a beautiful yard. You can start by planting Native Plants. The Fall Native Plant Sale takes place at Morningside Nature Center this weekend.

One of the many attractive native plants available at the plant sale (Lopsided Indiangrass, Sorgastrum secundum)

No comments:

Post a Comment