Planning Native Plant Projects - Selecting, Planting and Caring for Trees in Florida

The following excerpt is taken from the book “The art of maintaining a Florida native landscape” – Selecting, Planting and Caring for natives by Ginny Stilbolt. This book is good read for anyone looking to grow native plants in Florida. This books answers some of questions like what native plans to select for planting, tips of planting trees, best time to plant trees and the importance of planting right trees. If you are looking to plant native trees in Florida and are looking for tips and knowledge on tree trimming, tree pruning, tree removal and tree maintenance, this is good book to read

A good way to get started with native landscaping is to visit nearby parks or wild lands. Try to find areas that seem to emulate your soil type, geography, and landscape situation. Look for a mix of trees and shrubs similar to those growing in your neighborhood and maybe even on your own lot if it’s big enough. In some highly developed areas, this may not be easy to do, but try to find something as close in type and appearance as you can. Take photos or make sketches in your logbook and take note of how native or near-native landscapes arrange themselves. In the parks, the rangers may have done some editing of the natural landscapes; if possible, talk to them to see what they’ve planted or removed and why. One of the things you’ll notice is that Mother Nature does not create symmetrical landscapes-balanced, yes, but there are rarely straight lines or perfectly matched specimens. Depending on ecosystem, you may also notice that most plants in groupings include only one or two species, with only a smattering of other types.

   One of the more important objectives for your visits is to develop a list of likely trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that occur together and might be appropriate for your landscape. Learn as much as you can about their adult sizes and how long they take to reach maturity, what soils they like, how long they’ll live, and likely companion plants. While this book is not a landscape design book, per se, if you don’t prepare and plan well, maintaining your native landscape could become much more difficult to manage.

Develop an Overall Landscape Plan

If you can afford it, hire a landscape architect or a native garden designer to help with overall plan for natives. This step will save money in the long run because people trained in this field know the questions to ask, will be familiar with plants that work well for your area, will help determine whether you’ll have a drainage issue, and should create a scale drawing of your property. Note: Many landscape architects are not schooled in native plants, so be sure to choose one who has been successful with native plant installations.

   If you choose not to hire a professional to help with your plan, many online resources and books are available with information on how to begin. You will need a scale graphic of your property. If you don’t have a lot survey, you can search for an aerial view of your properly and capture the screen as a graphic, print it out, and use it to make your notes. In this fact stage of planning, determine which direction your house and other buildings are facing and mark north with an arrow on the map. This is important to know because some plants do better with only morning sun, while others are adapted to hot afternoon exposure. Knowing the orientation of the property means that you can predict the sun’s path in summer and winter and plan around it.

    Even though your goal may be to minimize any evidence of a gardener’s hand in your native landscape, it will not become a true wild land. Your overall plan and plant selections should be influenced by your study of regional natural landscape, but in an urban/suburban environment, it must also accommodate the human use of the land. When developing planting patterns, leave space for access paths for weeding, mulching, and manual irrigation during the establishment phase and during extended droughts. Also, leave enough space between buildings and plants-even small herbaceous plants should be at least 2 feet from buildings.

   Your selected plants should be the appropriate size and shape for the space available without a lot of trimming and hacking. For instance, it would be unwise to plant a live oak (Quercus virginiana) in a small front yard of only 20 by 40 feet. It may look fine for the first decade, but eventually it will outgrow that space and become a maintenance nightmare. Its roots will eventually destroy sidewalks, the driveway, and maybe even the foundation of the house. Its massive branches will overhang the street and the roof. It would need to be trimmed back on a regular basis and in the process would end up looking awful. A better choice for a small space would be a trio of river birches (Betula nigra) planted toward one end of the yard- not in the dead center of the space. Likewise, keep utilities in mind. Don’t plant trees under or near power lines or on top of underground infrastructure such as septic systems, water or gas mains, irrigation pipes, or buried cables. If you don’t know what’s under the ground in your landscape, call 811, or in Florida, go to the sunshine 811 website ( to request an evaluation. Other states have similar programs.

Even with all planning and consideration of the mature sizes of your plants, sometimes Mother Nature can surprise you wish an unexpected growth pattern that forces a change of plan. For instance, a sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) planted in a damp spot might send up a bunch of suckers that form a nice thicket, but if you hadn’t taken that into account in your plan, the plants next to the magnolia might be crowded out. Since the suckering will continue, it might be more sustainable to move the neighboring plants to other locations, even if they are fairly large by the time this happens. In another situation, may be a saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) planted itself near a path and will overtake that space if allowed to grow. The two most sustainable choices in this case are to either move the shrub before it grows too large, or reroute the path to a new location that will allow the palmetto to expand to its full and the path of remain in place, the need to cut back the sharp fronds to keep the path clear will be never ending-a maintenance nightmare.

   Before you start any actions, take photos from various vantage points, including from curbside and form the inside of your house. Repeat the photography sessions in various seasons so you have an unbiased record of your existing landscape. Then as you start work on various projects, take more detailed photos of the designated area before, during and after your work to record the process. When you look at the photos later, you may be able to catch awkward plant juxtapositions, or other trouble sports that might not be so obvious in person. See chapter 11 for tips on taking good landscape photos.

   You may find that sketching your landscape from various directions will allow you to slow down enough to determine the dominant features and see an overall design that you might not notice in a quickly snapped photo. Even if you don’t have “talent,” you can draw some ovals and curves to represent the plants and planting areas. Then keep notes of how your present landscape will be transformed through the planned stages to a more natural and native-rich habitat.


Dividing up Your Projects

Once you have a long-term landscape plan or vision, it’s often a good idea to develop your native landscape over several years-one project at a time. As you make progress in your plantings, the overall plan may change, but your initial vision will still guide the process.

