Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The hand of the gardener in native landscapes

Plant more natives!

In 2013, a volunteer beautyberry shrub near the edge of the
lawn is surrounded by several water oaks.

Ecologists and environmental organizations have been urging people to plant more native plants, to build bird-friendly and pollinator-friendly habitat, and to do this by removing at least some of their lawn.

One prime example is Doug Tallamy's HomeGrown National Park where you can register your yard to be part of of this park by replacing at least half of the lawn with native plants.

This is great and I hope that millions of homeowners and other property managers take this step to build native habitat, but there are some important steps to take, especially in urban and suburban areas, to increase the acceptability of these native landscapes. Our yards and our community landscapes, even if they have a good portion of native plants are not wild spaces and will need some regular care. (Actually, I wrote a book on this topic. See below.)

In 2013, that same beautyberry shrub after
the removal of the oaks around it.

Choosing plants to favor

One of the things we do as caretakers of mostly native garden spaces is to choose the plants that we want to succeed for the look and/or for their habitat values. Here's the story of an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) that volunteered near the edge of the lawn. In 2013 in one of my every third year trips around the edges of the lawn, I spotted the shrub, which was, at that point, probably one or two years old and about ten inches tall. As you can see in the top photo, it was surrounded by water oaks. As the gardener, I decided that this was a perfect place for the beautyberry and I dug out the oaks, which was a bit of a task since they had previously been cut off at ground level. The shrub was then surrounded by ferns, which would be fine.

That same beautyberry shrub in late summer
2020 was covered with vines.

Every few years, I've cleared away vines and other competition from this shrub. In late summer in 2020 the shrub was covered with catbriar (Smilax sp.) and Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) as seen in this photo to the right. Both vines are Florida natives, but I chose to remove them to encourage the beautyberry.

The photo below shows what I had envisioned for that little shrub eight years previously. Also, the thing to notice about these four photos is that there is about three or four feet less lawn and a lot more ferns.

The ferns seen here are Florida natives that planted themselves here: In the foreground are two large ferns; a cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), which is native to all but the southernmost counties in Florida. Closer to the beautyberry is a royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis), which is native to all of Florida except for The Keys. The shorter fern that is more of a ground cover is the netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata), which is native to all but the southernmost counties in Florida.

In spring of 2021, here's that same beautyberry shrub during a lawn edging trip around the yard.

Irrigation infrastructure

This volunteer magnolia was too close to the sprinkler head, so I transplanted it to somewhere else.

This irrigation sprinkler head used to be at the edge of the lawn. I keep the area in front of it clear so it can still spray effectively.
On each trip around the lawn edges, I keep this
 in-ground sprayer head at the edge of the lawn
cleared of plants. The cement collar keeps it
 safe from damage by the lawn mower tires.

Like so many suburban properties in Florida, we have a computerized irrigation system. It pumps water from the dammed lake out back. Over the years it has worked well, although we've had to replace the pump once. My husband has also replaced the sprinkler heads as they've broken, and more importantly for our discussion here, he's changed out quite a few pop-up heads that are for lawn areas and put new heads mounted on poles as the lawn has been replaced. See the two photos above for two examples. The photo on the right shows that the edge of the lawn was twenty feet further into what is now a wooded area.

When these sprinkler heads are in wilder areas of the landscape, it is the gardener who comes in to keep the spray area cleared of tall vegetation and of trees or shrubs that sprout too close and their eventual size would damage the pipes or connections. If they are desirable trees or shrubs, such as the magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) as pictured above. then they are transplanted to other places in the yard or potted up for the annual native plant sale run by the local Florida Native Plant Society chapter.

All that being said, the system is used regularly only in the dry season (in the winter and early spring) and then the most time is allotted to the two spray zones where the vegetable gardens are located. The rest of our mostly native yard with a freedom lawn that's allowed to go dormant in the winter, receives only about ten minutes of spray for each session--usually once a week, if there is no rain.

Removal of unwanted plants

Just because a potion of your yard is wilder and is planted with mostly native plants, there are occasions when removal of plants is called for. The most important case is the removal of known invasive plants. These plants have been shown to take over native habitats and have been responsible for reducing populations of birds and other wildlife. Read my article for more details: Removing invasive plants costs Florida $54 million per year.

Removing invasives is an important task in a mostly native yard. Coral ardisia (Ardisia crenata) is a tough one because neighbors have it in their yards and birds eat those berries and poop them out in our mostly native, habitat-rich yard.

While native habitats is a major goal, sometimes I remove aggressive natives that have taken over areas or like the catbriar shown below. It has huge tubers so just cutting it back does little to discourage it from climbing over trees and shrubs and reducing their desired growth. People say you can make root beer from those tubers, but I've not been inspired to do so.

There are at least two species of catbriar (Smilax spp.) in our yard. While they are native, I remove it from around trees and shrubs I wish to encourage and from some of the more visible edges of wooded areas so they don't look so wild. There is still plenty that grows in the back portions of the wooded areas.

Purchase "The Art of Maintaining a Florida
 Native Landscape
" from University Press of

I wrote "The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape" with several thoughts in mind, but the most important point is that while our yards, school yards, church yards, community properties, and municipal properties should all have less lawn and more native habitat areas, they are not wild areas and they will need the hand of the gardener to control aggressive plants and to encourage other, more desirable plants.

Note about the cover: That's a photo I took of our front yard. This part of the yard was a lawn when we bought the house in 2004. I wrote, From lawn to woods: a retrospective to explain the process.

I hope you are developing more native areas in your yard and in your community. It may take some encouragement to convince others to also plant more natives, but in the end, it's worth the effort because the birds are counting on us.

As Doug Tallamy says, "Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation's wildlife."

Green Gardening Mattters
Ginny Stibolt


  1. Alot of good information here with photos, I've only been at it a few years I'm gathering tips and tricks as I go. I love that you plant to attract nature we do also. Following!

  2. Promoting native plants is crucial for wildlife and biodiversity. Glory to initiatives like HomeGrown National Park, but remember, nurturing these landscapes takes effort.