How Eco-Friendly Is Your Landscape? Q&A with Florida Native Plant Society
by Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
Given the concerning projections of our climate’s future, it’s vital that we all make contributions toward a safer, healthier, more sustainable planet right now. But while we conserve our water, reduce our plastic waste, monitor our energy consumption in an effort to decrease our overall carbon footprint, how much attention do we give to our lawncare?
One unexpected but effective way to become more eco-conscious at home is to evaluate our landscaping. Plants that are native to the state of Florida are enormously beneficial to the natural ecosystems around us which is a crucial fact to keep in mind when cultivating and caring for our yards. Just in time for Earth Day this month, I asked Linda Manley of the Florida Native Planet Society’s Mangrove Chapter to share her insights on how the use of native plants will reinforce environmental conservation as a whole.
Natural Awakenings: How long has the Mangrove Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society been in existence?
Linda Manley: In 1986, the Charlotte Harbor Chapter was admitted to the Florida Native Plant Society and later was renamed the Mangrove Chapter upon relocating to Englewood. Currently, the Mangrove Chapter serves many of our surrounding communities such as Venice, North Port, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda.
NA: Could you summarize your involvement with the organization and what drew you to this area of advocacy?
Manley: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with nature and science, so when we moved to Florida, my husband and I looked for an organization that would help us foster that love and help others to realize the benefits of plants and animals.
We found the principles of the Florida Native Plant Society supported our beliefs, so we attended a few meetings, then volunteered to help on the Board. I’m the Membership Chair, and my husband Dave is the Historian and Website Manager. We also share photos of the Mangrove Chapter’s guided nature walks on our Facebook page.
NA: What are some of the practical and environmental benefits of using native plant species in home landscapes?
Manley: Many people have read of the startling decline in insects and birds worldwide, and the loss of native habitat is one primary cause of this. Because insects, birds and plants have evolved together over millions of years, they depend on each other for food and reproduction.
However, when non-native plants are used in yards or commercial plantings, insects are unable to recognize them as food, so the area essentially becomes a desert. To these insects, the landscape might as well be made of concrete. In his book Nature’s Best Hope, [entomologist] Douglas Tallamy emphasizes that using native plants in our home landscapes is the best chance that nature has to survive in the future.
In addition, native plants require much less care and expense than non-natives do. They require little to no fertilizer or water once they are established. Selecting the ideal native plant varieties in terms of size and growth conditions can provide a nearly carefree garden filled with birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
NA: What are some accessible, low-maintenance Florida native plant species for homeowners to grow in their yards?
Manley: For palm trees, choose a native sabal or royal palm. For large trees, choose a laurel oak or sand live oak. For small shrubs in sunny areas, choose firebush to attract butterflies, wax myrtle to attract birds and Simpson’s stopper to attract both.
For shady areas, wild coffee attracts pollinators and birds with both flowers and berries (no...you can’t make coffee from those berries!). To infuse color with flowers, select gaillardia (blanket flower), dune sunflower or spotted bee palm. In addition, Southern red cedar makes an excellent screening hedge, and tropical sage or blue porterweed attract hummingbirds.
NA: With Earth Day around the corner, what are some eco-conscious lifestyle changes we can make on a daily basis?
Manley: Recycle, recycle, recycle! Stop drinking bottled water. Instead, purchase a reusable aluminum bottle that you can refill. Use few or no fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn, as insects must feed on plants in order to reproduce.
Install a rain barrel that will catch and store rainwater to irrigate your landscape. Plant shade trees to help reduce the expense of air conditioning. Convert part of the yard’s turf grass to low native ground-covers, such as sunshine mimosa, which don’t require mowing.
Use your own washable, reusable bags at stores, rather than plastic bags. If you do accumulate plastic bags, reuse them for disposing of trash or packing donations for charity. Reduce fuel costs and air pollution by consolidating several errands into one car trip.
NA: Could you elaborate on the connection between native plants and environmental protection at a macro level?
Manley: The need for all of us to be more environmentally responsible is of utmost importance. The increasing loss of natural habitat to urban development is alarming, and the removal of native flora, which is often replaced by non-native vegetation, has consequences.
Wildlife habitats are significantly reducing, and many people make detrimental plant choices or sustain too much turf grass which results in the overuse of water and chemicals to support an unnatural landscape. These practices disturb the natural balance of our environment, as displaced wildlife have access to fewer and fewer natural ecosystems.
The Florida panther is on the road to extinction, and our beloved manatees are dying at an alarming rate due to poor water quality and loss of habitat. This is the result of pollution in our rivers and coastal waters which have become repositories for farming and mining chemicals, as well as lawn fertilizers and pesticides.
NA: What makes you so passionate about sharing this information with our readers and the local community?
Manley: We need to educate the public about favoring plants that would naturally grow in our yards versus landscaping with plants that don’t belong there. The latest book on conservation, Nature’s Best Hope [referenced earlier] by Douglas Tallamy, should be required reading for homeowners around the country as well.
This book explains how we can easily turn our lawns into “conservation corridors” that provide safe wildlife habitats. Finally, we humans must develop a new mindfulness about how our daily actions impact the living and physical world that surrounds us.
The Mangrove Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society serves both Charlotte and Sarasota Counties. For more information, visit Mangrove.FNPSChapters.org or join the “Mangrove Chapter of Florida Native Plant Society” Facebook Group. You can also contact this organization by mail at Mangrove Chapter FNPS, P.O. Box 1153, Englewood, FL 34295.
Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer is the Managing Editor of Natural Awakenings Sarasota–Manatee. She also works as a freelance writer, blogger and social media marketer. Her personal blog HealthBeAHippie.Wordpress.com features tips for embracing an active, nutritious, balanced and empowered lifestyle.