Add Native Plants to Your Landscape

by Donna Bollenbach

A few years ago my parents decided that they could no longer keep up with the maintenance of their home. They moved in with my sister, and asked my husband and I if we would like to live in their house. As we were between homes, we accepted. The move from a country home on a two wooded acres to a suburban home on a 1/3-acre lot with a tropical landscape was quite a change for us. We missed our native trees and shrubs and all the wildlife they attracted. The tropical vegetation was pretty, but had very little attraction for the wildlife.  

We joined the Florida Native Plant Society

Shortly after moving, we joined the Suncoast Native Plant Society. We learned that the native plants we took for granted in our rural home attracted more wildlife because they preferred natives for food and shelter. In our rural landscape we had very little grass, but lots of oaks, longleaf pines, beautyberry, firebush, pokeweed, dewberry, holly, sweetbay, Carolina willow, elderberry and other native plants. The wildlife in our yard included nesting owls and hawks, woodpeckers, a variety of song birds, hummingbirds, snakes, frogs, toads, gopher tortoise, an occasional deer or bobcat, and an abundance of bees and butterflies. While we knew we would not be able to attract all these animals to our suburban home, we did want to bring in the birds and butterflies, which seemed to be less attracted to the non-native plants.

As a member of the native plant society for nearly three years now, I also discovered there are two approaches to planting natives: Some people take the all or none approach: They rip up their entire yard, nix the lawn, and replant everything with natives. Unless you can afford to hire someone to do most of the work, the all or none approach is not practical. Furthermore, many people are not willing to give up their bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise and bottle-brush. We had the added consideration that my dad, a veteran gardener, was proud of this lawn and tropical landscape and his feelings would be hurt if we ripped it all up in one day.

We decided to go slow and integrate native plants into the landscape

The second, and more practical approach, is to integrate native plants into your current landscape. This is the method we adopted, and it is still a work in progress. Our first project was a previously landscaped area of front yard near a loquat tree. While not native, the loquat tree provides edible fruit for us and the wildlife, so we decided to keep it. But underneath it was a thick blanket of snake plant and philodendrons, which seemed to have little value for wildlife, except perhaps for Cuban (non-native) lizards to hide.  We pulled up all the plants in the bed, added a little topsoil, and went shopping for native plants.
Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) under the loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica).

Unfortunately, Hillsborough County does not have a native plant nursery, and while the big box stores have a “Florida Friendly” section, very few of the plants are true natives. We purchased our first natives from a native plant nursery in Sarasota County.  Since then we have purchased most of our plants at the SNPS semi-annual native plant sales, and we’ve picked up a few at the native plant auction following our chapter’s meetings.

We wanted plants that were suitable for the location that we were planting them without any added fertilizer or pesticides. One, pesticides are harmful to the birds, butterflies and bees that we were trying to attract. Two, when it rains the chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers wash into the ground and end up in our lakes, rivers and eventually, our drinking water, so they are not good for people either.
Our soil was average, neither moist nor dry, and drained well.  There were areas of shade, part sun and full sun in the bed. In the shaded areas we planted wild coffee. In the areas that received part sun we put in Simpson’s stopper. In the sunny areas we planted firebush, cassia, blue porterweed, blue mist, and a native mimosa. We planted red, white and pink salvia throughout.

Firebush (Hamelia patens)
Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea)

We watered the plants daily for a few weeks to establish them. (If planted in the right place, native plants need little irrigation, but like any potted plant, they do need water when they are first put in the ground or in the case of a drought.) Our plants grew like crazy, especially the blue porterweed. It turns out the porterweed we purchased was not the native species which stays low, but a non-native that grows tall and unwieldy. It did attract lots of butterflies though, and hummingbirds, as did the firebush and the salvia. We allowed the blue porterweed to stay until it started toppling over on the firebush. Then I removed it and replanted it next to a fence line where it is just as happy. A native garden, like any garden, is trial and error.
Monarch on blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis).

The whole garden is filled with the color of wings and the buzzing of bees.

Scarlet wasp moth on blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

The integrated approach to planting natives works for us. It allows us the time to evaluate and enjoy each new area. And, our native plants did bring in the birds and butterflies. Sometimes the whole garden seems to be filled with the color of wings and the buzzing of bees.

Ground cover, Powderpuff (Mimosa strigillosa).
Our Florida (Mostly) Native Landscape


Posted by Ginny Stibolt.


Gaia Gardener: said…
This post is perfectly timed for us, as we moved just last summer to a 0.4 acre suburban plot in Ft. Walton Beach from 10 acres in Kansas. Like you, I don't want to rip out what's here, so I am beginning to slowly integrate native plants into our landscape. I look forward to hearing more about what you are doing and seeing in your yard. Cynthia
Winsaid said…
Great blog... thanks for sharing your integrated approach to creating a (mostly) native landscape.
Debbie Cusick said…
Great article. I'm slowly trying to incorporate more Florida natives in my yard. I'm looking for a good shade-tolerant ground cover for an area under 6 big oak trees. I've plants some small redbud trees that I got as bare root stock from a Master Gardener friend. In two years they have grown from 6 inches to 12 inches high. At this rate I'll be long dead before you even know they are a tree! Love my firebush and beautyberry. They are the only things that have grown. Everything else is pretty small and stunted even after 3-4 years in the ground. Sad all my wax myrtle and yaupon holly died. I still keep planning for my great natives. A long work in progress.
Unknown said…
we have simpson stoppers that we want to keep short and somewhat rounded but not completely in a hedge. They have some dead spots now and am not sure why or what to do?

Popular posts from this blog

Australian Pine: One of Florida's Least Wanted

Native Trees and Plants You Will See Nearly Everywhere in Florida