Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Class


“A lot of Southwest Floridians simply do not know how to take care of their yards,” says Mary Ann Parsons, with fellow volunteer Kathy White, as she begins the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN) class from The University of Florida (UF) Extension Office at the Mound House on Saturday morning, June 3.

“UF began this in the early 1990s when Tampa residents became concerned about the high pollution levels in the Bay, and everyone was pointing fingers as to the cause, such as industry, farming or hotels,” Mary Ann explains. “When UF finished, however, it specifically identified 60% of the problem as stormwater runoff with excess fertilizer and pesticides. Having all this information, UF put it to the best use by organizing its nine basic principles into the Florida Friendly Yards course that we present today, as living on the waterfront is a both a privilege and responsibility. Our impact on the water and water quality is more immediate, as we are so close to or are even beneath sea level. FYN helps protect our natural environment, by saying ‘here is the problem and here is what we can do.’”

“There are two divisions of this endeavor,” adds Kathy. “FYN is for the family, while UF offers Best Management & Practices for commercial businesses and organizations, as all area landscapers have to attain this certification to function in Lee County.”

While the FYN class features nine components, they focused the majority of the class on the first one: Right Plant, Right Place, “as removing invasive plants is the first step to becoming ‘Florida Friendly,’ as native plants require less water,” explains Mary Ann. “Invasives outcompete native plants that can lead to a loss of their habitat, such as mangroves. Invasives to avoid include Java Plum, Mexican Petunia, Brazilian Pepper, Snake Plant, Asparagus Fern, and Cathedral Bells,” with audience members exclaiming “Oh No” at the mention of some of these! “Remember,” reminds Kathy, “what is an invasive down here may not be an invasive from where you originally live.”

Tag, You’re It!

They provide each audience member a free copy of the “Florida Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design” that lists the appropriate natives for each area of the state. “We are in Zone 10A,” relates Mary Ann. “Simply take this with you when shopping for landscaping and pick out the 10A tags and you are all set. Plants in the store may look cute; but then it grows to be 30 feet tall, and the 16-year-old clerk is of little help! This book allows you to plant Florida Friendly.” Excellent examples of natives for our region include Blue-Flag Iris, Blanket flower, Jamaican Caper, Maypop Passionflower, Beach and Dune Sunflowers, Muhly Grass, and Firebush; for additional suggestions see http://floridayards.org.

“Minimize turf grass,” emphasizes Mary Ann. “Those of us who are originally from up north expect perfect Kentucky blue grass and think we can recreate that here, as you tend to do what you know, so we try to have Ohio lawns in Florida, and we overfertilize and mow. Why not take out the turf grass, replace it with beautiful Florida natives, and use 60% less water? Native plants give us a sense of place, require less water and fertilizer, are far more likely to survive a hurricane or drought, and are good for local wildlife, so there are untold benefits to planting native.” “There is nothing wrong with a Midwest yard,” agrees Kathy, “but you can do small things to convert, like expand with natives around trees, and gradually removing turf by extending gardens near your house each year. It took me 15 years to find landscaping religion!”

“Remember,” says Mary Ann, “it is all about the right plant in the right place, because if you plant the wrong plant in the wrong place, no amount of water or fertilizer will help it to thrive, so make the correct initial selection.” They recommend having the Lee County Extension Office analyze your soil, so you know whether to select acid or alkaline soil plants based on your Ph value. It is at 3406 Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers, and you can contact them at 239-533-7400, the Horticulture Desk at 239-533-7504, or at FYN@leegov.org.

The Great Eight

They next addressed the remaining 8 tenants, but not to the degree of Right Plant, Right Place. “Water Efficiency saves water and money for a better yard for you and for the environment,” explains Kathy, before providing a terrific visual demonstration involving several bottles: “If all the water in the world fit in a two-liter bottle, only 3% of that is fresh water, and of that, 0.6% is not frozen in the polar ice caps. This leaves only .003% for the whole world; think about that the next time you let the water run while you brush your teeth. We cannot make any more water, meaning that we must take care of all we have. Most of us have sprinkler systems, but have no idea how much water to use. Your lawn needs a ½ to ¾ inch of water per application, so put out a tuna can, measure how long it takes to get that deep, then set your system to use just the right amount. Install a rain shutoff sensor so it does not run in a downpour, and turn it off in the Summer. I am a lazy gardener, so I always look for shortcuts and the easy way.”

Fertilize Appropriately: “Select the proper type for your yard,” emphasizes Kathy. “Use a shielded fertilizer spreader to keep it out of any adjacent water, as you can buy fertilizer for $3-a-pound but it costs $3,000-a-pound to remove it from the water system. Consider organic alternatives, and make sure it has a 50% slow release so it will not automatically wash out. Use the low end of the recommended amount, then increase as necessary, because remember the company telling you how much to use wants you to buy more! We use 300% more fertilizer on our yards than on farms.” Lee County has a fertilizer ban from June 1 to October 31 so it does not wash out during the rainy season. The Fort Myers Beach Fertilizer Ordinance bans any fertilizer containing nitrogen and/or phosphorus during rainy season, June 1-September 30. During dry season phosphorus must be under 2% and nitrogen under 20% with half of that slow release nitrogen. For more details on the FMB Fertilizer Ordinance, visit fmbgov.com and search for “fertilizer.”

Mulch & Recycle: “all of our drinking water comes from rain water,” reminds Mary Ann. “Once fertilizer gets into the aquifers, it is in our drinking water so think about that. As for mulch, stay away from the red color as that is dye, and 3 to 4 inches deep is good enough. Eucalyptus, pine straw, pine bark, mixed hardwood, and leaf litter are excellent, but avoid cypress as that is a native tree and we don’t want them cut down for mulch!”

Attract Wildlife: “Butterflies and birds need water,” relates Kathy, “so a birdbath, along with native plants, creates a habitat that is great for nesting or shelter from predators; the more native landscaping, the better.”

Manage Yard Pests Responsibly: “99% of the insects in your yard are beneficial so stop killing everything! A good bug can look scary, but many of the ugliest ones become gorgeous butterflies.”

Recycle Yard Waste: “Let fallen leaves lay, as they become free mulch and free nitrogen as they decompose, and compost if you can.”

Reduce Stormwater Runoff: Rain water off your roof, driveway, and sidewalk washes debris and everything else into the water; keep water on landscaping as long as possible by using native filter plants as buffers, plant a rain garden or flow way; use pervious materials; and install a rain barrel or cistern. “Turn that natural water path into a very pretty garden” says Mary Ann, “where water will slowly flow to filter though there, so when it does reach our water, it is much cleaner for going through a yard system.”

Protect the Waterfront: Create transition or littoral areas, low or no maintenance buffer zones; and save the mangroves with shoreline plantings that help to prevent against erosion, while filtering runoff to provide wildlife habitat.

 Your Most Valuable Possession

“Are these 9 principles worth it?” asked Mary Ann. “A beautifully native Florida Friendly landscaped yard can add 15 to 20 percent to the value of your property, and if you are like most people, your house is your most valuable possession.”

Mary Ann and Kathy are part of a small army of volunteers who will come to your group and teach the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods session free of charge, as well as routinely offering classes at Rotary Park in Cape Coral. “If you want one of us to evaluate your yard to see if it qualifies for a FYN designation, we will,” says Kathy. “Your neighbors will see that and ask how they can get one, and you help spread the philosophy!” There is a rain barrel class at Rotary Park on Saturday, July 29, at $45 per barrel. To arrange for a speaker, yard visit, or to obtain class dates, go to FYN@lee.gov.com.


Gary Mooney