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It's not so easy to switch yard from exotic to native Florida

I was feeling a tad smug that I can water my lawn and shrubs just as I always have, never mind the newly imposed watering restrictions by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

That's because I have a private well on my property, and private wells can go by the old modified Phase III rules, which allow watering from 12:01 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. on our designated watering days.

I was also grateful, mainly because my broken sprinkler system timer has to be operated by hand, and I don't feel like rousing out at midnight and 4 a.m. to turn it on and off.

But, more to the point, it's also because I've spent a small fortune in the past three years getting my lawn back into shape after a miserable 18 months of land subsidence remediation (notice how I don't use the dreaded word "sinkhole"), during which my lawn and landscape were totally wiped out.

Then I read Times editorial writer C.T. Bowen's piece, "No time for giving a break to water wasters," that ended with the suggestion we alter our attitudes, presumably including the smug and/or grateful ones. "The sense of entitlement, even during the dry season, to a heavily watered, lush green lawn should become a thing of the past," he wrote.

Aarrrrrgh!

With those few words, dear Mr. Bowen had aroused in me my most powerful and enduring emotion: guilt.

How could I use this precious, dwindling resource on measly blades of green stuff when hardworking athletic team owners, business tycoons and Swiftmud pooh-bahs need it for their palatial grounds and guest houses? (See recent stories in My Favorite Newspaper.) Just how entitled do I think I am?

Still, guilt got the better of me, so I grabbed the chance to go to a plant seminar at the Hudson library on Tuesday in hopes of learning ways to have a nice yard without sucking the Florida peninsula dry.

The goal is to use native Florida plants that don't require the constant coddling that exotic plants do.

The main thing I learned is that it isn't as easy as it sounds.

For one thing, most of us yard-proud people have already stuffed our little plots of land with high-maintenance exotics and aren't in the mood to start yanking them up by the roots. The suggestion that I chop down the huge, but environmentally verboten tree that shades my house and lowers my electricity bills and then plant an environmentally proper one would be okay if I were 21 and had time to let it grow. But I'm not 21 and I don't have 25 or 30 years to watch a proper tree grow. So it stays.

For another, finding environmentally correct native plants is darned near impossible. Big box nurseries that most of us frequent don't carry those beautiful native grasses, ground covers, shrubs, vines, flowers and trees.

The members of the Association of Florida Native Nurseries are far-flung, and most have very limited hours open to the public, so you can't just drop in some sunny Thursday morning and pick up a few containers of splitbeard bluestem, lopsided Indian grass or Pineland dropseed.

And, finally, most homeowners associations frown on yards that may be as wildflowery charming as Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, but look like a weed patch to the neighbors.

So, what's a person to do?

One easily made move to is stop (in the name of love) using cypress mulch, because we're loving our cypress trees to extinction. Instead, use pine bark, pine needles, eucalyptus and chopped up melaleuca (Florimulch and Enrivo-Mulch), which not only saves the cypress trees but also gets rid of the aggressive, water-sucking melaleuca plants.

My favorite mulch is oak tree leaves and blooms, which are full of nutrients and a hassle to rake, sack and trash anyway. (Just be careful they don't blow over on your neighbor's pristine lawn.)

I fertilize my azaleas with coffee grounds, the best possible food for these acid-loving shrubs.

And I hope to get to the big Native Plant Sale being held by the Nature Coast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 25 at Crews Lake Park off Shady Hills Road in Hudson (3 miles north of State Road 52, just east of the Suncoast Parkway). That way, I can start converting to native Florida plants instead of continuing to pamper my oh-so-needy imports.

Certified master gardener Peggy Gretchen says they'll have native vines, grasses, wildflowers, ground covers and shrubs for sale in 1-gallon and 3-gallon buckets for $5 to $12 apiece.

The next step will be to lobby our homeowners associations to alter the rules about turf grass and let us put in native plants that have adapted to Florida's quirky weather over thousands of years.

It'll take a while, but I think we're all going to be going that route whether we like it or not.

It's not so easy to switch yard from exotic to native Florida 04/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 7:41pm]
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