A home owner near Sarasota, Florida is planning a make-over of her home. She values the natural, wants to avoid chemicals and enjoy healthy living.

She is used to living in a more contemporary house, and is looking to increase the overall appeal of her home, inside and out.

While this project has not been approved, it offers an inside look at some of the basic factors affecting a natural approach to yards, gardens and farms in Florida.

Each project offers benefits and challenges. The following narrative is our initial summary, but is not extensive or final. Except for the sketches and photographs of the client’s home, any images provided are for demonstration and examples of similar work, not necessarily our own. We give credit and provide links to sources.

Other factors that will ultimately dictate (or affect) decisions on final design and plant selection include owner goals/preferences for the property, desired yield/crop, latitude, longitude, hardiness zones, micro climates, prevailing winds, soil pH, annual rainfall, distribution of precipitation, HOA restrictions, zoning and ordinances and so forth.

Note that while natural farming and gardening methods are rooted in science, many interpretations and preferences on projects/solutions differ. The information we provided here is useful for example purposes but we reserve right of ownership and commercial use. The contained information is not guaranteed, nor are the proposed solutions and technology appropriate in all situations. We are not liable for your use or application of the concepts.


Cultivate an attractive assortment of low-maintenance plant species, with special attention to water retention/diversion, the soil’s ecology and soil life as it pertains to nutrient production.


After looking at the site, soil and hearing the history of plants on site, it is evident that there are enough natural resources for an appealing design – sun, water, space, oxygen, nutrients. There are a few key issues are limiting the ability of plants to grow and thrive. This could include a particular plant’s preference, needs, but most importantly, the soil looks mostly sandy, devoid of life, extremely dry and prone to overheating and draining. These issues and solutions will be discussed below.

Existing landscape:

In the front yard (south facing) there is a 3-5% grade sloping away from home with approximately 15’ from porch to curb and 30′ between driveway and corner of lot. Soil settlement test shows a soil composition of roughly 66% sand, 34% organic material from store-bought mulch, virtually no silt or clay, and very little microbial activity. After a week in a jar, there is no smell or aroma to the water/soil mixture whatsoever. The area receives a direct, full sun without obstruction.

The owner says, some hardy varieties are able to grow, as seen in the photographs. Our goal is to address the water retention and help the soil sustain microbial life. We can then look at the microclimate zones, and list out a variety of plants, based on guild, function, size, shape and color.

Our client is concerned about chemicals. In preparing the contours correctly, we hope to allow soils to regenerate over the years with minor amendments and care on a regular basis. Though we can’t prevent the wind from bringing stray contaminants, or mother nature from bringing storm events, we work to increase biodiversity, improve plant health, reduce the impact of pests. These will reduce the need for direct application of artificial fertilizer, herbicides or insecticides through good plant selection, care and integrated pest management.


Our proposed ecological solution for this (and any site) requires a heightened level of observation, study and patience to create the greatest impact with the minimum amount of effort over the long term.

Since form follows function in designs that work with, rather than against the natural, the end aesthetic result can be estimated but is not exact. Investing extra time to understand the issues and intelligently apply concepts, chose plant species so it fulfills multiple functions, not just color or size, will ensure the ecosystem we create can fight off disease and stay healthy – a healthy plant is a beautiful plant.

Quick side view sketch of holding area and runoff to drainage area.

Direct Issues to be resolved:

  1. Rainfall diversion and retention
  2. Soil composition and characteristics
  3. Excess heat/sun
  4. Permitting/specification restrictions and standards
Photo credits

(1) Rainfall, storm events, water diversion & retention:

The area is small enough that it will only require a simple network of hand-dug microswales around two settlement areas to achieve the desired effect. As these overflow, runoff spills over to a drainage swale dressed aesthetically as a dry brook surrounded by grasses and plants that will help prevent erosion and create a look that is natural and contemporary.

