Our Beautiful Subtropical Garden

By Mary Ann Gibbs

When my husband, Tucker, and I bought our house in Miami some 16 years ago, we inherited a yard that was mostly grass with five large melaleuca trees, several Queen palms and a Surinam cherry hedge. We tore all of that out and evolved our yard into what it is today – a haven for people and wildlife. There is a sense of beauty and peace in the garden where we can observe the birds, butterflies, bees, squirrels and other critters that share our space with us.
A more than 15-year-old lignam-vitae tree on left is the standout in our new hedge planted with many young native trees and bushes, including here coral-bean, golden dewdrop, satinwood and Florida Keys blackbead. Growing up the chicken wire around a fishtail palm to the right of the lignam-vitae is passion vine, a larval host for heliconian butterflies. The bromeliads in the front will come out as the young slow-growing natives fill up and out.
We have never liked grass in our yard. We replaced most it with winding garden beds lined by coral rocks and gravel paths. We always kept some grass for our daughter for playing outside. Now that she is an adult, we decided to eliminate the rest of the grass and add more native plants in a garden makeover that started last winter.

We finished tearing out the Brazilian cloak privacy hedge we had initially planted. Now our hedge is mostly made up of native trees and bushes, such as spicewood, Jamaican caper, bay cedar, butterfly-sage, golden dewdrop, white indigo berry, Bahama strongbark, beautyberry, Florida Keys blackbead, snowberry, privet cassia, wild-lime, marlberry, Florida tetrazygia, lignum-vitae, wild coffee, maidenbush, necklace-pod, locustberry, firebush, Florida privet, coralbean and all the stoppers – red, red-berry, white, Simpson and Spanish. I had been growing the lignum-vitae, wild-lime, Florida privet and Spanish and Simpson stoppers for years so they have grown into handsome specimens. The white stopper, planted nearly five years ago, had become such a beautiful small tree that I bought a second one.
Another view of the young hedge featuring the lignam-vitae looking down our street. The native bushes here from back to front are coral-bean, spicewood, Florida Keys blackbead, golden dewdrop, and white indigo berry.
It might seem that this is a large number of plants for a hedge. However, our quarter-acre yard is long and narrow, spanning the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped cul-de-sac on which we live. We needed many plants to create the native hedge and fill garden beds.
Mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera), a native endangered plant,
establishing itself on a cabbage palm, a favorite spot.
My husband and I preferred to mix natives along our property’s perimeter rather than plant just one kind, such as the commonly used red tip cocoplum, because diversity is beautiful, more interesting, offers less opportunity for disease and provides food and habitat for a variety of wildlife. We planted for birds, butterflies, bees and other animals that want to share in the bounty.
Our goal was to provide a sanctuary for animals and endangered native plants that have lost their natural environment to development. In our neighborhood, which was once pine rockland, many houses have grassy yards accented by mostly non-native plants – just like ours once was. Our U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Zone is 10b.
Quailberry (Crossopetalum ilicifolium)  specimen has been
happily growing in this spot for some 15 years.
Behind the native hedge, we broke the yard down into beds for different purposes, such as butterfly and kitchen gardens and a shady area for understory plants under a large live oak. These beds host subtropical greenery as well as a variety of native plants, that include coontie, joewood, pineland croton, corky passion flower and passion vines, blue porterweed, sea lavender, swamp sunflower, rice button aster, blanket-flower, tickseed, blue-eyed grass, yellowtop, purple flag iris, beach verbena, star rush, wild plumbago, quailberry, rouge plant, goldenrod, little strongbark, wild lantana, pineland lantana, spiderwort, beach sunflower, wild petunia, mimosa, Dutchman’s pipe vine, climbing aster, frogfruit, helmet skullcap, scorpion-tail, loosestrife, violet, tropical sage, wood sage and creeping Charlie.
Sea lavender (Argusia gnaphalodes) in a butterfly garden.
Over the years we have also planted many native palms, including the silver thatch, buccaneer, cabbage, Key thatch, saw palmetto and Florida thatch palms.
Since I have been butterfly gardening for more than five years, we have cultivated a variety of butterflies in our yard by planting many native host and nectar plants. This summer we’re seeing Monarch, Zebra, Giant Swallowtail, Gold Rim Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, Mangrove Buckeye, several Sulfers and Pharon and Pearl Cresent butterflies. We’ve even seen a tiny blue butterfly that could be either a Cassius Blue or Ceraunus Blue. They fly so fast we cannot quite tell what they are. We planted coonties all over the yard and hope someday to attract the rare Attala butterfly.
This silver thatch palm (Leucothrinax morrisii ) is more than 20 years old. 
I learned about native plants when I took the Florida Master Gardener course some 20 years ago. I have been building on that knowledge by reading books and taking classes about gardening. I decided what plants I wanted in my garden and then bought them at local native plant nurseries, such as Casey’s Corner Nursery in Homestead, Florida, and plant shows by plant societies, such as the Dade chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.
When I find out about an endangered plant, such as the crenulate lead-plant, I buy it to help the plant from becoming extinct. We have three crenulate lead-plants in our butterfly beds. As a bonus, the critically imperiled lead-plant is a larval host for the Cassius Blue butterfly.
We have found gardening with native plants to be very rewarding. Not only are we helping to preserve habitat for the beautiful animals that live with us in South Florida, we are creating a beautiful green space in the city where when we step outside, we are at peace in nature.

 ~ ~ ~
Thanks to Mary Ann for sharing her yard and its stories. Would you like to share your yard? Let us know. fnps.online@gmail.com
Posted by Ginny Stibolt


Susan said…
Excellent story! Thanks for sharing the names of plants.
Powerful example of gardening with native plants. Are you seeing any neighbors following your example?
Unknown said…
Wish there were a plan. I want to do this but lack design skills.
Unknown said…
Agree... I don't have the "vision" these talented gardeners do.....

Popular posts from this blog

Australian Pine: One of Florida's Least Wanted

Wednesday's Wildflower:Spanish Needle

Tropical Milkweed is Harmful to Monarchs & Florida Ecosystems