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Laissez faire gardening

by Fran Palmeri

The pileated woodpecker is taking a dust bath under the big pine. I think of it as her place and haven’t been inclined to plant anything there. Thistle pops up there in late winter and I let it grow freely to three feet until the yard man reminds me his mower can’t handle it. As yards go, mine is not at all the norm. In my neighborhood, most are carefully tended lawn, a specimen tree or two and shrubs against the house. I’ve got pines, sabal palms, and live oaks scattered about and wildflowers spilling all over the front yard. As soon as the sun is high enough, it’s abuzz with butterflies and bees.

It used to be lawn. But a few years ago when I replaced the septic field and was about to put down sod, Sharon Fitzpatrick, a friend of mine, showed up. She was adamant: “Forget sod! We’ll put in porterweed, wild coffee, ferns, blanket flower and a ground cover of mimosa and beach dune sunflower.” At the time, this was all Greek to me though I’d been out to the Florida Native Plants Nursery photographing butterflies on the wildflowers. She’s a landscape designer so I let her go ahead. Soon the butterflies were in MY yard. Letting things be has been my approach. I moved into this cottage years ago, enchanted with a Eugenia tree--huge, very old, majestic in the moonlight. My first night I out looking at it when two possums strolled past. That did it for me. I would strive for minimal disturbance to afford maximum hospitality to wild things. From previous owners I inherited the pines, palms, oaks, a red cedar and assorted shrubs. The side yard was “jungle” until a few years ago, part of the reclinata came down and a magnificent magnolia came to light. When I moved in I put in hibiscus but lately have added firebush, beautyberry, and coral honeysuckle to attract hummingbirds and butterflies and sea grape, rosemary and Simpson’s stopper that I won in the Native Plant Society raffle. I keep tabs on invasives like carrotwood and Brazilian pepper. No pesticides, fertilizers or water except to establish a plant or if a valued tree or shrub is stressed in these drought conditions. Pine needles and vegetable clippings make fine mulch. I tidy up from time to time but probably not nearly enough for the neighbors!

Over the years I’ve been amply rewarded. A fox came and sat on the back stoop and once, skunks—a mother and babies—scuttled through at daybreak. Eastern screech owls reside in the side yard and when winter is approaching I hear their courting calls –up and down, up and down, the scale. Rabbits have always lived in burrows near the driveway. This year a great horned owl occupied one of the slash pines. Of course there are squirrels. And herps—like black racers that eat the Cuban anoles which would take over if the snakes weren’t here. When it rains long and hard I’m “back on waterfront” and the frog chorus takes center stage. Alongside the lanai, the live oaks, privet and wax myrtle are a mecca for Carolina wrens which sound like squeaky wheels, mourning doves, red bellied woodpeckers, cardinals, mockingbirds plus migrants passing through. Obnoxious blue jays alert everyone when the red-shouldered hawk is around but redeem themselves in springtime with lyrical mating calls. Pretty much “meat and potatoes” of the animal kingdom but all because of my laissez faire method of gardening.

“Why can’t we let things be?” lamented naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson a hundred years ago when he arrived home one day to find his beloved Caribbean pines gone. Back then Miami was in its first growth spurt as was much of Florida. At my house, fifty-five years ago, an enlightened builder refused to take down most of the pines. Recently, the concept of my yard as a tiny piece of the whole occurred to me. To get an idea of what would do well here I went to Pocono Trail-- a mile away as the crow flies-- to see what was growing there. Pines, oaks and sabal palms—my place fit that formula—beggarticks and butterflies—yes—partridge pea, butterfly pea and a lovely patch of white tops—those were new thoughts. An osprey nesting on top of an electric pole reminded me of his “cousin” down at the end of my street, also atop an electric pole.

“Rat a tat tat” goes the pileated woodpecker on the old pine tree. All is well.

Fran Palmeri ( is a nature writer and photographer.

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