Landscaping in The Florida Keys

Published in the Florida Keys newspaper, “The Keynoter”


As things start to move again in the housing market, there’s a problem all you new homebuyers are going to run into: Houses generally come with yards.  And yards, in the Keys, are a little trickier than they are in, say, Peoria.  In Peoria, you don’t generally have to confront plants that look like they might shout “FEED ME!” at you some summer morning, or EPA officers telling you that the endangered species eating your flowers are entitled to do so, or yards that have been marinated in saltwater and motor oil for some years.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, your yard will quickly overrun you.

The obvious and best solution is some professional help.   But what if you spent all your money on the house?  What should you do – and not do – to keep things in shape until you can call in the pros?  Here’s five suggestions for Maintaining A Yard When You Don’t Know How To Maintain A Yard.

1)      Don’t just make it up as you go.  Kirk “The YardMan” Maconaughey says, “Make sure to select plants for their proper location.  Do they require direct sun?  Shade?  Are they drought tolerant?   Salt water tolerant?  Do they require heavy watering?  What is their adult height?  How fast do they grow?   Do not place plants to close to one another, (or) too close to the house.  Remember they will grow, and you do not want to transplant them later.”

2)     A word about wildlife: There’re some unusual things down here, and some unusual rules regarding them.  Key Deer are the most prominent and least scary example.  A bit of research has turned up the following mildly confusing conclusion:  It is illegal to feed the deer on purpose, but if they choose to eat the things you plant, it is also illegal to do much to stop them.

Also, working in your new yard in the Keys, you are more likely to get bitten by something poisonous than you are tending an herb garden on a condo balcony in Atlantic City.  Wear good gloves and shoes, don’t reach into places you can’t see into, and don’t assume that whatever it was that bit you and fled was nothing to worry about.

3)      Some things are better off left to professionals, no matter what.   You can pull your own weeds and trim your own hedges, but please let somebody with proper equipment, licenses, and insurance take out trees.   Greg Scott, Senior Arborist for Dot Palm in Marathon, adds a caution for those of you with coconut palms, “If you can’t reach the nuts you want to take down with a pole saw from the ground, leave it to the professionals.  Don’t tear your ACL or break your hip falling off a stepladder.”

4)     Remember, things do grow back, but they can take a long time.   If you cut down that big shade tree, you won’t be able to put it back when your air conditioning bill doubles.   After you rip out that privacy hedge is not the time to discover that your 350-pound neighbor likes to cut the grass in his bikini underpants.  It’s a lot easier to rip it out than put it back.

And, as with tattoos, so with slow-growing plants: Before you do something irreversible, be sure you want it that way.  Greg Scott points out that in Key West and many parts of Monroe County “improper pruning is considered tree abuse, and you can be fined.  If you try to read Key West’s tree ordinance online, you’ll wind up calling a professional to help you understand the tree ordinance.  And all of Monroe County requires a permit to fully cut down a tree.”

5)      Select appropriate species.   Says the YardMan, “The Keys are in the subtropics, and most probably the plants you had at home will not work here.”  No matter how fond you are of your prizewinning roses from your garden in Wisconsin, in Florida’s August sun, they might burst straight into flame.   Research native species and Floridian flora idiosyncrasies at before you get started.

Happy gardening.