Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keep Off The Grass

In my post on March 30, I introduced the National Wildlife Federation's six tips for a green garden. It's time to begin taking a look at those tips, to figure out if maybe, just maybe, it's a little easier being green than Kermit the Frog thought.

Tip #1: Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely.

Why? In a place like Florida, where we're basically a rain forest for one half of the year and a desert for the other half, grass just requires too much upkeep.
  • Grass is a notoriously water-hunger monster. It takes at least an inch of water a week to keep a lawn green. We simply don't get that on a regular basis here in Florida from November through May. That means you'll have to water the lawn to keep it healthy, costing time and money. Not to mention the fact that this drought has prompted some new and very tricky watering restrictions for most of us. Do you really want to get up to turn on your sprinklers at midnight?
  • Once summertime hits, at least an inch of rain a week is almost guaranteed. What does that mean for grass? It G-R-O-W-S. What does that mean for you? You M-O-W. Now, I'm sure that there are those out there who think there's nothing more fun than mowing the lawn on a 90 degree day (with 90% humidity!) but for everyone else, it's just a chore. Plus, if you're using a gas-powered mower, your carbon footprint is surprisingly large.
How? There are a lot of options out there, from creating gardens to planting groundcovers. Here in My Florida Backyard, we've eliminated over half our lawn by creating gardens full of native and Florida-Friendly plants. To see details, read my previous posts Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes and Sunshine on My Shoulders.

Level of Difficulty: There's definitely an initial investment of time here, ranking from 4 - 5 on the scale of 1 - 5 depending on what you decide to do. However, down the line, your payoff is very rewarding indeed! Our lawn maintenance is almost zero during the winter months, and during the summer months, it takes only 10 - 15 minutes a week.

So, for tip #1, eliminating your lawn, I think it's safe to say that ultimately, it actually is easier being green. Put in the work up front, and reap the benefits for years to come, like we do in My Florida Backyard.

Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Not That Easy Being Green (or is it?)

Kermit the Frog famously told us it's not easy to be green. And in many ways, I think he may be right. It would be a lot easier to throw all my trash away, instead of separating for recycling. It would be a lot easier to spray every ant wandering my yard with pesticides, or to buy the Miracle-Gro readily available at every store instead of scouring the internet for organic alternatives. But surprisingly often, being green is actually easier than the alternative.

In an article from this month's National Wildlife magazine, Janet Marinelli asks "How Green Is Your Garden?" She highlights yards in California where the gardeners have created gardens that help reduce carbon emissions. Pictures highlight landscapes full of blooming flowers and cool green oases, all intended to require minimal watering, chemicals, and upkeep from power tools.

Janet's article includes Six Ways to Save Energy and Reduce Your Yard’s Carbon Footprint. In an effort to consider if it really is harder to "be green", I'm going to dedicate my next series of blog posts to considering these six tips, all of which we've employed to some extent in My Florida Backyard. I'll let you know what we've done to comply, and how they rate on a difficulty scale of 1 - 5, with 1 being ridiculously easy and 5 being a heck of a lot of effort.

For now, here are the six tips, with full and complete credit given to National Wildlife magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation, April/May 2009 edition.

1. Reduce the size of your lawn. Better yet, consider eliminating it entirely. Families with young children require only a small area of lawn where the kids can play. Everyone else can manage without turf by creating patios for living space, enlarging planting beds or installing a rock garden.

    Tip: Consider replacing your lawn with a native wildflower meadow. This will provide habitat for wildlife and requires no watering after its young plants are established. Since introducing plants to your property that are not indigenous to your region can contribute to ecological problems, ask your local native plant society which species are appropriate to cultivate.

2. Use hand tools instead of power equipment. When you reduce the size of your lawn, for example, you’ll only need a push mower.

3. Choose materials with low-embodied energy. Brick and concrete have large carbon footprints compared to gravel and especially wood. Used brick and other recycled materials are good choices, too.

4. Emphasize woody plants that capture more carbon than fleshy herbaceous species. Create a flower meadow or vegetable patch, but plant most of your property with low-maintenance native trees and shrubs, preferably those that also provide food and nesting and resting places for birds and other wildlife. Again, choose species native to your region.

