Lawns into Gardens

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker. Ph.D.
October 2016

Did you know Florida has over 3000 different species of plants? When Ponce de Leon discovered the beautiful Flora here, he named it Florida! Looking at most yards, one does not see a trace of this old Florida Flora. Yet many of the flowers are delicate, varied in color, and have interesting leaf patterns that could make yards more attractive. Executive Director of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (, Cammie Donaldson, invited Juanita and I to visit native home landscapes in The Villages, a premier active 157,000-person adult retirement community in central Florida covering three counties- Sumter, Lake, and Marion. The Villages is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S and a mecca for golfers as almost everyone has a golf course in their backyard.  There are 12 clubhouses in five square miles.

In 2015, a few homeowners formed a new chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, and now The Villages Chapter has over 100 members.  Ten homes have converted their landscape from lawns to native gardens and were available for our tour.  See what they are doing at In just three of the ten homeowners’ landscapes, I wrote down about 100 different species of natives out of approximately 2,700 plus Florida native plants found in our woods, swamps, groves, fields, and roadsides.  Some of the owners did the conversion themselves. Others hired professionals with native plant experience to come in and remove the sod, design the landscape, and install the native plants for about $10,000.  Some natives, i.e. Walter’s viburnum were allowed to grow into a tree and some were trimmed into a shrub.  Both are beautiful.  Chapter President Steve Turnipseed produced a YouTube video, of conversion from lawn to garden in one year and has added many new natives since the video was made.

Cammie, also Executive Director of the Native Plant Horticulture Foundation (, was very excited about the possibilities of this high end community eventually encouraging many homeowners wanting to make their yards more interesting, save on water, fertilizers and eliminate the need to constantly manicure grass lawns. She pointed out to us that large numbers of butterflies and bees were buzzing around the native plants and gardens we visited, but when we passed a village’s entrance where imported flowering plants and shrubs sat like a northern garden, we saw no butterflies or pollinators anywhere. Our native butterflies and pollinators do not recognize nor are drawn by the nectar and leaves of these foreign plants. The native gardens are certainly more sustainable as well. They do not use any poisons, little or no fertilizers, and less water.

It was refreshing to see a development with homeowner associations allowing homes to have no lawns, interesting flowers, and attractive designs! Once planted with native plants interspersed with pathways, mulched beds, sometimes a small pool, some have a statute, others have decorative walkways, and sculptures. Some have put in various shaped mounds to artistically set off the plants and the flat pathways. The Villages appeared to be flexible in what they allow to be planted by the homeowner as long as it met a decorative, neat standard.  This is quite different from many other homeowner associations who do not seem to know the environmental and aesthetic value of native plants nor allow even non-native flowers to replace their sod.  Larry Reisman, Press Journal Community Editor, last month reported that the Bradford Place homeowners association landscapers yanked out marigolds, impatiens, begonias, and more-including staghorn ferns.”  The owner of the home has since put his home on the market.  His realtor is quoted, saying, “You had the nicest landscaped property…with amazing curb appeal. [Sadly, now] We certainly need to lower your asking price.”  It is critical to our environment that homeowners associations lighten up and allow natives and gardens to be installed replacing sod.

If you want to plant a lawn or you like the looks of grass lawns, remember, it is a huge waste of water and both petrochemical and human energy and all your runoff pollutes our canals, ditches, rivers and lagoon.  Unbelievable that a homeowner’s plants or garden can be removed by the association’s lawn care folks, let alone be fined for one’s garden producing flowers, fruits and vegetables.

To some including me, grass is a weed!  What is wrong in having a homeowner planting some vegetables in their front or backyard?  Lawns are our biggest crop!  Three times bigger than corn!  50,000 square miles!  What would happen if we planted only 1% in a garden?

If you want to plant a native garden, we have many enthusiasts in our county who have planted their gardens partially and fully with native plants, most are members of the Eugenia Chapter of the Native Plant Society that have tours to these yards too.  Join them at

Pelican Island Audubon is also trying to change this:

  1. We have started a new project to make the “landscape” just around our Audubon House into a model homeowner landscape using natives to be artistic and decorative that will be attractive to homeowners.  This includes a butterfly and pollinator garden.  Ken Gonyo, Robin Pelensky (our landscape architect), and volunteers started this make over. They removed sod and planted a number of native plants.  We can use your help in this project by volunteering on Wednesday and Sunday mornings from 8:30 to 11 am. 
  2. For the last three years, we’ve gotten kids involved in planting 90 4×4 ft. square gardens in 13 elementary schools to raise vegetables.
  3. National Audubon Society has a new program “Want to bring more birds to your home?”  By growing bird-friendly plants, you give birds the food and shelter they need. Bring more birds to your yard and find the best plants for the birds in your area:  

If you would like to volunteer for either project, please call our office at 772-567-3520.

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