Hurricane Idalia recently tore through the Big Bend area, battering the coast and taking down trees, leaving thousands out of power. While much of the panhandle was safe from the strong winds and storm surge, we still got some gusty weather, and likely had some amount of cleanup to do following the storm. Fortunately for us, this time, it’s mostly a lot of small branches and leaves versus entire trees that our fellow gardeners are cleaning up to the east of us. In addition to being thankful that larger branches didn’t fall here, consider turning those small bits and pieces over to wildlife while collecting your wheelbarrow loads of debris. This is a great opportunity to practice sustainable landscape practices and a few Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principles.
The UF/IFAS Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program has nine principles that it encourages Florida homeowners to practice in their landscape to conserves Florida’s natural resources. Three of the nine principles can be practiced by choosing how you manage the debris that has fallen – #4 Mulch, #5 Attract Wildlife, and #7 Recycle Yard Waste.
The first reaction when looking out at your landscape after a storm is typically “Ugh, there’s a lot of stuff to clean up.” We often want to “clean it up” and get it back to a sea of perfect cut grass, or at least sort of nice grass. However, the small branches and leaves that fall can be a great resource for wildlife, can provide mulch around a tree, and letting them rest reduces the need for you to haul all that stuff up to the road and all that goes into picking up, transporting, and processing the material.
The larger branches (four to six inches in diameter and larger) can be used for firewood or a naturalistic bed edging. Otherwise, they can go into a large brushpile. Smaller sticks and branches are perfect for one large brushpile, or, if a large pile doesn’t meet your aesthetic desires, a series of small piles scattered or hidden behind some shrubs is a good compromise. The leaves and really small stuff (branches no larger than a pencil) can be raked up for mulch, added to the brushpile(s), or just left in place to naturally rot away and/or get shredded up by the mower.
No matter how you leave the debris, consider how important this material is for all sorts of wildlife. Dead wood supports microbes, fungi, and animals up and down the food chain and even adds to your soil organic matter. While it may not look “clean” to us, those bits of “trash” are gold to many critters, especially small insects that bring birds to the yard. So, during cleanup, consider leaving little treats here and there for wildlife and spend less time hauling it to the road! For more information about the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principles, visit the UF/IFAS Florida Friendly Landscaping Program website.
Throughout history the evergreen tree has been a symbol of life. “Not only green when summer’s here, but also when it’s cold and dreary” as the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” says.
While supporting the cut Christmas tree industry does create jobs and puts money into the local economy, every few years considering adding to the urban forest by purchasing a living tree. Native evergreen trees such as redcedar make a nice Christmas tree that can be planted following the holidays. The dense growth and attractive foliage make redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens and wildlife cover.
The heavy berry production provides a favorite food source for migrating Cedar Waxwing birds. Its high salt-tolerance makes it ideal for coastal locations. Their natural pyramidal-shape creates the traditional Christmas tree form, but can be easily pruned as a street tree.
Two species, Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus silicicola are native to Northwest Florida. Many botanists do not separate the two, but as they mature, Juniperus silicicola takes on a softer, more informal look.
When planning for using a live Christmas tree there are a few things to consider. The tree needs sunlight, so restrict its inside time to less than a week. Make sure there is a catch basin for water under the tree, but never allow water to remain in the tray and don’t add fertilizer. Locate your tree in the coolest part of the room and away from heating ducts and fireplaces.
After Christmas, install the redcedar in an open, sunny part of the yard. After a few years you will be able to admire the living fence with all the wonderful memories of many years of holiday celebrations. Don’t forget to watch for the Cedar Waxwings.
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.
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.
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.
The Florida state wildflower, coreopsis, in bloom atop the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension
Most of us don’t think much about our roofs until there is a problem—a storm blows off shingles, causing a leak, necessitating a giant blue tarp to hold off the rain until we can get a contractor to replace the roof. But “a roof over your head” is one of those basic needs, perhaps only slightly less necessary for safety and survival than food and water.
Stormwater engineers and landscape architects have been thinking a lot about rooftops. Along with hard surfaces like roads and parking lots, roof area in a community is one of the biggest contributors of stormwater runoff. Those impervious surfaces don’t absorb any rainwater, contributing both to the volume and pollution potential of runoff from any given storm.
The skyline of downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, as viewed from their City Hall green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
While only applicable in specific situations, green roofs can provide a practical and beautiful solution to this problem. Escambia County has been home to the state’s largest green roof since 2009, housed atop the county’s Central Office Complex (COC). At over 33,000 square feet, it can absorb nearly 20,000 gallons of water during a rain, reducing flooding in a flood-prone area and allowing rain to soak into soil instead of becoming runoff. The COC roof was part of the building’s design from the beginning, but many commercial and government buildings have added green roofs as part of a retrofit. The rule of thumb is that if the building is sturdy enough to support an additional story, it can handle the weight of a green roof—including soil, vegetation, and water storage.
Last month, I visited the green roof atop Kalamazoo, Michigan’s City Hall. The imposing art deco building was constructed in the 1930’s, but the green roof on the building’s perimeter was added in 2011. Green roofs add tremendous environmental benefits but can be cost prohibitive, so many communities find grant funding (like the state of Florida’s Nonpoint Source Management grants) to help cover the expense. The Escambia County and Kalamazoo green roofs were both funded by grants. Besides the runoff reductions, a green roof can provide significant energy savings. Vegetation buffers a building from the incredibly hot summer rooftop temperatures, reducing the use of air conditioning and stabilizing indoor temperatures. This is the case for the Escambia County roof, in which an audit showed a 33% reduction in energy needs when compared to a conventionally designed building.
