Your landscape is the first line of defense

Certain plants help protect our environment

KeysNet ContributorMay 26, 2008 

It may surprise you to know that your yard is the first line of defense for the Florida’s Keys’ fragile environment.

The health of the nearshore waters and the coral reefs depends in part on how you landscape and maintain your yard. And you don’t even have to live on the water to make a difference.

Stormwater runoff is the reason.

Rain falls on yards, roads and parking lots, then washes into the nearshore waters, carrying pollutants like fertilizers, pesticides, soil and petroleum products.

Scientists have discovered that fertilizers and pesticides from residential areas are serious threats to the health of Florida’s waters. When runoff contains nitrogen from fertilizers, algae can become so abundant that sea grasses are smothered, oxygen is depleted and fish kills may result. Toxic substances, such as common landscape and household pesticides, can damage reproduction in marine life.

The first step is to do a landscape inspection around the perimeter of your property that abuts the roads, canals, the ocean or bay. Be on the look out to determine if fertilizers and other lawn chemicals that come into direct contact with the water or any impervious surface bordering the water. Lawn chemicals on sidewalks, brick borders or streets can easily be washed into storm drains and carried to nearshore waters.

Try to leave what’s called a ring of responsibility around or along shorelines by not fertilizing close to the water. When a deflector shield is used on the fertilizer spreader, apply the product no closer than 3 feet from the water’s edge or the road. If no deflector shield is used, it is recommended to fertilize no closer than 10 feet to the water or road.

Great additions to your landscape in the area of the ring of responsibility are native plants that are adapted to the harsh coastal conditions of saltwater intrusion, salt spray and winds, and minimal irrigation and fertilization.

Two possibilities are bay cedar (suriana maritima) and beach creeper (ernodea littoralis).

The bay cedar is endemic to South Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and the Bahamas. It’s commonly found growing in thickets, on sand dunes and rocky shores, often just back of the high tide line, but is now on the endangered-plants list.

The plant, 5 to 20 feet tall, has a sturdy branched trunk that has beautiful, dark brown, rough, flaky bark; the wood is very hard and heavy.

Branches arch gracefully and hold the evergreen leaves on short upturned twigs. The tiny gray-green leaves are fleshy and minutely downy, or fluffy; the new leaves and twigs are particularly downy.

Yellow, cup-shaped flowers may occur singly or in clusters that are inconspicuously set among the leaves. These small flowers occur consistently throughout the year. The seeds of the bay cedar are held in a small, brown, five-pointed calyx.

The golden creeper is a 1- to 3-foot prostrate ground cover that is native to South Florida beaches. The plant has small, light green, succulent leaves borne on bright red stems that help it survive in dry conditions.

Inconspicuous pinkish-white tubular flowers occur throughout the year and are followed by attractive golden berries. These golden berries, in part, give this plant its common name.

Kim Gabel is horticulture agent with the Monroe County Extension Service.

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