I’m a creature of habit. For years, in a rite of spring, I visited my garden center to buy geraniums, an azalea or two, and some imports to try out. The red geraniums and pink azaleas felt as comfortable as a pair of old shoes. The imports created a challenge to "push" a Zone 8 tree or shrub into my Zone 7 Maryland yard. It was only possible through vigorous cosseting: weeding, watering, fertilizing, ameliorating the soil, and watching out for winter freezes that could wipe out successes overnight. I felt enlightened and virtuous as I weeded by hand, planted everything in compost, and avoided the use of pesticides.
When I moved to South Florida, my Zone 10 yard was a whole new challenge. The plants I found were unfamiliar or strangely out of place. It was startling to see plants from my Annapolis living room thriving outside. A huge variety of pothos climbed trees; schefflera grew to gargantuan heights; and instead of being confined to a pot, wandering jew crept around the shrubbery. I felt as if I’d fallen down a rabbit hole.
To educate myself, I bought a popular local gardening book and, after poring over the gorgeous pictures, took its list of suggestions to garden centers. There I found arrays of colorful tropical plants, which were especially enticing in mid-January, when my northern garden would sleep under layers of snow and I had to settle for reading catalogues. I selected plants for shape, color, and variety; where they came from or what they did to the environment did not enter my mind.
Sometime later, I came across some literature from the Native Plant Society. Once again, I was in unfamiliar territory. I learned that "native" included species of plants whose natural range was the state of Florida before the coming of Europeans (about 1500 C.E.), and "exotic" was a new species introduced on purpose or accidentally. Some exotics have become naturalized and no longer need to be cultivated. Those that "took over" and forced out native plants are called "invasives." A list of exotics and invasives like Brazilian pepper and kudzu was included in the literature. I was surprised to see some of the suggestions from the gardening book I had consulted included on this list.
But what really caught my eye was a quote from Janet Marinelli of the Nature Conservancy. In 1993, she wrote: "Across a continent of breathtaking biological diversity we have planted the same 20-30 plants from around the world, a golf course lawn, some meticulously clipped yews, and a handful of specimen trees ringed with begonias and other annuals."
I looked out the window. There was a schefflera from Australia, a ligustrum from Japan, and two Queen palms from Brazil, all of which are categorized as "invasives." Golf course lawns stretched up and down the block. When I drove through my neighborhood, or any other neighborhood, it was more of the same. It gave me a new perspective on things. The colorful plants that had been pleasing now took on a darker meaning.
Then I started noticing what was on undeveloped lots, along highways, on public lands, and at the beach. The demarcation was startling. It seems I live in two different worlds, one composed of mostly concrete, lawns, mulch, and trucked-in landscapes; the other made of sand, long leaf pines, sabal palms, live and scrub oaks, saw palmettos, and a variety of shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, and vines—and at the beach, sea grapes, sea oats, railroad vine, and other flowers and grasses.
I needed to learn more. I plunged into the Florida section at the local library, and at bookstores I bought items like the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida and Priceless Florida: Natural Ecosystems and Native Species. I visited websites like the Nature Conservancy and the Exotic Pest Plant Council. I joined the local chapter of the Native Plant Society (most states have one), the Audubon Society, and the local butterfly club. All along the way, knowledgeable people contributed to my awakening.
At a native plant nursery I met Laurel Schiller, a biologist and environmentalist. On her Sunday nature walks in a nearby state park, I learned the names of plants that flourished there and the names of the original ecosystems for this area: pine flatwoods and scrubby oak flatwoods. The Gardening for Wildlife Home Tour that Laurel organized last fall in Sarasota was an eye opener for me and many others.
I was motivated to redo my yard. At a Groundhog Day party, we planted ten native trees and started a butterfly garden. A knowledgeable guest pulled out an invasive carrotwood tree. Eventually, I hope to have my yard certified for wildlife using guidelines provided by the National Wildlife Federation. On their website they offer a habitat planner for gardeners who want to attract birds, butterflies, and other interesting wildlife by replacing lawn with wildflowers, reducing the use of chemicals and water. In some states, cooperative extension services have yard certification programs. You can download their requirements by Googling "certified yard," or by calling your local cooperative extension service. Florida’s certification program focuses on water conservation, recycling yard waste, exotic plant removal, and minimal pesticide use. Maryland’s Bay-Wise Certification Program has "yardsticks" you can download for landscapes with or without lawns and vegetable gardens.
Much of what I learned is applicable anywhere. There are chapters of the Native Plant Society everywhere with programs geared to local areas. For example, the Baltimore chapter has a work group that pulls invasives from city parks. There are Audubon guides to every part of the United States, plus available literature geared to local areas. The Exotic Pest Plant Council provides information on the web about all the states, as does the Nature Conservancy, which can provide lists of endangered and threatened species, both plants and animals.