Using small and large stones mimics a dry river bed and adds stability. The two “ponds,” will be approximately 18-24” deep by 60-90” wide, or as large as the area will permit. The excess (overflow) from these two ponds is diverted into the drainage area, which drains into a 50′ stone path that doubles as a dry creek bed (or french drain) which is routed to an existing storm-water collection area in the backyard.

The fringe of this path should be lined with stones of a size that prevents them from being washed away in heavy rainfall, while also protecting the soil/sand in planted areas outside the swale. The image below is a good representation, but if used as a walking path, should be topped with flat stones. If budget permits, geotextile cloth and clay could be effective in these areas as a barrier between the drainage rock and existing sand.

Note that except in extreme cases there should be no water running above ground. The path will retain its function even when water is present below the surface. The existing sand would be replaced down to the level of drainage from the front yard, filled with drainage rock and topped with larger pavers, natural or architectural, suitable for walking.

Regarding the stormwater collection area in the back. Future improvements could turn it into a functional rain garden. Raingardens are designed to increase appeal, prevent erosion and ease burden on the municipal system.

(2) Soil composition and characteristics:

Typical soils in Florida are 90% or more sand. Builders’ fill is even worse as a growing medium because it has little support and nutrients. If you limit plant selection to what will grow in these conditions naturally, it will will be almost impossible to achieve a lush and physically healthy landscape. It’s important to add organic material in large quantities. Doing so won’t guarantee they remain, as heat and sun break these down, and rain washes them quickly away. Diverting water so it doesn’t wash directly through, and that the area is at least partially protected from sun is crucial.

Once the initial storm water is diverted, remaining water which has filled the subterranean catchment pond can slowly permeate soil via capillary attraction, keep it moist, and be drawn on from by surrounding plants, fungal mycelia and microbes. The mass of moisture will provide cooling and soil temperature stability. The water should be kept below surface to prevent evaporation, algae growth and keep insect breeding to a minimum.

Image credit

Over time, plant roots and leaves that fall to the ground die and decay will become forage for the life that builds beneath the soil. Even using all of this will not be enough to start the project and replenish all that has been stripped away in the building process. We have to get creative and be proactive in bringing in material. It also takes time to mature.

A small protected area for composting will serve to pile dead leaves and kitchen scraps, so our client can make use of wastes to create mulch and nutrients. We build a containment bin as part of the project. Once set, the pile should be turned a few times a week by client. With the right mindset, this practice becomes a part of the routine, and the basis for yard care.

Illustration credit

Applying decaying organic matter and natural nutrients to the soil, then covering with a mulch will ensure that they are protected from the sun, and they continue to build during the early stages of transition for young plants. This underlying activity generates the tilth and texture that supports lifeforms that convert the organic matter to elemental levels and humus to hold nutrients and moisture which can then be absorbed by plant roots.

The capacity of the soil to support plants strengthens with age as habitat is restored and the diversity of local species increases to include single- and multi-celled organisms, larger living things such as nemetodes, worms, birds and a variety of insects that all act together to pollinate plants, spread seeds, fertilize, purify and consume decay.

(3) Excess heat/sun:

The desired visual effect is stepped, where the plants closest to the street are short, and taller toward the house. The image to the right is a similar landscape, with a small swale out front, backed by a more moist area offering greater variety of tightly spaced and alternating plant species.

Sketch outlining plant heights and depths if using a stepped effect to showcase the property. Optimally, we would plant a stand of taller trees toward front west (left) or middle side of yard to a to break up and reduce the amount of sun hitting the front yard in the afternoon.

Though stepping is possible, it’s not optimal. It’s important to create a canopy of shade to protect the understory and home from the hot summer sun, while also not blocking the prevailing south wind during the summer. There are already a few trees in the front yard which should be saved to provide shade and wind protection for the more sensitive plant growth, understory and ground cover. Smaller trees and shrubs, and a few more trees strategically planted within each existing stand will be sufficient to improve shade and reduce heat. Note, the clean yet natural look achieved with large, flat stones – a viable architectural option for your design.

Specifications, Permitting & Standards:

Per Florida Statute 373.185, any landscaping activity that follows “Florida-Friendly™” practices are protected, and will not be prohibited by any covenant, because they aim to benefit not only home-owners, but the ecology and health of Florida and the community at large.

