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Natural Awakenings Magazine Daytona | Volusia | Flagler

Covering New Ground with Native Plants

Jan 29, 2021 11:15PM ● By Katie Tripp
If every homeowner in the U.S. replaced one half of their lawn with native plants, we could create more habitat area for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife than exists in all the National Parks within the lower 48 states. This is the concept behind Homegrown National Park, an initiative launched by Dr. Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware. We can and should restore biodiversity one yard at a time because we need highly productive ecosystems to survive.

According to Tallamy, “Our National Parks, no matter how grand in scale are too small and separated from one another to preserve species to the levels needed.” He encourages us to extend national parks to our yards and communities by restoring habitat in the areas where we live, work, and play. Tallamy says, “In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty.” This way of thinking resulted in vast monocultures of grass accompanied by excessive use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, and water. In reality, our landscapes need to “support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.” The program’s goal is the creation of 20 million acres of native plantings in the U.S., which is equivalent to removing 1/2 of the green lawns on private property in this country.

A simple way to begin transitioning a lawn space is to introduce native ground covers. There are several beautiful options that will work well in our area of Florida. First, stop treating the lawn with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and scale back irrigation. Next, identify an area of lawn and remove a few square feet of grass. In its place, plant one or more plugs or pots of native groundcover. When ready, repeat the process in another area of lawn. Each week, remove a larger ring of grass from around the newly planted areas. Move at a pace that fits your schedule and budget. Some native groundcovers can be mowed or trimmed, and others remain at a perfect height without requiring such maintenance. Over time, the yard will transition from an area demanding expensive and time-consuming management to a native habitat that attracts butterflies, native bees, and birds, while requiring little to no water use, no fertilization, no pesticide or herbicide application, and trimming only every few months, all while maintaining aesthetic similarity to a conventional lawn.

Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) is an evergreen ground cover appropriate for areas receiving full sun to part shade. It can be used beachside in areas that receive some salt wind, but not direct salt spray. Its small white and purple flowers provide many species of butterflies with nectar and the plant is the larval host for the common buckeye, phaon crescent, and white peacock butterflies.  Twinflower (Dyschoriste humistrata) is another evergreen groundcover. It forms mats of bright green leaves with small purple flowers and is best in areas of the landscape that receive some shade for a few hours of the day. It too is a host for the common buckeye butterfly, and a nectar source for bees and butterflies. I like to mix twinflower with sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), a groundcover with feathery green foliage and bright pink flowers that reach up from the ground like lollipops. Bees love the flowers of sunshine mimosa. I try to mix this particular groundcover with others because its foliage regresses during the colder months and it also forms thick runners that can be a tripping hazard if left exposed. For shady garden areas, try creeping sage (Salvia misella) with its fragrant foliage and delicate purple flowers that provide nectar for pollinators. It is also the larval host of the fulvous hairstreak butterfly. In colder parts of its range, creeping sage may defoliate in winter, remaining evergreen in warmer areas. Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) is a good choice for estuarine or oceanfront locations because it is tolerant of salt wind and spray, and even regular tidal inundation. To increase diversity, color, and dimension, intersperse a few native perennials or reseeding annuals in the newly planted areas, such as rain lily, Carolina petunia, and spiderwort. These plants will also provide additional nectar sources for pollinators.

Once you’ve transformed half your lawn into a habitat for wildlife, simply by trading conventional grass for these native groundcovers, be sure to register your site on homegrownnationalpark.com to become part of the movement to transform 20 million acres of our yards into essential habitat to support biodiversity and ecological function. Planting native groundcovers is a simple, meaningful change that will have a significantly positive ecological benefit while also bringing us the joy of seeing colorful butterflies and bees in our home landscapes.

 Katie Tripp, Ph.D., is the owner of Natural Beauty Native Florida Landscapes, LLC. She created her business to educate Floridians about the importance of utilizing native plants and to help residents create wildlife habitat. Tripp is an active member of the Pawpaw chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and a member of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries. Connect with her at 727-504-4740 or [email protected]