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Eco-gardening: Seeing the Forest

by Fran Palmeri and Laurel Schiller

In the traditional way of gardening we buy a plant we like, find a place for it in the yard, dig a hole, add compost, and plant it. We water, fertilize, and spray for pests.

Eco-gardening is more than organic gardening or gardening with native plants. It’s about taking off the blinders and seeing the forest. How do my gardening choices affect life around me? How does this plant, this yard, this neighborhood, fit into the natural world? John Muir said it best: “He who tugs at a single thing in nature finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

In planning our yard we expand our vision from: we’ll put the butterfly garden here, vegetables over there, and herbs in pots by the kitchen door, to: we’ll plan for the whole yard taking into account light and shade, soil conditions and what already lives there: plants, birds and bees.

Our plantings will serve multiple purposes. We’ll put in many different kinds to attract pollinators which will fertilize our plants for abundant fruiting. Native trees and larger shrubs will cool the yard, provide lots of oxygen, create habitat for wildlife, shade out weeds and discourage fire ants. The birds will benefit! And we’ll have hours of pleasure watching them.

To hide the view of our neighbor’s pool we’ll plant native shrubs like firebush, southern bayberry and Yaupon holly, with fruits and flowers birds recognize and rely on. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will stop by to nectar on the coral bean because they memorize locations of food along their migration routes to and from winter retreats. Summer residents will hide their nests in the stiff branch angles of natives like wild olive or Walter's viburnum.

Diversity not only attracts wildlife. It provides natural pest control. A wide range of plantings will bring in insects and other animals that prey on pest species. Most of the time pesticides or poison baits are unnecessary. Only the worst invasive plants need spot treatment with herbicides.

Groundcovers, smaller shrubs or ornamental clump grasses can replace a thirsty lawn plus provide shelter for toads, glass lizards, frogs and anoles that eat unwanted cockroaches, flies, gnats and biting insects. Ninety eight percent of songbirds feed insects to their nesting young.

The down side of pesticides is that they kill EVERYTHING. Spraying for pests in the front yard kills pollinators for the back yard. Pesticides interrupt natural cycles by destroying caterpillars which would become butterflies and other pollinators which insure our plants reproduce.

Pesticides sprayed around house foundations get rid of pests but also frogs, anoles, and birds that eat the poisoned insects. Spraying for mosquitoes eliminates moths and other night- flying insects that are the food of nighthawks and bats. Baits used to kill rats and mice kill the owls and hawks that feed on the carcasses. Eastern screech owls, barred owls and red shoulder hawks frequent suburban and urban neighborhoods. Herbicides used to eliminate algae and unwanted plants in ponds and swales eliminate cover and food plants for aquatic animals which birds feed on. Herbicides sprayed on lawn to control weeds are soaked up by frogs, toads and lizards. Nature is more complicated than the squeeze of a spray bottle.

An ounce or two of prevention will keep most pests away.

  • Plant the right plant in the right place. Understand its needs. Healthy plants can ward off most attacks.
  • Plant a diversity of plant types to attract beneficial insects that eat pest species.
  • Make sure the house foundation is inhospitably hot, dry and devoid of cover. Plant six to eight feet from it to eliminate the cover, food, and moisture that cockroaches, ants and termites are attracted to.
  • Put up bat houses. One bat eats thousands of mosquitoes a night. We’ll watch dragonflies feed on mosquitoes from the comfort of screened lanais. We’ll enjoy the sound of frogs (nighttime insect consumers) croaking to mates in the moonlight.
  • Stop infestations early on. Spray 911-- nine parts water, one part cooking oil, one part mild dish soap-- once a week in the early morning over entire plant for three weeks.
  • Replace plants that require continual care.
  • Plant ponds and swales with native vegetation to shade out weeds, clean the waterways and provide habitat.
  • Be aware of what doesn't belong and dig it out, pull it up or smother it with mulch before it gets out of control.
  • Cut down the size of the lawn. About the only life it supports are fire ants, cinch bugs and mole crickets. Minimize or replace it with hardy alternatives like sunshine mimosa and perennial peanut that don't require fertilizer, supplemental water and the continual use of pesticides. Alternatives will provide cover and food for creatures that eat unwanted pests.
  • Use herbicides on invasive exotics only when all other treatments have failed.

In eco-gardening we work from the ground up. Gardeners know that soil doesn’t just hold a plant in place. It’s a community which supports a zillion living organisms-- bacteria, fungi, spiders, insects, and worms-- all working together in cycles which have evolved over eons. It’s possible to add to it without disturbing the complex layers of living things. Double digging or roto-tilling hang out the welcome sign for weeds. Sterilizing garden beds is unnecessary. It kills microscopic nematodes (round worms) that can devastate the roots of non-native vegetation. But it also kills beneficial soil microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria as well as worms. Native plants adapted to our soils can ward off nematodes naturally.

Native plants do not need to be fertilized. They are adapted to our nutrient poor sandy soils and will thrive on the break down of leaf litter. Often commercial fertilizer broadcast across lawns and flower beds washes down storm drains and into waterways. Resulting algal blooms pollute the Gulf.

Like Mother Nature does, we’ll recycle plants or allow them to reseed. We’ll avoid being a neatnik and let leaves lie. Litter will make great compost to use on edibles in containers. Rainfall is captured in rain barrels or redirected to use on edibles which require extra water. Water funneled off the roof can be turned into rain gardens for frogs and lizards.

Growing for our table here in southwest Florida could combine native and hardy edibles which flourish here with a minimum of assistance. Fruits might include blueberries, elderberries and Muscatine grapes, squashes like Seminole pumpkin, which has adapted to local conditions, a cold hardy avocado, and Everglades tomatoes.

Eco-gardening is not only good for the planet; it’s good for the soul. Birds and other wildlife in our yard provide an added dimension to our lives. Birdsong drowns out the drone of traffic and mowers. A swallowtail flitting over fruit trees or a wild lime gives us a momentary respite from the ordinary.

If eco-gardening seems a bit daunting … so much more than a swipe of a trowel creating a space for a petunia, -- take inspiration from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It begins with you. Be aware of how your garden choices affect all life in your yard. Then act accordingly.

Fran Palmeri (www.franpalmeri.com) is a nature writer/photographer. She publishes regularly in the Florida press.

Laurel Schiller is a conservation biologist and co-owner of Florida Native Plants Nursery (www.floridanativeplants.com). She is co-author of Natural Florida Landscaping (Pineapple Press).

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