Green roofs can be built on flat-topped home roofs, and many European countries use them regularly. Plant selection for green roofs varies widely based on climate. Our local roof is mostly planted with beach dune species, while cooler, less humid regions make ample use of succulents like sedums. Low growing grasses and native wildflowers are great choices everywhere, providing color with limited maintenance.
A hummingbird gathering nectar from a firespike (Odontonema strictum) flower. Photo Credit: Knolllandscapindesign.com
Do you enjoy watching a variety of birds and butterflies in your landscape? Have you ever watched squirrels get into the birdfeeder? Children may learn about wildlife by watching through a window. Food, water, cover, and space are four essential elements that will create the best habitat for wildlife. Food could be as simple as adding feeders to attract birds to your yard but having a habitat that sustains them is important. Florida wildlife and Florida native plants evolved together and are often interdependent. It is a must to understand what sustains the species you are wanting to attract to your area. Different species prefer different food/plants. Insects also provide birds a food source for their young.
Water can be bird baths, man-made ponds, and natural bodies of water such as streams, lakes, ponds on your property. When relying on a bird bath for your water supply make sure the water is fresh and clean. Shallow water (1-1.5 inches) is better than deep (over 3 inches). Birds like sloping sides and a textured surface; they prefer to walk into water rather than dive in headfirst. Place the bath 5 to 10 feet from a protective cover like shrubs or trees. This needs to be close enough for the birds to be able to reach safety if there is danger from predators. A small outpost for birds to land on near the bath can help them check for predators before heading to the bath.
Cover will provide a place to raise young and should have vertical layers for animals to use for safety, shelter, and nests. Examples of cover that could be added to the landscape are snags that give food for woodpeckers and nesting perches. Or build your own nesting boxes that are species specific for owls, bees, and bats. All bats eat insects and substantially reduce the number of nocturnal insects in a neighborhood.
The permanently wet detention pond lined with cypress trees and sawgrass also provides habitat for fish, birds, and reptiles. Photo Credit: Carrie Stevenson, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Escambia County
Lastly it is important to think of your space. Create large patches of good habitat that span several landscapes or consider working with your neighbors to link the backyard habitats and create a larger area. It is all about the “Right Plant, Right Place” concept and understanding the area you are working with and the possibilities. When you go into the last step of planting and attracting wildlife have a plan and know what you would like to attract. Do your research on what you will need for that wildlife and use your resources, ask your local extension agent for ideas and suggestions!
Many plants in our native landscape provide much of what attracts wildlife and provides them with at least one of the four essential elements. The article “Planting for Wildlife Habitat!” will give you some ideas of plants and trees that do well in the North Florida area and will help to attract the wildlife you desire!
Bald eagles and other large birds of prey have made a comeback in Florida.
Florida has all the elements of a wild animal’s paradise. The state has abundant rain and water sources, lush vegetation, plenty of food, and tons of nesting and hiding places. In our state and national parks, conservation easements, open waters, and acres of ranch land, large populations of animals can thrive. Particularly in areas with fewer people, healthy populations of even large animals like black bears, alligators, and panthers can maintain substantial territories. However, human migration into and throughout Florida is increasing at as steady a rate as ever. Retirees have long fled their cold northern winters to move part or full time to Florida. Now, the ability for many working people to telecommute from anywhere has made it attractive for younger families from all over the country to join us.
A black bear helps himself to a drink from the swimming pool of a Florida home. Photo provided by Patty Underwood/FWC
With more people comes the need for more housing. Some are content with high rise condos that leave a smaller footprint, but these are often located right on the water and can displace coastal wildlife and vegetation. For the thousands of families moving in weekly, more subdivisions, roads, stores, and schools are necessary. Inevitably, these lead to human-wildlife interactions that may or may not be positive experiences. In fast-growing south Santa Rosa County, I see almost daily reports of large black bears in backyards and trash cans. For smaller mammals, the threat of being hit by a car is unfortunately very common. For nearly every call we get about an exciting manatee sighting, we get word of a nerve-wracking interaction with a snake. As civilization moves closer to forested, once-wild areas, wildlife can be squeezed out, left without the protection of natural cover and drawn to human food and habitat.
A lush backyard landscape surrounds a recognition sign from the National Wildlife Federation. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
There are plenty of ways we can co-exist, though. A Florida-friendly yard is a wildlife-friendly yard, and those who go the extra mile can even be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for their efforts. There are several steps one needs to take to become wildlife-friendly. The most important include providing food, water, and cover, so the animals’ basic needs are met. Actions like removing invasive species, keeping pets supervised when outdoors, and adding layers of vegetation are also excellent ways to attract and protect native creatures.
While small and medium sized animals can find shelter in a single yard, it takes neighborhood cooperation to be a haven for something larger, like deer, bears, birds of prey, or large tortoises. Some neighborhoods are designated from the beginning to include conservation easements that serve as amenities to the neighborhood. They include trails, shady waterfront areas, and plenty of space for wildlife. It is important when moving into one of these neighborhoods that each homebuyer understands and respects the purpose behind conservation areas. Residents of older, existing neighborhoods can also work together to designate common areas and stretches of adjoining yards as wildlife-friendly corridors, allowing more animals to use the space safely.
A gopher tortoise burrow is noted by a sign in a local city park. The tortoise is co-existing peacefully with its neighbors! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
In my own neighborhood in the city limits, a gopher tortoise has moved in and become a neighborhood mascot of sorts! When alerted to the presence of its burrow, the city brought in a sign explaining the animal’s protected status and crucial role in the environment. Floridians share their citizenship with thousands of other species. These breathtaking birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and insects are integral to the health of our land and water. By taking steps to look out for their well-being, we are also providing for our own.