Landscape for Sustainability in the Florida Climate

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When people think of sustainable living, they often think of environmentally-friendly alternatives for the home: solar panels; energy-efficient appliances; hybrid water heaters; and low-impact, eco-friendly building materials. As green living continues building momentum, it’s time to begin thinking about how to take that ideology and expand it beyond the walls of your living environment. You can landscape your home sustainably, despite Florida’s harsh environment.

The outside environment can have a surprising impact on a home’s energy-efficiency. We can’t control Mother Nature, but with thoughtful landscaping techniques, it is possible to reduce your home’s energy costs, conserve water, and ensure an overall healthier ecosystem. A Florida-friendly landscape design utilizes native species that complement the home without wasting time, energy, and money caring for plants that aren’t adapted to the Sunshine State’s climate.

As beautiful as our state is, our climate can be punishing. Our soil is mostly sand (clay in parts of the state), almost all year the hot sun beats down on us, and the abundance of plant-eating insects could give even an entomologist the heebie-jeebies. These are all factors that must be considered when choosing the right plants for your yard.

Because Florida is known for its sunshine, many homeowners think designing their landscape is as simple as choosing sun-loving plants. There is much more to consider; however, given the right information and some planning, you can customize a landscape that meets your aesthetic criteria, while also being ecologically-sound.

The Benefits of Grouping Plants:

The first recommendation for planning a Florida-friendly design is to group plants together. Grouping is not only visually pleasing, but it has many conservation benefits. Grouping allows you to place plants together based on their nutritional, sunlight, and water needs, cutting down on maintenance. But this doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice creativity. Choose two or three colors that complement each other, then repeat that combination through all areas of your landscape. The repetition of color will draw your eyes through the design.

If your yard has elevated dry spots, group drought-tolerant plants in these areas. Drought-tolerant plants will also do well in areas exposed to the sun, especially along unshaded southern and western walls. The areas of your yard that are low, along waterways, or in spots with poor drainage are perfect for plants adapted to wet soil. Grouping will ensure you don’t overwater. Overwatering will make your plants more prone to disease and pests. It will also cause pollution due to leaching of fertilizers into the ground water.

Landscape with Trees:

In Florida, you should plant trees in groups. Trees planted in groups actually provide more atmospheric cooling than the same number of trees planted further apart. Grouping also makes the trees more resistant to high winds. Given we are prone to hurricanes, this can be extremely important to reduce damage during a powerful storm because it both creates a windbreak and decreases the likelihood of a tree blowing over (stay away from species susceptible to high winds, such as China-berry and Silk Oak).

The winds during the winter tend to blow from the north or northwest. These winds are colder, so planting trees along the northern border of your property will help reduce the heating costs of your home. Conversely, summer winds tend to blow from the south; however, these winds actually help cool, so don’t plant trees or put fences on the southern end of your property to help reduce A/C costs during the hot summers.

Trees near your home’s outdoor A/C compressor will also reduce air-conditioning costs. Shaded from the direct sun, the compressor uses less energy. Just make sure you don’t plant them so close they block the airflow. If the warm air discharged from the compressor can’t escape, the temperature of the intake air rises, causing the unit to operate less efficiently.

The Right Grass for a Florida Lawn:

A lawn with healthy grass has many benefits. Not only does grass cool the air around it by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, but it also filters runoff from storm water and reduces erosion. But it’s important to choose the right grass for the Florida climate. The best species for turf grass statewide are Bahiagrass, St. Augustinegrass, and Zoysiagrass; however, there are factors to consider before choosing a turf grass.

Grasses react differently to drought. During a drought, St. Augustinegrass and Zoysiagrass might need supplemental irrigation. Bahiagrass is a great choice in areas prone to droughts because it can go into a drought-induced dormant stage, but it is less dense than the other two species.

You need to decide which grass to use for your yard based on a few factors: wear tolerance, salt tolerance, fertility requirements, and shade tolerance. All of these factors, depending on where in Florida you live and your lifestyle, will help you choose the perfect grass for your lawn.

Keep in mind, most Florida grasses love the sun but don’t great in the shade. You may need to turn to another groundcover option other than grass for the shaded parts of your lawn and under trees.

Improving the Florida Soil:

If the soil where you live is predominately sand, water and nutrients will move downward quickly. If this is the case, you will need to stay away from planting species with high water and nutritional needs because not only will the soil dry out, but it will also allow pollutants to leach into groundwater.

To improve the quality of your soil, add organic matter such as compost or animal manure. Organic matter will help your soil retain more moisture and it will provide nutrients. The easiest way to add organic matter is to put down a layer a few inches thick (2-3) and then mix it into the soil with a shovel.

You may want to have the pH of your soil tested so you can choose the right plants for your yard. Plant reference guides will provide pH information, although many plants tolerate a wide pH range. Some building materials are very alkaline (concrete, stucco, brick, mortar, and plaster) and dissolve into the soil. This may prevent you from planting certain plants along your home.

Recommended Plant Species:

Florida has many native plant species that will add beauty to your landscape while also helping to improve your home’s energy-efficiency by conserving water, reducing pollution, and cooling your property. Here are a few plants to check out, but your options are endless:

Wax Myrtle:

The Wax Myrtle is drought-tolerant and a natural insect repellent. It has a delightful aroma and will attract native birds. It is also salt-tolerant and can be pruned into a hedge or screen for privacy.

Spicewood:

Spicewood is a small tree with a spicy fragrance. Its flowers have a pleasant aroma. The Spicewood will thrive in full to partial sun and is moderately drought-tolerant. Spicewood can be clipped into a hedge.

Locust Berry:

The Locust Berry is highly-resistant to drought. It has moderate nutritional requirements and does not need supplemental water. Its flowering season lasts all year with flowers that are white to pink, turning dark red as the flower ages.

Beautyberry:

Beautyberry is a wonderful drought-tolerant shrub that grows fast. The plant has small, lavender-pink, lilac-like flowers in the spring. In the fall the shrub produces purple or white berries. The berries are edible and can be made into a jelly or sauce.

Feijoa (Pineapple Guava):

Although this shrub is native to South America, it is an evergreen that can grow throughout Florida. It has beautiful flowers and can be used to create a sturdy, drought-tolerant hedge in sunny locations. It also produces an edible fruit that tastes like strawberry, pineapple, and guava mixed together.

These are just a few plants species to get you started. Remember, there is no need to landscape your whole yard in one attempt. You can landscape one area at a time. For more comprehensive information on landscaping for the Florida climate, check out The Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Handbook and the Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM Guide to Plant Selection and Landscaping Design from the University of Florida. These guides have everything you need to maintain a healthy, beautiful landscape design that will use a minimum of water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

Happy gardening from all of us at Brite Homes Florida!