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By Ginny Stibolt, coauthor of A Step-by-Step Guide to a Florida Native Yard

I’m honored to be part of the team of Florida garden writers for University Press of Florida. I’m an accidental writer, though. When my husband and I moved from Maryland to Clay County in Northeast Florida, I was flummoxed by Florida gardening even though I’d gardened all my life and had an advanced degree in botany. I began writing about my frustrations as a community columnist for Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union newspaper. The columns were called “Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener.” But my gardening strategy totally changed when I joined the local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. I stopped thinking “What would grow here?” and started thinking “What belongs here?”. And this brings me to this blog post.

Let’s make native gardens the new normal!

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Why natives?

Marjorie Shropshire and I opened our new book, A Step-By-Step Guide to a Florida Native Yard, with this list, which answers the “Why Natives?” question:

Many Floridians are adding more Florida native plants to their landscapes. The reasons for this trend vary widely:

  • To reduce maintenance costs—both time and money
  • To reduce irrigation and water use
  • To reduce pollution and runoff for the sake of nearby waterways
  • To attract birds
  • To use fewer pesticides—organic or not—for health reasons
  • To save monarch butterflies and other pollinators
  • To reduce utility bills by cooling the air and shading south or western exposures
  • To reduce frustrations with dealing with poor turf grass condition
  • To create an authentic Florida yard

What about the neighbors?

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Landscapes filled with natives can be designed to work in any neighborhood, such as the one shown here, which is in The Villages—a large 55+ community governed by a strict homeowners association. The neatly trimmed groundcover in the foreground is turkey tangle fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora).

Where are the natives?

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When we go into garden centers, we are offered mostly nonnative annuals. When they reach the store shelves like this, they are at their peak. As far as the plants are concerned, they’ve completed their life cycles. When we plant these in our yards and in our communities they will begin their downhill slide. So in a few months we come back to the store to look for replacements and start over again. This is good for the store, but not for us and not for the planet.

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In order to provide perfect plants for garden centers, growers often treat the plants with systemic poisons, usually neonicotinoids. These poisons stay in all parts of the plants including their pollen and nectar, which kills butterflies and other pollinators. We can’t build useful butterfly gardens with poisoned plants.

So if big box stores and garden centers are not selling many natives, how do we start?

The Florida Native Plant Society’s website has a page where you can generate a list of plants that are native to your county. This is important because Florida contains five different planting zones, so what is native to Miami may not do well in Tallahassee. The reverse is also true. For instance, the purple cone flower is a Florida native, but it’s only native to one county north of Tallahassee, so it doesn’t do well farther south.

So when you have your list on the FNPS website, you can go to the plant profile for the plants you’re interested in to receive additional information on size, sun or shade, moisture, and whether it supports pollinators. After you have your list, the website for the Florida Association of Native Nurseries provides a search engine for a native nursery near you. FANN also allows you to search for a particular plant, and that search will list the nurseries that have it in stock.

In addition, University Press of Florida has some great Florida native plant reference books, which provide more in-depth information and advice to help you successfully make the transformation to a more authentic Florida landscape. Here are a few of the best ones to help you be a more successful native gardener:

We can all become better stewards of our only planet

We can all make a difference, one yard and one neighborhood at a time. While each action may not seem like much, when they are multiplied millions of times as citizens, communities, and municipalities also take action, the result will be huge.

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Ginny Stibolt began her professional life as a teacher and has taught math, science, business, and computer courses at levels from 7th grade through college. She is a lifelong gardener with a MS degree in botany from the University of Maryland. Since moving to Florida in 2004, she has written four peer-reviewed books on Florida gardening, all published by University Press of Florida. She has also coauthored Climate-Wise Landscaping, published by New Society Press in 2018.

From September 2018 through mid-November 2018, she’ll be on a book tour in Florida. To find an event near you, go to her Appearances page on her website.

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