5. Plant trees and shrubs where they will block winter winds and provide shade in summer. This will reduce the amount of energy required to heat and cool your home and thus reduce your carbon footprint even further. The particular landscape strategy depends on your climate.

    Tip: For more details, see "Landscaping for Energy Efficiency," a booklet produced for the U.S. Department of Energy and available online at www.eere.energy.gov.

6. Minimize, or better yet eliminate, the use of fertilizers and pesticides on your property. Use compost and mulch produced from garden trimmings to enrich your soil instead, and use native plants that are naturally pest resistant.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Whistling in the Dark

In about 15 minutes, Earth Hour 2009 will reach the Bay Area, and we'll be turning out our lights to participate. I doubt many others in the neighborhood will participate - the word about this event in Tampa has been pretty minimal. Still, we'll be joining in, just to make a statement.

I've read a lot of skepticism on the web about Earth Hour. Most people don't see how it can make any real difference (and some deny the human effects on global warming altogether). And while it's true that turning out our lights (mostly CFLs in our house anyway) for one hour won't really effect our electric bill, I think a lot of people are missing the point.

We all use lights everyday that we don't really need, along with a lot of other electronics. A neighbor across the lake has a "security" motion-activated light that seems to illuminate nothing in particular, and constantly goes on and off all night long as neighborhood cats and ducks prowl their backyard. Office buildings are lit up on the outside everywhere, creating interesting city skylines but obliterating the night sky. I myself turn on a light in the bedroom every night when it gets dark, even though we seldom go in there until bedtime.

Whether folks want to believe it or not, using electricity has a big effect on the earth. Most of the power in the US comes from coal plants, and these are unbelievably dirty. Don't believe the hype about clean coal, either (this means you, President Obama!) - it really doesn't exist. Earth Hour is an event designed to help us all think about what we really need from electricity, and what we can make adjustments to do without, or at least use less frequently.

We here in My Florida Backyard will spend our Earth Hour out on the porch, enjoying the evening breeze and talking about possible change we might make in our lifestyle to make the Earth a better place.

So, even though Bay News 9's "non-scientific poll" showed that 63% of those in the Bay Area don't plan to participate in Earth Hour, and the city of Tampa itself is only making the small symbolic gesture of darkening the St. Pete Times Forum, we're going to spend the next hour in the dark, enjoying My Florida Backyard in the dusk with no lights on to distract us.

(I'm sorry, but I have to use this opportunity to tell one of my favorite childhood jokes. "Mother, I'm awfully glad Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb." "Why is that, dear?" "Because, otherwise we'd all be watching TV in the dark!")

Ooh, Baby Baby

It's that time of year! The first of the ducklings have arrived. After several months of catching mating ducks in My Florida Backyard every time we turned around, we spotted the first babies of the season today. By my count, there were seven ducklings following their muscovy mama through the waves of the lake on this very windy March day.

Welcome, babies! May you live long and prosper.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Free Bird

Our backyard is frequented by the ducks of the neighborhood, both mallards and muscovy ducks. There are often as many as six or eight of them sleeping in the shade, picking through the grass for bugs, or waiting eagerly for the cracked corn I throw out once or twice a day.

The pond itself has many avian visitors, especially around the edges where wading birds search through the shallows for food. Some mornings, I have seen as many as 15 great egrets combing the waters at a time, along with several other species of birds.

This afternoon, though, one curious fellow wandered up into My Florida Backyard to see if my butterfly garden could offer him anything interesting. As a matter of a fact, he peered right through the screen into the back porch where I sat, pondering my next blog post.

Clearly, he was volunteering for his close-up. Of course, he didn't really have the patience to wait while I ran for the camera. I managed to snap these pics* before he flew away to continue his exploring across the lake. (Notice that the muscovy ducks really couldn't have been less interested in this visitor!)

*Sorry for the poor picture quality - I took all these pictures through the screen so as not to startle the bird away.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Wish It Would Rain

It's a rare gloomy day in March here in Tampa, and although we've been teased on and off with a few drip-drops, it doesn't appear that we'll be getting any real rain anytime soon. Although this is to be expected (we're in the middle of the dry season - November through April), I can't help looking hopefully at the clouds above.

