Making a garden, and saving our springs with native plants

Story by Bill Pitts
Photo by Ana Eire

Dr. Robert Sitler is a specialist in Mayan culture and author of The Living Maya. He is also the most successful native plant gardener I know in Central Florida.

Fifteen years ago, Bob was part of the group that persuaded Stetson University, where he is a professor of Latin American Studies, to adopt the lovely native landscaping that graces its campus today. He began by turning his own garden into a showcase of what can be done with plants that are indigenous to our area. 

Everywhere in Bob’s garden are reminders of the season, such as this beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), putting on a show for fall.

There were already a few native trees on his property, including a southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), an ‘East Palatka’ holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘East Palatka’), some cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto), and a red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Bob added much more, planting winged elm (Ulmus alata), pignut hickory (Carya glabra), persimmon (Diospyros spp.), red mulberry (Morus rubra), and many unusual native oaks (Quercus spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.). He is especially proud of his longleaf pines (P. palustris) because they were the predominant tree of the majestic sandhill forests that once covered so much of Florida. 

When I asked Bob what advice he would give people interested in switching to a native landscape, he exclaimed, “Go ahead and do it!”

While I love large forest trees, I have always been wary of planting them near the house, but Bob did not lose a single tree during Hurricane Irma, while much of DeLand sustained damage. His theory is that when trees are planted closely – as they grow in the wild – they protect each other from strong winds. 

Beneath the mixed canopy grows a middle layer of shrubs that is equally diverse. There are silvery blue palmettos (Sabal spp.), yellow anise (Illicium parviflorum), Walter’s viburnum (V. obovatum), Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans), Lyonia, and Yucca. Some of the plants, such as yaupon holly (I. vomitoria), are familiar landscape material, but others, such as doghobble (Leucothoe spp.), are not commonly seen in home gardens.   

The ground cover layer of this urban forest is just as fascinating. There are gopher apples (Licania michauxii), coonties (Zamia pumila), and Fakahatchee grass (Tripsacum dactyloides). The Liatris and golden asters (Chrysopsis floridana) had formed seedheads, a reminder of fall. Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) and blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) bloomed with their delicate flowers in the dappled shade. 

When I asked Bob what advice he would give people interested in switching to a native landscape, he exclaimed, “Go ahead and do it!”

He points out the many advantages of gardening with native plants. For starters, it is inexpensive. He got many of his plants for free. Some he rescued from construction sites, others came from tree giveaways. After establishment, these plants require no irrigation and they never need fertilizers or pesticides. This reduces costs not only to the gardener, but to the environment. 

As an avid free diver and creator of Florida Aquatic Gems, a website devoted to aquatic environments near DeLand, Bob is especially concerned for the state of our springs. When we waste water on thirsty lawns, we drain the aquifers and reduce flow to the springs. Runoff from fertilizers pollutes water. More native landscaping would greatly reduce these problems 

A native garden also requires a lot less work. Bob no longer has to mow. He doesn’t even have to mulch because the trees and shrubs mulch themselves with fallen leaves and needles. He will often leave small fallen limbs in place. They slowly break down, improving the soil and adding to the feeling that we are in a forest. 

But even an all-native landscape requires some maintenance. The main chore in Bob’s garden is pulling out seedlings of invasive plants, especially golden rain (Koelreuteria elegans) and camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora). Vines must be kept in check. He points out that a single wild grape (Vitis riparia) has covered his entire fence and would grow even larger if he didn’t prune it. He likes to keep the palmettos tidy by trimming the lowest fronds. 

There is some trial and error involved even when working with natives. Species that thrive in wet areas, such as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and red anise (Illicium floridanum), did not adapt well to the dry sandy soil. He replaced them with other plants better suited to the site.

Perhaps the greatest advantage to a native garden like Bob’s is that it is so enjoyable. It provides a connection to the place and its history, to the season, and the present moment, that few other styles of gardening can match. 

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