For decades, the mantra of the Southwest Florida Water Management District has been to conserve water using any means possible, including landscaping. That starts at the agency's own front yard.
When Swiftmud's office was built some 15 years ago along U.S. 41, deputy executive director Lou Kavouras said, the thought was: "Why don't we practice what we preach?"
And so, a demonstration xeriscape garden was installed on the 37-acre campus. The garden reached maturity, but xeriscaping didn't quite catch on.
"People had trouble getting rocks and cactus out of their minds," she said.
So, for the past two years, conservation-conscious planners and gardeners on site have transitioned to a more Florida-friendly style that uses native plants that survive and grow with little or no irrigation.
The experiment has been such a success that the site has been certified by the Hernando County Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program as a Florida-friendly yard.
On a recent walking tour of the landscape, Kavouras pointed out the use of Bahia grass for the lawn rather than the thirstier St. Augustine grass.
Gardener Jeff Toth noted beds of Asiatic jasmine, a glossy green ground cover. "It doesn't need to be mowed," he said with satisfaction.
Another of his favorite new installations are spiky clumps of African lilies bearing delicate white to pink blooms that resemble orchids.
Blooming prolifically is a bed of white to pink to purple periwinkles, which die out in winter but come back every spring, he said.
Ferns of various varieties grow so tightly under shade trees that weeds can't find a foothold.
"More plant materials are available (than in a xeriscape)," said Kavouras. "Florida-friendly has a larger plant palette. And more native plants are now available."
Once established, the right plants in the right places thrive especially well under cover of mulch that hinders soil moisture evaporation. Mulched pathways rather than walks of impervious materials let more rainfall into the soil and reduce runoff.
Bricked or paved areas in the landscape aren't all bad, Kavouras added. They, and likewise patios, don't need to be watered. All of these are incorporated on the district's campus.
Toth estimates the landscape redo, which also included planting some trees, cost about $4,000. The transformation will conserve both water and labor, although he couldn't put a dollar figure on the savings.
John Korycki, coordinator for Hernando's Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program, certified the district effort, evaluating roughly 50 criteria.
He gave high points for an automatic device that shuts off the low-volume irrigation system when soil moisture is sufficient. More points were awarded for the use of natural mulches from the landscape such as pine needles and leaves and for melaleuca mulch, which is shavings from a trash tree invasive in South Florida.
Korycki advised on native plantings for the project although Toth and cohort Roger Roth did much of the research and design work themselves.
"It's important and a very good thing when people talk the talk and walk the walk of the things they've advocated and used at their headquarters," Korycki said.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org