The Tampa area is in a pretty severe drought right now. Our reservoir is running dry and the latest word is that the desalination plant is facing some problems too. We really can't expect any meaningful rains until the tropical storm season begins - probably not until June. And that doesn't mean relief is necessarily on the way - last season our daily rains stopped about six weeks early, and we didn't get any of that beneficial Tropical Storm Fay rain that everyone else in the state got (too much of in some places!). I'm certainly not wishing for any Category 4 hurricanes this year, but I wouldn't mind if some nice tropical storms gave us lots of rain this summer.

In the meantime, the water supply is in danger and of course must be reserved for drinking and bathing, so gardeners take a pretty hard hit in return. Hillsborough County has some fairly steep restrictions in place, and in My Florida Backyard we follow them to the letter, and then some. We don't have much grass, and we expect it to be brown this time of year, so we don't use our sprinkler system at all. We restrict hand-watering to plants in pots or newly-established plantings, and we water those as minimally as possible. Of course, our established plants were selected specifically to make it through droughts like this one. In a future post, I'll detail the plants that have done the best during these "drying times".

And, for those rare occasions when we get a bit of rain, we've installed a rain barrel*.

There are a lot of great sites out there that provide info on obtaining and installing a rain barrel, so I'm not going to go into detail here. Instead, check out these links:
If making your own rain barrel seems like a lot of work, or if you want something a little classier than a spray-painted food-grade plastic drum, check out the many rain barrels available for purchase. Clean Air Gardening has a great selection, and Gardener's Supply Company offers some really nice ones, including my personal favorite and the one I wish I could have afforded. There are plenty of suppliers available - just Google "rain barrel" and see what comes up!

Now, as Homer Simpson says, "Here we go with the add-ons!". There are lots of rain barrel "accessories" out there, such as kits to connect rain barrels and products to keep the mosquitoes away. The only one we've invested in is the Garden Watersaver Downspout Attachment. Because of the way our downspouts are situated, we didn't have a great place to put a rain barrel where the downspout could drain directly into it. This is definitely the easiest (and least expensive) method, and I wish it could have worked for us. However, the downspout attachment is a great solution, and I can recommend it.

Of course, since we got around to installing the rain barrel, we've had exactly 2 rainstorms, each lasting less than 30 minutes, so we haven't gathered any great amounts yet. But I look forward to gathering plenty of free water over the summer for watering potted plants, and even one good rain between now and June would set me up for weeks. I encourage anyone living in a drought-prone area to consider making the small investment in a rain barrel to reap the rewards in your own backyard.

*Water collected in a rain barrel is not suitable for drinking or other human consumption. It should only be used for watering plants, lawns, etc.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fly Me To The Moon

Space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center today at 7:43 p.m. ET, after several days of delay. Discovery is bound for the International Space Station to deliver a large solar array, among other mission objectives.

We checked out the launch from our backyard, 135 miles west of Cape Canaveral. It's pretty amazing how well you can see the launch from this far away. These pics are real-time - no time lapse or anything.

Comparing these pictures with those from the satellite launch last weekend, you can really see how much pure power is needed to launch the shuttle into space. Here's hoping things go well for the crew of Discovery, and that we'll see them back home safely in a couple of weeks!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sunshine on My Shoulders

I sat on the stone bench in the backyard today, enjoying the warm sun, the view, and the backyard visitors.

During the time I sat there, we were visited by wood storks, limpkins, muscovy ducks and mallards, lesser scaups, and a male cardinal, among others. A northern mockingbird was singing his heart out in the tree nearby, a queen butterfly flew overhead, and at one point an osprey scared the heck out of me by diving straight into the lake and retrieving a fish with a splash before flying away with it in his feet.

With the sun warm on my back, I admired the view and reflected that just a year ago, this patch of yard was just dirt and scrubby weeds. So, how did we get from there to here?

Again, here's what we started with:

My plan was to carve out another arc of garden, this one essentially going from the neighbors' fence to the corner of my house. We were about to install the walkway from the front of the house around to the back, which would lead up to the cement pad outside the screen door. This would give me a small garden by the house and a large one from the pathway to the edge of the yard, more or less.

So, we waved our magic wands and presto-chango, it was done!

