Native planting for Florida gardens

Native planting for Florida gardens

My childhood encounters with nature were limited to New York’s Central Park – a manicured sense of the native environment to say the least. Later 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 create an environment that let everything live. A place for every native creature, great and small, that belonged in the same space. Consequently I had to ensure there was space, air, food and water for all. It sounds laudable – but how to put it into practice?

Beginning to design a Florida garden

When I began designing Erehwon Retreat, a historic vacation rental in Tampa, I wanted include the maximum number of plant species native to central Florida. The picture most visitors have of Florida is simple: ‘gators and swamps. Conversely, central Florida’s native plants are both varied and complex. For over 5,000 years they’ve created an ecosystem supporting varied wildlife and renewed resources. This natural adaptation to climate and water, to cyclical ‘disasters’ and to local geology is something Florida ignores at its peril.

I began with Wilcox Nursery from Largo, Fl. Offering excellent landscape design and a native plant nursery, they also gave me a ground up education in the value of native plants. Over three seasons we implemented a vacation rental garden design to  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 and make fewer demands for water or fertilizer.

Native plantings were a fashion in 1923. Back then, 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 marriage of old and new.

Finding balance in a historic garden

The garden contains an ‘exotic’ known as the Cup and Saucer, Chinese Hat, or Mandarin’s hat. Actually it’s the Holmskioldia, one invasive species that arrived from China in the late 1800’s. We also host 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. They help restore the native habitat.

Planning for native plants for Florida gardens

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’ve increased oxygen production, reduced pollution and improved water retention by 30%.

You might think that all this makes little visible difference. Honestly, that’s true of the microbes, fungi and countless insects integral to our vacation rental landscape. But in spring and fall our rental guests are wowed by the bird migration visitors we receive at Erehwon Retreat – all that invisible activity creates a beacon for beautiful indigenous and migrating birds who otherwise struggle for food and shelter in Florida’s massive urban sprawl.

For horticulturalists, a complete list of every plant in the garden is below. If you love sensitive restorations  that calm the spirit, reward the eye and benefit the environment, try Erehwon Retreat. We’re thrilled to announce the Natl’ & Fl Wildlife Federation designated our garden as a Wildlife Habitat in August 2019.