How can you make your garden work for Florida’s environment?

Zachary T. Sampson, Tampa Bay Times
·5 min read

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program tries to encourage residents, local governments and landscapers to use plants that need less water and offer better habitats for wildlife. It’s a partnership between the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension and the Department of Environmental Protection.

The program puts out a free app for people to start designing a garden or yard that helps the environment.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke to Tom Wichman, a program coordinator with Florida-Friendly Landscaping, this week. This interview has been edited for length.

Who can get involved in this program, or who can practice Florida-Friendly Landscaping?

Anybody. ... Any landscape can become a Florida-Friendly Landscape. It really just depends on how you design and maintain it. The program is based upon nine core principles: right plant, right place; water efficiently; fertilize appropriately; mulch; attract wildlife; manage yard pests responsibly; recycle; reduce or manage stormwater runoff; and protect the waterfront.

How do you get started?

Start out doing a site inventory where you go through and see what you have, what you like, what the conditions are. This is a good time to do a soil test. Find out where your sunny areas are, your shady areas. It is also a good time to do some dreaming and figure out how you want to use your landscape. Once you have all that data, then you can start thinking about getting your landscape design down pat whether you do it yourself or have a professional designer work with you.

What fits into Florida-Friendly Landscaping?

There’s over 400 plants [on our app]. It’s a good mix of native and nonnative plants. To be a Florida-Friendly plant, it needs to be something that can be drought-tolerant and something that can work well in a landscape without demanding excess resources.

Do you have any favorite plants yourself?

One of my favorite plants to use because it’s so tough, so bulletproof is the Florida coontie. ... It works well in sun, shade. But there’s a range of plants from trees to shrubs to ground covers to palms. A lot of people forget that plants that have edible crops like vegetables and fruit trees can also work well.

What isn’t Florida-Friendly?

Over-watering, over-fertilizing, over-planting — these are all examples of things to avoid when you’re on your landscaping journey. You’re also trying to choose plants that are pest-resistant, that grow to the right size so that you’re not having to constantly prune them. Another thing that people often do is they plant plants too close together, then they’re competing with each other and they’re not allowed to get to their full, mature size.

Could a standard grass lawn be Florida-Friendly?

We encourage people to decide how much turf you need and get down to where you have functional turf. It’s the only ground cover that I’m aware of that you can walk on, play on and have it still survive and look nice. So it definitely has a place in a Florida-Friendly Landscape, but a lot of times when we see people designing their Florida-Friendly yard, they tend to have larger plant beds because they’re trying to get into diversity and get in a wide range of plants. It ends up being a more healthy landscape. The more diverse plant palette we have, we probably will attract a little bit more wildlife as well.

Are there any specific animals that you’ve seen people enjoy in these landscapes?

Everybody loves butterflies. Birds and butterflies are probably the wildlife that people like to see the most.

How important is choosing between permeable and impermeable surfaces for walkways and other hard surfaces?

We definitely recommend permeable pavers, or any sort of permeable material for walkways, driveways, patios. Your gutters and downspouts should be pointing out into the landscape as opposed to pointing onto hard surfaces that wouldn’t allow that water to [filter] through to the soil.

What are some benefits for the environment?

First and foremost it really is a water quality program where we’re trying to protect Florida’s water. By following these principles we’re reducing the amount of water that people have to apply, plus we’re reducing the potential pollutants that could be coming off of a landscape and going into our surface and groundwater.

Beyond the environment, what are some benefits for homeowners?

Hopefully No. 1 they’re going to get a landscape that they can be very proud of, something that is beautiful, something that will attract some wildlife so that they can interact with their landscape, and something that’s not going to overburden them with care and cost. Once our plants are established, very often they don’t need extra irrigation, except for during dry times. Not having to constantly water these plants, and not having to constantly fertilize things, all of a sudden it really reduces the bill.

What are the challenges? Is it more expensive on the front end?

Thinking about having to redo my entire landscape can be overwhelming. What I recommend most people do is a chunk of their landscape at a time. Do it one garden at a time. That way it becomes manageable, something that doesn’t break the bank. This might cost a little bit more than a traditional landscape when you’re starting the install process because a lot of times some of our more traditional landscapes are a lot of grass and nothing else. We’re probably talking about adding more plant material, more variety.

An individual property owner might think their small chunk of land won’t make a big dent in all of Florida’s environment. How much does this matter?

Every one of us has what I’ll call our own little piece of paradise and what we do with it affects the overall environment as a whole. Each one of us takes a little bit of this. We’re reducing the amount of pollution going into our waterways. We’re reducing the amount of water that we’re having to apply. All of a sudden we start seeing a little more wildlife, we start seeing healthier waterways, we’re going to have a healthier environment in the long run. And with our population continuing to grow — I don’t see that slowing down in Florida — we’re going to need to move to more sustainable ways of landscaping.