Yeah, well, so maybe we had to do a little more actual work than that. But more on that another time.

The plants in the backyard have actually worked out pretty well. We have a couple of oleanders, lots of muhly grass, and some blue-eyed grass that still continues to struggle along (see my previous post Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes for more info on these plants). We also have Walter's Viburnum, Simpson Stopper, and Firebush (all Florida natives), a couple of straggly Bougainvillea bushes, and the date palm tree that has been here for many years.

In mid-summer, after seeing the success of it in my butterfly garden, I planted lantana camara and added some stepping stones near the porch. By this time, we had also put in the stone bench and removed a struggling viburnum.

By early fall after the rainy season had passed, nearly everything was thriving and the muhly grass was showing its amazing autumn colors.

We had a lot of successes and only a few failures in our backyard planting. Here's what didn't make it:
  • Blueberry Bush (native) - I think just didn't get enough water while it was trying to get established. I'd love to try this again sometime, maybe by planting it during the rainy season so it has a good chance to get started.
  • Wild Petunia (native) - Not really sure what happened here; this just didn't thrive. It may not have gotten enough sun in its place behind the bench. At any rate, I was forced to pull it out by the end of the summer. We transplanted the saw palmetto there from the front yard.
As I mentioned previously, we had to replace one of our viburnum bushes, but the new one looks okay. They are both getting some flower buds now as spring approaches, so we'll see what happens.

I can't help but feel pleased with my backyard now. I've created a pleasant garden to sit and watch the visitors to the lake, which are many. Here's the wood stork who came to see me today:

They have awfully ugly heads, don't they? This is a bird that's considered endangered in the U.S., but we see them frequently here in My Florida Backyard. How cool is that?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Skyrockets in Flight...

Last night, the Kepler spacecraft took off on a Delta 2 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Cape Canaveral is almost due east across the peninsula from our house, and about 135 miles away. We went outside around 10:50 to see the launch.

(Note: The pictures below are time-exposure; in "real life", the launch looks more like a very very bright orange star heading very quickly up into the sky.)

There's a night shuttle launch next week on March 11; if the skies are clear, we plan to head outside to see that one too. Just one more interesting thing to see in My Florida Backyard!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


It's a simply glorious early March day here in Tampa, the kind of day where you know that folks up North are happy to reach into the upper 30s and 40s while we're enjoying warm sun, cool breezes, and temps in the mid 70s. I spent the afternoon puttering around in the gardens, pulling weeds, tying up honeysuckle, and so on, and as I worked, I couldn't help but think how different things are here than they were a year ago.

In my last post, I showed some "before" pictures and talked about the plans we made as we started our landscaping projects. In future posts, I'll detail the work involved in making things happen, but for today, I'm going to show the evolution of our front gardens to make one simple point - gardening is a never-ending experiment.

As a reminder, here's the front yard a year ago, in early March 2008:

Here's the same front yard today, March 2009:

And another view:

While these aren't the best pictures for seeing detail, they do give an overall view of the changes. Here's what's currently thriving in my west-facing front gardens:
I also have some newly planted Beach Sunflowers* that I'm hoping will take off, and several plants that aren't exactly thriving but are slowly finding their way: a Croton bush, a Tropical Hibiscus, and a Pygmy Date Palm. My Lantana Camara has been pruned way back to keep it from overgrowing its welcome (this species is not native and can be invasive if you're not careful, but oh, how it attracts the butterflies!).

Over the last year, these gardens have actually changed several times, as I learned what did and didn't work in My Florida Backyard.

Here are the front gardens after we first planted them in late March/early April 2008:

And here's what we had in mid-July 2008, after a few months of growth and the start of the rainy season (never underestimate the power of a tropical climate to make things grow!):

