Gardening with Native Plants

Gardening with Native Plants

The interest and use of native plants in the landscape in Florida and the southeastern U.S. has increased significantly over the last 20 plus years.  There are many benefits for including them in our landscapes including creating a wider biodiversity and enjoying the multitude of support for butterflies, wildlife, and unique color displays.

Choosing the plant species that works in landscape sites requires a few considerations like being adaptable to the site conditions, soil type and preparation, understanding the plant establishment needs, and finding plants regionally to your area. 

Bald Cypress with a Saw Palmetto understory. Photo courtesy of Stephen Greer.

Develop a landscape plan that includes addressing soil and site preparation as many landscape sites are altered during the construction phase with the soil being drastically changed.  In Florida many sites need soil backfill to raise the elevation for buildings, drive or parking areas to remain above flood challenges.  Choosing the right plant for the right place will need to include understanding the plants’ growing environments.  Do the plants perform best in well-drained drier areas or moister situations with slight flooding tolerances?  Native plants have acclimated to specific soil settings over thousands of years.  When selecting the plants for your landscape, perform a site analysis with soil texture, drainage, soil pH, hours of direct intense sun or shade in the growing season, air circulation in the growing area, and growing space available.  Doing your homework first can save a lot of money and frustration later.  Visit the local nurseries to see plant availability.  Just remember many landscape settings do not always match the natural habitats where many of these plants are established in nature. 

Native Muhly Grass. Photo courtesy of Stephen Greer.

Soil amendments will likely be needed to improve the soil conditions and provide optimal plant establishment and performance.  Most often the soil that brought in is sandy and nutrient poor with little to no organic matter.  In addition, the soils are compacted by heavy equipment during the construction phase.  These factors can create native plant challenges leading to poor growth and shortened plant life spans.  When the soils have been addressed according to plant needs the selected plants can be placed and the fun part begins by following the landscape plan.

With the landscape conditions likely altered with amendments, choose plants that can establish and grow successfully in these often more difficult conditions.  Florida red maples (Acer rubrum), Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) and Sand Live Oaks (Quercus geminate) all can provide shade areas for future plantings.  Butterflies attach to and feed on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  Butterfly weed does well in well-drained sandy soils and swamp milkweed likes it moist.  These are just a few of the many plants out there to consider.  Just remember to visit your local nurseries and talk with them about native plants and availability.  Enjoy your gardening adventure.

Pruning Ornamental Grasses

Pruning Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses are a great addition to the landscape. Most are usually easy to establish, need little water and fertilization, provide different textures, and are generally low maintenance. The one main maintenance activity that is necessary for most of our north Florida ornamental grasses is a good “haircut” in the spring.

Ornamental grasses for north Florida, such as muhly grass, purple fountain grass, and Miscanthus (l to r), add texture, color, and winter interest to a landscape. Credit: UF/IFAS.

Pruning grasses removes the spent flowers and seed heads, as well as all of the brown leaves, which provided the fall and winter interest that ornamental grasses bring to the landscape. These leaves also serve as a sort of natural wind-chime during the cold, windy days of our winters and may even provide cover and nesting material for wildlife. However, now it’s spring, and lush green growth is waiting to pop through that dead mix of leaves and stems. Pruning clears all that out, allowing for good air movement and a rejuvenation of the plant that can help minimize pests and disease.

Miscanthus grass before a spring “haircut”. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.

Miscanthus grass after a spring “haircut”. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.

To prune ornamental grasses, wait for after the last average frost date and grab some nice sharp shears. Next, just shear the clump about six inches above the soil line working from the outside towards the center with a slight angle, creating a sort of fade effect. For larger specimens you may need to adjust the cut a bit higher and may even want to use a hedge trimmer. Nice clean cuts are preferred.

Shears are the way to go when pruning ornamental grasses. Orange and blue handles optional! Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS

One good pointer I saw online is to also bring along an old belt or a piece of rope to cinch up the dead material before pruning to easily collect the debris. I tend to use a cut and swipe motion that pushes the large material to one side of the plant, and I follow up with a metal garden rake to pull out more of the old, coarser material.

Within no time, new growth will flush out from the mound and often surprise you with how quick it can grow. This proves just how dynamic ornamental grasses can be in the landscape, showcasing lush green growth during one season and providing stark, whimsical interest during another.

Miscanthus grass two weeks following pruning. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.