Nursery Professionals’ Consensus: Go native, Go Green, Give Up St. Augustine

By CAROL WHITAKER, At Home contributor
Friday, June 22, 2007

Using plants that can take the heat and survive on the natural rainfall of Southwest Florida is a trend that grows in area landscaping with each successive drought.

“Water is on everyone’s mind. Florida seems to be feast or famine,” said Ben Bolusky, executive vice president of the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), which held its annual convention on Marco Island last weekend.

The dry months this year spurred fires throughout the state, burning large portions of the Everglades and prompting local officials to mandate water restrictions. Industry insiders say the popularity of native plants is also on the rise because local governments continue to require their use in commercial and public landscapes — a result of the ever increasing need to conserve water.

The task of industry professionals is to accept the challenge of environmental sustainability without sacrificing the aesthetic of design and plant variety vital to a good landscape.

While plants may survive drought, ultimately all plants need water to thrive.
“No plant can live without water,” said FNGLA member Brady Vogt of Pelican Nursery, Naples. “While native plants are drought-tolerant – tolerant is the operative word.” There is a big difference in surviving and thriving, he says.

Despite water restrictions prompted by the most recent drought, and other challenges the industry faces — which run the gamut from labor and immigration questions to finding solutions for water contamination from fertilizer runoff — the industry is second only to tourism in annual sales, according to Bolusky: “In 2005 we chalked up 15.2 billion in sales in the industry.”

In the last year it has suffered, he adds.

“People who would normally be installing new landscapes are waiting,” said landscape designer Kara Alfaro of Elata Natives, a Fort Myers nursery.
Scott Smith of Bougainvillea Growers International (BGI) in St. James City, a grower of bougainvillea and native plants, says designers are still buying, but sales have dropped.

With upcoming summer rains, gardens and the industry will flourish, the nursery professionals believe. Already-healthy, established native landscapes will have struggled less, still be green, and for the most part recover readily from the drought conditions, say the nursery professionals.

“Native plants are used to these fluctuations – with heavy rains in summer and the dry season.”

Dale Norton, field manager for Christian, Busk and Associates looks to a change from the staple St. Augustine lawns most widely planted in local yards, to a zoysia hybrid from Brazil called Empire, which is more suited to the area’s climate.

“It requires not even a quarter of the water that St. Augustine needs,” said Norton. If it turns brown during drought conditions, it recovers when the rains return. Experts recommend a plethora of great choice plants well suited to the area. Here are some of the plants industry insiders look to for performance through the drought and the summer rains.

Alfaro says coontie (Zamia floridana, also known as Zamia pumilla) is popular. When shrubs are called for, she plants colorful fire bush (Hamelia patens), coco plum (Chrysobalanus icaco), and lantana (Lantana camara).

She also is planting more ornamental native grasses: Elliot’s lovegrass (Eragrostis elliottii), Fakahatchee (Tripsacum dactyloides) and muhly grass (muhlenbergia). She recommends native royal palms (Roystonea spp.) which look healthy and green even through the dry season.

Smith says bougainvillea will remain a staple in the southwest Florida Landscape. While salt-water intrusion will defoliate the plant during hurricanes, it is a great choice for a riot of color. A versatile plant which comes in a wide array of colors, bougainvillea varieties include a low-growing dwarf and large specimen varieties.

“They make a great hedge,” Smith declared. Bougainvillea can also be grown on a trellis or arbor and is a stunner as a substantial freestanding specimen.
Landscape designer Roberta Gerber of Bonita Shores works almost exclusively with natives. She believes education is key to motivating people in the right direction with their planting practices. Gerber notes how native cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) — commonly used in commercial landscapes with their sturdy fibrous trunks and fan shaped fronds — were growing in the natural native Southwest Florida landscape long before there were any irrigation systems.

© 2007 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.