Connecting the ecosystem dots

Friday, May 20, 2011


With a temperate zone right out of Appalachia jutting into the Panhandle and a tropical zone from the West Indies wrapping around the southern tip of the peninsula, and everything from scrub to marshes in between, Florida is among the most biologically diverse states in the country.

Because these ecosystems and their inhabitants have been so reduced in size as farms and cities have sprawled across the state, the Florida Native Plant Society’s 31st annual conference is exploring how these species-rich landscapes can be preserved in back yards and public spaces, how yards and gardens can become stepping stones for wildlife and wild plants, connecting one fragment of habitat to the next.

Mark Johnson, landscape
architect from Kissimmee.

Mark Johnson, landscape architect, and Craig Huegel, a wildlife biologist, gave compelling talks about using natives in ways that will bring nature back to the sterile expanses of grass and exotic plants that have become so prevalent.

“Wildlife exists because their habitat needs are met,’’ said Huegel. Those needs are food, water and shelter. But it's not as easy as putting out a birdbath and a bird feeder.

Throughout the year, food needs may change. Birds, for example, may eat berries in the fall, but rely on insects to feed their young in the spring. Butterflies seek nectar on flowers, but lay eggs on other specific plants. Attracting critters to your yard means being aware of many of these differences.

Cover is equally important. Birds need protection for nesting and to escape predators. Such plants as wax myrtle, full of many fine twigs and leaves for hiding, are well suited for this.

Sales of native plants are a big
part of the conference.

Think about multiple layers of the woods that accommodate different species. Include a canopy, sub-canopy and understory, three levels of a plant community that are utilized by various species of birds, butterflies, and insects. Amphibians and reptiles need hidey holes and water and weedy little edges.

Yet weedy may be one reason people don’t use more natives, said Mark Johnson. “To many people, natives are experienced as a chaotic mess.’’

He walked us through the design principles of color, texture, scale and mass. Get a color wheel, he said, and learn how to use it. Then understand not just the primary colors but the tapestry-like  hues, tints and shades of nature found in different greens and subtle browns.

Mix coarse, medium and fine textures so plants read as individuals in a coherent whole instead of a jumble of indistinct plants. Remember that what works to enhance a one-story house won’t work with two stories because the scale is different. Instead of using just one type of plant for a long hedge, mix plants, including some that might flower at a particular season.

Make a plan to scale, and calculate plant placement according to the mature size of plants. Don’t forget to include yourself in the scene: how will you as well as the wildlife use the space?

Wonderful talks about pollinators, wildflowers and biodiversity hot spots rounded out the program.

Tomorrow, we delve more deeply into these issues. It promises to be an exciting day.