As the blooms of spring burst forth and the local flora and foliage begin to grow again, we’re wondering how to cut down on maintenance in our yards and gardens and keep the landscape a little more sustainable. So we turned to Brett Kuzoian of Castle Bay Design + Studio for some advice on going native.
Tell us about Castle Bay + Design Studio. What does a landscape architect do?
In short, we are a professional planning and landscape architecture firm located here in St. Augustine and primarily provide design consulting services for public parks and their amenities, campuses, resorts, city gateway entrances, waterfronts, streetscapes and everything in between including residential design. Our profession is somewhat unique in the idea that professional design consulting firms like ours across the state, even across the nation and world, utilize our diverse skill set in many different ways to either specialize in a design niche they do best, offer services relative to the demands of their immediate area or simply spread their expertise out across the entire spectrum of the industry. Castle Bay would fall into the latter category and are currently producing everything from master plans for a 5,000 acre residential community inclusive of hiking and kayak trails, dedicated biking paths, the drafting of community-wide design standards related to theming and community character to city gateway/welcome signage, several public parks, down to residential hardscape and landscape design. So we cast a fairly wide net so to speak when it comes to our capability and the projects we choose to pursue. And most importantly, without sounding too cliché, we have loved every minute of it and many of our clients have genuinely become true friends, which has been amazing and quite rewarding both professionally and personally.
What is native landscaping?
I believe the most widely accepted definition of Florida native plants are those that were present when the first European explorers arrived about 500 years ago. Florida is actually fairly unique when it comes to native plants. Our fauna includes one of the largest assortments of naturally occurring plant species in North America and I believe over 4,000 plant varieties have been recorded within the state with the majority of those considered “native”. Beyond being cataloged as a native, there are likely another 25,000 or so other species that have been labeled as an “adapted species”, meaning while they did not occur here prior to European settlement they have subsequently arrived and established themselves perpetually since. Some may even become considered native in the future. Being said, native landscaping is essentially, you guessed it!, the strategic and planned use of those plant species which have occurred naturally in Florida for hundreds of years and by way of that long-term adaptation have become self-reliant in their continued existence here.
What are the benefits of an all-native landscape? Any downsides?
The guiding principle of native landscape design is the conservation and sustainability of our soil and water resources as well as setting the stage for a low (not “no”) maintenance landscape versus one that is intensive on non-native, exotic plantings which bring with them increased demands of supplemental watering, fertilization, pruning, cold protection, etc., etc…. A well thought out, organized and properly installed native landscape will ultimately yield quite a few benefits beyond aesthetics. Inversely proportionate to the issues mentioned with exotic landscapes, a native landscape will require little, if any, supplemental watering, can get by with zero fertilization and requires no cold protection. In a macro sense, by doing this you can also take great satisfaction that you are doing right by the environment and doing your part to proactively ensure our water and soil conversation efforts are being looked after and sustained for the future of our state and the generations that will live here beyond us.
What plants would you incorporate into an all-native St. Augustine landscape?
My recommendations would vary based on several factors including the existing tree coverage, existing plants, location and size of the property and/or planting area. For example, I live in the historic Fullerwood neighborhood of St. Augustine which is largely dominated by live oak canopy and turf yards. My recommendations within this neighborhood, and others like it, would include strategic placement of Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) trees where practical while removing turf and exotics and replacing with medium/low growing natives like coontie, coral bean, fire bush, anise and muhly grass, amongst others. I think the occasional small/medium native tree would be a nice accent as well and could be something like the eastern redbud, fringe tree, Chickasaw plum, river birch (have one in my front yard), loblolly bay and dogwood. On the other hand, if your microclimate was more coastal, either on an east-facing salt marsh or in the Vilano area for example, my recommendations would be quite different as they would include only those plantings that are well suited for more exposure to salt spray and poor soil quality. All considered, the actual selection and placement of native plants should be well thought out and planned suited to your specific condition. Like anything else, the better the plan, the better the results.
Is it a difficult type of landscape to implement for the first time?
Not at all. Going all-native takes a lot of the more technical and deeper understanding of plant biology, water requirements, fertilization and other factors out of the equation for the most part. So getting started with an all-native landscape is one of the easier landscape efforts to grasp and perform with some success. Being said, as I mentioned before, your level of success will come down to your game plan. While native, planting a live oak 100’ from the ocean will likely lead to poor results as will attempting to plant dune plantings in your shaded, dense organic soil 10 miles inland. But generally speaking, a typical homeowner with an average amount of experience working in their yard can accomplish something quite successful.
Is there a type of yard that native landscape just won’t work on?
There are always outliers but again, generally speaking, almost any yard can yield positive results from a well planned native landscape.
How about upkeep? Will it be difficult to maintain?
No matter the planting scheme, style or aesthetic you will always need to do something. Just as you vacuum, clean windows and change light bulbs on the interior of your home you will need to be prepared to allocate a little time to your native landscape. Being said, the time required to maintain and keep a native landscape looking sharp is considerably less than would be required otherwise with a non-native, exotically planted landscape. With a native landscape, a homeowner should be prepared for the occasional light pruning of trees and shrubbery once a year and possibly some re-mulching where it has become thin.
If someone is trying to keep their yard low-maintenance, what methods of landscaping would you suggest?
By far, the reduction of turf, St. Augustine grass for example, is a great start to reducing your maintenance burden. You can do this by expanding and/or creating landscape beds and mulched areas to consume more of a certain area occupied by turf. Removing turf reduces your water requirements via irrigation, lowers any fertilization you may be providing and also removes some of the burden of mowing, trimming, edging and blowing that is required weekly during the growing months. Beyond the maintenance there are real financial savings to realize as well. You can subtract the electric requirements of running an irrigation pump for hours multiple times per week, the gas and oil required to operate the gas-powered lawn equipment as well as the equipment costs themselves, expensive fertilizers, etc., etc… This domino effect of reduced maintenance and financial savings could be realized simply by reducing or removing turf and is the single largest impact one can take on their path to a low-maintenance landscape.
What advice would you give to a homeowner considering native landscaping?
I would say start small, think outside the box of what you have been told an attractive landscape is supposed to look like and, most importantly, keep it fun and interesting. In designer speak, “form follows function” is the central principle associated with 20th century modernist architecture and implies that the form art takes should be based upon its intent and purpose. Similar to architecture your landscape should be no different. A landscape can be both aesthetically pleasing but also interactive and purposeful through its inherent design and species choices. For example, I was recently invited up to the beautiful Congaree & Penn farm in Jacksonville and spent a couple hours speaking with their farm tour director, Michelle Maylon, about that very thing. They have planted hundreds of Mayhaw trees on their farm and market that production as the largest Mayhaw farm in the world. We discussed how most people haven’t even heard of a Mayhaw but it’s a small, native fruit tree that homeowners could have growing right on their own property instead of that ligustrum tree that was planted when they constructed the house and has remained since. And it doesn’t stop with Mayhaws, red mulberries are also underutilized as an edible native tree and if you have a linear stretch of yard that receives some sun you can grow your own native muscadine grapes. Point being, you can create a very attractive landscape while strategically placing certain plantings that provide a secondary benefit. When I describe a scenario to a residential client about how they can venture into their future landscape and load a basket full of native fruits, sometimes that approach is a great way to get people thinking creatively and started in the right direction with a native landscape and is usually where I start my conversations on the subject.