Transforming Landscapes to sustain us!

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
February 2018

Many thanks to those 362 folks who attended our terrific January 2018 conference: “Transforming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future.” While one of the aims of the conference was to teach residents to enhance our yards with native plants for butterflies and birds, most importantly we learned that we must do this for human and wildlife survival, and to help the Lagoon, our county’s economic driver.  The 2014 book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Pulitzer Prize author Elizabeth Kolbert, stated that Earth is undergoing a modern, human-caused extinction event resulting from the collapse of terrestrial and marine ecosystems; a great number of plant and animal species, including ourselves, are in serious jeopardy.

We are paving over nature, increasing impervious surfaces that allow waters and the chemicals we use in fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to runoff into our rivers and Lagoon, poisoning them and allowing algae and bacteria to grow.

Global warming from increased carbon dioxide and methane outputs are warming and acidifying our oceans, increasing forest fires, dust storms, and mudslides while melting freshwater glaciers are causing oceans to rise. Widespread use of chemicals like glyphosate and chlorpyrifos are killing plants and our insects that form the basis of our food chain. The loss of those species translates into fewer birds and animals, resulting in a massive decline in the Earth’s biodiversity. Humans may be next if we ignore what is happening.

Dr. Edie Widder, CEO and senior scientist at Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), gave us examples of the deterioration of Indian River Lagoon, explaining that we are shifting to an algae-dominated ecosystem. The hypotoxins in the system are strongly associated with human disease such as Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Our Keynote Speaker, Prof Doug Tallamy, from the University of Delaware showed how replacing native plants with alien landscaping species, especially in the suburban gardens, affects the food on which our wildlife increasingly depends. Most of our native plant-eaters (insects and other animals) are not able to eat alien plants.  The essence of his presentation was:

  • Insects are beautiful and critical to our survival, as they pollinate 80% of all plants, including our crops.
    • Native plants are needed to attract insects.
  • Insects specialize on only a few types of plants and thus we need to have much diversity of native plants to get diversity of insects needed to feed different species of birds.
  • 90% of the insects that eat plants can develop and reproduce only on the plants with which they co-evolved.
  • Every native species is an essential part of the food web.
  • Even seed-eating birds depend upon insects, especially caterpillars, to feed their chicks.
  • Insects are quickly disappearing since we are losing our native plants.
  • Lawns plus 3,300 species of introduced plants are replacing our native plants.
  • Our landscapes must support life, sequester carbon, clean and manage water, enrich soil, & support pollinators.
  • 432 species, 37%, of North American Birds are at risk of extinction.
  • Think of native plants in your yard as bird feeders.
  • There is hope if we can reduce our lawns by planting natives.

Steve Turnipseed, President of the Villages Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS), gave examples from the Villages of the transformation of turfgrass lawns into attractive native-plant landscapes in just two years. Their high-end development now accepts these changes so homeowners are transforming their yards at the rate of one yard per month. 

Tod Winston | Photo: Bob Montanaro

Change to native landscapes was also supported by Tod Winston, Program Manager from National Audubon Society, who showed that by entering your 5-digit zip code to use Audubon’s native plant database ( or National Wildlife Federation’s database (, you can explore the best plants for birds in your area, as well as find local resources and links to more information.  Dr. Juanita N. Baker showed photos of amazing Florida birds, illustrating why we should, and how we can attract birds to our yards so we can save them. 

Taryn Evans, President of Marion County FNPS Chapter, talked about creating a sustainable backyard to attract Native Pollinators.  Her family’s business, Creative Garden Structures, garden store and one-acre demonstration garden teaches homeowners to create backyard habitats with native plants. Additional information for your landscape can be found at

Robin Pelensky, a local Landscape Architect, Surlaterre Landscape Architecture, showed us how to plant a rain garden in our yards to minimize runoff to our Lagoon.  She called them Lagoon Gardens explaining that if we all planted them, we’d help save our lagoon. 

Nickie Munroe, Indian River County Environmental Horticulture Agent, and Jacob E Ensor, a local attorney at Ross Earle Bonan & Ensor, talked about Florida Friendly Landscaping and Homeowners Associations (HOA) rules, which limit landscaping options for residents. With 630 HOA’s in Indian River County, most of our residents live in a HOA, which can be very restrictive on the types of plants and trees one can plant in their yard.  Educating HOA members and managers is essential so that boards will encourage Native Plant Landscapes. 

Unfortunately, there are no strictly native-plant nurseries in Indian River County.  Let’s all change that by requesting native plants from our local nurseries so they can see the demand and begin to carry native plants.  The nearest two nurseries are Butterfly Flowers, (321) 626-73866, in South Brevard which bring native plants on Saturdays to the Oceanside Farmer’s Market at Humiston Park, and Maple Street Natives, (321) 729-6857, in West Melbourne. Both nurseries consult, design, and install plantings.  Plant Native plants! Increase the demand and they will come.

Our next big task is to get everyone in our community to start planting natives in their gardens. Folks, let’s act locally while thinking about restoring our natural landscapes one home, one garden, at a time.

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