Landscaping for South Florida Wildlife in Practice

It’s been about a year since I relocated from my proven wildlife-friendly yard in Key Biscayne to a new home in Coconut Grove. I embraced the challenge of incorporating as many of the recommendations included in my Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens book as possible, an opportunity to test their validity afresh. So it’s time for a progress report…

To the uninitiated, the new yard would seem sufficiently attractive and seemingly wildlife-friendly. I had acquaintances who gawked when I confessed my desire to tear it all out and start anew. But the fact of the matter was that the only animals in the yard were non-native anoles (lizards), squirrels, a pair of cardinals and a solitary catbird. This seemed a rather meager showing in a part of town famous for its lush vegetation and thick tree canopy. Why weren’t there blue jays? Where were the mockingbirds? Woodpeckers? Screech owls? In fact the only bird calls were non-native parakeets that squawked overhead and peacocks that strutted down the street as if it were their own; unlike the native birds, these species did not need my assistance. In truth, the landscaping at my new home looked like a jungle, but the plants were Home Depot specials with virtually no wildlife value. In South Florida, as discussed in my book, food for birds and other wildlife all year comes entirely from a garden’s plants and this selection of plants did not fill that role.

Entry walkway – before

Entry Walkway – after

The entrance walkway and central plantings of the yard, were perfect examples. Serene, lush and even forest-like in parts, these areas were filled with plants that I refer to as tropical trash plants. Nearly any resort in the world with semi-tropical climate seems to display the same limited kinds of plants, the eau-de-tropics to create the expected ambiance. This limited selection is perfect green-washing for a jungle-like appearance, but it generally does not support  native wildlife that should accompany a proper tropical forest because these plants do not provide the nectar, fruit and seeds that native animals eat. I yanked, pulled and heaped trash plants for days, finally clearing space for life-sustaining natives.

An additional problem with the plantings in my new yard was that roots were covered in gravel to deter any potential “weeds”. Such “weeds”, often native volunteers transported by birds, actually benefit indigenous wildlife. And even more importantly, this gravel was covering the ground and natural leaf litter, both important to wildlife. As I’ve pointed out in my book, bare ground and the leaves that accumulate upon it harbor insects that birds and other wildlife prey upon. It took many a wheelbarrow load to clear the gravel and reinstate this micro-habitat, one of many that should be included in a wildlife-friendly yard.

Street-side Plantings – before

Street-side Plantings – after

Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens stresses that diversity is key to ecological landscaping, and diversity was missing in the original yard. A portion of the entry walkway was forested with a tenacious bamboo patch and a dense monoculture of non-native palms lined the street. The goal in a wildlife yard is to provide an array of foods throughout the year, requiring a combination of many different types of plants to supply sources in every season. The only diversity in the palm hedge out front was an orange jessamine bush, an Asian species listed on the official Florida invasive species list; a plant with the potential to even further diminish diversity over time and adversely effect nearby natural areas. It literally took heavy machinery to remove both the bamboo and palm tangles, but it was worth the effort. Where the bamboo once dominated is now a vibrant butterfly garden and by the street I now have the start of a native hammock (forest). Paradise tree, gumbo limbo and thatch palms serve as the central foundation for my canopy (pre-existing live oak and strangler fig cover the edges), a couple of slash pines and a native fig are prospering and the understory is composed of cocoplum, wild coffee, beauty berry, stoppers, Florida privet, indigoberry, locustberry, wild dilly and an assortment of bird and butterfly-friendly species native to the area. Within these few months, there are already hiding places, fruit, pollen, sap, and seeds. Insects have arrived and birds are bickering over the larger trees and shrubs.

Garden Plot – during

Garden Plot – after

In addition to a diversity of native plants, I’ve created diverse habitats. I’ve opened access to bare ground, as well as establishing both hammock and butterfly-friendly plantings. The walkway is lined in hammock on one side (right in the image), but provides more diversity on the other side with a “grove” of fruit trees. Tropical guavas, lychee, carambola and calamondin are planted; strawberries and citrus trees (moved from Key Biscayne) are in pots, providing food for both me and the wildlife. Those three pots of strawberries have produced more and larger fruit than any other place I’ve tried to grow strawberries! Also providing human and wildlife food, a vegetable garden by the house replaced more non-native plants drowned in gravel. Keeping in theme with my rock-ridge environment, I outlined planting beds with limestone rock and literally transported the compost and garden soil from my old house to begin my new garden. I’m growing hot peppers, seminole squash, radishes, green beans, herbs (the tall plant to the left of the image is my lemon grass), eggplant, lettuce and cherry tomatoes that actually volunteered from the transported soil. I just harvested the biggest radishes I’ve seen in my life!