Sharp eyes will notice that there have been some plant changes since then! Here's what eventually didn't work out in these west-facing front gardens, for one reason or another:
  • Blue-Eyed Grass* - I don't know what happened with these guys. I absolutely loved them when I found them at the Home Depot nursery(!) and realized they were natives. I planted them all over the place, including in my front gardens, and the were simply gorgeous for about two months. After that, they turned brown and almost seemed to "rot" from the center out. I ended up yanking most of them and replacing them with something else. I still have a few in my back garden, and I'm waiting to see what spring might do for them.
  • Oleander - Actually, the oleander in my back gardens is doing all right, if not thriving. I'm hoping the rainy season will bring back the pale pink flowers we had last year. But the one in the front garden just didn't thrive and had to go.
  • Mondo Grass - My guess is that these just got too much sunlight in a west-facing garden. This was a case of gardener's error, because I just didn't read the light specification for these plants.
  • Saw Palmetto* - Actually, this did fine up front, but the plumbago on either side basically just grew right over top of it. I transplanted this to my back garden, where it continues to limp along. It's a slow-grower and didn't like being transplanted, but it has some new growth and I think will be fine once the warm rainy season arrives.
  • Sparkleberry* - Ah, this one broke my heart. This bush was listed in my butterfly gardening book as a great native plant to have, and I was looking forward to the little white flowers it promised. But, alas, it was not to be, because this plant just did very poorly and eventually died. I'm betting it was something I did, but I just don't know what.
By late fall, I had discovered a few more surprises in my gardens. By then, I'd pretty much determined what would work and what wouldn't (although I still hadn't found the solution under the tree out front), but now the Muhly grass began to show its amazing fall colors (never let anyone tell you we don't have noticable seasons here in Florida!).

Again, sharp eyes will notice that we desperately needed to do some weeding, but summertime in Florida is really not gardening time. About 10 minutes outside (and that includes mornings and evenings) is about all you can stand, so we let things get a bit overgrown until the weather had cooled down. At any rate, you can see that the Muhly grass offers fantastic rewards in the fall, which I really hadn't expected.

Since that day in October, we have refreshed the mulch and weeded quite a bit. I am also trying the Beach Sunflowers under the tree now and am eager to see how it will do (it's only been in the ground 10 days but already has some flowers). We are in the "peak of the dry", as Steve Irwin would have said, so my plants will grow slowly over the next few months.

All in all, I can't help but feel pleased with our accomplishments. I've learned a lot about what I can and can't grow over the last year, and I look forward to seeing how the right plants will continue to thrive as the next year passes. The experiment continues!

(*Asterisks indicate plants native to Florida. Watch future posts for more info on Native Florida plants.*)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Accentuate the Positive

Once we had some ground rules laid, it was time to assess what we had already in the yard, and what we would need to do. Turned out, what we had was very little, and what we would need to do was a lot!

Here's what we had:

Front Yard: Mostly crabgrass. Walkway in good shape. "Gardens" filled with lava rocks and sad-looking potted plants. Healthy (if overgrown) holly bush and unidentified tree.

Backyard: Swing set inherited from previous owners and soon given away to next-door neighbors with kids. No landscaping to speak of.

Side yard: Overgrown weeds and not much else. (Note: The fence pictured belongs to the neighbor house.)
Yikes. Where to start? Well, we knew we wanted to eliminate as much grass as possible. Grass is the enemy of a Florida and Wildlife Friendly yard. Why? Well, grass is not really native to Florida. Some varieties, like Bahia and Bermuda, do reasonably well here, but don't really provide anything useful for wildlife. Plus, grass requires a lot of upkeep - mowing, watering, and so on. Grass just didn't fit with our guidelines.

We also wanted to add some type of pathway around the house from the front door to the back porch. Florida grass (except the St. Augustine on golf courses) is not nice to walk on in the best of circumstances. It's rough and scratchy, and usually contains unwelcome critters like fire ants. Adding a pathway would also add a little structure to the yard.

With this in mind, we began to plan. We took some measurements and sketched out the yard and house, and then began to draw in gardens and other features. I found the Florida Friendly Landscaping website to be immensely helpful with this - they have an interactive yard feature that gives you great ideas. We decided to cut out several arcs of gardens in the front yard and turn almost the entire backyard into garden, including a butterfly garden behind the porch.

We decided to use paver blocks set into sand for the walkway. This choice was economical and fairly earth-friendly. By setting the paver blocks into sand instead of solid concrete, we were allowing for rain water to get through to the ground below instead of draining away to storm sewers. Florida's aquifers need all the help they can get!

With our general plan in place, and nice spring weather upon us, it was time to get cracking!