Native planting – a gift to the planet and the vacationer

Native planting – a gift to the planet and the vacationer

My childhood encounters with nature were limited to New York’s Central Park – a manicured sense of the native environment to say the least, and as an adult, first serving in the US Navy and then living aboard my Rhodes Offshore 40 cruising from Duluth to the Bahamas, my understanding of the natural world was that of an ocean dweller gazing at the shore.

So, when I moved to Florida I had only principles, rather than any gardening experience, to bring to bear. My primary focus was to ensure that I created a living environment that let everything live – not just me and my vacation rental guests, but every native creature, great and small, that belonged in the same space and that meant ensuring there was space, air, food and water for all. It sounds laudable – but how to put it into practice?

When I began designing Erehwon Retreat, a history vacation rental in Tampa, my objective was to include the maximum number of plant species that are native to central Florida. In other words, to avoid the kind of landscape design that ‘Big Box’ nurseries sell to their clients. The picture most visitors have of Florida is very simple: ‘gators and swamps, but in fact the central Florida native plants are both varied and complex – for over 5,000 years they have created an ecosystem that supported varied wildlife and renewed resources as they were used and this natural adaptation to climate and water, to cyclical ‘disasters’ and to the local geology is something Florida ignores at its peril.

Working with Wilcox Nursery from Largo meant that in combination with excellent landscape design and a native plant nursery, I was given a ground up education in the value of native plants which would make my investment in a native planting worthwhile. Working over three seasons we implemented a vacation rental garden design that would preserve and promote native species – but this garden plan wasn’t just an idealistic notion; native plants cost less to purchase, need less maintenance, reduce fossil fuel use (no lawn mowing) and make fewer demands for water or fertilizer.

Not only that, but a native garden fits perfectly with the design imperatives of 1923, when Erehwon Retreat was built. America was seeking an alternative to Victorian architecture and had a fascination with utility, beauty and artisan design. The idea that living in harmony with nature was both sensible and rewarding was burgeoning and so our native species landscape is a harmonious outgrowth of the surrounding world.

Of course, we can’t control every aspect of the garden and it does contain one ‘exotic’ variously known as the Cup and Saucer, Chinese Hat, or Mandarin’s hat – the Holmskioldia, and one invasive species that arrived from China in the late 1800’s – the Camphor which was much used in incense and medicines as well as being a popular insect repellent. To balance these ‘non-natives’ who have protected status due to their age and environmental value, we’ve planted new native trees; Long Leaf and Slash Pines to help restore the original habitat.

We’ve also reduced impermeable surfaces such as concrete, by replacing cement with bricks, stone, pine-straw mulch and bark chips. Rainwater is able to penetrate these porous surfaces and not only irrigate the soil but remove pollutants – by combining good planting and imaginative materials we have increased the oxygen production, pollution reduction and water retention 30% more than the previous lawn could achieve.

You might think that all this makes little visible difference and it’s true that the microbes, fungi, 200 wild bee species and countless insects who support, and are supported by, our vacation rental landscape aren’t evident. But in spring and fall our rental guests are wowed by the bird migration visitors we receive at Erehwon Retreat – all that invisible activity makes us a beacon for beautiful indigenous and migrating birds who would otherwise struggle to find food and shelter in Florida’s massive urban sprawl.

For those who love horticulture, a complete list of every plant in the garden can be found below. For those who love sensitive restorations and seek a vacation rental that calms the spirit, rewards the eye and benefits the environment, Erehwon Retreat awaits you!