August 19, 2013
Land of Flowers
In Central Florida, a small haven yields a surprising number of native gems
by Angela Moxley
To anyone else, they might have looked like paint splatters. But Loret Setters saw something wild in the dime-sized blobs along the brick skirting of her Osceola County mobile home. Indeed, when she pried them from the wall, the treasures inside spilled forth: cream-colored larvae and a dozen or so tiny green caterpillars, whom a lizard promptly came by and devoured. The “pots” were brood cells for potter wasps, whose queen had paralyzed the caterpillars to serve as their first meal. (Saddened by what she described as her “second-degree bugslaughter” of this beneficial pollinator, Setters later vowed to leave future nests undisturbed.)
Such unplanned discoveries are the highlight of Setters’ twice-daily strolls through her half-acre wildlife garden. She’s spotted tiny owlfly eggs laid neatly along a dead stalk of rush grass like strings of pearls, a spiral of lacewing eggs attached delicately to a saw palmetto frond, and a 2-inch spider wrapping up a multicolored grasshopper twice its size “like a burrito.”
Not every find is minuscule. She’s seen countless bluebirds fledge and swallows by the hundreds land in her yard. A soft-shelled turtle, herons, and an anhinga (snakebird) have visited her pond, while frogs hunt insects in the grasses and armadillos once took up residence. And then there was “Albert,” the alligator who showed up one day (he was gone the next).
It all takes place in the back of Setters’ 1-acre property (the front belongs to her two dogs). And it’s all arrived in just the past five years, when Setters decided to stop gardening with “visions of Better Homes and Gardens” and start letting the native flora and fauna repatriate the land.
Putting Down Roots:
A lifelong New Yorker, Setters moved to her current property in 2006. She attempted a formal garden on the threadbare land, but when her Home Depot purchases couldn’t take the rigors of Florida’s climate—“all I was doing was planting and buying, and planting and buying”—Setters attended a local meeting of the Florida Native Plant Society and learned a new approach.
In the five years since, she’s encountered 200-plus native species, some gifted by the birds and others simply given the chance to finally blossom. And she has yet to run out of topics for her various blogs. “My yard never looks the same way two years in a row, sometimes not even two weeks in a row,” she says, “because if I find something new, I say ‘Oh, I’m going to let that area grow for now.’ ”
Spreading the Ethos:
Setters’ yard serves as a banner for a better way. A neighbor is letting her property go to seed, while Setters’ cousins have a new appreciation for caterpillars and have forgone pesticides in favor of picking unwanted insects off plants. “I get firsthand observations because I keep things countrified and I’ve let things restore. So things don’t just pass through here. Things come and stop.”
Build a Network:
It may not take a village to grow a native wildlife garden, but a few enthusiastic friends and some reliable guides can be a big help. Loret Setters began connecting with other native gardeners when she launched a Twitter account for the local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. That led her to a University of Florida entomologist who serves as her consultant on insect finds, supplemented with frequent searches on bugguide.net. The chapter president, an avian enthusiast, advises her on plants and birds, while a wildlife rehabilitator friend is her “reptile person.” Setters recommends plant books organized by color to help identify family; university cooperative extensions or botany databases can then be consulted for specifics if an exact match is not found.
The Species Connection
A prolific nectar producer from the daisy family, Spanish needles is frequented in Loret Setters’ yard by green anoles and pollinators including the polka-dot wasp moth. It’s also the larval host for the emerald moth. Bidens alba can be a vigorous spreader, but Setters doesn’t have that problem, probably thanks to competition from all the biodiversity in her yard, and she says it’s easy to clip or mow if it becomes unruly. In any case, she doesn’t really mind plants that overspill their boundaries. “When people try to do monocultures, that’s when they run into problems because they want everything to be nice and uniform.”
Other Wildlife Favorites
Texas frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora): Also known as turkey tangle fogfruit, this low-growing vine in the verbena family is a nectar source for numerous pollinators and larval host for the phaon crescentspot, buckeye, and white peacock butterflies. Setters hopes the ground cover will someday overtake the alien bahiagrass in her yard.
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera): These shrubs popped up in Setters’ yard and form a better privacy screen than the nonnative pyracantha she planted years ago. They’re popular with green anoles for their cover, birds for their blue berries, and red-banded hairstreak caterpillars for their leaf litter. Setters notes they support many insects without showing damage, as the bugs have plenty of additional food sources. Both males and females are required to produce berries.