It makes no difference if you live in Florida, Texas or California. If you shop at a national chain discount store such as Wal-Mart, you'll be wearing the same garden hat, digging with the same shovel and putting out the same birdbath as gardeners all over the country. You can also buy many of the same trees, foundation plants, perennials and annuals, even though you live thousands of miles apart, in locations with different environments and growing conditions.
Big discounters push the same products and plants across wide markets to boost their revenues: It's a business practice known as economies of scale. They buy an incredibly large inventory of a particular product at a volume discount, ship it to stores nationwide and, as they love to remind us, pass the savings on to customers with "low prices, every day."
Shoppers think they're getting great deals as they load their carts with discount plants, fertilizers, gardening tools and gizmos, completely oblivious to the big picture. We're on our way to becoming one big, homogeneous landscape of "industrial" plants and gardening practices that are marketed to homeowners everywhere because they make good business sense, critics say.
Closer to home, many landscape designers repeatedly use the same plants, regardless of a site's location or use. That's how we've ended up with a landscape of Christmas tree (Adonidia) palms, variegated schefflera arboricola, Petra crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) and St. Augustine lawn at residential and commercial properties all over the Tampa Bay area. Or this year's big seller at the big-box stores: variegated flax lily (Dianella), which is the botanical equivalent of a fashion trend.
But getting the identical landscape look, whether you live on sandy Clearwater Beach or under a dense oak hammock in Hillsborough County, can require all sorts of changes to your property's environment, which include installing or modifiying irrigation, altering the soil, using chemical products to boost growth and ward off pests and disease, and pruning, weeding and other maintenance.
It doesn't matter if your environment isn't suited to the mass-marketed plants, because you can buy products to change your environment. (Can't you just hear cash registers ringing all over America?)
A natural selection
Then there are maverick landscape designers like Bill Bilodeau. His St. Petersburg yard could be the poster child for sustainable gardening. The front yard is beautifully landscaped with mostly Florida native plants; it is kept neat and tidy, contrary to the common stereotype that "naturescaping" with native plants is the equivalent of a weedy, unkempt mess.
Out back, Bilodeau grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that are nourished with a constant supply of homegrown compost from a large double bin. There's a pond to provide water for birds. Scores of plastic pots hold new cuttings of native plants.
It's not enough to tell homeowners that native landscaping actually looks good. Bilodeau's clients often visit his property to see for themselves. "Garden attractiveness depends on two issues — design and maintenance — whether it's a native garden or an exotic garden," says Bilodeau, president of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. "Native plants don't have to look weedy, if you have good design. It depends on our perceptions. For someone who likes a natural look, it works."
Practical and pretty
Beyond the aesthetics, native plants make good economic sense, Bilodeau says. They're perfectly adapted to our environment, so they require little from us. Growing drought-tolerant, pest-free and disease-free natives helps conserve precious water, eliminates using chemicals and reduces yard work. Many also attract butterflies, birds and other desirable wildlife.
You won't find Florida native plants at the big discount retailers, although many are stocking plants labeled as "Florida friendly" because they resist drought, disease and pests. They're probably your best choice if you shop at only the large outlets, but you'll find true native plants if you visit local specialty nurseries and plant sales. You'll pay more upfront for a native plant, but far less to keep it alive and thriving.
The golden rule of gardening is often cited as "right plant, right place." Most of us thought that meant doing things like putting a sun-loving plant in direct sun, a tree destined for major growth in an open area and an aquatic plant in a pond. But with mass merchandising of landscape plants, there's more to the rule. It's time to change our way of thinking by choosing the right plants for our homes rather than changing our environment to support industrial plants.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.