Landscaping for Specific Sites
[A shady pine covered landscape]
Florida's unique features can make gardening a challenge for new residents and first-time gardeners.
Design with Florida in Mind
Sandy soil, limestone bedrock, dense shade, wetlands, numerous pests, and four different growing zones—Florida is a biologically rich state with many different kinds of ecosystems, some found nowhere else in the United States.
Coral reefs, dunes, saltwater marshes, and mangroves are all found along the coast. Further inland, some Floridians live near wetlands like freshwater marshes, which typically have an open expanse of grasses and standing water. Freshwater swamps are wooded, with trees such as cypress, sweet gum, or oak. These wetlands act as natural water filters. Hardwood hammocks are thick stands of trees, and scrubs contain mostly pine, oaks, and saw palmetto. Pinelands are the most common plant communities in Florida.
[Ariel view of Atlantic coastal community]
Aerial view of Atlantic Ocean coast beach houses between Cocoa Beach and New Smyrna Beach. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Photo: David LaHart
More than three-quarters of Florida's population lives in coastal counties. Gardening in these areas requires a little extra planning to deal with the winds, inescapable salt, and sandy high-pH soils.
The most important thing is to choose salt-tolerant plants, especially if you live within an eighth of a mile of the coast. These include vines such as bougainvillea, groundcovers like sea oats, and shrubs like wax myrtle.
Be sure to water your plants until they're established, and as needed after that. Protect native plants already growing in your landscape, as they're naturally adapted to coastal conditions.
You can create wind screens with fences, sturdy shrubs, or groups of trees. This will help protect your landscape plants from high winds, and create your personal oasis.
Plants for Your Coast Landscape
One of Florida's many charms is that no matter where you are, there's likely to be a beach nearby. But this confluence of salty soil and sea spray does affect what plants will—and won't—succeed. If you live close to the ocean, be sure to choose salt-tolerant plants for your landscape.
Plants installed within about one-eighth of a mile of saltwater coasts should be at least somewhat salt-tolerant. Salt-tolerant plants can have varying degrees of tolerance, so choose and place them carefully.
Keep in mind that many native plants already growing on coastal lands are highly salt-tolerant, and could be incorporated into your landscape.
When selecting plants for your coastal site, look at more than just salt tolerance. Cold weather might impact tropical plantings in North and Central Florida, and light and soil are always important factors to consider.
[Wildfire] Wildfire is a risk in Florida anytime, but dry periods make fires even more likely, especially in wooded or rural areas. It's not hard to make your landscape less vulnerable to fire. Firewise landscaping incorporates fire safety into landscape design to help ensure your home is safe even when a fire comes close.
Creating an area of "defensible space" is one of the most important actions you can take to lessen the risk of wildfire to your home. Defensible space is a special area between natural areas (like woodlands) and your home. This space breaks up the continuity of plants, giving the house a better chance of surviving if fire comes near.
Your defensible space should extend from your house outward at least 30 feet, and it should be filled with plants that are low in flammability (firewise plants). These plants can help reduce the likelihood that a fire will jump from wooded areas to your house.
Lightweight fuels, such as leaves and small branches, generally ignite easily and burn rapidly. Plants with thick, succulent leaves—such as cacti, aloe, and century plants—usually maintain high leaf moisture content and take longer to ignite.
Small, needle-like leaves, like those on pines and cedars, are usually more flammable than wide, flat leaves, such as those on maples, oaks, and hickories. (The broad fronds of palms are exceptions to this rule, as they tend to have a relatively high flammability.)
Plant Placement and Maintenance
Most wildfires spread horizontally through materials that lie on or are within a few feet of the ground. But shrubs, vines, and small trees can act as ladders that carry flames from the ground to treetops. To prevent this from happening should a wildfire approach your house, prune the lower branches of trees up to 10 feet off the ground.
Keep tall trees away from the home and use short shrubs in foundation plantings. Groups of plantings should be separated by nonflammable areas, such as gravel, stepping stone pathways, or a well-maintained and healthy lawn. If you use mulch, try to limit it to the area of landscape outside of the defensible space, as mulches can be flammable.
To keep your landscape firewise, keep up with routine maintenance: don't delay necessary pruning and irrigation, and remove dead leaves, branches, and plants from your property.
For a firewise landscape, remember: vegetation that's overgrown, continuous, and close to a home may improve wildlife habitat or conserve energy, but it also increases the home's vulnerability to wildfire.
