Gardening: A Florida-friendly concept for your garden

Eileen Ward

The term xeriscape has been replaced with Florida-friendly landscapes. People were constantly changing the term to “Zeroscape,” leaving them to believe it meant having zero plants and only rock for a landscape.

Actually xeri means dry and I thought it was a clever term but I digress. Xeriscape is a wonderful concept which encompasses much more than to cover the ground around your home with white rock or plastic grass. While small areas of these materials used in walkways or small decorative areas could be incorporated into a nice xeriscape plan, it is not a benefit to our environment or ground water on Marco Island to have an island covered in rock and plastic.

Ground-cover plants seen at right are watered by an underground soaker hose or a drip line with emitters, which only puts out so much water as programmed into a controller box. This backyard is a xeriscape landscape with drought tolerant plants, trees and succulents.

Two ways pollutants can reach ground water are through runoff and leaching. Runoff is the physical transport of pollutants over surface lands. Leaching is a process whereby pollutants are flushed out of soil by water as it percolates through the ground. In our area, where the land is flat, sandy and porous, leaching is a more serious problem than runoff.

The grass and other green plants in your yard hold topsoil in place, trap sediments, and absorb nutrients that can pollute water. Grasses remove potentially polluting nutrients from waste and use these nutrients to grow. Grass and other green plants also transpire to cool the air around them as water is taken up by the plant and then transpired into the air as evaporation. White rock can raise the temperature around your house considerably due to radiant heat. The money you’ll save in water will be spent on the electricity bills to cool your house due to the increase in outside temperature. Oops, up goes the carbon footprint.

Xeriscape is water conservation through creative landscaping. The seven principals of a Florida friendly landscape are:

  1. Appropriate planning and design. Especially of your irrigation system.
  2. Soil improvement. Soil improvements allow for better absorption of water and water holding capacity of the soil. Soils that have organic matter provide nutrients to plants.
  3. Efficient irrigation. A well-planned sprinkler system can save a lot of water. For efficient water use, turf areas should be irrigated separately from other plants. Group your landscape plants according to their water needs. For example, don’t plant your impatiens, which need a lot of water, in a garden with dwarf bougainvillea, which doesn’t like much water for optimum flowering. Use sprinklers to water turf and drip or bubblers in your plant beds. Check and adjust your irrigation system regularly and water only when and as much as needed.
  4. Practical turf areas. Locate turf only where it provides benefits. Turf should be separated from groups of trees, shrubs and ground covers so it can be irrigated separately. Turf can be replaced with other low water demanding materials such as ground covers, drought tolerant plants or mulch. Turf slows runoff, which is one of the ways pollutants reach our ground water from landscapes and should be placed in areas such as swales. Swales are designed to absorb water. All the more reason they should be covered in pollution filtering grass rather than rock which would allow the pollutants to pass right through to our ground water. Often the turf in swales will stay green and healthy with almost no irrigation because of runoff. Note that I don’t believe a few rock swales is going to have a great impact on the environment. However, it has been the rule that rock swales are not allowed since I moved here in 1980 and I always wondered why no one enforced this. They should, going forward.
  5. Use drought tolerant plants whenever possible. Many drought tolerant turf grasses are also available. St Augustine is moderately drought tolerant when watered and fertilized properly to develop a deep root system.
  6. Use mulch. Mulched planting beds are an attractive replacement for turf areas. Mulch covers and cools soil, minimize evaporation, reduce weed growth and slow erosion. They also add interest to the design. Organic mulches include pine straw, bark chips and shredded woods. Apply mulch directly to the soil or over breathable or biodegradable landscape matting, never over plastic.
  7. Appropriate maintenance. Proper mowing, pruning, weeding, limited fertilization, pest control and irrigation system use all save and protect water in various ways.

Water conservation and health is something we should all be concerned with but let’s conserve in our landscapes with the more environmentally friendly browns and greens and stay away from those stark, environmentally unfriendly rock yards.

A quick update on the Hurricane Irma recovery in our yards. Looking around today you will be hard pressed to find any damaged plants and trees. But there is still the occasional leaning tree or stump that needs to be removed. Most hedges and shrubs that were replanted and staked are back to normal and growing again. Our royal palms that looked like they would all surely die have rebounded with new palm fronds and for the most part look good again. Some palms did die this summer with the heat as their hearts, or growing point, were damaged and broken in the storm and they could not recover and finally the top of the tree collapsed and fell off. But this was the exception and not the norm. There was a lot of new landscaping installed as people took this opportunity to update an old or tired landscape. This all shows how lucky we are to be on Marco Island where we have the resources to take care of the catastrophic damages of a major hurricane and get back to normal within a year.

My thoughts continue to be with those who are still not back to their normal lives. May this happen for them in 2018.

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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.