Xeriscaping makes it easy to go native

Technique saves money and water

Keys Sunday contributorMay 26, 2008 

The word “Xeriscape” is derived from a Greek phrase meaning “dry scene.” But Florida Keys gardeners have found that Xeriscaping – particularly the use of plants native to this area – doesn’t mean you have to settle for a stark, desert-like landscape.

Quite the contrary, natural gardens and yards can be lush, colorful and filled with a variety of blossoms and butterflies. There are a large variety of plants to choose from, including sea grape, bougainvillea, thatch palm, and many others.

On the other hand, conventional landscapes found in other parts of the country, with their large areas of turf and well-manicured trees and shrubs, don’t work well here. Our rocky soil and hot, tropical climate require large amounts of water and maintenance.

Recently Xeriscaping, which started in the southwestern U.S., has seen a resurgence in popularity, as this low-water, low-fertilizer, low-maintenance form of gardening saves money – now more than ever. That’s because many Keys neighborhoods are being connected to central sewer facilities, and the monthly charges are often based on water usage. In other words, the more you irrigate your lawn and garden, the more you are going to pay in sewer charges – big time.

In addition, many Keys residents don’t live here year-round, so it’s nice to have landscaping that can survive long periods without tender loving care.

The Marathon Garden Club recently conducted a half-day workshop on Xeriscaping, arranged by environmental chairperson Lynda Berrigan (who calls herself “a native plant enthusiast with religious fervor”), and featuring guest speaker Tamatha Bechtel, president of Harmony Plantscapes, a Keys-based landscaping company.

Bechtel explained that Xeriscaping offers advantages to Keys homeowners beyond the obvious cost savings. By reducing water requirements, pest and disease problems can also be minimized. The surrounding environment benefits too, thanks to reduced stormwater runoff and decreased reliance on fertilizers and pesticides.

Not all of the people at the Xeriscaping workshop were interested in home gardens, though. Barney Meyer, who works for the Monroe County maintenance department, was there to learn how native plants and reduced irrigation could benefit county properties in the local area.

Bechtel explained that while some watering may be required when plants are first introduced, regular irrigation can be reduced or eliminated once they take root.

“A good gardener is worth far more than a good irrigation system,” she said.

Often a drip, or micro-irrigation system can be used to conserve water, limiting it to the “drip line” under the leaves, where the feeder roots grow.

“When you must water, wait until telltale signs appear, such as wilting,” she said. “Don’t water during the heat of midday; early morning is best. Water less during the cooler months.”

Xeriscaping doesn’t mean that lots of pea rock or gravel is necessary.

“Stones retain heat,” she said, “so a compost or mulch can be used to minimize evaporation and weed growth, while adding nutrients to the soil. Just don’t pile up the mulch around the stem or trunk of the plant. If fertilizer is called for, use the slow-release kind.”

Xeriscaping doesn’t require a big commitment in time or money. You can start with a few native plants and experiment to determine which ones work best in your yard. Plants are usually classified by their tolerance to drought, resistance to wind, rate of growth, and nutritional requirements. In this post-Wilma era, salt tolerance is another consideration.

A good place to start is by asking a knowledgeable person at your local nursery, or by going online to a Web site like Waterwise Florida Landscapes (http://sjr.state.fl.us/programs/outreach/conservation/landscape/toc.html) or Natives for your Neighborhood (www.regionalconservation.org/beta/nfyn/faq.asp). Both have lists of native plants appropriate for your zip code.

Once your Xeriscaping efforts begin to bear fruit, you can think about the overall design of your garden or yard. This will also be a good time to remove those non-native invasive plants like Brazilian pepper and Melaluca, giving your natives more room to flourish.

By the way, native plants are defined as those that were growing here back around the year 1500, about the time that the first European settlers arrived on our shores. Native plants evolved for many centuries on these islands, and the natural selection process allowed the hardier, drought-resistant varieties to survive.

Tamatha Bechtel believes that horticulture is both an art and a science. She feels a pleasing garden design begins with good lines and healthy, native plants artistically arranged within the existing naturescape. Most of us are familiar with the peaceful ambiance of a garden. Bechtel takes that a step further, saying, “A healthy, beautiful landscape contributes to well being in individuals and society. Gardening is a form of art – a place for personal expression.”

She adds, “If there’s something you want to try in your garden, try it. Don’t worry about what your neighbors think. Don’t get bogged down. If you try something and it doesn’t work, try something else.”

Dick Conklin can be reached at conch@keysy.com

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