            A multistage landscape installation has several advantages:

  • It keeps the projects small enough so it doesn’t overwhelm the available labor-not only for preparations and planting, but also for the initial irrigation and maintenance tasks needed to ensure the long-term survival of new plants.
  • It is easier to budget for plants and supplies for one section of the landscape or for only a couple of special projects.
  • Gradual change, in stages, doesn’t shock the community or the neighbors, and this is particularly important for people who live under the watchful eye of an HOA- a homeowner’s association.
  • You can plant the eventual tallest trees in the first stages to give them a head start, then come back a few years later to plant understory trees and shrubs when the initial trees are large enough to cast some shade, but still small enough that their root systems have not spread too widely.
  • Most important, by the third of fourth wave of plantings, you’ll have gained enough experience to adjust your methods.

You’ll have seen which ones have struggled. You’ll also be able to judge how well your soil preparation, irrigation, mulching, and weed eradications have worked. You can then modify the next stages of your landscaping accordingly.


What to Keep?

There may be some trees, shrubs, and perennials already growing on your property that you’ll wish to keep, either permanently or temporarily, as part of the naturalizations process. Deciding what to keep may be one of the most important parts of developing your overall landscape plan. Of course, you’ll remove exotic invasive plants, but native, native cultivars, or non-invasive exotics that are growing well in spots that fit into your plan could all be candidates for inclusion. Select the trees that are in the best shape and in the most logical places for your landscape plan, but when given a choice, give preference to native that are less common in your neighborhood to promote diversity.

    The big advantage of keeping existing trees and shrubs is that they are established and may already be providing some good shade and habitat value for your property’s ecosystem. Your landscape plan will need to accommodate them and their root systems.

Evaluating Existing Trees

It’s a good idea to have a certified arborist evaluate the trees you wish to keep and answer any questions you may have about them as well as the shrubs. Even if you hire a landscape architect to help with planning.


Tree Evaluation List

An experienced certified arborist will have a lot of information to offer as to what trees to keep and which ones to remove to move your landscape plan forward. It’s best to arrange for more than one evaluation, because these are important decisions and opinions may differ. You may have to pay for these assessments, so make the best use of your investment by being ready for these visits.

            Here is a list of suggested questions for the arborist:

  • What is the genus and species of each tree? Which trees are invasive, common, uncommon, or desirable in some way, including the right size for the space? Ask for a written list of trees species.
  • Ask for recommendations on which trees to keep and which to remove based on the following features:

Long-term ongoing care. In other words, will it require repeated pruning for crossed branches, water sprouts or suckers, will it need repeated heavy irrigation, or is it susceptible to a known disease?

Species diversity on your property and in the neighborhood;

Wildlife habitat value;

The ability to mingle with other trees and shrubs in its vicinity, including its sensitivity to new plantings within its drip line.

  • For trees that are close enough to damage buildings, driveways, or other heavily used areas if they fall, ask about their wind resistance factors:

Are the trunks sound?

Are the roots likely to disrupt the sidewalks, drives, septic tanks, or other underground infrastructure?

Do the canopies need to be lightened to improve wind resistance and what would be the pruning plan? Would topping be part of the trimming? (If the answer to this is yes, find another arborist.)

  • For unwanted trees located away from human infrastructure objects, ask about alternative methods for removal such as topping or girdling, which will save money and also leave snags for habitat.
  • Ask if you can keep the chips of your removed trees.
  • Off course you’ll ask about insurance, ask to see their certification papers, and ask about payment options if you hire them to work on your trees. It’s usually not a good idea to pay the total due up front.

Your landscape transformation, he or she will probably recommend and arborist to evaluate the trees. Takes good notes so you know what you have and what you can expect from them in the future. See box on page 19 for a list of suggested question.


      Keep in mind that removing major limbs will slow the growth of a tree and put stress on the tree’s vitality, so remove as few as possible to accomplish the reason for the trim. A trim should not be more than 20 percent of the tree, and when the arborist is finished, it should not be obvious that the tree has been pruned. Some types of trees develop crossing branches and water sprouts that weaken their structures and are improved by trimming, but others such as conifers rarely need corrective pruning. The trimming will increase the sunlight within their drip lines and make them more wind tolerant. In some cases, you may wish to limb-up (remove low branches) selected trees with low-growing branches to open up the area, but keep in mind that when you do this, it reduces the habitat value of that tree and may increase the maintenance chores-weeds may become a problem with the increased light and visibility.

    Topping and bat-racking are bad ideas for landscape trees and will shorten their life spans; unless the top has already been damaged in a storm, don’t top trees you wish to keep. Note: many fruit trees are pruned in this manner to keep the fruit within easy reach, but in most other case, just say no to topping.

   The vast majority of tree roots are located within the top foot of the soil, and the average root spread is four times farther from the trunk than the trips of the branches. In a natural environment the roots of neighboring trees and shrubs intermingle, but if you wish to plant some additional shrubs, understory trees, or other plants near your existing trees, you’ll be invading an established root zone. When planting understory plants, dig carefully and adjust the location of the planting holes as you run into large roots. Some trees are relatively tolerant of disturbance around their roots, while others, such as flowering dogwood (Corus Florida), won’t do well at all with digging and foot traffic on and around its root system-learn about tolerance of your saved trees and tread carefully within their drip lines and beyond. Do not add soil over roots to even out the terrain, and if you plan to use a mulch to keep down the weeds, keep it thin-2 or 3 inches maximum with no mulch touching the trunk. Use chunky mulch because roots need air in the soil around them.