Try Going Native to Save Money, Do Good, Protect Posterity and Have Fun
A Native Plant turf-free Landscape in The Villages, a large developed community in Central Florida. Photo provided by The Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN)
Our readers tell us that when thinking about environmental degradation, climate change, water pollution and other issues, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
“What can I do?” they ask.
For those looking for specific ideas, we’ll refer you to our recommendations in the Strategies pages:
Still overwhelmed? Well, let’s start right in your own yard with something you can do to save money, serve our posterity, help the environment, protect your health, and have fun.
You can find this recommendation listed as number 10 in National Strategies and number 14 in Florida Strategies:
“Encourage and provide incentives for the replacement of highly subsidized lawns and landscaping with native landscaping and xeriscaping (i.e. low water requirements).”
A Native Plant Landscape designed specifically to provide food and habitat for pollinators, birds and wildlife. Early fall Liatris blooming with palmetto, lovegrass and Muhly grass. Photo at his home by Allen Stewart
At first glance, some people might consider this a rather trivial item, compared to other issues such as large-scale land procurement through eminent domain or promotion of renewable energy. But the reality is that landscaping and maintaining residential, commercial, and public green spaces are major economic and environmental forces. This is particularly true of lawns—the open spaces we cover mostly with domesticated exotic grasses.
In a 2015 article entitled “The American Lawn is now the largest single ‘Crop’ in the U.S.”, The WorldPost (1) cited an analysis conducted by NASA (2) that revealed that
the area covered by lawns in the United States is about 65,000 square miles, or an area about the size of Texas.
Also noted in the article was the sizable amount of water needed to maintain a well-manicured lawn. Much of this water is from potable sources, either as delivered directly from water utilities or drawn from drinking water aquifers and surface waters. It is estimated that in some regions 50-75% of residential water consumption is dedicated to lawn irrigation.
IBISWorld in a March 2017 report (3) noted that the overall landscaping service industry in the U.S., which includes lawn mowing, pruning, planting, spraying, fertilization and professional Landscaping design services (but excludes plant nurseries), is an $83 billion/year industry which provides over 1,000,000 jobs.
In Florida alone, researchers with the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) reported $10.71 billion in total sales in 2015 for the environmental horticulture industry with nearly 110,000 jobs. This included nursery and greenhouse producers, landscape service firms, horticultural product retailers and wholesalers, and allied horticultural product manufacturers and service providers.
Of the total sales, $2.75 billion was associated with nurseries, with $4.43 billion attributable to landscaping services. The remainder was distributed among ancillary products (e.g. fertilizers, equipment, pesticides) and services. Of the nursery sales, about 15.5% were native plants. These numbers confirm the important economic contributions of the Landscaping Industry. So, what is the comparative status of the native plant component of this industry, and what is its future?
Two of the major advantages of native landscaping are reduced maintenance costs and water conservation. Let’s consider water conservation first. In drought stricken areas such as California and much of the western U.S., water use is a most critical issue, and measures are being implemented to encourage the replacement of manicured lawns with native plants which require less water—what are known as native xeriphytes. This has led to the development of the practice of xeriscaping, which has been encouraged in many states with large or expanding populations such as California and Arizona.
However, in places such as Florida and much of the southeastern United States, it might be thought that the abundance of water would make water conservation less critical. But this is not necessarily true. While Florida, with its 55” year annual rainfall, certainly has more access to freshwater than Southern California, this water is under constant threat from salt water intrusion and from pollution associated with an increasing population and the State’s sizable investment in conventional agriculture. Much of Florida’s water comes from huge underground stores associated with an expansive porous lime rock network known as the Floridan Aquifer. Initially this aquifer seemed to be inexhaustible, but with increasing demands and dramatic changes in water management that directed much of Florida’s waters to coastal saltwater, it became clear that the water within the Floridan Aquifer was vulnerable to excessive withdrawal. In recent years, it has been necessary for Florida’s Water Management Districts to ration water for lawn irrigation. (During Florida’s winter, which is its dry season, it is not difficult to determine who is not abiding by the rationing mandates, for they have green lawns.) To protect the aquifer, Florida, like California and other western states, has encouraged the use of native plants in landscaping, in recognition that native landscaping requires considerably less irrigation as compared to conventional turf.
But the appeal of native landscaping regarding water conservation is boosted by the money that can be saved related to maintenance. While lawns and exotic landscaping are presently popular, the truth is, they are comparatively expensive to maintain. The average monthly cost in Florida for contracted maintenance of a typical residential lawn is about $200/month—more if pest and weed control and fertilization are included. This cost does not account for the price of irrigation water if it is purchased from local utilities. It is not unusual that fees for utility supplied water used for lawn irrigation to fall between $50-100/month, and this can be even higher if sewer charges are tied into water consumption rates.
