Wilma J. Holley, Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program Educator
Living in such an urban area, people often think that we don’t have much wildlife; but it is all around us. However, sometimes we have to look harder to find it. With proper landscape planning and improved maintenance practices, we can just walk out into our backyard and see an abundance of creatures. Naturally, I’m not talking about deer, and other large mammals, unless you live next to a preserve. There are a myriad of songbirds, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, beneficial insects and others. Florida is the third most diverse state in the nation with over 1200 species of animals. Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone try to attract all 1200 species, as that would be a futile endeavor, since some have very limited ranges in North or South Florida.
In less than one and a half years, I have attracted at least 15 butterfly species to my backyard as well as many songbirds, owls, snakes, frogs and toads and a host of beneficial and non-beneficial insects. In other words, the good the bad and the ugly but, oh, what entertaining observations I’ve made. Hint: if it is a harmful insect and is causing limited damage, you don’t need to kill it--watch it awhile--natural predators may devour it. It is not an overnight process but, enlarging plant beds, removing some grass and gradually changing out “old-fashioned” hedging materials with plants that provide nectar and fruit will be a step in the right direction. Obviously, in addition to food, wildlife must also have water, shelter and space to raise young. Different plants offer different qualities so a change-out would require more than one species.
Research is the key to any good landscaping plan. A good place to start is “A Guide to Florida-Friendly Landscaping Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Handbook” which can be downloaded at: http://pinellas.ifas.ufl.edu/fyn/fyn_publications.shtml or ordered from the Southwest Florida Water Management District at: http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/publications/type/all. It includes the “Florida -Friendly Plant List”. This list shows what part of the state a plant grows best in, if it’s a Florida native, height and spread, soil type, moisture needs, sun or shade requirements, salt tolerance and whether it attracts wildlife. Another great source of information is the University of Florida Wildlife Extension at: http://www.wec.ufl.edu/extension/landscaping.
Clearly everyone develops favorites. I love many of the native wildflowers and shrubs because over time wildlife has evolved with these plants. Also, it prevents the introduction of invasive exotics. My favorite of all shrubs, the biggest bang-for-the-buck, is Firebush Hamelia patens, a favorite of nectaring butterflies and hummingbirds. Later when the fruit ripens, the songbirds are attracted to it. Other great species are Beauty Berry Callicarpa americana, Rouge plant Rivina humilis, Simpson’s Stopper Myrcianthes fragrans, Florida Privet Forestiera segregata and many of the Hollies Ilex spp. Butterflies, besides the nectar plants, need plants for the larval stage. Caterpillars are eating machines, so you must remember you will have plant damage and you cannot use pesticides in a butterfly garden. Milkweed, Cassias, and Passionvine are good to start with as they each attract more than one butterfly species.
I could list plants and what they attract for days. That is not the point. You plant it and they will come. Not only does this help provide wildlife habitat in a state where it is dwindling at an alarming rate, it is the right and sustainable thing to do. We all want future generations to enjoy birds, butterflies, ladybugs, dragonflies, owls, hummingbirds, frogs, toads, snakes (I know not everyone wants snakes!), and countless other species. We can create corridors for the wildlife by starting in our yards and maybe convincing neighbors to make a few changes. Many of the plants that are attractive to wildlife are drought tolerant and require very little pruning, fertilizing or pesticides. With the possibility of saving time, money and helping the environment by keeping landscape chemicals out of the ground water, what better decision could you make? Just provide the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and space. You can attract all of the above and more depending on space and nearby water bodies. I did and what fun I’m having!