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Going Native PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jen Karetnick -- BT Contributer   
January 2013

A movement to promote Florida-friendly landscaping takes root in the village

Wbigstock-Vegetable-garden-7485963e were enjoying a lazy day in the pool, Sauvignon Blanc in stemless Riedel glasses floating beside us, mangos thumping all around, when one of my guests suddenly became very animated. “Brazilian pepper!” she shrieked, pointing to the tangled mass where a mango had disappeared into the underbrush. “That’s not native! Do you have pruning shears?”

Within seconds, she was out of the pool and attacking the offending plant and all others in the yard she deemed unsuitable.

For her good deed, my friend was later rewarded with an all-encompassing rash, either from poison ivy or exposure to mango sap. But while she was pulling out plants, she was also planting a lot of ideas in my head about our overgrown patch of brown and green, what we should be doing with it -- and not doing with it.

When we do have the opportunity to observe the jungle we dare to call landscaping, my husband and I often find “new” weeds, shrubs, and even trees growing. This is vegetation that could have only come from seeds, spread by the wind or dropped by birds. That means other nonnative plants are in our neighborhood, sucking up water and other valuable resources that indigenous plants require. Eventually, they’ll force out the native species.

In short, potentially destructive, insidious plants are likely already in your yard, or your neighbor’s. They range from the sapodilla to the sea hibiscus to strawberry guava.

I know what you’re thinking: These are common to our properties. So common, in fact, that our houses might not look like they belong in subtropical South Florida without them. Meanwhile, haven’t most of our regional trees, bushes, and whatnot been introduced from other tropical climes? Even our beloved mangos are originally from Asia.

The problem is not necessarily with exotic plants, but those that are harmful for whatever reason, including root systems that pillage more than their share of water. It surprised me to learn that coconut palms, which thrive all over the Caribbean (and along my driveway) are not recommended for planting in Miami-Dade County. It’s not because they’ll take over a yard (although a mature palm can drop 75 seeds, or coconuts, annually), but because of the amount of water the highly fibrous roots absorb.

For the most part, the occurrence of a menacing species is not the fault of current homeowners. Vegetation not native to the area was typically introduced a long time ago to combat a perceived problem. For instance, melaleuca was brought from Australia in 1900 when portions of the Everglades were being reclaimed. Its roots are widely regarded as a soil stabilizer. But without its natural enemies to keep it in check -- bugs, disease -- it quickly became dominant. Today, referred to as a “noxious weed,” melaleuca is on the prohibited list, making it illegal to possess, propagate, or plant.

Ditto Australian pines, planted as windbreaks to preserve beaches and shore up canals. The prolific pines quickly became a threat instead of a savior, taking over wildlife nesting habitats, uprooting in hurricanes, and bursting into flame during wildfires more easily than the trees they’d crowded out.

If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find nonnative plants are all over South Florida -- and Miami Shores, in particular. If you don’t, examine an extensive list of prohibited, invasive, cautioned, and recommended species in reference sources penned by the University of Florida, including A Guide to Florida-Friendly Landscaping.

Or go online for brief yet multifaceted tutorials at the South Florida Water Management District; for more extensive self-educating, check out the Florida Yards and Neighbors (FYN) Homeowner Program, run by the UF/IFAS extension, at http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/homeowner.htm. I guarantee you’ll discover at least one environmentally threatening plant on your land.

It’s fortunate, then, that we have residents like David Hunter in our midst. A Realtor with Greener Living Homes, Hunter is an outspoken advocate for reducing our consumption of resources. He and his cohorts in the group Miami Shores Green Gardeners, founded two years ago to “share resources in a cooperative manner,” enthusiastically host free, open-to-the-community workshops once or twice per year, such as the one on edible and sustainable gardening I attended in December.

“It’s all about Florida-friendly landscaping,” Hunter says. “We want to see people going with more low-maintenance-type plants. This will cut down on the amount of water, fertilizer, and chemicals in use.”

Turning your yard into a giant sustainable garden is, I suppose, a way to xeriscape, though front lawns that might include kale and basil are surely not allowed in a community where you have to get a permit to move a mailbox. Xeriscaping, which literally means “dry scene,” is a southwestern U.S. concept that calls for designing an aesthetically pleasing landscape with drought-tolerant, waste-efficient plants, rocks, or other materials.

For Miami Shores residents -- whose decorative rocks and downed tree trunks (both allowed in xeriscaping) could become nasty projectiles in hurricane weather -- the ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of resources used for maintenance while balancing soil types and compatible plants.

Hunter leads by example: His yard is filled with rain gutters that lead to barrels, raised beds with organic herbs and vegetables, and a gorgeous mass of flowering vegetation that would make any experienced gardener wince in envy. But he is also trying to lead by mandate.

This past fall, he and his colleagues appeared before the village’s planning and zoning committee and the village council to encourage officials to formally adopt Florida-friendly landscaping recommendations.

The current position of the village council is that no one is opposed to Florida-friendly landscaping, and that the village, with some recent initiatives and its new website, is already on the “green side.” Still, the outcome of the Green Gardeners’ petition resulted in the council sending the proposal back to the planning committee for more specificity.

Currently, Miami Shores homeowners, as stated in the village council minutes, are given “wide latitude” regarding their lawns, which apparently includes allowing the enormous, inflatable holiday decorations that devour electricity and are an eyesore besides. We’re also required to keep our lawns and swales green even during drought, an impossibility many of us encountered a couple of summers ago.

For cost and resource management considerations, Florida-friendly landscaping recommendations make good sense. Turning those guidelines into regulations, especially those that allow for only the planting of native vegetation, seems far more sensible than simply limiting sprinkler systems or forcing us to purchase sod that the waste trucks then proceed to grind off the swales. Or, for that matter, having us pay for permits to uproot a mailbox.

 

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