Friday, July 31, 2015

Listening to your landscape

To have a more sustainable landscape, you need to listen...

As a long-time gardener with a masters degree in botany, I was certain that I could garden in north Florida when my husband and I moved here in 2004. I've told this story before, but I was shocked and surprised at how wrong I was. Some Florida gardening truths were quickly discovered like how tulips don't grow well here, not even as annuals, because our winters include warm spells so the soil doesn't stay cold enough. Other revelations have taken more time...

Tropical sage in the herb garden by the kitchen window.

Listen to the birds & bees

Tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) has monopolized much of my herb garden. I transplant some of it from this location when I plant basil, dill, or one of the other annual herbs, but mostly I leave this native volunteer in place because it attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, several types of bees.

I started the herb garden years ago by ripping out the tea roses and various non-native shrubs that were not doing well in this WSW-facing wall. At first everything was in its assigned place, but when the sage arrived, everything changed. I listened to the birds and the bees who needed this beautiful native more than I needed a neat garden.

This female hummingbird has been resting on a bare branch of coral honeysuckle to entertain my husband and me while we eat our lunch. Not really, but this perch is just above one of her favorite spots, my herb garden, which is filled with tropical sage. Carpenter bees are too big to enter the narrow sage flowers, so they bite holes in the tops of the flowers to "rob" the nectar without doing the work of pollinating.
Sine this L-shaped garden was not under general irrigation,
 I turned it into a container garden.

Container conversion project

An early project in our landscape was my conversion of a "messy bed" filled with Mexican petunias, low growing gardenias, weeds, and other volunteers. I wrote about this project as one of my Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener articles, which are now hosted over on, Troublesome spot? Convert to containers.

Well, it's taken a while, but the other day I switched back to what will probably be a somewhat messy bed, but this time it will be filled with native wildflowers and I shall call it a "cottage garden." 

After removing the pots, I was left with weeds and wildflowers.
The other day I removed the pots, which were not all that attractive anymore, carefully lifted the tropical sage plants, scraped out the chipped wood mulch and the nice compost below it, and then ripped out the old weed barrier cloth, which had not been very effective in keeping out the weeds.

I put the saved chips and mulch back in the bed, planted the sage in three groupings, transplanted some other out-of-place wildflowers from other parts of the yard, and then sowed some Florida wildflower seeds in the empty spaces.  The tropical sage and the other plants survived the transplant, but I'll write more about this project as it matures. So far I'm happy with the result and I think, in the end, it will be easier to handle than the containers.

Florida wildflower seeds have been sown and the wildflowers are now replanted in groupings. It's a garden designed by listening to what it said rather than overpowering it with my will.

The edge of the lawn needed some updates. A close-up of the invading ferns...
A look down this edge now.

The ferns are invading!

Every couple of years I work on the lawn edges. Many times the landscape indicates what it would prefer. I've been writing about edges for some time; see my piece "Cutting edges," for earlier lawn removals. You can also listen to my podcast on the topic: Cutting Edges 1/17/08.

This time around, the ferns, mostly netted chain ferns (Woodwardia areolata) have crept into the grass, which is sparse in this mostly shady edge. So I pulled the grass by hand in a way that was least disruptive to the soil, moss and the ferns. Later I'll come in with some pine needles or wood chips. If it were closer to fall, I'd wait for the leaves, but I don't want to wait that long.

We still want a mowed area down to the lake, but maybe my husband will have one less trip to make. All because I listened to the ferns.
The point-of-view of this photo starts at the cart in the above photo.
The line drawn indicates the proposed new edge of the lawn.
More ferns are invading the grass down here, too.

Other listenings...

Sadly, these suckers will never grow into trees because of the red bay ambrosia beetle and its nasty fungal disease. My husband thought we should trim them back  since they are so ratty looking. I pointed out that the spice bush swallowtail and other related butterflies rely on trees in this family for their larval food. So all those holes in the leaves means that they have found them. Yay!
The Elliot's love grasses make a nice border, but...
I wrote about this new wildflower extension of our front meadow in Adventures in creating a native garden. I emphasized how important a civilized edge is to make a native garden or meadow look like a planned space. I used three bunches of Elliot's love grass (Eragrostis elliottii) to do that job. They looked good for 2 years and then failed to come up the next year. I talked to the grower and wholesale supplier for these plants to ask him what to do. His answer was the classic "listen to your landscape" advice, "Don't plant it there again. Find something else." How logical.

I hope you can hear your landscape when it speaks to you.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. My love affair with containers is on the wain. Watering is a daily chore, even though potting soil amended with compost to retain moisture. You're switching back to planting in soil vs planting in containers - is that your response, also, to daily watering needs??? Thanks, Gail Farley

  2. Yes, the watering is one reason for giving up on containers here, but the other is frequent fire ant invasions of pots in this bed next to the garage... The native cottage garden should be able to survive with much less attention from me. I'll write about it after it matures some.

  3. I've had the native petunias, conradina and St John's cross hypericum do well in a bed like yours with little watering.

    1. I love those natives. I'm sure Mother Nature will add some of her favorites to add to my collection, maybe even some of those native petunias. Anything will be better than those invasive Mexican petunias that were there originally.

  4. My garden in Miami has several butterfly beds and a native plant hedge. Actually, I have natives all over the yard, along with non-native tropicals and palms. I planted some tropical salvia a few years ago, and, like milkweed, it has spread all over. I noticed the other day that two pairs of cardinals are visiting my yard and eating the seeds of the salvia -- and some wild Everglade tomatoes on a tomato tower! Earlier in the season, I had seen some small birds fly out of a bed of salvia when I walked by. Now I realize that birds love to eat salvia seeds. It's food for them. So this is another excellent reason to allow the salvia proliferate for the birds, butterflies and bees if they like it. ;-) I enjoyed your article.

    1. Thank you, Violet. Yes, the salvia has plenty of seed for the birds. I'm happy to hear that it also does well in Miami.