August 19, 2011

Better Hedge Choices for
South Florida

Chrysobalanus icaco
Redtip Cocoplum
Florida Native
can be grown in either dry soil or wet soil 

It is a perennial question : "what kind of hedge should I install to block out my neighbors?" There is a surprising number of answers, but the most strenuous one is " NOT FICUS". Planting a Ficus hedge is a grand example of short-term returns and long-term headaches. I marvel at people who believe their landscaper when he says he can install a hedge for $ 5 per linear foot, it will grow to 6 or 8 feet tall quickly, and your screening problems are over. It seems that the homeowners feel the hedge will stop growing at a certain height on command. What the owners don't realize is that a Ficus hedge will cost them a great deal of money to keep it trimmed, the roots will out-compete even turfgrass for fertilizer , and the plants suck up egregious amounts of water. The hedge will be cheap at installation time, but will cost thousands of dollars over the next decade for trimming and disposal.   

Nashia inaguensis
Bahama Berry
Caribbean Native
What if, on the other hand, we had an informed homeowner who looked at the longer time frame and chose a hedge that grows more modestly, requiring far less water and fertilizer than its fast-growing relatives ? There are hedges to meet that need, but they do cost more at installation time, and will take several times longer to grow densely to 6 feet or more. Consider the idea that most hedge plants are actually small trees, grown closely together, and sheared to a hedge shape. Ficus will easily grow to 40 feet tall, and have the root system to do just that, yet we grumble about how fast the hedge grows.

I ask, "Whose fault is that ? The plant's ? Who chose the plant ?" If a landscaper showed a homeowner the costs over the next 5 or 10 years of a slow-grower versus a speed-freak type, the homeowner might make the informed decision. We would collectively save millions of gallons of water, thousands of pounds of fertilizer, and the list of benefits goes on. We should also consider the vast volumes of cut branches thrown away every year from hedge cutters. It will take a groundswell effort to start using lower-resource-demand hedges and trees and flowers to make a difference in resource usage. We are running low on water supplies for the near future, and we need to be more considerate in our landscape's needs for such. One of the biggest complaints from landscapers and homeowners is that native plants are hard to find and expensive. This really is not the case; the nursery availability of such plants is very good, and prices are dropping. 

Mycianthes fragrans
Simspon Stopper
Florida native

Randia aculeata
White Indigoberry
Florida native
( courtesy Plant Creations Nursery, Homestead, FL)

One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to look at the short term appearance of their new landscapes and neglect the long term costs of maintenance, even if someone else is doing the work. Coupled with the general lack of plant knowledge of so many discount landscapers, this "waterfall" of  reduced information and penchant for profit-driven overplanting makes for an expensive long term headache.

My advice to remedy these issues is three-fold: 

1. to become knowledgeable of lower-maintenance plant choices available in your area,( no matter where you are),
2. avail yourself of the expertise around you from plant societies and great gardeners, 
3. look at the long term costs of future maintenance as you consider which plants to install now. Using a slower-growing plant that costs more at installation may save you thousand so of maintenance dollars in the next decade than saving a few hundred dollars now. 
As always, I advise that there are numerous plant choices to fill every landscape need. There is abundant good advice from University Extension Service personnel, wizened gardeners, and numerous plant societies. As my father used to say when I puzzled over a problem "use your options !"

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens       

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