Ah, the great American lawn. Your mental image probably conjures up a perfect lush green carpet. But turning this cultural status symbol into reality means an endless cycle of mowing, weeding, regular watering, and heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides. Irrigating with precious water and applying these chemicals isn’t just hard work; they are tough on the environment. The good news is, you can still have the best land around. It just doesn’t have to be sod. Experts in the region share four creative alternatives to traditional budding landscaping. They are all environmentally friendly. Done well, they can also be beautiful.
In Florida, a turf lawn is under constant siege. Blink and the weeds have taken over. Clinton Lak prefers ground cover. As a landscape architect at ArtisTree, he is a fan of sturdy, low-maintenance alternatives to grass. The trick is to plant a ground cover that will thrive in your garden.
“There isn’t a single climate in Florida,” explains Lak. “Our region has a wide range of variables, from soil and salinity to alkalinity and available sunlight. Ground cover that thrives on barrier islands may shrivel east of I-75. You have to do your homework. “
Lak says ferns and flowering plants make good ground cover. Ferns spread out beautifully and foxtail ferns thrive in sun or shade. You can also replace the grass with native Florida plants, mimosa, perennial peanut, and beach sunflower. These plants thrive in sandy soil where grass barely survives. Lak also likes hardy upstates from out of state like the Japanese flag, Asian star jasmine, and creeping herbs like thyme and oregano. For annuals, plant petunias, which provide a splash of color in winter. For perennials, creepers like lantana and blue daze will quickly fill in the gaps.
Landscape artist Michael Gilkey is a huge fan of container gardening, which refers to growing plants in pots, planters, urns, containers, and boxes, rather than in the ground. Container gardening wastes much less water and does not create runoff that pollutes our bay and gulf. It is also beautiful.
“I like a concept called ‘show and flow’,” he says. “A taller plant like a bromeliad in the middle creates structure. Then you surround it with another plant that cascades around the edge. Flowering plants like salvia are excellent candidates. Muhly weed and other native Florida grasses are quite beautiful.
Container plantations spice up a grandiose landscape with accents of color and beauty. In a small batch, they can be the whole show. “You’d be surprised how much you can grow in a 12-foot-by-12-foot area,” says Gilkey.
Gilkey uses succulents such as kalanchoes, aloes, cacti and other desert flora which combine good looks with low maintenance because they are drought tolerant. Flowering plants such as the pretty Cape Daisy, which comes in a variety of colors, and blue daze and trailing lantana are other candidates for colorful containers.
For non-flowering foliage, try the spiky-looking Devil’s Backbone or the Persian Shield with its iridescent purple leaves.
Small trees like the lady palm can also thrive in large pots and offer a variety of heights.
And don’t forget that herbs and edibles flourish in the containers: Parsley, thyme, cilantro, and Everglades tomatoes provide greenery and groceries.
Replace the grass with walking trails made of seashells, crushed granite, glass, lava rock, river rock and natural stone pavers, all ecological and functional architectural features.
“High porosity pavers are great in high traffic areas; water can go back into the ground instead of draining, ”says Robert Davie of Robert Davie & Associates Landscape Design. Natural stone pavers like travertine and Filipino sandstone are good landscaping materials. “Shell Lock offers a fantastic range of shell encrusted pavers, perfect for yards and paths near beach houses and next generation Modernist architecture.”
Davie also likes the flexibility of the pavers. “Let’s say there’s a problem with tree roots or buried utilities,” he says. “If the problem is under the concrete, you have to pull it out, and it’s painful. But cobblestones make it easier. Just remove a few pavers, fix the problem, then put them back in exactly the same spot.
And for those who don’t mind a bit of sand between their toes, sandy paths or entire sand courses with cobblestone paths, are porous, environmentally friendly, and replicate our original coastal environment. Anna Maria’s landscaper, Michael Miller, has used 250 Sand, a specific blend of seashells and sand from local mines, for decades on residential and commercial properties in the Barrier Islands. 250 Sand is inexpensive, self-compacting (so it does not wash off) and allows perfect drainage. What about those sandy feet? A faucet strategically placed near a door or natural fiber doormats will do the trick.