A residence landscaped in native vegetation will typically not require maintenance irrigation water, nor will it need to be mowed on a regular basis. Some maintenance may be necessary to manage excessive growth, seeding, mulching and removal of invasive species on a seasonal basis, but this can usually be done at considerably lower cost when compared to lawn maintenance. In summary, a typical homeowner could well realize a savings of $2,000-$4,000/year by converting their landscaping and lawn from conventional turf and exotic species, to native landscaping.
It would be reasonable to ask what the impact would be upon lawn maintenance service companies as the popularity of native plant landscaping increases? An economist would remind us that the money saved from lower lawn maintenance and water costs will be used in other segments of the economy, and those segments would respond to this increased demand with new jobs. In other word there might be an economic shift, but not a net loss. They would also tell us that a growing Native Plant Landscaping Industry will itself create new types of jobs related to design, installation, seeding, and maintenance of native landscaping—virtually all of which will be in the U.S. It is typically considered healthy to allow consumers to determine how their money is spent, recognizing they will eventually move towards lowest cost when all other factors are similar. Lower cost options usually align with improved economic stability.
Another issue associated with conventional landscaping maintenance is the introduction of pollutants associated with the application of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These are often not used with native landscaping, and if they are used they are applied at much lower rates. Of course, pesticides and herbicides can be toxic to humans, wildlife, insect pollinators and pets, and recent data indicating that herbicides such as glyphosate may be more toxic than initially reported (5). This is cause for concern for homeowner who use glyphosate (for example Round-Up) on a regular basis.
It is encouraging that in Florida, California and many other states, the use of native plants for landscaping is becoming more prevalent. In Florida, the efforts of organizations such as the Florida Native Plant Society or FNPS (www.fnps.org), the Florida Association of Native Nurseries or FANN (www.floridanativenurseries.org) and others have been successful in promoting and encouraging native landscaping. Similar nationwide efforts have been taken by groups such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org), the U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org).
Because of these efforts, it is not unusual for governmental entities to now include requirements for the use of native landscaping as part of their Development Codes or Comprehensive Plans. For example, the City of Sanibel on Florida’s Southwest Coast requires 70% native vegetation for landscaping of new developments (6). In addition, much of the landscaping along new state roadways in Florida is invested in native plants such as Muhly grass, sand cord grass, cabbage palms, sunshine mimosa, wildflowers and coontie, while just a few years ago exotics such as oleander and Bahia grass were more prevalent.
The Florida Department of Transportation (7) estimates that $500 million of ecosystem services is provided by all vegetation (Turf, trees, shrubs, herbaceous species, etc.) in the rights-of-way along state managed roads. Utilizing sustainable vegetation management practices more than doubles that total value. And incorporating Wildflower Areas (remnant native plant communities as well as wildflower plantings) nearly triples the value of these benefits. Implementing sustainable management practices will reduce total vegetation management costs nearly 30 percent . Ecosystem services include runoff prevention, carbon sequestration, pollination and other insect services, air quality, invasive species resistance, and aesthetics. This is another real example of how effective environmental management can impact the economy.
Sunshine Mimosa is an atractive native groundcove that does not require extensive mowing or irrigation while also providing support for pollinators. Photo at his home by Allen Stewart
Beyond cost savings, water conservation and reduction of pollution, there are other real advantages associated with native landscaping, some of which have already been mentioned as "ecosystem services". These include:
Establishing an interesting, diverse and often seasonally changing aesthetic
Enhanced habitat for song birds, wildlife and aquatic species
As with conventional landscaping, sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the principal greenhouse gas associated with global climate change
Attract, support and protect important pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths, other native pollinating insects, hummingbirds, and bats.
The Native Landscaping Industry supports protection, reclamation and sustenance of native ecosystems
Native landscaping can provide important ecotones and corridors for wildlife
Enhance soil quality through nitrogen fixation and other processes
Support predators (such as dragonflies and ant-lions) of biting and vector insects (e.g. mosquitoes).
Often provides more effective erosion control and runoff reduction than conventional landscaping
May provide more effective attenuation of wind and wave energy during storms (e.g. mangroves, spartina and buttonwood buffers along coastal waterfronts)
Well-designed systems can enhance property value
Help reduce the rate of fossil fuel consumption (e.g., less mowing and trimming equipment use)
May more effectively attenuate noise
May provide expanded shaded areas and temperature modulation
A growing industry with attendant creation of jobs
So, considering these advantages, why is native landscaping not more prevalent, particularly at the residential level (8)? I raised this question with Cammie Donaldson, Executive Director of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (FANN). She said that the Native Plant Industry in Florida is growing. And while she noted that the growth is slow, the rate of growth is consistent. She attributes much of the growing awareness and technical development to support from IFAS and other local and national agencies, as well as from the private sector involved with the industry. She wished the growth rate were higher, but recognized there were several factors impeding the industry, three which she identified as the most influential.
