Over the years, as we have learned more about conservation and environmental stewardship, our practices have changed and new codes have been enforced.

When I moved here in 1979. I was 20 years old. My first job was working for a landscape nursery. I learned plant propagation, landscape management, irrigation and general landscape design concepts. After three years I decided I had learned all I needed to know, I mean, what 23-year-old does NOT think they know everything? I was ready to go out on my own.

I started a lawn maintenance business and it did okay but it was so redundant and basically just boring. I had a passion for plants and wanted to branch out into a more landscape-focused business. I knew in my heart that I needed to really learn as much as I could about the industry. I wanted to be able to talk to customers about plant issues and advise them, but more importantly, I really needed to be sure that the information I was giving was less opinion and more fact based.

LIFE CHANGING MOVE

Already having strong feelings about environmental issues, I wanted to be able to back it up with science. Short of dropping everything and going back to school, I wasn’t sure just how to proceed. Until, I found the Charlotte County Master Gardener Program!

I signed up and it was life changing. I learned basic insect identification, insect biology (and thus the proper way to manage them), general plant pathology and tips for everything imaginable in the garden, including nutritional needs and how to diagnose a myriad of diseases and deficiencies. But the most important thing this program taught me was to continue seeking knowledge. It made me hungry for information on the latest plant introductions, the most recent exotic insect sightings and the newest palm diseases affecting our area. I followed up by taking classes and getting voluntary certifications in every aspect of the green industry. The learning never stops because around here, things never stop changing.

WHAT WAS OK, NOW INVASIVE

In those early years carrotwood, Bischofia and Indian rosewood trees were staples in pretty much every residential neighborhood and they all served a specific purpose in the landscape. Carrotwood trees grew pretty fast so homeowners didn’t have to wait 15 years for a mature shade tree. Same with the Bischofia tree. What a bonus! Bischofia has an interesting bark and is such a good tree for climbing with a thick trunk and lots of sturdy vertical branches. I loved this tree for so many years. Indian Rosewood was on the smaller side with delicate heart shaped leaves, deciduous, it gave great shade in the summer but let light in during the winter months. It was a great tree when you had limited space. Little did we know at the time that all of these trees would become so invasive in Southwest Florida. They may not be as bad as Brazilian pepper (the most invasive tree on the planet), but bad enough that if you have any of these trees still living anywhere in your neighborhood there are surely seedlings growing amongst your landscape plants. You don’t notice them until they become small trees and then it’s difficult to get them out. All of these trees are now on the category I list of invasive trees and have been for a long time. Don’t want them, don’t like them, don’t need them! We know now that there are better choices.

LANDSCAPE ORDINANCES

We learn. What seems like a good idea now, can turn out to be a bad idea in the future. Thankfully, we learn. We have learned to pay attention. Environmentalists, nature groups, university scientists, concerned citizens and finally state and local governments began paying attention, but it took a while. Eventually municipalities in our area began to adopt landscape ordinances. I think they were originally designed as a guideline for newcomers and a mandate for larger developments. Commercial projects had pretty strict landscape requirements, and still do. Slowly, new residential construction became subject to landscape codes developed expressly for the purpose of maintaining a dwindling tree canopy as well as encouraging the use of native plants and trees, not just for aesthetics, but for the benefit of wildlife and the overall preservation of the ecology of Florida as a whole. I cannot stress enough how important this is given the rampant development taking place in what were once wild areas of Florida.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a “tree hugger.” I love and appreciate all forms of nature. Flora and fauna, wildlife and water so I’m a huge fan of landscape codes. They ensure that new trees are planted to replace trees that are destroyed by development of all kinds. But every once in a while I have to wonder if maybe the current, inflexible landscape requirements might need another look. I’m not convinced that they are addressing the realities that exist on some building sites. And not just in our town, but in communities all around Southwest Florida. I can only write about what I know, and since Punta Gorda is where I live, I’ll use it as an example of the future problems that I see.

The city of Punta Gorda, like a lot of other small Southwest Florida communities is beginning to see an increase in the number of residents who are choosing to downsize. Abandon the excess, embrace simplicity. Homeowners are building small homes on very small lots. Personally, I think they’re cute and I applaud the concept. The building industry is beginning to recognize this trend. It’s not new, but it’s new to us and I think we’re all running to catch up.

The current landscape codes are the same, whether your lot is 12,000 square feet or 5,000 square feet. City code requires one tree for every 4,000 square feet (or portion thereof) of the buildable lot. That’s three trees for a 12,000-square-foot lot and two trees for a 5,000-square-foot lot. Here’s where I see a potential issue. On the smaller lots, where the house has been built right up to all the necessary set backs, there is little room for one tree, much less two. In designing a landscape plan for a new home, trees are always my first consideration. After calculating the area that tree will need as it grows to maturity, finding the right spot is crucial. Trying to cram two shade trees into a space that one tree would easily fill seems like a waste. The likelihood of root intrusion into foundations and sidewalks doubles as the two trees battle for limited anchor space. There has to be a way to allow some flexibility on these smaller than normal lots. We’ve got to adjust.

NEED TO ADJUST

There have been adjustments made in some of the landscape codes to address issues that are unique to the downtown area. One of these is the requirement for ground covers. City code says that maximum impervious surface area shall not exceed 60%, however, in the historic district that code has been relaxed to allow property owners to completely cover their yards with living ground covers other than turf, which is a good thing.

But that relaxed code also allows for stone as a complete ground cover. This one bothers me. The main purpose of turf or other living ground cover is to filter runoff and control erosion. Yards consisting entirely of stone do neither of these. In the downtown area, as close to the water as we are, filtering runoff is crucial. An argument could be made that stone yards require no fertilizing and that’s true, but the plants and trees that are planted (as required) within those stone yards will be fertilized, probably on a regular basis, with nothing to filter that runoff. Fertilizer combined with heavy rains create nitrogen rich runoff which then finds its way into storm drains and out into our harbor with nothing to slow it down or filter out the pollutants. Not to mention the heat that builds up in stone yards (like we need more heat in our world). In addition, the plastic used beneath the stone prevents water from percolating down into our aquifer creating even greater amounts of rainwater runoff. It seems to me, with this particular code change, we’re going backward in our quest to become good environmental stewards.

Becky Copenhaver is a Certified Master Gardener, certified horticulture professional and former certified landscape designer. She is the owner of Becky’s Garden Shoppe at 6450 Elliott St. in Punta Gorda. She can be reached at 941-621-8551 or beckysgardenshoppe@comcast.net

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