Debbi Benedict has a green thumb, and her garden is proof of that. Its quarter-acre yard flourishes with over 100 fruit trees, shrubs and vines, and endless native flowering plants. She calls it “Benhaven Farm”. “This is my edible landscape,” she says. “Food for me, the birds, the bees and the butterflies and, above all, for my soul.”
To create his garden, Benedict got rid of most of the grass and instead put two feet of mulch on the ground with seashell paths running through the property. She installed a drip irrigation system to keep everything watered.
“If you have the right soil, the right lighting conditions and the right amount of water, it’s all pretty easy to grow,” says Benedict. For beginners, she recommends starting with mulberry, papaya, star fruit, Barbados cherry, and mango. Keep in mind that fruit trees take up to five years or more to grow large enough to produce a decent harvest.
Want to see this corner of paradise up close? The Benhaven farm will be holding its first open house on November 1 and 2. Visit debbibenedict.com.
The edible stars of the Benhaven farm
Trees: Persian lime, Myers lemon, glazed bean, peanut butter fruit, waxed jambu, strawberry and black sapote.
Spices: bay leaf, allspice, cinnamon and stone fruits.
Herbs and mints: rosemary, fennel, dill, parsley, sage and basil.
Classic garden vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, chard and a multitude of lettuce.
Seeds of knowledge
Before you pull up the grass and sell your lawn mower, know what you are doing. Fortunately, the horticultural gurus at the UF / IFAS Extension in Sarasota County can help with Florida landscaping. Pat Williams is overseeing the program. Water wisdom is the first lesson.
“This means conserving water by using efficient arrangements of native drought tolerant plants,” he says. “The practice originated in the American Southwest, but it’s not limited to arid landscapes. We propose a regional application of the xero-landscape principles. This does not mean [a lawn of] rocks and shells. A xeriscape lawn can be as lush as a Rousseau painting.
The second lesson? “. good place.” Sunshine and soil conditions on the one hand, and an understanding of the plants that thrive in those circumstances on the other. You can find a wealth of information on the UF / IFAS Master Gardener program website.
A model yard
For real-life examples of grassless lawns, head to the nonprofit Florida House Institute in Sarasota, which features container gardening, edible gardening, and alternative ground covers. The yard demonstrates the use of hardy Florida natives and smart water conservation. It also shows how the contour of the land with bio-spray traps rainwater and filters runoff before it reaches the aquifer.
Diane Keel, head of urban agriculture and landscape at the Florida House Institute, says, “No one approach is right for everyone. But there is a sustainable model that works for you. If you come here you can see for yourself. And by all means, copy us. If we can cultivate it, so can you.
What’s the greenest in Florida? A living lawn it requires lots of water and chemicals, or artificial turf that doesn’t require watering or fertilization, but is plastic? The jury is still out, but technology makes artificial turf a more acceptable option.
“It’s not your grandfather’s AstroTurf,” says Ed Wooster of Eco Turf. “The new materials are stronger, more resistant, suitable for pets and children. You don’t use water and your fertilizers don’t flow into the water table.
Wooster adds that cleaning is easy. “We get so much rain in Florida that Mother Nature usually washes it for you. In the event of a drought, just water it and you are good to go.
Wooster adds that artificial turf is also good for the ears and the air. “Eliminating lawn mowers reduces noise and air pollution,” he says.
Steve Nielsen, landscaper and president of the Critter Ridge Landscaping Company, says we shouldn’t demonize sod, which is a porous ground cover that helps cool the environment and is also good for some beneficial insects. Just keep the grass to a minimum.
“I think weed has a bad reputation,” he says. “Grass is an excellent filter and it produces a beautiful lawn with the right care. I think the problem is not the herb itself, but the way we treat it. People tend to overdo it when it comes to water, fertilizers, and chemicals. But grass is OK, if used responsibly. It’s about using the right weed in the right place.