Demand for native plants remains insufficient to spur enough high-quality supply. This is the typical chicken-egg conundrum. Nurseries, particularly small nurseries, are understandably reluctant to invest in increasing stocks of plants for which there is little demand, and conversely, demand is suppressed because there is inadequate supply, which results in a negative feed-back loop. In addition, this low supply can result in price escalation, leaving many growers at a disadvantage when trying to compete with the large supply of conventional non-native plants.
Profitability is generally a problem for smaller native plant growers, and this leads to limited investment in marketing and other business improvements. This again is related to supply and demand and the limitations associated with smaller niche markets. Trade organizations such as FANN and supportive groups like FNPS provide considerable help in promotion and marketing, and as the industry grows marketing efforts should increase.
Knowledge of the plants and how to use them by amateur gardeners is limited. Also, the number of landscape professionals who can design and maintain attractive sustainable landscapes is limited. Such landscapes would help win popular support. The Florida Native Plant Society, FANN, Florida Wildflower Foundation, the Wildflower Seed Co-op and other organizations are all focused on education that helps create greater awareness of the plants and how they can be used.
While there may always be some industry resistance to competition that could reduce sales of mowing equipment and services, pesticides and herbicides, and established stocks of popular non-native plants, including turf grass, Ms. Donaldson feels that customer preference is the more important factor. Customers must ask for more native plants and less turf, less irrigation and healthier (less chemicals) and lower cost landscape services. Trends indicate this is happening. And as native species become more commodity type plants, they will become integrated within the inventory of many “conventional” nurseries. Ms. Donaldson gave as an example the native clump grass known as Muhly Grass, which is now common, if not ubiquitous in Florida landscapes.
In an IFAS report entitled “Native Plants—An Overview” (9) these factors offered by Ms. Donaldson are reiterated, and additional insight is provided related to the slower rate of growth of the Native Plant Landscaping Industry in Florida. For example, it was noted that the Wildflower Seed Industry in Florida is not fully developed, and cannot meet demand, which means pricing is high. Presumably this will be corrected with time as the Industry matures.
A more persistent challenge included in the IFAS report relates to peoples’ general resistance to change. Also, people often feel uncomfortable deviating from their neighbors’ established practices. This desire for conformity is evidenced by past tendencies for Homeowner Associations (HOA) to establish landscaping standards, even to the extent of listing the type of turf which can be used—something which persists in some cases. This resistance to change is often partnered with the perception that native landscaping cannot meet the desired aesthetics associated with conventional landscaping, which often includes an expansive lawn with isolated, manicured specimen trees and shrubs, and showy foliage and flowers. But it is now being demonstrated that there are many native species which can provide this desired aesthetic when the landscaping design and management program is directed by knowledgeable professionals.
Fortunately, newer developments are becoming more agreeable to a wider latitude regarding native landscaping, both to meet the growing popularity of nature-friendly spaces and in response to local ordinances to promote native landscaping. For example, Florida developments such as those on Amelia Island along the Atlantic Coast north of Jacksonville; The Villages just south of Ocala on Florida’s Central Ridge; and Babcock Ranch near Ft. Myers north of the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida are encouraging or requiring a percentage of landscaping be with native plants.
So, while there is certainly a desire for more rapid growth of the Native Landscaping Industry, a solid foothold has been secured in Florida and in many areas of the United States. There is reason to expect that the use of native plants in commercial and residential landscaping, roadside and highway planting, and for environmental reclamation will continue to increase, which accordingly will lower costs to the consumer, reduce the amount of water used for irrigation, decrease dependency upon inorganic fertilizers, and reduce the extent of pesticide and herbicide application, while establishing a new appended industry within the general landscaping services industry.
THE WORLDPOST (8/17/15) “The American Lawn is now the Largest Single Crop in the U.S.”
Lindsey, R. (11/8/05) “Looking for Lawns” https://earthobservatory.nasa.org/features/lawns/
IBISWorld (March 2017) “Landscaping Services in the US: Market Research Report. https://www.ibisworld.com
Hodges, A.W., H. Khachtryan, M. Ramani, C.D. Court (Nov 2016) “Economic Contributions of the Environmental Horticulture Industry in Florida 2015” University of Florida IFAS, Report to Florida Nursery, Growers, and Landscape Associates.
Gannon, C. (June 23, 2008) “Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-herbicide-p/
Harrison, G.L. (March 2014) “Economic Impact of Ecosystem Services Provided by Ecologically Sustainable Roadside Right-of-way Vegetation Management Practices” FDOT Contract BDK75-977-74 University of Florida IFAS, Wakulla Extension Service
Much of the native plants grown in Florida are used for habitat and right-of-way reclamation, such as wetlands, roadside easements and beach dunes. The need for reclamation has created niche markets for certain species such as sea oats, muhly grass, bull rush and pickerel weed.
Norcini, J.G. (Mar 2008) “Native Plants: An Overview” University of Florida, IFAS #ENH1045.