For this design, we will support natural, chemical-free and Florida-friendly gardening practices. We combine these principles with aesthetic inspired by you (the client) and a function that improves the value and longevity of your property. The final solution, if successful, will do all of this while complementing surrounding architecture and having a positive role in preserving Florida’s natural ecology.

Since we will not be applying artificial fertilizers, no applicators’ permit will be required. No heavy machinery will be required. We will require a municipal ground locate of utilities, and by employing hand digging labor, we have the ability to work carefully to avoid any existing utilities. No changes to grade are necessary, only employment of barriers between planted areas and drainages to slow water and prevent runoff from leaching organic debris and as a result, foster a healthy root zone with observable microbial process, the foundation of life in the “soil food web.”

Other factors to consider:

  1. Insects & wildlife
  2. Time/schedule

Insects & wildlife

Increasing biodiversity will have an impact on the landscape, as insects and animals are naturally attracted to the life, shelter and food that healthy foliage brings. We can prepare but not predict all changes that will occur, and small adjustments will be needed to provide for all living things that may arrive

  • Insect hotel and artificial beehives (RIGHT: some bugs pollinate, others prey on insects that could damage plants)
  • Bird bath, feeders and houses (birds eat insects, pollinate, and fertilize)
  • Bat houses (bats eat insects, pollinate and fertilize)
  • Bee-friendly flowers
  • Florida-friendly plant species (zero tolerance for invasive species)
  • Companion plants (some attract and repel specific species, and some are poisonous to wildlife and humans)
  • Urban homesteading features, animals and plants used for fertilizer or fodder


Design/Estimate with you and myself, 3-7 days

  • Price and order materials, organize labor, set budget
  • Schedule pickup for discarded materials
  • Schedule delivery of rock and materials
  • Source mulch and organics
  • Select compost area and bin style
  • Research appropriate plant varieties (I’ll provide lists. You source and purchase.)
  • Provide concept sketches

Week 2, with 3 people working

  • Contour and survey, mark out swales and irrigation channels,
  • Remove excess sand and dig up plants to be saved
  • Hand dig and trench pools, swale and drainage to backyard  
  • Tie in network of irrigation channels
  • Start collecting organics from yard – clippings and leaves
  • Lay fabric and clay, let dry/bake in sun

Timeline/schedule (continued)

Week 3,  with 3 people working

  • Lay wood and organic piles
  • Lay stones and cover
  • Mark sites for plants
  • Purchase plants

Week 4, with 2 people working

  • Plant plants
  • Route appropriate irrigation hoses
  • Cover with mulch

Week 5-10, initial client maintenance with some input

  • Regular inspections of plants
  • Adjustments to irrigation systems
  • Continue gathering and applying organics and mulch

Week 10-52, routine client maintenance with little to no external input

  • Continue collecting organics, weeds, clippings, leaves
  • Continue applying finished compost and cover with mulch
  • Turn compost 3x weekly
  • Water compost 1x weekly
  • Prune shrubs and trees annually
  • Inspect plants weekly
  • Inspect/repair irrigation as needed


Our main goals:

  • Control water and divert runoff
  • Preserve and build healthy soil
  • Provide shade plants/trees
  • Select appropriate plants for your yard, taste and Florida-friendly landscaping
  • Accommodate biodiversity
  • Provide input on plant selection and install

The client’s involvement will be heavy during first week, then taper off to just working on plant preferences. We will continue to develop a list of plants that will work well (and that are available within the budget) as we do the installation. They would be present for final completion/hand off and walk through, if any corrections are needed.

 After installation, or about 4 weeks, our input is limited to occasional discussions, updates and any follow-on estimates, proposals or contracts.

Due to unpredictability of nature, weather and environment, we can’t guarantee any specific life span of any plant, but which have the best fit for the climate, final soil type and level of care the owner is willing to provide, as the final result does improve or decline with and owner’s continued observation and inputs.