What would you say if I told you I know of a whole palette of colorful plants that will thrive in your sunny, sandy desert (or mucky, shady bog)? If I added that they care not a whit about the new summer fertilizing ban that took effect a week ago in Tampa? That they're drought-tolerant, thumb their stamens at freezes and will wallow in the coming monsoons?
Florida natives are all that and more, but it's still hard to find a good selection in most local garden centers and nurseries. Not to worry. This weekend, we can load up at the Butterfly, Herb and Native Plants Fair at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens.
Wonderful as natives are, you can't just stick them in the ground willy nilly and expect them to be happy. That's one of the popular misconceptions that leads to dead plants and disappointed gardeners, says botanist Kim Hutton, the gardens' events coordinator.
"People assume the natives are a piece of cake, but they can be tricky, too," Kim says. "You have to consider light requirements, water requirements, how tall it will get, how much space to leave between plants. These are all questions you would ask for any plant and natives are no exception."
Planting correctly — not too deep, not too shallow — is also important. But you can do all that right, and if you don't water them well for the first couple of weeks, you'll likely have some dead plants.
"With anything, it's the water that makes all the difference," Kim says. "When I put in a new plant, native or not, I hand water every day for a couple of weeks."
Some natives can be downright tricky. I planted liatris corms in February 2011, expecting them to come up in the fall — when they're supposed to — and return again and again. Darned if they didn't appear four weeks later. They gave a pretty little 2-foot-tall spring show, and I haven't seen 'em since. Kim had a similar experience. But a garden I visited in Seminole Heights had dozens of eye-popping foot-long purple liatris spires on 6-foot stems last October.
"Those liatris started from just three planted a year ago," the gardener, Ryan Horstman, told me.
Ryan claimed he had no secret recipe, no special variety of liatris. As Kim notes, sometimes they can be just plain vexing.
My hands-down favorite is no prankster. There are so many varieties of blanketflower, or Gaillardia, with different bloom colors and shapes, most visitors to my garden don't realize the bright yellow, deep red and burnt orange-and-yellow blooms are all, basically, the same flower. Blanketflower love my sand and sun, tolerate everything and reseed relentlessly.
Downside? When the flowers go to seed, they look like grizzled, gray pompons on stems. And they can get a bit lanky and sprawly. I just snip 'em back.
For sunny, sandy areas, Kim's favorite is beach sunflower. You've seen these in roadway medians — a real testament to their hardy constitution.
"It can have trouble in the winter if it freezes, but it usually comes right back," Kim says.
For dappled light or part shade, Kim likes the sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum.
"It smells nice, and it has pretty foliage and bark," she says. "And I always like the medicinal plants."
Sassafras could stock a pharmacy: It has been used to treat syphilis, help kick tobacco habits, as a soothing tonic and to treat skin problems. We can thank sassafras for giving us root beer, too.
The crown has a pretty symmetrical shape, and in the fall, the leaves turn sunset colors. It's also a host plant for spicebush swallowtail butterflies.
As with any plant, it's important to put natives in places with the conditions they prefer, Kim says. Swamp hibiscus, for instance, like wet feet — soil that's always moist — and full sun. The combination isn't as impossibly contradictory as it sounds; some people stick a pot in their garden pond. My pot sits in a bucket on the patio.
"The nice thing is, we'll have the growers at the plant fair. They're all experts and they're from the Tampa Bay area, so they can tell people what works for each plant," Kim says. "We'll also have volunteers from the native plant society for people to talk to."
As for fertilizer, most natives are happy if you just add compost to the soil a couple of times a year so, if you live in Tampa, you don't have to worry about the fertilizer ban. Beginning June 1, fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus can't be used or sold in the city because, during the rainy season, they wash into storm drains and pollute our waterways. (Pinellas County is in its second year of the ban.)
"When you fertilize during the rainy season, you're just throwing your money away anyway," Kim says. "If you're composting, hallelujah! That's the way to go."
One final note: Native landscaping does not have to be overgrown and messy looking, another common misconception, Kim says.
"Everyone has the neighbor with the unkempt yard who calls it 'a native garden,' " Kim says. "That's not what it has to look like. You can have a nice neat landscape with natives.
"If someone's not going to take care of their landscape, it's going to look bad whether it's natives, ornamentals or invasives."
Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] See more gardens on her blog, digginfladirt.com, or join the local garden chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.