Gardening: Earth Day and Marco Island
This week we celebrate Earth Day. This holiday was first celebrated in 1970. It is a great day to think about the beautiful environment surrounding us on Marco Island and how to perhaps create habitats (think your yard) that are more friendly and inviting to the environment and the creatures that call it home.
The flora and fauna of South Florida are quite diverse, made up of microclimate environments called communities. Each of these communities has its own plants and animals that rarely leave their own area. These are broken out as coastal dunes, hammocks, freshwater swamps or wetlands, saltwater wetlands, sand pine scrubs, dry pineland and pond and river margins. Marco Island has areas that would apply to all these communities.
Coastal dunes – Hideaway beach; Hammocks – Indian Hill or Key Marco; Freshwater swamps or wetlands – Marco Lake; Saltwater wetlands – along Caxambas Drive, behind Sheffield or Key Marco fringe; Sand pine scrub or dry pine land – inland Marco Island and river margins along the Marco River.
Most of our flora is tropically oriented. Nurseries tend to sell a lot of imported exotic plants from other places but there is a trend back to native plants as awareness of water and energy issues arise. True native plants can better survive our seasonal weather extremes without special care and watering once established. They also provide habitat for local fauna. While still hard to find, more and more local nurseries can obtain most natives you might want. The fire bush flowers all year and attracts butterflies and the beautyberry has bright purple berries that the birds love.
A lot of the more colorful shrubs, which were imports long ago, have become such a common site they are considered by most to be native. Hibiscus, bougainvillea and ixora are a few examples that fill our landscapes with color. While they are beautiful, they require constant care from insects and disease, cold damage and extra watering. A trend toward using exotics more sparingly and introducing more native plants to our landscapes would be a good thing.
As our island develops the last remaining habitats for our local fauna are disappearing. Some, such as the egrets and eagles, have adapted to life with man. Egrets will get in front of my mower and I must come to a complete stop as they go after the bugs I stir up. A nesting pair of eagles lived in a nest for over twenty-five years two feet from the back yard of a house I maintained on Shadow Ridge Court. This lot happens to be at the end of the practice driving range of the Island Country Club.
These eagles endured my lawn mower, weed whip and hedge trimmers as well as the big machine that traverses the driving range picking up the golf balls at the end of the day. Not to mention the occasional wild ball that probably hit the nest. I watched many baby eaglets fledge from this nest.
Others, like the pink flamingo and the quail, have slowly perished. I never got to enjoy the pink flamingos but used to love watching quail families cross the streets. You rarely see them anymore. They, like the burrowing owls, lived in our vacant lots, which are mowed regularly.
We now protect the burrowing owls but it is too late for the quails. One thing we could do to try to save some of our local fauna is to create backyard habitats for wildlife. This does not necessarily mean you have to have a wild yard.
You should simply think about your plant choices and consider how these plants could help the wildlife you would like to attract. Provide small fruits and seeds for birds and a source of water. Have tall grasses or a brush pile for animals to hide in. Leave open sandy areas and begin a burrow to attract owls or tortoises.
Native plants are a better choice since Florida wildlife evolved with Florida plants. Maybe the city would consider allowing vacant lots to return to a native state to become mini wildlife refuges.
To create an environment that suits your property, keep your environmental community in mind. Don’t try to grow salt sensitive plants on the beach or plants requiring good drainage in low, boggy areas. A jungle or hammock will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter because they maintain a uniform climate of high humidity and frost- free temperatures making then suitable for most tropical plants. After establishing the hardier canopy plants, you can introduce the more tender, under-story plants as the yard begins to mature.
Things to remember when creating a habitat are:
You must provide food, water and cover for the wildlife.
The habitat area must be at least 10 square yards.
You should use at least 50 percent native plants in your habitat area.
You do not have to completely re-landscape to establish a habitat. Select a small area of your landscape and add some of the features listed above. An example could be a flower garden to attract butterflies with a birdbath in the middle. The flowers would provide food for the butterfly larvae and the larvae would provide food for birds attracted by the birdbath. We installed a pond system in our back yard and have several bushes and trees with fruits and berries. We love watching our backyard as the diverse species of birds and butterflies come and go. We see cardinals, blackbirds, redheaded woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers (I just saw one two days ago), purple martins (there are special houses for them), and the favorite with our visitors, a gray heron that feeds on frog eggs from the ponds when available. There are many more I have not identified who stop in on their migration north or south.
Or, if you have always wanted to live in the woods you can create your own jungle or hammock and screen yourself from your neighbors, street noise, cut your fuel bill and attract birds, butterflies, squirrels and other small creatures to your yard, not to mention spending less time, energy and money keeping a lawn in shape. The most maintenance needed would be to pick up fallen branches and pull unwanted weeds. If properly planted, a jungle or hammock on a small lot can be attractive in the wild state. You can experience and live in the real thing in the community of Key Marco. Their woods are home to bobcat families with kittens and one of the largest tortoise populations on Marco. One spring day I watched as a flock of Indigo Buntings flew by in undulating beauty.
Some animals are happy to live in our neighborhoods as they are, no changes needed. The homes on Dogwood and Sheffield have similar plant communities and wildlife as does Key Marco with bobcats spotted running through the yards and many tortoise burrows. In the front yard of one of my homes on Dogwood Drive a very small tortoise burrow appeared in the front lawn. I only realized what it was because I see so many of these tiny burrows in Key Marco. I protected it with flags and my crew and I watched as the burrow and the tortoise grew over the summer months. When the homeowner returned for the season with her dogs, we thought the tortoise might abandon the burrow for safer living arrangements, but it stayed put and now lives with our weekly mowing and the dogs. In the Copperfield Court neighborhood, you used to see many rabbits darting from yard to yard taking refuge under hedges and bouncing through the vacant lots. The end of Laurel Court used to have a resident chicken! That is until a new house was being constructed and it disappeared. This chicken would garden alongside me happily eating whatever I stirred up for him. What a treat. And let us not forget the snakes. I have been begging people to leave them alone and not kill them for years. I do see more large snakes now than I have in the past but we still have a long way to go on that one. Remember they eat rats and keep the populations down so we don’t have as many in our attics.
We are all so fortunate to live on an island surrounded by exotic tropical plants, birds and animals which most people never have the pleasure of seeing in their lifetimes. Rather than scaring them all away with our development let’s develop habitats in our own backyards to attract them to live alongside us here on beautiful Marco Island. Happy Earth Day everyone!
Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413. Read past columns at marconews.com.