Central Planting – before

Central Planting – after

The central planting, formerly an ecological desert, is now a water feature that provides another diverse habitat. I’ve taken advantage of the natural topography from a historic solution hole by digging out for a waterfall surrounded by native wetland plants – pond apple, wax myrtle, cypress and any number of ferns on land; in the water itself grow lizard tail, alligator flag, sawgrass and cattails. Within hours of completion, dragonflies hovered above and frog calls filled the night sky. It was the perfect example of “build it and they will come”. I’ve stocked baby turtles of our native species, though only the snapping turtle and Florida softshell make themselves known.

Pool Area – before

Pool Area – after

Wildlife gardens should be as naturalistic as possible, but much of the yard was covered by wooden deck. Decks are great for human activity, particularly around a swimming pool where chlorinated water and wet feet may result in a mud pit rather than lawn, but they’re not particularly naturalistic. Decks provide no food and little to no shelter for wildlife. The existing deck was excessively large, including a bridge across a third of the pool (lower right-hand corner of image) that while initially charming rendered portions of both the pool and yard useless. In addition, it turned out that this deck was rotting below its fresh coat of seller-applied paint. The rot required fixing and that was a good excuse to reduce deck size. But that left a complex landscaping problem. The unfinished edges of the pool were now a couple of feet above ground, there was a significant drop from the bottom of steps to the newly exposed substrate, and from there to the remnant solution hole where the waterfall was under construction. I considered hiring a landscape architect for the task, but was appalled by one’s blatant refusal to incorporate native plants into the project. Even after I emphasized the importance of following the guidelines in my book, I was told that natives were only good for adding a bit of texture here and there. Needless to say, I didn’t hire that guy.

Pool Landscaping – before

Pool Landscaping – after

After months of deliberations on how to deal with the area around the pool, I had a limestone retaining wall built with steps up to the pool level. This was filled with soil and topped with flagging stone to provide a solid, even surface for bare feet and lawn chairs. My goal was to balance human activity needs with wildlife habitat, so I wanted a semi-permeable surface that allowed for plant growth. I spaced the limestone pavers widely and spread grass and wildflower seeds. The seeds didn’t initially take in the coarse and nutrient-poor construction sand needed for flagstone installation, but I keep adding seeds and have planted plugs of St. Augustine grass, frogfruit and other pilfered lawn-sized “weeds” more deeply to reach the soil below. It’s slowly greening up. The pictures show the difference between my October plantings and current status in April. Once the diverse lawn in the cracks is established, I hope insects and birds will be able to utilize the area as if it were meadow.

The final touch has been hanging bird houses. As emphasized in the book, South Florida native birds do not use bird boxes the way temperate species do; most won’t use bird boxes at all. There are, however, a few that will. Purple martins are dependent upon human-provided homes and my martin house is placed prominently in the front yard. Purple martins need space; and, once the original bamboo thicket was removed, that piece of the yard proved most distant from tall trees and buildings. Martins have yet to arrive despite my daily loud-speaker rendition of morning calls, but this can take years. My goal this year (and maybe for the next several) is simply to have a martin scout take notice of the newly available accommodations. I’ve also placed several screech owl and woodpecker boxes in the trees, as our native nest cavity species are always in need of new holes.

Red-bellied Woodpecker exploring provided bird house.

Check out “Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens” for more information

Is my yard teaming with wildlife? Not yet, but I see progress. My first butterfly appeared a few weeks after the butterfly garden was installed and now a variety of species flit through my plantings on a daily basis. Judging by my devoured milkweed, there are also many caterpillars, and I have seen one hatched cocoon. There was a painful stretch of zero birds during the construction phase, but spring migration yielded some warblers. A pair of cardinals and a pair of blue jays have taken up residence. A mockingbird stalks the front plantings and I’ve heard an eastern screech-owl in the area. Just last week, I saw a red-bellied woodpecker checking out one of the bird boxes. I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before my first nest hatches in the new yard!

Learn more about creating a wildlife oasis in your own yard in my book, Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens.

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Behind the Shot: Pygmy Sloth

My heart sank at our boatman’s words, “I can’t get you any closer than that!”

The backlit blob thirty-something feet above, mostly hidden by vegetation, was hardly the photograph I wanted of a Pygmy Sloth. Two plane rides and a 50-mile boat ride to see a dark lump atop a tree? It was hardly satisfying. This wasn’t even enough of a view to claim I’d seen one of Isla Escudo de Varaguas’ endemic miniature three-toed sloths, and getting a picture seemed hopeless. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity if this was the best view I’d get. I lifted my lens.

Sebastián laughed, “No, not that one! Turn around.” 

Photographing a pygmy sloth off the bow of my boat in Isla Escudo de Varaguas, Panama.