Outdoor Fire Safety
In crisp fall weather, an outdoor fire can add warmth and atmosphere to cookouts and other outdoor gatherings. Sitting around a crackling fire with friends and neighbors can be fun, but there are some things you should consider to keep your backyard fire safe. Build your fire in a permanent or temporary brick or stone fireplace, freestanding patio hearth, fire pit, or chiminea. Place it on the patio or in an area clear of grass and brush. Try one of the many traditional cookout foods, like hot dogs, s'mores, or corn on the cob.
[campfire] Hardwoods—like oak, hickory, and ash—make better firewood than soft woods like pine. They produce more heat, burn longer, and generate less smoke and soot. "Season" (dry) your wood properly; it will ignite better, burn hotter, and produce less creosote and tar than wet wood. Freshly cut firewood should dry for a full year for best results. Cut firewood to the desired burning length and split it into pieces less than eight inches across before stacking it to dry.
More Fire Pit Safety Tips
Check local codes on backyard burning, as well as fire conditions in your area.
Avoid burning a fire in an enclosed area. The area needs proper ventilation because the fumes can be harmful. Don't use a fire pit in a screened area.
Build your fire at least 10 feet away from houses and branches of overhanging trees, and choose areas that are clean and clutter-free, away from brush and grass.
Pay attention to the direction of the wind and effect on the flame; use gloves when handling wood to burn.
Have water or fire extinguishers nearby; you can also use dry sand.
Keep animals and children away from the fire pit.
Don't use lighter fluid to start a fire.
Be sure your fire is completely extinguished when you are finished.
Keep the local fire department number on hand in case of emergency.
Gardening with Limited Space
Depending on where you live you may find yourself with limited traditional gardening space. Luckily, plants are quite adaptable and will grow in containers, on roof tops, and even up walls quite happily. Whether you have a small side yard or no yard space at all, there are gardening options out there for you.
[A Florida-Friendly side yard garden]
A Florida-Friendly side yard garden. Photo: ©Gail Hansen UF/IFAS.
Side Yard Gardens
Depending on how your house sits on the property, you may be faced with a narrow side yard. While some people see side yards as a challenge, they can be a great design opportunity.
A linear feature like a dry creek bed or a trellised archway at one end will draw the eye through the space and make it feel larger. Add crushed gravel or mulch to create a natural and low-maintenance path. Choose tall but narrow plants that maintain their form like 'Sky Pencil' holly or clumping bamboo to create effective screens along the property line.
If your side yard gets good sun, you could even install a raised bed and create a kitchen garden, or create an herb garden using a series of containers.
If you love gardening but live in a condominium or apartment, there are a few ways to use your balcony for gardening.
First, think about how much sun you get. If you have a north-facing balcony, you'll need to choose shade-tolerant plants. If you're blessed with plenty of sun, you can grow herbs, flowers, vegetables, and even dwarf fruit trees!
Any type of planter will work, though many balcony gardeners prefer self-watering containers. Don't be afraid to think beyond your floor space and start using the walls. Add a wall bracket to hold a hanging basket, or choose a vine that can be trained up a trellis. Or try one of the new vertical garden systems that allow you to grow plants on the wall, almost like a painting!
Vertical gardens, also called living walls, have become popular in cities where gardening space is limited. They can cover an entire wall of a building, or can be smaller, artful accents for indoor or outdoor rooms.
Living walls are generally used for ornamental plants, and are a great way to have a lush garden in a limited space. They all use some type of structure to support plants and distribute water and nutrients, and many include a barrier to prevent moisture from harming walls.
Even though these gardens look easy, they do require some maintenance. Several affordable and easy-to-use kits are available to help get you started with this new gardening trend.
Roof gardens—growing plants or turf directly on a building's roof—has been popular in Europe and Japan for decades. Also known as a "green roof," roof gardens greatly reduce storm water run-off, help to reduce cooling costs in the summer, and filter pollution from rain water.
On hot summer days, the surface temperature of a green roof can be cooler than the air temperature. Cities and government agencies are even providing financial incentives to encourage homeowners to "green-up" their roofs.
Solutions for Your Life: Green Roofs for Urban Areas
Groundcovers for Shade
While we may be gardening in the Sunshine State, many gardeners still face the challenge of growing in the shade. Beautiful trees in the landscape may provide respite from the heat, but their cooling shade also makes it hard for some plants to grow. Fear not though dear gardener, there is a right plant for almost every place.
Groundcovers are an important part of any landscape. Statement plants can be eye-catching, but a good groundcover provides the perfect backdrop for your other plants to shine. Groundcovers also help increase soil moisture, while preventing weeds and soil erosion. Generally, people think of lawngrass as the go-to groundcover—but most varieties of lawngrass won’t thrive in shade.
