“It's important for us to make landscapes that make sense,” advocates Craig Huegel, local author, educator, ecological consultant, environmentalist and radio show host.
When addressing a group of gardeners in Largo last week, he reminded that people become landscape managers when they buy a house.
“Our landscapes can do more than what they do,” he said. “For so many people, a yard equals a lawn. It's like we're afraid to put something in our front yard.”
For most of the quarter-century that the Wisconsin native has resided in Florida, he's been advocating the use of native plants, though he says he's not a purist.
“They're not weeds — but some are weedy,” he cautioned, and “some are attractive and manageable — some are not.” Curiously, Huegel said, using wildflowers and other native plants hasn't really caught on here, but many people use them in the prairie states.
“We don't have a sense of place here like we do in other parts” of the country, he said. “We want to pretend we live in the tropics. We should embrace what we have.”
With thousands of species from which to choose, Florida has the third-greatest number of native plants in the nation. Many of those are threatened or endangered.
The emphasis on aesthetics, even as most native plant books are focused on pretty this or pretty that, bring about some troublesome issues, Huegel said. In addition to the loss of a sense of place, plant conservation declines and the services of native pollinators (estimated to be worth $4 billion to agriculture) suffer to the point of crisis.
Pollinator corridors, flyway habitats, can help the bees, butterflies, beetles, birds and bats — especially those that travel between regions. Such areas might be near waterways, along field borders, in highway buffer strips or in landscaping.
“Wildflowers, with their simple structures, are often the best at providing for pollination,” Huegel explained.
The vast majority of flowers people buy are not pollinated. Roses and begonias, complex flowers, those double things with more petals than normal, may look good but make it almost impossible for an insect's proboscis to reach nectar in the little tubes.
Although the aster family of flowers, including zinnias and marigolds, normally would be a good hunting ground for pollinators, his recent search through a well-known seed catalog revealed only a single marigold that was suitable.
When selecting a specimen, be mindful of the mantra: right plant, right place. Sometimes, pots may be used to create a suitable environment. Consider not only the sun, soil and water requirements, but the blooming season, plant height, and whether it's perennial, annual or biennial, evergreen vs. deciduous, to enhance a landscape.
Plan to keep it attractive to people and pollinators year-round. Don't forget to include ground covers, vines, shrubs and trees. If attracting butterflies is the goal, incorporate both nectar and host plants, perhaps planting in patches to better catch their attention. And for those who want flowers to re-seed, choose a mulch that will break down, such as leaf litter.
Homeowners should decide what they prefer, but don't neglect diversity —it's better for the pollinators and the birds, advised Huegel. He said even his yard has more diversity than nearby Walsingham Park.
The environmentalist refrained from posting a list of recommended plants, saying that it's more about “you, using your interest to mix things together.” After all, if everyone planted the same things, it no longer would be diverse.
The speaker said residents have a chance to let their landscaping take them into the next century, moving forward not just with beauty but with something that has practical purpose.
While Huegel has written books on wildflowers and landscaping with native plants, a wealth of specific information is also available from the Pinellas County Extension office at 582-2100.