Beautiful Native Plants

Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about all aspects of ecosystem gardening, from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Friday, July 1, 2016

From lawn to woods: a retrospective

Spring 2014: a pinxter azalea in the front meadow.

Then and now…

I posted the above photo of my pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens) a while back with the comment that with the exception of the trees next to the pond (behind the top sprout on the right), this area used to be lawn. People were really surprised and asked for more details and more information about how it was transformed, so I thought I’d share the history here. (Update: I also used this photo on the cover of my book, The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape.)

A bird’s eye view of the area from Google Earth.
Note the points A, B, & C, which I’ll use for orientation.

Google Earth

For orientation, here is the satellite view of our property taken 1/20/14. The white fence runs along 2 sides of the property.  What I didn’t know until looking at this image was that the fence corner is not 90°. I approximated the area by counting sections along the two sides of the fence from A to C and calculated the area by assuming it was a triangle (L·W/2).

I have outlined the natural pond that we share with our neighbor for reference and that is the front corner of our house near the pond. The fence along the A side runs approximately east to west with the corner of the fence being the northeastern-most point.

The pinxter azalea in the above photo is located under the “F” (of “Front meadow”) and the POV (point of view) is looking toward C. Also note the mulched path next to the trees along the edge of the pond in that photo. In many of the following photos, you can see the palmetto bush at point A, so you can orient yourself that way.


The house sits on a 1.5-acre pie-shaped lot that is narrowest at the lakefront in the back. It was 2 years old when we purchased it and the former owner had cleared away a wooded area for the house, septic system, and lots of lawn areas including most of the front meadow. He had left just a line of trees along the fence and along the pond in this part of the lot, installed an irrigation system, and then sodded with St. Augustine grass. We stopped mowing this area and started to maintain it as a meadow with an annual weed whacking and tree digging routine.

Near the end of each winter for a number of years, we manually cut the tall stalks and
dug up trees that were encroaching the meadow. Good exercise!
This POV is from the east fence looking toward A.

This is approximately the same POV as the above photo this week. It is greener because of the time of year, but you can see the growth in the small pine tree and the filling in of the meadow.


There are no landscaping rules in our neighborhood, but most people have huge lawns, which are fertilized and poisoned on a regular basis. This is not good for our shared lakes–ours is 110 acres, the other large one is 85 acres and there are an assortment of smaller lakes–some dammed and some not. But I wanted people to know that we were reducing our lawn on purpose so I took the time to certify our yard as backyard habitat. For details on the process read Creating Backyard Habitat, which includes a link to the related podcast.

Even though we don’t have an HOA per se, I wanted to let people know what was happening, so I went through the steps to certify the yard. This is posted at the corner of the fence. In 2014 the sign was a bit weathered, but still carried the message and I see people stopping to read it. FYI, the sign is tied with some nylon string to the tree and hooked over a small branch. Each year I retie it so it doesn’t strangle the tree.

Building habitat

Meadows are good for butterfly habitat. Here in northern Florida, we can have warm spells that reach 80° in the middle of winter, which is why we can’t grow tulips or asparagus, but it also means that butterflies could emerge from their dormancy at any time and they’ll need nectar.
Our butterflies have lots of St. John’s-wort (Hypericum spp.) through the winter months.The St. John’s-worts are short-lived shrubs an last only a few years, but they do have a nice long blooming period. For more information on these shrubs and how to key them out, see my post over on the Florida Native Plant Society blog: The St. John’s-Worts: Under-rated Landscape Plants.

Camphor weed (Pluchea foetida) grows in grassy areas and attracts a wide array of pollinators. Here a gray hair streak butterfly shares the flower head with a fierce-looking wasp. POV is looking from just north of C toward the NE fence corner.

Hawks love the open habitat and scan the area even when we are out working in the meadow. This red shoulder hawk sits in a clump of red maples (Acer rubrum). POV looking from the east fence toward B and the pond.

While we have let most of the meadow grow back into a wooded area, we have kept the areas around the sprinkler heads cleared. There are three heads in a line parallel to the fence from point A and then another one out between B & C.  You can see the open area there as a light spot in the satellite photo. The open areas increase the effectiveness of the irrigation system when needed. (The water is drawn from the big spring-fed lake out back.) But another important reason for the open areas is for their habitat value.  The variety of vegetation height is important for lots of wildlife from butterflies to the hawks. Because our yard supports those top predators, then we are successful in our ecosystem gardening. For more on supporting predators, see my post, Cheer for Predators in Ecosystem Gardening.

From C toward B in 2008 and again in 2014. We stopped maintaining the path that branches out toward the fence that you can see in the 2008 photo and also in the Pluchea photo above. Now we just have one main path along the pond and to the mulch pile–it’s used often.

Mulched paths

For many years I've been using tree cutters’ chips to use for various places in the landscape. I wrote about arborists’ chips on my post, Requiem for a hickory tree.

Looking from A toward C, you can see the few trees along the eastern fence. Including a magnolia that we’d transplanted from the lawn.
One of the very first landscaping projects that we undertook was to move two magnolias from the middle of the front lawn out to the edges of the meadow. We knew they hadn’t been in the ground more than 2 years, so I root pruned them and then a few months later, my husband and I dug them up and hauled them out to their new places where we would never have to pick up those leathery leaves all year long from the lawn. In retrospect and knowing what I know today, I should have left them in place and built a grove of native shrubs such as azaleas and long-lived perennials around the two trees to replace the lawn instead. But they survived the transplant and are still doing well out in the meadow. You can see the larger one out by the fence in the above 2006 photo. For more details and where the smaller one ended up, see my article on the transplanting process: My magnificent, but messy magnolias.

Almost 10 years after we transplanted this magnolia, it has grown to almost 20 feet tall, which is pretty tall for the compact variety. POV from B toward C.  The meadow-like area that we keep around the sprinkler head is in front of the magnolia tree.

The transformation

While a landscape is never “finished”, we are happy with the state of the front meadow at this point and will strive to keep it sorta like this into the future. This doesn’t mean that it is maintenance-free–that’s a fantasy.  We still pull or dig out tree seedlings that are too close to the path and are under existing tree branches and we do keep the areas around the sprinkler heads tree-free.  At this point, it is a lot less work than keeping the whole area as a meadow.
For other views of the front meadow where I have removed another 12 feet of lawn near point A, see Adventures in Creating a Native Garden. I can envision continuing the lawn removal and the expansion of this lovely and living habitat landscape.  Stay tuned for more adventures.

I hope you have created some good habitat in your landscape
and have reduced your maintenance chores.

POV from point A toward the interface of the front meadow with the reduced lawn. Note the palmetto on the left behind a beautyberry shrub (Callicarpa americana) that is filling in the area and providing winter bird food. If you read the Adventures  in Creating a Native Garden, you’ll notice something is now missing.
What is it?

© Ginny Stibolt