Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's Xeriscape, Not Zero-Scape!

It happens all the time. We tell people we have NO grass in our landscape, and their response is astonishment, followed by the inevitable question: "What do you have, one of those gravel yards?"

"No," we patiently answer, "we have plants. There are other plants besides grass, you know. Flowers, shrubs, trees, groundcovers."

The concept is called Xeriscaping, from the Latin word  for "dry" because of the focus on water-thrifty plants plants that thrive in Florida's heat -- a surprisingly long list, actually, but one that doesn't include St. Augustine, the most popular and coveted variety of turfgrass.

It is not Zero-scape, though I often hear it mispronounced that way.

Our backyard before the Extreme Yard Makeover
That same area of our backyard after the makeover
I knew, theoretically, about our society's obsession with manicured green lawns. But I didn't fully realize how deeply rooted (pun intended ) that obsession was until we kicked the lawn addiction ourselves.

The obsession seems to be most intense in deed-restricted neighborhoods, where HOA boards often view grass as the only landscape option. Who hasn't read about some poor hapless schmuck who was fined, or even taken to court, by his or her HOA for failure to maintain that lush green carpet of grass?

When I met my husband, he lived in a deed-restricted community in New Port Richey. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that Rick is not exactly Mr. Greenjeans. "Despise" is not too strong a word to describe his view of yard work. Now, I'm still not sure why he moved into a deed-restricted community at all, but of course it resulted in numerous nastygrams from the HOA about the brown patches in his lawn, and even a personal visit from board emissaries. Once he received a letter for leaving four pieces of grapefruit from his backyard tree on the ground. When he received a letter threatening to place a lien on his house if he didn't comply with the lawn edicts, he gave in and hired a professional lawn care company to dump fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides on the lawn just to get the HOA off his back. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

At any rate, Rick moved into my house when we married. Seminole Heights is the polar opposite of a deed-restricted community, and we can safely flaunt our grass-free landscape with full impunity. Hopefully the happiest day of Rick's life was our wedding day. I suspect the second happiest was the day he gave away the lawn mower for good.

Even those of you who do live in neighborhoods with covenants and deed restrictions need not abandon hope of creating a Florida Yard. State law now forbids HOAs from preventing homeowners from implementing Florida-Friendly Landscapes following the principles taught by the Cooperative Extension Service. This fact sheet provides a simple summary of the law. Read the actual law here.

Now, that doesn't mean your community no longer has any say in your landscape.  You may very well still have to keep some grass -- usually around 30% coverage, and often including those small strips between sidewalks and streets. Rain barrels and compost bins may need to be kept in the backyard out of view. And rock and gravel landscapes are a definite no-go.  The first step in the process of working with your HOA is to read your covenants and restrictions with regard to landscaping standards, so you know what is expected.

Most importantly, you still need to get your board's approval before you begin. They may not have the slightest idea what a Florida-Friendly Landscape is. They may not know about the state law allowing FFL. Your mission is to be a Florida Yard ambassador, not a Florida Yard warrior. Don't go in with guns blazing, assuming they will say no to what you propose. Give them a chance, do your homework, and be patient. 

I can guarantee your Board's biggest fear is that your landscape will wind up as a barren wasteland of rocks and weeds, with a few shrubs scattered haphazardly around. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sketch out the design changes you want to make, and cut out photos of the plants you want to use and glue or tape them on your simple landscape plan.   

Below is a video featuring Gardening Coach and Be Floridian partner Pam Brown of Pampered Gardeners, who lives in a deed-restricted community herself. Pam has gradually, over a period of a few years, convinced her HOA to allow her to remove ALL the grass in her front yard except for that small sidewalk strip. I think you'll agree that her yard enhances property values in her neighborhood.

How'd she do this? Watch the video and see. Her advice may give you the confidence and determination to convince your own HOA board that Xeriscape is NOT zero-scape.