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The Garden Writers Association


Last Update 07/09/08

Florida Friendly Gardening

ABWA Presentation July 9, 2008

A few months ago the topic of gardening despite Florida's drought would have made a good presentation. Seeing as we have been blessed with regular rain fall throughout the last few weeks, I adjusted my topic a little. Today I am going to talk about Florida Friendly Gardening.

Florida is a wet state; we have water to the left of us and water to the right of us, under our feet and in ponds, lakes, canals and swamps all over the place. You are never too far from water down here. Because of this, how you landscape and maintain your yard has quite a bit to do with the quality of the water we have available for our use and enjoyment.

One of the major reasons for this is Storm-water runoff. Rain falls on yards, roads and parking lots then washes into ponds, lakes and canals carrying pollutants like fertilizers, pesticides, dirt and oil. Scientists have discovered that fertilizers and pesticides from residential areas are serious threats to the health of Florida's waters. This is why Lake Okeechobee is in such rough shape. Run-off from the ranches and sugar plantations has polluted it. When runoff contains nitrogen from fertilizers, algae can become so abundant that marine grasses are smothered, oxygen is depleted and fish kills may result. In some water bodies phosphorus is often the nutrient responsible for algae blooms. Toxic substances, such as home and yard pesticides, can damage reproduction in animal life which lives on, in and around bodies of Florida water.


If you are a concerned about this, you can cooperate with local, natural conditions, rather than fight against them. That is the idea behind Florida Friendly Gardening.

With the price of clean water and energy rising, people are making conservation a top priority again. More gardeners are becoming interested in landscaping with native and other beneficial trees, shrubs and ground covers. Homeowners are choosing plants that blend beauty and environmental benefits. People are selecting safer alternatives to chemicals used indoors and out. And many of these benefits to the environment also save time and money while enhancing our Florida lifestyle.


In much of Florida, soil and sand are basically the same. Typical Florida soils allow rapid, downward movement of water and nutrients. Thus, they dry out quickly and are not compatible with plants having high water and nutritional needs. Sandy soils allow leaching of chemicals into groundwater and waterways.

The simplest way to avoid these problems in the landscape is to use only plants that are compatible with the site. If you want a vegetable or rose garden, you will need to modify, or amend, the soil by adding organic matter, such as compost, to the planting bed. This will retain moisture, provide nutrients and attract beneficial organisms like earthworms.

It is helpful to have your soil's pH tested. Sandy coastal areas are usually alkaline or high in pH, and inland areas are usually acid or low in pH. Many lots contain fill dirt from other areas, so site specific pH testing is a good idea. Knowing your soil's pH will help you make better use of plant guides which provide this information along with other requirements of the plants listed. Many plants will tolerate a wide pH range, but will do best when planted in the right soil. You can test your soil yourself by buying a tool like a Luster Leaf Rapitest Electronic 4 Way Analyzer from the hardware or garden store. They will set you back only about 20 bucks.

When planning your landscape be aware that different areas on the same property may have different soils because of imported fill. Another factor in your soil may be the presence of a sub-layer of hardpan, rock or shell, which we have in our yard and makes planting certain sections of it impossible. This is one reason to examine your soil to a depth of about 18 inches before making final plant selections.

Plant Selection

Plant selection is an enjoyable part of landscaping. Florida's climate is home to many varieties of plants, and many are grown by local plant nurseries.

The plants you select determine the wildlife value of your yard, the level of maintenance required, how much money you'll be spending on water or electricity to run a pump, and how much fertilizer or pesticide may be required. Plant selection also determines how long your landscape will last. For example, fast-growing plants often have a shorter life-span than slower-growing species.


Some guidelines for selecting Florida Friendly Plants:

* Plants already on your property, particularly native plants, may already be well-suited to your yard and should be kept if they appear healthy. Avoid disturbing the root zone (at least to the drip line) of these plants or driving over them with heavy vehicles. Saving existing plants reduces costs and leaves valuable wildlife habitat undisturbed.

* Select plants which include suitable native plants. Once native plants are established in the right location, they require little, if any, supplemental water, fertilizers or pesticides.

* If you don't want to continue irrigating after plants become established, select drought-resistant plants that are right for your soil.

* Consider the critters. Providing native flowering and fruiting plants can bring birds and butterflies into your yard. Florida is a stopover for many migrating and wintering butterflies and birds.

* Limit the number of showy plants that require high water and maintenance, and place them where they'll have the most visual impact.

* Don't plant noxious, invasive species such as Brazilian pepper, Australian pine and Melaleuca trees. These plants should be removed from your yard as they crowd out native plants and are threatening Florida's ecosystems and wildlife. Several other plants commonly used in landscaping are starting to take over here. A few examples are wedelia (a ground cover), carrotwood tree, Java plum and Chinese tallow.

* Diversify. Create a mosaic of trees, shrubs, ground covers, native grasses and wildflowers. Monocultures, which are the same species of plant used en-mass, are prone to disease and insect infestation and do not provide the same benefits to wildlife as a diverse plant community.

* Turf areas should be designed for easy maintenance. If the grass dies or you aren't using it for play or other activities, consider replacing it. Good alternatives are ground covers or landscaped beds. Ground covers can be especially useful in shady areas where turf may not thrive. Fertilizing, watering, mowing and pesticide use will be reduced.

* Don't give in to planting fast-growing plants. These kind of plants are usually exotics, invasive and require more pruning which results in more yard waste. Lush, green shoots also attract pests. Slower-growing plants may take longer to fill in your landscape, but they'll last longer and create less work.

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