1. Life & Culture

Diggin' Florida Dirt: A couple starts anew with native plants at their Davis Islands home

Back in Falls Church, Va., Debbie and John Zahrt bought just under 2 acres of neglected property and spent more than a decade liberating its towering hickory, black cherry and oak trees from a choking overgrowth of wisteria, ivy and bamboo.

They planted natives and grew a small forest — with a meadow!

Last year, the couple downsized. Their new, much smaller lot on Davis Islands near downtown Tampa gave John, a retired Air Force colonel, a dock for his beloved sailboat, the Mouser. Debbie, a Virginia-certified master gardener, got a few hundred square feet of turfgrass and chinch bugs.

"The yard was just awful," she says.

She and John ripped it out. Debbie read up on Florida's climate, soil and native plants, particularly those that sustain birds, butterflies and other wildlife. She and John planted hundreds of trees, shrubs and perennials.

Following nature's landscape design, she simulated a forest edge within their white picket fence: trees destined to grow tall around the perimeter, shade-loving understory trees and shrubs beneath, all migrating toward sunny spaces of grasses, ground-covers and flowering perennials.

Their new yard has already become a colorful landscape certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

"This is a tiny yard, but you can be certified on a balcony," Debbie says. "We as gardeners should not look at gardens as just pretty spaces. They should be places that support life."

Debbie and John don't use fertilizers, which pollute water; or irrigation, a waste of a valuable natural resource; or any product whose descriptor ends with "-cide," which can kill the pollinators and other wildlife essential to a healthy ecosystem.

They don't add compost or other amendments to their soil, instead mulching with oak leaves and pine needles collected from neighbors.

Their landscape is not 100 percent native, and they're okay with that.

"I want people to look at my garden and see something pretty — to see that they can plant natives and have an attractive garden," Debbie says.

So when two or three attempts at natives surrounding the birdbath fountain in the front yard failed, she went with non-native blue daze (Evolvulus glomeratus). The deep blue flowers of the low-growing shrub create a striking focal point visible from the street.

Creating a native Florida wildlife garden requires work on the front end but promises less labor and expense as the plants mature. Debbie and John share some tips for getting started:

• Pick up the easy-to-read Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. The illustrated guide explains the whys and hows of ecological gardening.

• Put each plant in its optimum conditions — sunny, sandy, shady, wet, dry, whatever. This may require some guess work and result in some failures. Keep trying!

• Seek plants known to attract native species. Debbie chooses hers with an eye toward the food, nectar and shelter they'll provide, along with their suitability for conditions. Among her favorites: Simpson's stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans), an attractive shrub or small tree, has berries and flowers beloved by birds and butterflies. Frog fruit (Phyla nodiflora), a sunny groundcover, attracts several butterfly varieties.

• Plant small, including trees. It's less expensive, requires less digging and helps roots get better established, which makes plants more drought-tolerant.

Gardening for wildlife can come with surprises, so be prepared!

"We found a black racer snake living in our side yard. We named it Rupert so we wouldn't be afraid of it," John says.

Rupert eventually laid four eggs and John got to watch one hatch. Still half in its shell, the little snake hissed at the sight of him.

A small miracle, yes, but just another day at the forest's edge.

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