If your solution to Florida's stringent water restrictions is a low-maintenance, low-cost blanket of pebbles, shells, pavers or concrete, think again. Hard surfaces around your house actually increase the temperature of your living space, which means higher cooling costs.
Researchers have found that non-green surfaces absorb and reflect the sun's heat during the day and continue to store heat even after sunset. For example, a concrete patio can be 15 to 25 degrees warmer than a green bed, according to a University of Florida study.
But green beds aren't all created equal. If they're planted with turf grass, you've got to factor in the costs of mowing, fertilizing, irrigating and applying pest and disease-control products. Granted, your indoor cooling expenses may be lower, but your savings will be eaten up by every blade of grass.
In this new year of cost-conscious, water-conserving and environmentally minded living, why not resolve to grow the right greens for the right purpose?
Turf grass is a superior choice for foot traffic. It's difficult to picture children and pets playing in a bed of pine bark mulch or atop flowering beach sunflower. Keep the turf if it works for your lifestyle, but don't overfertilize or you'll make it grow faster and require more frequent mowing.
A landscape of well-manicured turf grass is a luxury these days (actually, before it became widely popular, turf was only grown by wealthy landowners). Landscape architect James Montgomery of Paradise by Design in Clearwater, urges clients to manage it in a "responsible manner" by limiting water usage and consider turf varieties well suited to Florida, such as Seashore paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum). This warm-season turf grass has been described as the "turf of the future" because it's pest- and disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, will grow in wet soil and shade, requires little fertilizing, can be cut to just one-eighth of an inch and is so salt-tolerant that it can be watered with salt water.
In places where turf isn't serving a practical purpose, plant other greens to cool the environment. Here's how the cooling transpiration process works: As plants release water through their leaves, the tiny droplets absorb heat in the air and evaporate. This cools the surrounding air temperature as much as 9 degrees. So the more green in the landscape, the greater the cooling effect and potential energy savings.
There are numerous ground covers — literally from A to Z, as in Ajuga reptans (bugle weed) to Zebrina pendula (Wandering Jew) — and hundreds of other plants to choose from, no matter what soil, light or water conditions you've got. Choose wisely, notes Montgomery, and keep your goals of reducing maintenance, water use and costs in mind.
Some ground covers do well in sun or shade, including bright green dichondra (Dichondra carolinensis), green and purple oyster plant (Rhoeo spathacea), white-blooming Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) and dark-green coontie (Zamia floridana). Red, purple and white flowering match weed (Lippia Phyla Nodiflora) also thrives in any light and even grows in wet soil.
Montgomery's clients frequently ask how to get grass to grow under shade trees. His answer is always the same: "Go with ground cover." Lily turf (Liriope muscari) and mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicas) will thrive in shade, as will jasmine and many ferns.
Yvonne Swanson is a writer and Pinellas County master gardener. Contact her at email@example.com.