Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Habitat gardening

In natural areas, the soil ecosystem supports the plants,
which support the insects, which in turn support
the birds and other wildlife.

Florida's default landscapes

Most yards in Florida consist of highly maintained monoculture lawns, a few stand-alone trees, and a fringe of foundation plants around the buildings. This is the opposite of habitat gardening because typical Florida lawn care includes regular landscape-wide applications of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other poisons. Then since these pesticides are not good for the turfgrass, synthetic fertilizer is applied to keep it green.

This treatment damages the soil ecosystem (shown in the poster here), which plays an important role in keeping the plants healthy, which then support the insects and the birds. In addition, much of the lawn chemicals have rinsed through the soil or have been carried away with erosion to pollute our waterways causing too much algae growth and toxic dead zones.

It doesn't have to be like this...

Homeowners' yards, school yards, community properties, municipal lands could all be modified to look more like "The Real Florida"--filled with Florida native plants arranged in natural groupings. I've covered this huge topic in two peer-reviewed books for Florida: "The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape" and "A Step-by-Step Guide to a Florida Native Yard," plus there are even more ideas in the award-winning “Climate-Wise Landscaping.”

While you could hire a native nursery to install an all-native landscape for your whole property as one big project, most people will work on their building habitat project over a number of years as they have the time, money, and energy to work on this project. Also, when you work on a project like this over a number of seasons, you gain experience and find out what works and what does not for your property.

Here is one strategy to get you started...

A single magnolia tree in the middle of a lawn... Building habitat around a magnolia.

Build habitat around single trees

There are a number of good reasons to begin with building habitat around single trees that were planted in the middle of a lawn or those that have had understory plants and companion trees removed as part of the clearing as the house or other buildings were being constructed so they are left as a remnant of what used to be there.

- Trees are not good for lawns because the vast majority of the tree roots are shallow and wide spreading and the tree will outcompete the grass for water and nutrients. Plants with the largest leaf surface area with absorb more water due to transpiration. Also, the tree, as it grows will cast an increasing shadow, which is not good for the turgrass near the tree.
- Typical lawn care with its landscape-wide applications of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilizers is not good for the soil ecosystem, which means that the tree will suffer. Plus the frequent use of power tools near the tree such as string trimmers and lawnmowers could gouge the bark or slice off the tops of roots as they gain girth and rise above the lawn mowing height. The repeated traffic due to mowing also harms the tree.
- A tree that is planted with other trees and/or surrounded by understory shrubs and trees creates a series of complex interwoven root systems, and because of this, that grouping of woody plants will be much more wind tolerant and more drought tolerant than a lone tree in the middle of a shallow-rooted lawn. 
- A tree surrounded by other woody understory plants will absorb more stormwaater from the surrounding landscape than a single tree in the middle of a lawn. A group of trees and shrubs could be arranged to be at the edge of a rain garden to help soak up stormwater from roofs, roads, or other impervious surfaces.

Steps to build a thicket around a tree

To build a thicket or grove around a tree:
- Begin by looking at the tree's leaf-drop area and create a thicket as least as large as that, especially for magnolias with their thick, leathery leaves. Those leaves will become part of the mulch for the thicket. Create this space with wide curves so mowing around it will be easy.
- Options for removing the lawn from under a tree are limited, because sod-cutters or herbicides would damage the tree. Pull out the grass and the weeds by hand or with hand tools right next to the tree. Further away from the tree, you could apply a thick layer of wood mulch with or without cardboard or layers of newspaper under the mulch.
- While you're working around the tree, find areas between the major tree roots where you could plant your understory plants. If they are other trees or shrubs, be sure to leave enough room beteem them so they can grow into their own forms.
- Choose plants that are compatible with the tree and that are native to your region so they can play significant roles in the local ecosystem. Also, choose plants to increase the species diversity in your neighborhood.
- When planting the woody plants, rinse all the potting soil from the roots and spread the roots out in a shallow planting hole for the best results and to give them a head start on becoming wind tolerant and drought tolerant. Read this for more on root rinsing.
- It's a good idea to use bunching grasses and other smaller or herbaceous plants at the edges of the thicket to make it easier to manage.

Examples of thickets in a suburban setting

Here are some examples of tree thickets in my North Florida neighborhood...

A natural palmetto thicket next to the road. This thicket provides screening and habitat and receives virtually no ongoing maintenance other than the infrequent mowing of the surrounding freedom lawn.

An azalea thicket around an oak. This is one of two azalea thickets in this yard. They have been in place for more than a decade and they receive no ongoing maintenance other than mowing around them. While I would have used a native azalea, this still offers a good example of a mature thicket. FYI, this is the same yard as the palmetto thicket next to the road in the above photo.

A beautiful self-planted native pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens) thicket around a pine tree. Go to its plant profile on the Florida Native Plant Society's website for more information and a link to native nurseries that have it in stock. 

Nature-built thickets around trees on a minimally-maintained community right-of-way--a triangular space between roads.

The opposite of habitat landscaping

A new homeowner chopped off a magnolia's (M. grandiflora) lower branches. This tree is some distance from the house near a relatively busy neighborhood road. When the branches grew all the way to the ground, this tree used to provide good screening and sound dampening from the road and much better habitat for the birds. Also, now that more light reaches the area under the tree, there will be a lot of weeds to manage. So unnecessary

The cutting away of a nature-built thicket. Three large piles of needlessly cut vegetation.

This homeowner has a long driveway and there were groupings of trees and shrubs in thickets all along the driveway. Some are still in place as seen in the photo on the left. But recently, they chopped away all the understory trees, shrubs and vines. They just cut them off, so those plants will send up many suckers and now, instead of a no-care habitat, there will be an endless cycle of cutting and pruning. All this vegetation not only provided good habitat, it also cooled the air through transpiration. What a waste of time and effort and too bad for the birds that used to call this home.

For more information:

- To learn why native plants are so important, watch this 4-minute Doug Tallamy video.

- After replacing at least half of the lawn with native plant habitat, register your yard, school, or business property as part of Doug Tallamy's Homegrown National Park.

Transpiration: Forests' most important service
- The value of trees
- To find native plants or native plant vendors, visit https://www.plantrealflorida.org/

I hope you're inspired to build some native habitat in your yard, even if it's small, because every yard makes a difference to a butterfly or a bird. Pass it on and play it forward, so your whole neighborhood can become an even larger habitat with more diversity.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful! We bought a house that was stripped and our HOA forces landscaping to be sod, etc.... So we complied, but are slowly (w/being able to afford), building our acre lot back with trees & shrubs. This article both inspired and educated me on our goal. Thank you!