I used to be quite the gardener, back in the days when I spent much more of my time in Ohio. One summer, Burpee Seed Company even came to photograph my flower beds for use in their commercials. Then, 22 years ago, my husband and I bought our first Sanibel house.
I began gardening on Sanibel, quickly realizing that I had much to learn, because gardening was so very different here than in Ohio. I did battle with Brazilian pepper trees, even though I am allergic to them. After about five years of epic struggles with "guerilla gardening," as I call it, I decided to hire Ray Antweiler, a wonderful man whom my husband and I call our gardener and landscape artist.
Ray is from Ohio, too - Madison, to be specific. Ray is quick to point out that nearby North Madison was the birthplace of Mother Earth News magazine in 1970 - a resource of information on ecological gardening and self-sufficiency. Buckeye that he may be, Ray has been here in southwest Florida for over 30 years now, and he's become an expert in local horticulture.
Philosophically, Ray is a good match for us. My husband and I like to keep almost every square inch of our yard natural. We do not like green, grassy lawns, so we have no turf. We love native plants and palm trees. Lots of them. Ray agrees with us.
We don't apply fertilizer to our property. We find that it isn't necessary. Ray goes along with that.
Different fertilizers, different places
In Ohio, I used fertilizer on my flowerbeds. I used products made by Scotts, a company started in Ohio in 1868. Scotts merged with Miracle-Gro - another company whose fertilizer I used in Ohio - in 1995.
Scotts sells its fertilizer in south Florida, but for the most part it is not appropriate. According to the Sanibel fertilizer ordinance, if the stuff is to be used at all, it must be applied after September 30 and before July 1, and it must have 20 percent or less total nitrogen, and 2 percent or less total phosphorus. Of that nitrogen, 50 percent must be of the slow-release variety. The reason cities like Sanibel place strict limits on phosphorus- and nitrogen-containing fertilizers is simple. When they run off into surrounding surface waters, they stimulate algae blooms which can be harmful to the environment and human health.
Out of curiosity, I visited the Scotts Miracle-Gro web site. There I found a "product finder" feature which allowed me to enter my Sanibel zip code, then search for a Scotts fertilizer that would be appropriate for my yard. The result? The Scotts web site recommended its turf fertilizer with a total nitrogen of 32. Whoops. That's illegal on Sanibel!
According to Cris Costello of the Florida Sierra Club, Scotts Miracle-Gro is the biggest do-it-yourself fertilizer company in the country, and it is the biggest opponent of local fertilizer ordinances like Sanibel's.
"Scotts Miracle-Gro sends lobbyists to nearly every city- and county-level proceeding related to urban fertilizer, including stakeholder meetings, public workshops and hearings and meets individually with local elected officials and government staff all in an effort to gut local ordinances of their restrictions related to slow release nitrogen and the summer rainy season application bans," Costello said. "Scotts Miracle-Gro also has been behind the state legislative attempts to preempt local government control of fertilizer management every year since 2007."
But good things and good people do come to our islands from Ohio, trust me.
Gardeners can adapt
Harvey Oury, a gardener and retiree from Cincinnati, says fertilizer isn't all that useful in southwest Florida because it goes away quickly. If fertilizer is to be used at all, he maintains that it must be slow-release fertilizer. But generally, Mr. Oury doesn't use fertilizer here in Florida. "Soil types make more difference than fertilizer," he says.
Ray Antweiler says he rarely uses fertilizer anymore. He points out that using fertilizer with too much nitrogen will result in the need to use a lot more water on the plants. Also, he agreed with master gardener Hy Lans that the soil here already has lots of phosphate (unlike in Ohio), and if you add too much phosphate, the plants have trouble absorbing minor elements that they need.
Sue Ritchie, manager of the garden center at ForeverGreen ACE Hardware on Sanibel, is originally from Hudson, Ohio. She puts it bluntly: "Up there, you have soil. Here, you have sand."
She frequently recommends that her customers use an organic fertilizer that is manufactured in Texas. For new plants she recommends a root stimulator, which encourages roots to penetrate through the sand. She also warns that too much of the wrong fertilizer interferes with the plants' ability to absorb minor elements like magnesium and manganese.
Of course too much of the wrong fertilizer is very harmful to our coastal waters and environment, and therefore harmful to our economy in southwest Florida. That's why Committee of the Islands actively supported the City of Sanibel's efforts to minimize the adverse impact of fertilizers on the environment here and across the state.
What you can do
Judie Zimomra, the Sanibel city manager who also is a native of Ohio, recommends that new residents take the tour of city hall grounds when it is offered. There they can see the results of using native plants that need little water and no fertilizer.
Get good advice from the Native Plant Nursery staff at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and from experienced gardeners like Sue Ritchie at ForeverGreen ACE's garden center.
On Sanibelh2omatters, click on the "fertilizer information" link and then check out the "Go Fertilizer Free" information. There you'll find practical information about what to do with your yard - how to choose the right plants, avoid the wrong plants, and create a true Florida yard.
The befloridian site has a humorous approach to the same subject, with the goal being to allow you to spend less time and effort on your yard so that you have more time for fun.
The objective for both sites is to teach people how to avoid the pitfalls of trying to garden the way it is done up north. As the befloridian site states, a true Floridian knows "how to work hard at having fun. If the neighbors want to toil away on a yard like 'up North,' let them. Maybe one day they will leave their New Jersey roots back in New Jersey."
Or leave Ohio back in Ohio. Or whatever. You get the picture.
Another way you can help is to respond every time natural resource policy director Rae Ann Wessel at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation issues an alert, asking you to write to legislators when they attempt to pre-empt our local fertilizer ordinances. And support vice mayor Mick Denham's upcoming efforts that you'll be hearing more about; this also has to do with making sure we have the regulatory tools we need in order to meet water quality standards that our local governments must meet.
Be Sanibelian. Be Captivan. Be Floridian. This isn't Ohio anymore.
Committee of the Islands invites your input and ideas on this important subject. E-mail your comments to email@example.com. You can read commentaries on other island issues on our website at www.coti.org and/or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.