In areas of your yard that have consistent shade, you’re better off planting a groundcover that’s easy to grow in low-light conditions. Just remember that unlike turf, groundcovers won’t tolerate foot traffic, so you’ll need to plan for walkways or paths.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following plants can be grown throughout Florida in partial to even dense shade, depending on the specific plant.
[green leaves of algerian ivy]
With bold leaves that provide a dark green mat of foliage, Algerian ivy is a great groundcover for gardening in the shade throughout Florida. While tolerant of full sun conditions, Algerian ivy does best in partial to full-shade areas. The ‘Variegata’ cultivar has grey-green or blue-green leaves with green-flecked, cream-colored margins; ‘Canary Cream’ has cream-colored margins on green leaves. Algerian ivy is less aggressive than its cousin, English ivy, which was at one time a recommended groundcover—until its habit of climbing up trees was noticed.
Asiatic jasmine is a fast-spreading, densely growing groundcover that will thrive in sun or shade. This plant requires very little maintenance; just occasional trimming of edges is needed to keep it looking neat. Asiatic jasmine is actually easiest to control when it is a bit neglected, as too much water, sun, or fertilizer can turn it aggressive and unruly. It's also salt tolerant, making it a great groundcover for coastal areas.
Cast Iron Plant
If you’re looking for something with a little more dimension for a shady spot, the cast iron plant may be for you. This evergreen perennial has glossy green leaves that grow upright reaching about 1 to 2 feet tall. There are a number of variegated cultivars to choose from as well. Cast iron plant is ideal for adding a little tropical flair to North Florida, as it's also cold hardy.
Mondo grass is an evergreen that is actually a member of the lily family. This grass has blade-like slender leaves that curve back toward the ground, giving this plant the appearance of turfgrass.
Swamp Fern. Photo: Stephen Brown, UF/IFAS©
Swamp fern is a Florida native that is particularly well-suited for areas that are shaded and moist. This upright fern can actually grow pretty tall for a groundcover, reaching 4 feet in height. For a little extra visual interest the new growth on this plant is coppery pink which then becomes dark green with age.
While shady areas can be difficult to grow in, there are quite a few options out there—much more than listed here. Don’t let the shade get you down! After all, a problem spot in your garden is really just an opportunity to try something new.
Planning Your Landscape to Conserve Water
Water conservation is especially on people’s minds during dry periods, but it’s important all the time. One way you can save water is by selecting plants that suit your site. This principle is called "right plant, right place." By selecting plants whose needs match the conditions of your landscape, you’ll save yourself money and effort.
Putting the right plant in the right place involves more than placing a sun-loving plant in a sunny spot or a shade-lover in a shady spot. You also need to consider other site conditions such as soil pH and plant needs such as water.
[soap aloe with stalk of red flowers]
Once established, soap aloe is highly drought tolerant.
These plants are adapted to regions with frequent drought, or to soils with low water-holding capacity. Once established, they can be water-wise additions to a landscape—but not if they’re planted in low-lying areas where water tends to pool. In these conditions, they can quickly succumb to root diseases and other pest problems.
Drought-tolerant plants tend to thrive in elevated dry or windy spots, exposed areas, along unshaded southern and western walls of buildings, and other hot, dry places. Save the low spots, water-adjacent areas, and places with poor drainage for plants that love moist conditions.
It's common to see landscapes with woody plants (trees, shrubs, and certain groundcovers) planted randomly across an expanse of lawn. While this may be normal, it's not ideal. The truth is that turfgrass and woody ornamentals have different water (and other) needs, so it's easy to waste water in a landscape like this.
You can conserve water and save money by grouping plants according to their water needs. If you have a zoned irrigation system, you'll be able to water different areas with different amounts. Limit the number of plants with high water needs, placing them for maximum visual impact.
For sunny, recreational areas, turfgrass is an excellent choice. But most grass types don't grow well in dense shade or on steep slopes. Instead of planting grass in these spots, try groundcovers. There are a wide variety of options, many of which can also offer a green carpet look.
A newly planted landscape often looks somewhat sparser than anticipated. Be patient—plants are usually planted when they're young and smaller than their ultimate full-grown size. It's a common but costly mistake to overplant the landscape to make it seem fuller right away. The problem is that when plants mature, they'll be too close together, and will end up competing for water and sunlight. The landscape will look overcrowded, and frequent pruning will be required. Make sure you know the mature size of the plants you purchase, and give them the space they need.
Fast-growing plants may sound appealing, but these kinds of plants require frequent pruning and usually more water than slower-growing plants. Slow-growing plants may take longer to fill in your landscape, but they can ultimately be less work.
