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The Olde sod

by Fran Palmeri and Laurel Schiller

They’re as American as apple pie, adopted from the English who used their lawns for croquet, lawn bowling, picnics. In Florida hardly anyone uses his or her lawn because walking barefoot here is risky business. Fire ants take to sunny lawns like a duck takes to water. Still to stay close to our roots, we import northern grasses. Up North our crabgrass lawns would be a joke.

Sod is a story of waste, pollution, and huge expense from beginning to end. Much of "agricultural" land in Sarasota County is in sod production. Native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers are scraped away to grow sod. Heavily laden sod trucks pothole arterial roads we pay to maintain to bring the stuff in pallets to town. Your lawn guy stocks up. Or your builder surrounds your new home with the green stuff. It's looks good for a couple of months.

Then there’s the maintenance. You mow to placate the neighbors and neighborhood association. Or you contract with a costly lawn service, which mows whether the lawn needs it, or not. Timers turn on the irrigation system even if Mother Nature has just delivered five inches of rain. Winter watering bills of $300 are not uncommon. You fertilize and apply pesticides and herbicides, much of which washes off into storm drains and into the Gulf as pollutants. Mow, weed, water, and spray-- which in Florida's heat and humidity creates lifeless, monotonous, unhealthy yards and neighborhoods, And drives out native plants, birds, butterflies and other critters which have evolved here over eons and actually thrive in nutrient-poor sand, and flood and drought.side slurping up your money just to keep a family tradition alive.

Is there life after lawns? Absolutely! If you can't kick the habit and must have some lawn, at least follow some of these guidelines: Don’t scrape the lot clean when building. Preserve larger trees and edges with original growth the way Carl Halsted did at his home in Venice. He retained old sand live oaks and other scrub plants, groundcovers and wildflowers beneath the trees along the perimeter along with a family of Florida scrub jays.

Add stone walkways, pavers, and water features like Nicole Lavick did around her home. Or mulch your paths instead of mowing them. Create shade by planting trees and large and smaller shrubs to create layers of plantings. Many plants thrive in some shade, a respite from full day Florida sun. Plus you’ll eliminate fire ants by shading your property. Shade provides a calm, cooling ambiance for those of us who choose to live here year around.

Expand flowerbeds by a third each year and surround any lawn with a diversity of low maintenance shrubs, trees and plants to provide color, variety, and a haven for wildlife. In the long run these are much less costly and labor intensive.

Ground covers are another way to go. Many can be mowed or provide a green mulch, lowest layer of plantings, to cool the earth and retain moisture. Some examples are sensitive plant, perennial peanut, jasmine minima, prostrate petunia and skullcap.

If you live in a deed restricted community that passes out grades (or warnings) for lawns start a revolution. Let your neighbors aspire to lawn perfection and ask your homeowners association to amend the rules to allow less costly (in every way) more natural yards.

Fran Palmeri ( is a nature writer/photographer.
Laurel Schiller is owner of The Florida Native Plants Nursery in Sarasota.

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