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Florida yards can be natural habitats, too

Mulch doesn't have to be red stuff that comes in plastic bags. It can be leaves and pine needles raked into flower beds. And the flowers don't have to be dead-headed at the first sign of wilt. They can be left alone until they spread their seeds, saving you the trouble.

Let the caterpillars eat the first growth of leaves in spring. The trees will be fine — they evolved as hosts, after all — and a month or so later, clouds of butterflies will flutter around your coral honeysuckle. Plant a Chickasaw plum for the brilliant early display of white blooms, and, later in the year, watch the songbirds squabble over the crab-apple-sized fruit.

A yard doesn't have to be a scientifically irrigated square of turf grass, doused with chemicals and mown as flat as milled board. It doesn't have to be a patch of ground claimed in a war against nature. It can be a place where plants are brown in the dry season and green when it's wet, where insects eat plants and birds eat insects.

It can be habitat, by God, and, in fact, as more and more of the several billion people on this increasingly suburbanized Earth demand their little chunks of it, that's what yards will have to be: habitat.

So say Richard Stauffer, 68, and his longtime partner, Julie Wert, 63, who is president of the Nature Coast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.

Their yard, 1½ acres of coastal uplands just south of the Hernando-Pasco line in Aripeka, recently won the society's second-place award for amateur residential landscaping.

It didn't win because it fits the definition of that tiresome word "sustainable," though of course it does. It won because it's beautiful — paths of hardy volunteer turf grass wrapping around dense gatherings of yellow-fringed Indian blanket blooms.

Some are drooping at the moment, going through the aforementioned natural reseeding of their beds. But through the spring they were bursting with color, as are, now, the bright yellow rosinweed and beach sunflowers, the pink salt marsh mallow, the purple puffballs of the mimosa strigillosa.

Wert has strung a hammock in the yard, and I can see how lounging there could be somebody's highly acceptable vision of heaven.

Then there is the yard in the Wellington at Seven Hills owned by George Massey, 76, a retired jazz musician and avid blogger.

He loves NFL football and is appalled by the policies of our governor, which makes him my kind of guy except for one thing: He thinks the "Florida friendly" landscaping in the subdivision's common areas "looks like Salvador Dali gone crazy." He moved here seven years ago from New York state and likes lawns the way they were up there, lush and grassy, even if they don't grow in Florida without a fight.

And what a fight, said Dan Dameron, Wellington's landscape manager.

As in a lot of Florida subdivisions, the topsoil and trees in Wellington were bulldozed away in the rush to build homes, and so the Floratam grass in front of these houses (bahia is planted in back) grows on sand and a scattering of construction debris — caulk tubes, concrete bocks and "even a forklift tire," Dameron said.

He, maybe more than anyone else in the county, was responsible for persuading the County Commission in May to temporarily back off a wise and supposedly permanent policy — restricting lawn watering to once a week only.

So I thought Dameron was a bad guy, and then I talked to him and learned that he's trying to persuade retirees such as Massey to go with Florida friendly yards — tamer versions of Stauffer and Wert's miniature preserve.

About 30 percent of them have, but most still want the closest approximation to a northern lawn, Floratam, which is the opposite of a preserve; if anything is alive in one of these lawns, a chinch bug or a mole cricket, you can bet it's only because the chemicals haven't gotten it yet.

In the part of Wellington where Dameron's crews do all the lawn work, right down to setting the timers on sprinklers, the extra day of watering isn't so bad — two 20-minute sessions each week rather than one 45-minute one. But in the rest of the county, it means people are allowed to water twice as much, even as aquifer levels dropped slightly below normal, thanks to our hot, dry spring. (So it rained enough to float an ark last week; it always does when I decide to write about the drought.)

Floratam is the only grass that needs all of this water, and even then it barely hangs on. Massey's yard, frozen out last winter, was recently replaced for the third time. Some Floratam lawns in Wellington have been resodded five times.

Isn't that a sign it's time to give up on this stuff?

Florida yards can be natural habitats, too 07/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 8:45pm]
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