Know Your Zone
How well your plants perform depends in large part on your choosing the right plant for your climate and location. On its Plant Hardiness Zone Map, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated ten climate zones for the continental U.S. to guide us in our gardening efforts. The three zones in Florida are numbers eight through ten. Taking into account which zone you live in can make all the difference.
Weeds and Fertilizer
Both weeds and fertilizer add to water needs in your landscape—weeds because they drink up water your plants would otherwise get, and fertilizer because it causes your plants to grow more quickly, which can lead to a greater need for water.
Fertilize only when necessary. In very dry times hold off of fertilizing your lawn and landscape plants. Keep your beds weed-free by hand-pulling them and adding 2 to 3 inches of mulch, which also helps soil retain moisture.
It's never too late to save water. Try these methods today!
G. Knox, Landscape Design for Water Conservation (ENH72), Environmental Horticulture Department (rev. 10/2003).
Right Plant, Right Place—Florida Yards & Neighborhoods
Planting Around Windows
[window in front of green home with low shrubs below window and a small tree nearby with a bird feeder]
This Florida-Friendly landscape has a casual, naturalistic feel, but still manages to keep the window clear, with low-growing shrubs underneath and a small tree nearby with bird feeders to attract wildlife.
Every home and its garden are different, but there are some general guidelines in landscape design. These principles can be especially helpful when designing your plantings around and close to windows, which can be a challenge for some gardeners.We have a few tips to help you achieve your aesthetic goals when planting near a window.
Framing the windows with plants gives you an unobstructed view out of the window. Using evergreen dwarf or low-growing plants will keep views clean and aesthetically pleasing, while maintaining the security of your home.
As with any landscape planning, be aware of the mature size your plants will reach and choose ones that are not going to get too tall or spread too much for your area. Use plants with a medium mature height and compact growth habits; this will give you an unobstructed view outside.
Select evergreen and long-flowering plants to ensure that the view out of your window is always colorful and visually appealing.
Select plants that have a neat growth habit and plant them far enough away from the house that you still have room to walk between your home and the plants. This is to ensure access to the house and windows for cleaning and hanging storm shutters. Planting your shrubs outside the eave line also ensures that they can receive rain water.
Consider safety. Avoid plants that have stiff or thorny leaves or stems, in case you ever need to exit the window in an emergency. Alternatively, some people choose spiky plants for under a window to deter intruders or to keep adolescent children from sneaking out. Speaking of intruders, be sure that your plants will not form a thick screen that someone could hide behind.
If you are looking for plants to purposely screen your window, either for privacy or to block a view, select ones with loose foliage and flexible branches. This will allow you to still see past the plants and out your window, while providing you with privacy from anyone who might be passing by your house.
When planting remember to layer plants by height, with the tallest-growing plants closest to the house and lower-growing plants and groundcovers planted farther away from the house.
In addition to ornamental plants and shrubs, consider a small tree can be planted near a window to provide shade and possibly even a home for wildlife.
Planting Trees for Energy Savings
[Weeping podocarpus tree]
Weeping podocarpus, Podocarpus gracilior is an evergreen tree best suited for central and south Florida. ©UF/Edward Gilman.
Did you know that your landscape can affect the temperatures inside your home? With careful planning and design, you can "go green" and create an energy-saving landscape.
Planting the right trees in the right place can help you save energy in your home year-round. Trees can help keep your home cool in the summer by both providing shade and cooling the air around them. In colder months, trees can provide protection from winter winds, helping reduce the cost and amount of energy needed to heat your home. Deciduous trees on the south, east, and west sides of your home will provide cooling shade in the summer and warmth from the sun when they lose their leaves in the winter.
When deciding where to plant trees for shade, take a look around your home. Determine which windows and walls receive the most sunlight. Your priority should be to provide shade for east and west facing areas, as these walls will receive about 50 percent more sunlight during the warm months than north and south facing walls.
Plant trees as close to your home as you can while still providing room for them to grow to their full height and for air circulation. A tree planted ten feet from a wall will shade that area of your home four times longer than a tree planted twenty feet from the wall. But keep in mind the mature size of the tree. Small or medium trees—those with mature sizes up to 30 feet—are ideal. Trees that get more than thirty feet tall should be planted farther from the house, to prevent limbs from overhanging your roof and creating a safety hazard during hurricanes and other storms.
