DUNEDIN — As far as the eye can see, there is green.
Green leaves, green flowers, green duckweeds. A carpet of green, which gently sinks under your feet when you take a step. An archway of green, which sways and tickles your nose as you walk by.
Occasional bursts of color peek through: loquats, wildflowers, tomatoes, carambola, Spanish needles. Cicadas, hummingbirds and blue jays faintly hum (and occasionally screech). The air is perfumed by the various trees dotting the property: camphor, magnolia, oak. A heron idles by. A duck snatches its prey. Two beetles briefly pause from their munching to create new life.
Paradise, it turns out, is 5 acres of backyard in the middle of Dunedin. It’s getting harder to keep it that way.
It all started generations earlier, in 1947, when Alice and Lewis Earle first moved with their children to Dunedin, attracted to the surrounding mangroves and seagrass.
A few years later, they bought a nearby plot of land and built their own house. Four years later, on the same plot, they built another. This second home was later torn down, and the space now houses honeybees and vegetable beds. Their property, along New York Avenue, is a few blocks south and inland of downtown.
The environmentally conscious pair wanted their land to be a wildlife haven, so while neighbors religiously mowed their small patches of green, the Earles shunned fertilizer and instead ceded their yard to nature. Soon, their property became home to otters, frogs, turtles, fish, hawks, woodpeckers, rabbits, egrets, opossums and countless species of trees and plants.
When they passed away, they left the house — and the surrounding land — to their daughter, Sylvia Earle.
Earle, now 87, has enthusiastically taken up the cause. A self-described “reformed Jersey girl,” Earle is a well-known environmentalist in her own right, particularly as an oceanographer. She was the first woman to be chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and holds the women’s record for solo dive depth in a human-occupied submersible.
Her interest in the environment, she said, started at home. She saw her parents choose to keep the wild lawn as is, adding to the flora, rather than replacing it with manicured grass.
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Along with her daughter, Liz Taylor, as well as friends and various volunteer organizations in Pinellas County, Sylvia Earle continues to cultivate the property — for example, aerating the previously stagnant lake and attempting to eradicate invasive species.
It is only recently that their efforts are receiving support from the city — and the public more broadly.
Decades ago, Earle’s father sold a piece of the property to developers in the hopes that it would become a space for teachers and scientists. Instead, it turned into a set of condominiums that cut into their yard.
In 1989, after neighbors complained about what they called overgrown conditions and a fear of the wildlife in the Earles’ yard, the city took a lawn mower to the north end of the property and gave it what Earle called a “crew cut,” decimating the recently planted native hollies and oak trees. “It was a scorched-earth situation,” Taylor said.
The Earles launched a battle with Dunedin, primarily surrounding the city’s lawn mowing ordinance, which prohibited grass over 12 inches tall.
In 1990, the Tampa Bay Times wrote about the battle (and called the property “a tangle of shrubs and growth”). The dispute ended with Alice Earle agreeing to pay a small sum and the city installing stormwater culverts in the lake, intended to control the flow of trash. The culverts are still a point of contention. The family says they trap wildlife and accumulate debris.
Nearly three decades later, in 2019, the city attempted to fine Sylvia Earle $30,000 for violating a similar lawn ordinance, which prohibits grass over 10 inches. They settled for Earle paying $10,000 and agreeing to give a free lecture, though the family maintains that they never violated the ordinance, since their “tall grass” was actually wildflowers.
Now, it seems like their xeriscaping ethos is spreading. Neighbors keep rain barrels in their own driveways to collect water for gardening and contribute to environmental research conducted on the property. One neighbor was so inspired that, until he moved away, he kept a sign in his driveway stating “Mow No Mo’.” The Earles and volunteers regularly host densely attended classes on bird-watching, hikes throughout the property and movie screenings.
There’s interest beyond Dunedin, too. “No Mow May” is practiced across the country, bolstered by social media and studies showing that lawn mowing negatively affects pollinator populations. Some, like the Earles, are ditching the mowing altogether.
A handful of local landscaping companies said they’ve indeed noticed more people inquiring about xeriscaping or wild lawns — or, at the very least, wanting native plants that attract wildlife. While they said these clients have increased in recent years, such requests make up a small portion of their work.
“For the most part, it’s, ‘Make my yard look good,’” said Diego Rodriguez, a landscaper at NorthStar Landscape Construction & Design in Tampa.
Sylvia Earle says that, beyond the wildlife and natural beauty that her wild lawn creates, there are real environmental benefits. For example, the tree canopy creates shade, essential as the sweltering summers in the area continue to grow hotter.
Biodiversity also means significantly fewer mosquitoes, since they are eaten by frogs and other animals. Pollinators flock to the area, flitting among plants and trees in the nearby community.
The family recently scored a significant win as Dunedin’s historic preservation advisory committee approved their application to designate the property a historical landmark.
The move was intended to protect the place from developers and to expand the property’s educational offerings. As a testament to how far the city has come, committee members immediately reached a consensus to support the request, which noted its conservation efforts.
When the vote advancing the application to the city commission passed unanimously, with one abstention, committee members and more than 20 supporters stood up and clapped.
The Earle family sees their property as an example of how every person, yard by yard, can create mini sanctuaries — a battle between new, concrete, developed Florida and old, wild, pre-paved Florida.
They know they’re not always winning.
When Sylvia grew up, she said, the lake on their property flowed freely. Now, plastic bottles and other trash flow down storm drains and accumulate in the lake, which is contaminated by lawn fertilizer runoff. Invasive species, such as air potato, are filling the grounds, despite regular efforts to eradicate them. The chirping and humming of the insects and birds almost, but not quite, mask the roar of cars on the nearby thoroughfare. And it’s only a chain-link fence that separates the lakeside path from the driveway of the condo complex.
“At the moment,” said Taylor, Sylvia’s daughter, “it’s kind of a little paved-over piece of Eden, unfortunately.”
The Times reached out to Julie Phillips, Dunedin’s code compliance officer, to ask how recent shows of support by city officials square with its lawn ordinance, which still stands. Phillips replied by email, saying she had been unfamiliar with the Earles’ property, so she had driven by.
She found that it was “currently in violation for overgrowth and lack of maintenance from the fence line to the street on both sides of the property,” she wrote. She said someone on the property agreed to have the area cleaned up in the near future.