While I’ll always miss the daffodils, tulips and peonies that are harbingers of spring in the Northeast, I am constantly delighted by the explosion of color in my native Florida garden.
In a five-minute stroll the other morning, I found masses of yellow coreopsis, rudbeckia, starry rosinweed and dune sunflower, white flowers of native plumbago, pearlberry, little strongbark, blue ageratum, wild petunia, bluepea, and porterweed, violet beach verbena , brilliant red salvia, firespike and orangey-red firebush, coral honeysuckle and milkweed, as well as pink Panama rose (not native, but Florida-friendly, as is the firespike). Combined with all the orchids in full bloom growing in the gumbo limbo and sabal palms, this garden is a riot of color.
But more than that, it is such a happy, welcoming oasis in an increasingly urbanized world. My grandkids come here daily, exploring the trails that weave behind the teabush, Bahama senna and live oaks, and wind themselves among the wild coffee, Jamaica caper and cocoplum. They are completely hidden when they are back there, and love searching for caterpillars and their chrysalises. There are always butterflies fluttering about and birds chattering in the trees.
Previously from Kim Frisbie:In our own backyards, we can help heal the planet
More:Green gardening: Add color to your garden with native plants
At night, the crickets sing and the fragrances wafting from the Simpson’s stopper and night-blooming jasmine are intoxicating, with a full moon shining through the thatch palms. There is no doubt in my mind that gardens are magical places; they restore your psyche, reduce your stress and make you a healthier person, all while imparting incredible joy and no small amount of awe at nature’s amazing capabilities.
My garden is tiny, built on a construction site with terrible soil, but the native plants I’ve added have thrived here and you’d never suspect this was only recently home to Dumpsters, crane trucks and port-o-potties. If you have any space at all, you can create a vibrant garden, not just a lawn surrounded by green island ficus, schefflera and podocarpus. It’s fun, therapeutic and educational; you’ll never be finished, and you’ll never be bored.
This will be my last article for the season, so I wanted to recap some of the important issues we’ve discussed.
* Native plants are essential to maintaining healthy ecosystems because they support the insects and pollinators vital to the survival of the birds, wildlife, and humans that inhabit those ecosystems. Adding toxic chemicals to our landscapes not only kills these insects but further depletes the microorganisms essential to maintaining healthy soils. These chemicals leach into our aquifers, contaminating our drinking water, poisoning our fish and manatees, and adding to the buildup of deadly algal blooms.
Additionally, compromised or contaminated soils can no longer sequester the carbon needed by plants for survival, which is essential to maintaining manageable CO2 levels in our atmosphere.
* The amount and type of plants in a landscape basically determines the amount and diversity of wildlife that can live in that landscape. For the last 200 years, nurseries, landscapers and architects have promoted low-functioning species for decorative value alone, never focusing on their ecological importance in supporting life. Non-native, alien or exotic plants (choose whatever term you like) may be beautiful but cannot provide sustenance for our native birds and butterflies.
Additionally, these are often invasive species with no natural pests or diseases to keep them in check, leaving them to choke out our original natives. In order to regenerate the biodiversity essential to our existence, we need plants that will support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.
* And a word about lawns. Those who attended the Earth Day celebrations at the Mandel Recreation Center heard some pretty scary statistics from the fifth- and eighth-graders that we would do well to consider. Some $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year, with 127 million pounds of pesticides being used by homeowners. This is three times the amount of pesticides used on agricultural land. And we haven’t even mentioned the fungicides and fertilizers, all of which leach into our water supplies.
It might behoove us all to rethink our lawns, at least partially. If you must have a lawn, don’t fall into the trap of having it chemically treated on a scheduled basis. Don’t cut it too short, don’t overwater, which encourages the roots to remain close to the surface, and remember that fertilizer is mostly salt, which kills the beneficial microorganisms necessary to soil health, which in turn supports the health of your lawn.
Doug Tallamy, author of “Nature’s Best Hope,” tells us that if we all cut our lawns in half we could collectively restore 20 million acres of ecological wasteland into functioning ecosystems. And that, sadly, is what lawns have become: sterile, chemically infused, non-functioning wastelands. We all want lawns for our kids and pets to romp and play in, so why do we coat them with toxins that poison our children, our pets and ourselves? These toxins also deplete the nutrients in the soil in which we grow our food crops. Are any of us paying attention to what we’re doing?
I don’t want to belabor the issue, so I’ll leave you with a few more of my favorite native species to cheer up your gardens.
I love the little strongbark (Bourreria cassinifolia), with its tiny fragrant white flowers that sparkle in the sunlight, attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. This well-behaved shrub maintains a compact habit, reaching an ultimate height of 3 feet, with a similar width. Birds love the ornamental clusters of orange fruits and seek out the numerous insects among the blossoms. The dense-branching habit provides excellent wildlife cover. Plant it in sun or part shade and enjoy.
The beautiful pineland clustervine (Jacquemontia curtissii) is another endangered plant we should all add to our gardens. With showy white flowers from fall to spring, fruits for birds, and high salt, drought and wind tolerance, this lovely vine is a winner in any full sun location.
Wooly teabush (Melochia tomentosa) is a charming shrub or small tree for sun or part shade. Clusters of small pinkish-violet flowers attract numerous pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds. You will rarely see it without some happy creature buzzing about looking for nectar. The gray-green fuzzy leaves are soft to the touch, to the delight of young children, and are used for a medicinal tea in the West Indies.
There are so many wonderful trees to add to your landscapes to invite birds and pollinators: Satinleaf, lignum vitae, marlberry, dahoon holly, live oak, Bahama strongbark, and our native shortleaf fig (this latter is host to the fabulous ruddy daggerwing butterfly) .
Plants can no longer be simply decorative. Including plants that provide nourishment, cover, and forage for local wildlife will help restore the natural food web that existed before we so radically altered our plant communities. Let’s all contribute to this restoration.