If you find yourself with too little space to plant a tree, use vines and shrubs to provide shade. Trellised vines will shade walls and windows while taking up much less space than trees or even shrubs. Evergreen vines like Confederate jasmine will provide year-round shade and visual interest to east and west facing walls, while deciduous vines like muscadine allow summer shade and winter sunshine.
And it's not just walls and windows that will benefit from shade. Take a look at the whole yard; are there any areas that you would use more often if they were just a little cooler? By adding some shade, you may be able to turn your landscape into something that you and your guests can use more comfortably during the summer heat. You can also help your air conditioner run more efficiently by keeping the condensing unit shaded (again, allow for sufficient airflow).
For more information on how you can select and place plants in your landscape to lessen your home cooling and heating costs, contact your local Extension office.
Some medium-sized, deciduous shade trees on Gardening Solutions
[A row of redbud trees]
A row of redbud trees.
Some medium-sized, evergreen shade trees on Gardening Solutions
New Evergreen Magnolias
Landscaping in the Shade
[A shady stairway]
Shade provides welcome relief from Florida's intense sun and heat, but gardening in shade can be challenging. Many landscape plants demand extended periods of full sun to produce well.
Shade shifts daily, seasonally, and over time as trees grow. Carefully analyzing where and when shade occurs in your landscape is an important first step.
Also, recognizing types of shade is important as some kinds of shade are suitable for growing plants while other types are very problematic. For example, many shade-tolerant plants prefer the following conditions:
Four or fewer hours of full sun, preferably morning or evening
Dappled shade all day
High, shifting shade (pine shade)
Examples of difficult shade include the following areas:
Dense and dark (no sun)
In the shadow of buildings
Dominated by tree roots
Very wet or dry
Sometimes difficult shade can be improved by lifting or thinning the tree canopy or large shrubs so more sun or indirect light can penetrate. Keep in mind that there are right and (very) wrong ways to prune trees. Rely on a professional, such as an ISA Certified Arborist, to do the job.
Sometimes the best solution for difficult shade is to convert it to an outdoor garden room enhanced by seating, garden art, mulch, hardscape, colorful containers, a water feature, a birdbath, or other focal points.
We've listed some plants that do well in shady landscape, but these lists are not exhaustive. Every plant has cultural needs besides light. Make sure to select plants that are suited to your particular landscape.
A few other considerations when growing plants in shade include the following:
Areas under tree canopy tend to be warmer, frost-free spots more amenable to cold-tender plants.
Digging among the roots of trees and shrubs is difficult, so use smaller plants that don’t need a large planting hole. Water them frequently until they’re established.
Fertilizer cannot compensate for inadequate light. It is not a substitute for photosynthesis.
Shaded lawns should be mowed higher and receive less fertilizer, water, and traffic.
For color in shady areas, use plants that produce light-colored flowers. Dark flowers don't show up as well.
Your local county Extension office can verify the reliability of a plant in your county.
Perennials for the Shade
Some shade loving plants also love the sun, so if your shade shifts, look for plants that adapt, like flax lily. Many shady areas are also dry, so use drought tolerant shade lovers like devil's backbone. Perennials with white or brightly colored flowers or variegated leaves, such as jewels of opar, will really stand out. Other shade-loving perennials include ferns, crossandra, and gingers, but many more are available.
Also on Gardening Solutions
Groundcovers for Shade
Most varieties of lawngrass won’t thrive in shade, so you’re better off planting a groundcover that’s easy to grow in low-light conditions. Several kinds of liriope offer thin grass-like leaves and attractive flowers. Asiatic jasmine is a fast-spreading, densely growing groundcover that will thrive in sun or shade. Remember that unlike turf, groundcovers won’t tolerate foot traffic, so you’ll need to plan for walkways or paths. Read our article, Groundcovers for Shade, for more options.
Super Drought-Tolerant Plants
[Jerusalem-thorn tree is very drought-tolerant]
Native to desert areas in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, Jerusalem thorn tree looks delicate, but is actually very drought-tolerant. Photo: Dr. Edward Gilman, UF.
With water restrictions throughout communities in Florida, many home gardeners are looking for super drought-tolerant plants that are also good-looking.
Native saw palmetto is perfect for the Florida-friendly yard, as it can survive through the driest of times. This palm can range from 3 to 15 feet in height and will thrive in sun or shade.
The acacia is a small or medium-sized evergreen tree with feathery foliage and yellow, showy flowers. The Jerusalem thorn tree has airy foliage and a low, spreading form. It boasts a profusion of small, yellow blooms that have a slight fragrance.
Rosemary’s a drought-tolerant herb that gives the landscape a Mediterranean feel as well as a delicious scent. Many ornamental grasses are drought tolerant as well.