Drought resistant plants native to Florida save water, can survive the drought cycles
Using Florida plants instead of exotic imports can save water and attract wildlife, experts say.
Special To The Sentinel
December 23, 2007
St. Augustine grass is a staple among Florida neighborhoods. It thrives in huge, green swaths across the state -- provided there's enough water, fertilizer and weed killer to keep it going. Without this pampering, the grass wouldn't last in Florida's sandy landscape for long.
"St. Augustine is a wetland plant," said Pete Dunkelberg, a member of Orlando's Tarflower Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.
Dunkelberg chatted with visitors recently at a Native Plant Awareness Day at the Yarborough Nature Center in Geneva. He handed out literature about the benefits of planting drought-tolerant native plants, and about the shortage of drinking water Florida may face in the future.
"Florida usually gets up to 55 inches of rain a year. If people water their yards twice a week, and put out three-quarters of an inch each time, then that's around 1 1/2 inches in a week," said Dunkelberg, "which means in 50 weeks, that's 75 inches. [That's] more than 1 1/2 times as much as natural rainfall, in addition to natural rainfall -- which tells you, you are trying to grow wetland plants."
A representative from the water-conservation division of the Seminole County Environmental Services Department was also on hand to talk to people about water-saving tips, both indoors and out. "We're trying to inform the public what simple things they can do to conserve water," said Debbie Meinert, water-conservation coordinator.
Meinert cited the St. Johns River Water Management District's "Think Two" campaign slogan to help people remember to water their lawns no more than twice a week.
The water-saver's guide she handed out to visitors had recommendations such as running dishwashers and washing machines only when you have full loads, and not letting the water run when shaving, brushing teeth or washing dishes by hand. Meinert goes into schools encouraging schoolchildren to help as well.
The main point of the day's workshop was to encourage people to go native in terms of plants. Choosing native plants over more exotic, foreign species has advantages, Dunkelberg said. Native plants are uniquely adapted to the Florida landscape, its climate and its rainfall averages.
"[It's about] putting in plants that don't take up much water and preferably don't require any," Dunkelberg said. "There are a lot of native plants to pick from."
Examples of native ground covers are blue-eyed grass, matchstick weed and sunshine mimosa, a creeping vine with pink flowers.
Native trees and bushes can be strategically placed to create structure in your yard and attract birds and butterflies, Dunkelberg said.
Beautyberry and wild coffee are two examples of shrubs that produce berries that birds like.
So how do you choose native plants for your yard?
"The first, most important thing to do is always get a soil sample," Meinert said. "It's 'right plant, right place.' "
If you live in Orange County, the University of Florida's Orange County extension office, at 6021 S. Conway Road, offers free soil samples Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Master Gardeners there will advise you on which plants are best for your soil.
"Some plants are acid-loving and if you put those in an alkaline soil, then they do not do well," said Petra Tanner, the extension office's Master Gardener.
Dunkelberg said the Florida Native Plant Society in 2008 plans to become more active in talking to legislators about promoting xeriscaping, which is sometimes hindered by neighborhood homeowners associations.
"[There's] a growing problem with water, and we will need in the future to change some of the laws that give the homeowners' associations so much power to prevent xeriscaping, which means water-conserving landscaping," he said.
Copyright © 2007, Orlando Sentinel