If you would like to join this movement, you can start in your own backyard. You don’t have to tear everything out and start over. Think small! Begin by eliminating invasive plants. If you garden for wildlife, the butterflies in your area will appreciate finding the plants they know best. If you have someone do the work, let your landscaper or yard person know what kind of plants you prefer. If you’re building a home, don’t clear lot line to lot line— at least leave native plants along the edges, like Karl Hallsten, who participated in the Gardening for Wildlife Home Tour. He preserved the sand live oaks at his home in Venice, Florida, and was delighted when Florida scrub jays took up residence there. These beautiful birds, endemic to Florida, are a threatened species.
You can write letters to local papers. Get involved in the conservation efforts of environmental groups. Look into local government regulations regarding preservation. Speak out against "plow under, pave over" policies. In Sarasota County, developers found a loophole in county regulations that allowed them to bulldoze before taking any conservation measures. An alert activist informed the local paper about it. Other papers ran stories, the Sierra Club got involved, and eventually the loophole was closed by the county government.
You can find out what your town or city plants in public spaces. I learned recently that last year the small town of Venice just south of where I live spent $500,000 putting in imported palms along a newly redone boulevard ($5,000 per tree). These exotic species cost more than native plants, don’t clean the air as well, don’t provide shade, and don’t provide a sense of the "real" Florida. Recently, the state Transportation Department, in a road-widening project, tore out the beautiful sabal palms that graced the median strips in Venice. Soon we’ll have eight lanes of asphalt, devoid of the greenery that brought us pleasure and buffered us from the heat, noise, and ugliness of traffic.
I’m always on the lookout for remnants of the old order. Wildness persists in the more modest neighborhoods of Sarasota. On Sunset Lane, off a busy Sarasota thoroughfare, old-fashioned small houses melt into a background of ancient live oaks, sabal palms, beautyberry, palmettos, vines, and wildflowers. Behind the office building on Siesta Key, which houses a local newspaper, red mangroves put down their prop roots in a drainage ditch, oblivious of soda cans and other detritus of civilization. But it’s sad to see a wood stork, another of our endangered creatures, feeding out of the dumpster behind a local restaurant.
There’s another economic side to this issue, not just destruction of ecosystems or exploitation of natural resources in the interests of development, but on the human level. When I lived in Lagos, Nigeria, my neighbor was a wealthy trucking mogul—a poor village boy who had made good in the big city. Not wanting to be reminded of his humble beginnings, he built a huge house on concrete without a vestige of greenery anywhere on the property. Similarly, in upscale areas in South Florida, natural habitats have been degraded, sometimes beyond recognition. On Casey Key the mega-rich are building status symbols, each one bigger and more ostentatious than its neighbor, on lot line-to-lot line concrete pads with landscapes adorned with wildly expensive, full-grown exotics. Walking there one summer evening, I was delighted to smell a skunk. How such a creature could survive in this sterility was astounding. Perhaps he was an opportunist like the wood stork.
In Florida Wildflowers in their Natural Communities, Walter Kingsley Taylor says it’s possible to figure out a natural ecosystem by looking at what grows there on its own. There are clues all around me: the slash pines silhouetted against the thunderheads of a summer sky, beggar ticks and wild asters growing in my yard, saw palmettos in the easement, sand building up in the driveway, a million frogs caterwauling after a hard rain, opossums strolling through the yard. But gone is the gray fox that used to sit on my neighbor’s porch at night.
Often I feel suffocated by turf, the incessant spraying of pesticides, and the whine of mowers. I keep wondering what’s under all those lawns. Has the real Florida gone underground? If lightning fires swept across the area, as they did long ago, would ancient ecosystems emerge from the ashes as they do in state parks after a prescribed burn? Park biologists discovered that an area can rejuvenate itself from long-dormant roots and seeds after being "released" by fire. Would saw palmettos and tiny, scrubby oaks spring to life in my back yard? Would a gopher tortoise (endemic to Florida and a threatened species) stop by and decide to take up residence?
My education has been a kind of pilgrimage. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold observes, "Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive states of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language." Seeing patterns, naming plants and other living things, and looking under the ground and back in time have helped bring the world around me into focus. Now a vacant lot is transformed from a tangle of greenery into a complex but understandable mini-ecosystem. Walking near the beach one day, an environmentalist friend pointed out the old dune systems reflected in the curvature of the land, something I never noticed before. As I walked through my community this morning, I stopped to photograph a great egret. These beautiful birds were hunted almost to extinction at the turn of the last century to satisfy the huge demand for feathers for ladies’ hats. Alligators have rebounded after the fashion craze for bags and shoes threatened to wipe them out, too.
In the opening lines of The Dream of the Earth, the ecotheologian Thomas Berry writes, "We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the Earth community. For too long we have been away somewhere, entranced with our industrial world of wires and wheels, concrete and steel, and our unending highways, where we race back and forth in continual frenzy."
Celebrating what is here has integrated me back into the natural world. I am learning to love weeds, shun contrivance, and grab hold of what is real and hang on for dear life.