Tucked in the crotch of a mangrove tree just off the bow of our boat, slumbered a Pygmy Sloth. Head nestled in the crook of its arm, it looked like no more than a bundle of fur. I watched, hoping this sleeping beauty would arouse to inspect the engine sounds mere feet from its “bed”. No luck. The slight rise and fall of coarse fur was the only sign that this was a living animal. I knew I was hoping beyond hope for a portrait given that sloths are famous for sleeping more than half the day, and remaining motionless is one of their best defenses. Still, my position was perfect if this sloth would just glance up for a moment…

“Get your camera ready,” Sebastián whispered. Then he whistled. 

As the sound pierced the air, the sloth raised its head. It wasn’t a quick movement, but certainly alert and intentional, probably even speedy by sloth standards. Gentle eyes laid upon me a moment, then the sloth turned its head in one direction and the other, fully scanning the horizon before returning to its nap position.

Again, Sebastián whistled. Again, the sloth raised its head and searched the area. I basked in its brief gaze, capturing the moment on film before it again returned its head to the pillow of its arm. Was it my imagination, or had the sloth been smiling?

I turned to Sebastián, “Why does that whistle get their attention?”

Sebastián grinned, “It’s their mating call.”

I guess it wasn’t my imagination, that was a real smile!

A truly smiling pygmy sloth.

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Memory Tree

Need a break from the Santa images, overplayed holiday jingles and frazzled crowds at the mall? My personal escape from the chaotic aspects of the Holidays is my Christmas tree. Over the years my tree has evolved from a potted palm with twinkly lights to a stately conifer draped in memories. My trees now are a veritable shrine to family, friends and happy memories – the truly important aspects of Christmas. Here are some of my favorite trip ornaments:

Yes, this is a key chain but who says key chains can’t be ornaments? This one displays Maasai beadwork and harks back to my college semester in Kenya. The night I spent packed into a windowless Maasai hut with calves, goats, squirming bugs and a smoky fire was truly a night to remember.

Maasai beadwork from Kenya.

My Maasai host family in Kenya.

This Hopi Red-tailed Hawk Katsina doll and the Navajo sand painted ornament beside are reminders of my summer whitewater rafting down the Colorado River, a body of water that has sustained these cultures and more throughout history. 

Red-tailed Hawk Katsina doll ornament.

Navajo sand painted ornament.

Whitewater rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

A second summer in the Grand Canyon for my rim-to-rim hike merited another ornament. I couldn’t resist this long-necked turtle both for love of the design and appropriateness of the symbol given how much my pack began to feel like a shell on my back!

Turtle ornament from the Grand Canyon.

Starting my rim-to-rim hike on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

It doesn’t take long in the Bahamas to recognize the cultural importance of the Queen Conch. It’s not an accident that this beautiful shell is a national symbol adorning their coat of arms. So, what better way to remember the pink sands of Harbor Island than an angel carved from a conch shell?

Angel carved from a Bahamian Queen Conch shell.

My dog shares fond beach memories of Harbor Island!

Gondolas, gothic cathedrals, and symphonies dueling in the city square; resisting Venice’s charm is futile. The ancient and the modern are creatively fused in this Renaissance town and Venetian glass, perfected in the 12th century, is an exquisite reminder. I purchased this beautiful example while strolling across the Rialto Bridge last fall.

Venetian glass ornament from Venice’s Rialto Bridge.

View of Venice from the Rialto Bridge.

It’s hard not to get penguin-obsessed while in the Antarctic. I confess to desperately wanting a pet penguin upon disembarking, but was forced to recognize the challenges of keeping a snow-loving bird in Miami’s tropical weather. Ah, well. My compromise was a set of woven penguins made by Argentine artisans, one for each of the penguin species I saw on my trip. This one is a Gentoo.

Woven Gentoo Penguin from Argentina.

Gentoo Penguins on a beach in the Falkland Islands.

This wooden parrot came atop a fruity sunset drink, but it certainly reminds me of the endemic Bonaire Parrot that nearly evaded me on that trip. I had actually given up on seeing one and was standing in the hotel lobby to check out when squawks lured me to the garden. Sure enough, I’d trekked all over the island and here, at the last possible moment, a flock of Bonaire Parrots showed up at my door step!

Wooden parrot decoration from atop a sunset drink in Bonaire.

Endemic Bonaire Parrot.

I did look for an Agami Heron ornament to commemorate my last trip to Costa Rica but alas, one was not to be found. This clay toucan in a stump was a good alternative though. It’s certainly not every trip that a Collared Aracari breaks into your room!

Pottery toucan ornament from Costa Rica.

Pair of Agami Herons at the Pacuare Reserve in Costa Rica.

Intruding Collared Aracari next to its entry point.

May you all have a memory-filled holiday season!

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