Maria Castillo

Maria is a senior journalism student with a outside concentration in political science. She was born in Lima, Peru, and has used her Spanish skills to work with Noticias WUFT, a weekly radio newscast on Florida's 89.1.

Smart Landscaping

Erin Alvarez is a landscape instructor at the University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department. Her teaching program is based in landscape management, which also includes public gardens management and a focus on landscape management issues.

In this interview, Alvarez talks about the common mistakes some homeowners make when it comes to plant selection and irrigation systems.

Erin Alvarez: Landscape Instructor

A beautiful, water-efficient landscape doesn’t require a huge investment, lots of water and constant maintenance as homeowners might assume. Erin Alvarez, landscape instructor at UF Environmental Horticulture Department, says knowledge about what kinds of plants to install in your backyard and up-to-date irrigation systems is by far the best way to avoid water waste.

“A lot of people typically think they know what plant to put in,” Alvarez says, “but they don’t necessarily pick the right plants for the right place, and that results in water management issues.”

Plant selection should be the first priority when it comes to a homeowner’s property. St. Augustine grass tends to have the reputation of being the most water-consuming, but Alvarez says research shows that any type of grass would be better than bare soil. St. Augustine grass is available in several varieties, and some are more drought resistant than others.

But Zoysia and Bahia grasses use less when it comes to water consumption.

“Turf grasses, like Zoysia grass, are being marketed as being more drought tolerant than St. Augustine grass right now,” Alvarez says. “And that’s kind of a mixed message because it does tend to turn brown faster if it’s exposed to drought, but it survives the drought better than St. Augustine grass.”

She always warns homeowners to beware of neighbors’ landscape advice. Even some landscape companies do not have the proper education or training, which could lead to problems if people spend a lot of money and time investing in a landscape unfit for the area. It is a smarter move to ask your county extension office, or better yet, the university’s horticultural department if you are in doubt.

When it comes to watering your lawns, an irrigation system should be in sync with the weather as well.

“It’s never a good idea for a homeowner to set their irrigation system to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and leave it alone. It should always be connected to what’s going on in the weather,” Alvares says.

Nowadays, technology makes management easier with systems that are connected to weather stations, have soil moisture sensors and evoratranspiration readers. According to Alvarez, these readers are becoming common and available for homeowners, where they measure weather data and determine an irrigation schedule based on rainfall, temperature and humidity.

However, even with the latest high-tech irrigation system and ideal plant selection, water conservation truly comes down to a person’s awareness.

“A lot of evidence has shown that if someone wastes water inside, they are going to waste water outside,” Alvarez says.

Other Resources

Find Your Local County Extension Offices

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape

Sign up for “The Neighborhood Gardener,” a monthly e-newsletter from UF Master Gardener and the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program.

Water Efficient Irrigation

Joe Floyd is one of four co-owners of Abundant Edible Landscapes. From fruit trees to rainwater collection systems, the company provides several services to homeowners who would like to develop their landscape with environmentally conscious features.

In this interview, Floyd talks what irrigations systems could cut down your water bill in the long run, why you should stay away from imported plants, and how growing your own produce cannot only save you water, but also gas and money.

Alternative North Central Florida Lawns

One Floridian uses the same amount of water in one day, as an average person living in Mozambique, Africa, would in 88 days: 176 gallons, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The St. Johns River Water Management District reports that 58 percent of that water goes to outdoor needs – the worst offender being irrigation.

While some homeowner associations may not permit it, there are other ways to create a lush, beautiful lawn that will not only be visually appealing but also save money and water.

The most common turfgrass for residential areas in north central Florida is St. Augustine grass; however, it can come at a cost with higher fertilizing and watering demands than other types of turfgrass, Floyd Gainey of Soil-Enrichment Products said. Gainey recommends Centipede grass instead of St. Augustine grass.

Most common in the Florida panhandle, Centipedegrass doesn’t grow quickly, requiring less mowing, and is drought and shade tolerant. This grass variety also does well in acidic or infertile soils, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences extension.

Gainey stresses amending your soil before planting any type of plant. Amending includes anything that adds nutrients to the soil and locks in moisture. Not amending soil before planting is like “buying a steak and throwing it in the refrigerator and never cooking it,” Gainey said.

Using organic matter from composting also provides a more nutrient rich soil that will help reduce irrigation needs, because the organic matter holds more moisture than soil lacking either nutrients or organic matter, Joe Floyd of Abundant Edible Landscapes said.

Florida Friendly Landscaping strives to help create residential and business landscaping behaviors and techniques that instill the use of low-maintenance plants and sustainable living.

A typical yard in the program minimizes the use of potable water for irrigation, avoids runoff of excess fertilizers and pesticides from the yard and provides habitat for wildlife. There are nine principles of FFL. The eighth principle—reduce storm water runoff—includes using rain gardens instead of turfgrass, another method to creating alternative lawns.

Rain gardens are shallow areas that have grasses (not turfgrass) and plants that catch rain, allowing it to sink into the ground to replenish the Floridan Aquifer, Florida’s main water source. Mulch or stones are used as groundcover, but any porous surface can be used to allow rainwater to seep into the ground, instead of storm water drains. FFL recommends the use of bricks, gravel, turf block, mulch, pervious concrete or other porous surface when possible to allow water to drain into the ground.

The number one principle of FFL is “right plant, right place.” This principle constitutes acknowledging what areas in your yard are adequate or lacking elements such as soil type, watering needs, shade or sun, and acidity. This principle is best put into practice by carefully planning a landscape. More information on how to pick the right plant for the right place can be found on the FFL website.