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Diggin' Florida dirt

A native garden? In deed!

Golf balls sail into her lanai and sometimes through her windows. Golfers have followed them into her yard — and whacked them right back out. Deer eat her Easter lilies the minute they bloom, and armadillos dig for grubby snacks in her seedlings.

Kathy Carlsen says she wouldn't trade her little slice of paradise.

"I'm on the golf course looking out over all that green. The serenity — it's just so nice," she says.

Between her home and hole 16 is her garden, a mostly native nirvana of coral honeysuckle, firebush, blazing star and free-wheeling butterflies that explodes into a Jackson Pollock canvas in the spring.

"We're out back all the time," Kathy says. "My husband will sit out on that lanai all day long, reading and drinking coffee."

Kathy and Ken live in Westchase, a notoriously deed-restricted community. Remember the Army wife ordered to remove her "Support Our Troops" sign in 2006? The priest's non-compliant Celtic cross? The basketball hoops forced to disappear from driveways?

Which made the Carlsens' back yard a happy surprise. It's all flowers and shrubs and mulch (more on that in a minute); not one blade of the St. Augustine turf so popular with homeowners associations and so despised by friends of the Florida-friendly.

"Westchase was probably the first HOA in this area to adopt Florida-friendly landscaping guidelines" after the Water Rights Bill passed in June 2009, Kathy says.

That state law requires all local governments, including neighborhood associations, to allow Florida-friendly landscapes, which are quite happy with little watering. But few expected deed restrictions would go down without a fight.

An even bigger surprise? Ken took out all the turf years ago, at Kathy's direction and with his HOA's blessing.

"We don't get involved in back yards," says Joaquinn Arrillaga, president of the Westchase Community Association. "They're free to do their landscape however they want."

Arrillaga says past president Carlos Quiros jumped on developing new guidelines to comply with the landscape law, which applies only to front yards in Westchase. The biggest disagreement in all their meetings was over how much turf to require. Westchase settled on a minimum 50 percent lawn. And homeowners have a variety of newly engineered, more drought-tolerant grasses from which to choose.

The board also extricated itself from the judicial process. It hired a local landscaping company, Green Grounds, to review homeowners' designs and advise on any modifications necessary.

"At no cost to the homeowner," Arrillaga adds.

So the process isn't subjective; it's about potential runoff, right-place right-plant and other practical considerations.

The new landscaping rules were approved the same year the state law passed. Since then, hundreds of homeowners have modified their front yards and some now have certified Florida-Friendly yards, he says. He hasn't heard of a single complaint.

Arrillaga, who has lived in Westchase for six years, says he has always thought it's a beautiful community. And since the rules change?

"Driving around, I believe it looks better," he says.

But I digress. We started in the Carlsens' back yard, a garden I was invited to visit because Kathy is excited about her newest green discovery: melaleuca mulch.

I'm going to skip the part about how important mulch is to conserve water, protect plants from temperature extremes and feed your soil. Because you know all that. I'll go straight to how not all mulch is created equal.

Environmentalists frown upon cypress mulch because cypress trees are so vital to our shrinking wetlands. I hate it because it tends to form a rock-solid mat that even water can't penetrate.

Melaleuca mulch, made from an invasive species we need to get rid of anyway, is a great alternative. But it has always been so hard to find — and expensive! When I'm spring-amending my garden with 20 bags of compost and 20 of mulch, green takes a back seat to convenience and expense. I use pine bark nuggets, which are prettier than cypress, harvested from sustainable pine-tree farms, and available a mile away. It's $2.82 for a 3-cubic-foot bag at Lowe's.

But come March, I'll be switching to melaleuca.

Forestry Resources Inc. has been quietly expanding distribution of FloriMulch, made from 100 percent melaleuca. It's termite-resistant, state-certified nematode-free and — best of all — cheap. A 1.5 cubic-foot bag sells for $1.98 at Lowe's.

"I like how it feels to walk on," says Kathy, who's in the midst of distributing about 80 bags of the stuff. "It's so much easier to spread. I think it's made a world of difference to the look of my garden; it's more finished. You don't have the big chunks of cypress."

FloriMulch has become more widely available because of growing acceptance, says Robert Olinger, vice president of sales and marketing for Fort Myers-based Forestry Resources.

"We have a new distribution facility in Webster," he says, which means more bags to more Central Florida outlets. And we can go to Webster if we want to buy it by the truckload.

Kathy's also fixed some of the other little problems that come with living in paradise.

She planted lavender to keep the deer at bay — and it's working. They don't like the smell. There's no stopping the golf balls, but she persuaded Westchase to plant fakahatchee grass among the palmettos around the course to dissuade golfers playing the Carlsen hole.

Some golfers do still stop in — to ask if they can take pictures of Kathy's garden. She gives them full rein; no restrictions.

Get more Tampa Bay area garden stories at digginfladirt.com. Get your garden chat fix on Facebook at digginfladirt. Or contact Penny directly at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com.

ast facts

Where to Find Flori-Mulch

Lowe's

• North Dale Mabry and Fletcher Avenue, Tampa

• Tampa Road and Racetrack Road in Oldsmar

• 7921 Gall Blvd., Zephyrhills

• 4780 Commercial Way in Spring Hill

• Two locations in Clearwater.

A native garden? In deed! 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 3:30am]

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