Conservation news

Creating habitats for suburban wildlife in Florida

Creating habitats for suburban wildlife in Florida

Creating habitats for suburban wildlife in Florida

Eco-friendly residential development
Christine Cusatis
Special contributor to
April 17, 2005

The image of a freshly mowed yard, a few symmetrically shaped shrubs and a single dogwood tree exemplifies a perfect Gainesville yard.

But don’t expect hospitality. For the chirping birds, delicate butterflies, charismatic squirrels and other creatures that should accompany this picture, there will be no trespassing.

As residential development in Gainesville roars on, habitat suitable for wildlife is disappearing. But programs such as Florida Yards & Neighborhoods are attempting to stop this tendency through a compromise that man and nature can co-exist.

“We ask homeowners to be responsible,” said Wendy Wilber, an environmental horticulture extension agent for the program. “We teach them how to properly maintain their yards and reduce pollution in a way that doesn’t fight the elements.”

Florida Yards & Neighborhoods, a program of the Florida Extension Service of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, offers information on plant choices, fertilizing, watering, pest problems and landscape design for an environmentally friendly yard.

Wilber holds workshop seminars where she demonstrates techniques to homeowners, while providing information and tips.

“Our key principle is to put the right plant in the right place,” she said. “Choose plants that are well-adapted to the environment.”

Mark Hostetler, an urban wildlife specialist and assistant professor at UF, suggests that the “right” plants are those native to Florida.

“Native plants provide better habitat for wildlife while requiring less water and generally no fertilizers or pesticides to maintain them,” he said.

This is one of the ways in which humans benefit from environmentally friendly landscaping, encouraging them to maintain such habits, Wilber said.

“There are very few people who have learned alternative fertilizing methods and less toxic methods of pest control that want to refuse them,” she said. “They want to embrace this lifestyle.”

Others don’t bother learning such methods, Wilber said.

“There is a group who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their lawn or pollution that occurs outside their home,” she said. “Some people are afraid of the outside in Florida because of the insects and the heat and just don’t go outside that much.”

In fact, some people have reasons for keeping wildlife out entirely.

“I grow certain foods in my yard that wildlife threaten,” said 59-year-old local, Michael Kemp, whose crops include plums, other fruits and edible flowers. “They can be a nuisance.”

But things may be changing. The neighborhood of Madera, located on Southwest Williston Road, features landscapes that are all certified by Florida Yards & Neighborhoods.

Properties in Madera, a “green community”, are energy efficient, have reduced turf, a high number of native plants and a large percent of natural landscaping, Wilber said.

They are also constructed to reduce the amount of land the house occupies, allowing more natural habitat and less pollution.

“If you’re going to build a 4,000-square-foot home, like a lot of people do, have it be a two-story house instead of a single-story,” she said.

Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Tips for Attracting Wildlife to Your Yard
  • Provide foods for wildlife in forms of plants with seeds, fruit, or flowers
  • Incorporate the sound of running water into your yard with a pond, creek, or birdbath
  • Don’t allow house cats to roam freely, as they endanger wildlife
  • Limit the amount of mowed lawn areas that do not provide shelter for wildlife
  • Reduce pesticide use as chemicals may poison mammals and birds
  • Attract butterflies with larval and nectar plants

For more information, see the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Web site at

Homes in Madera substitute turf with shrubs and fallen leaves. Studies are underway to determine if this reduces yard maintenance for the homeowner.

The homes are not cheap, but some people are willing to pay the price to live in a green community, Wilber said.

“I was shocked to learn that these homes are all sold, selling around $350,000 or so, with minimal to no lawns,” she said. “It’s almost a paradigm shift of what it means to be a beautiful lawn.”

Homes certified by Florida Yards & Neighborhoods may also set an example for homeowners living in more traditional neighborhoods, Wilber said.

“I think if it starts with a couple of homes choosing to go this route and still maintaining property values, there will be a response to that,” she said. “I hope.”

When Hostetler tried letting the grass grow wild in part of his lawn to provide natural habitat, he saw such a response from his neighbors.

Neighbors found the idea strange at first but eventually became interested, Hostetler said.

“After some of the neighbors saw our yard they started doing the same thing, because there was less yard work and time spent mowing,” he said. “It’s all about perspective.”

If there’s a time for change, it’s now. Each day, approximately 500-1,000 new residents march into Florida, Wilber said.

“Development is coming. It just has to be smarter,” she said. “People’s first exposure to Florida is Sea World and beautiful resorts, and that’s what they expect, but the environment can’t sustain it at this rate.”

– – –

Christine Cusatis is journalism student at the University of Florida. She is based in Gainesville, Florida.