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Sustainable Landscaping

The native plants in the forests of Hilton Head Island are arranged in vertical layers.

  • The tallest are the overstory trees like oaks and pines;
  • The trees that stand beneath these are the understory;
  • Shrubs that stand beneath these make up the shrub layer;
  • Soft bodied plants such as ferns, grasses and flowering plants beneath the shrubs make up the herbaceous layer;
  • And the ground, or litter layer, is made up of leaves, twigs and other organic material on top of the soil.

These layers provide a multitude of food sources, cover, nesting and resting sites for large numbers of wildlife species. During development, these layers are often removed to leave just the overstory trees, removing the majority of cover and food resources for wildlife. The result is that wildlife moves into adjacent forest, or, where no adjacent forest exists, into developed areas, where they often are considered pests, feeding on landscaping plants and nesting in attics or garages. Although the large trees play important environmental roles, the majority of wildlife depends on the understory and lower layers for survival.

Steps you can take to be more sustainable in the landscape:
  1. Save mature native plants around your home. This adds value to your property. It also saves you money on irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. Native plants evolved in this area and are drought tolerant and many have developed natural chemicals or other deterrents to browsing and chewing pests and so are pest tolerant.

  2. Mulch with a mix of composted wood and leaves. This will help return nutrients to the soils that the plants can use without adding chemical fertilizers. So don’t bag and toss those leaves to take up space in the landfill; they are a free source of great nutrients for your plants.

  3. Use gutters, rain barrels or rain gardens to help capture rain water and direct it to areas where it can soak into the soil. This helps break down pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides, oils and greases that may be in the storm water before it reaches surface water bodies such as creeks or lagoons.

  4. Use more native plants in your landscape. Use non-native species as accents to the natives. Always be sure that the non-natives you buy are not invasive (that is, spread rapidly and uncontrollably throughout the landscape), as these plants can often outcompete natives for sunlight, water and nutrients and cause their extinction from an area.


  5. When planting a landscape, group your plantings into zones, where plants requiring the most water are separate from those that require medium and least amounts of water. Zone your irrigation in the same manner to deliver the right amount to the right plants. Once plants are established, consider shutting off the irrigation system or running it less frequently.

  6. Always have a rain gauge on your irrigation system.

  7. Make room for wildlife in your landscape. Plant native plants, especially those that provide berries, flowers and nuts for wildlife. Provide water and some dense vegetation for resting or nesting places. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org for more information, or to certify your yard as a backyard habitat.

  8. If you use pesticides, be sure to check out the information under the pesticides tab in this section for information on Integrated Pest Management.

  9. When pruning vegetation, consider wildlife. For example, if you are pruning wax myrtles, consider doing this in early spring (February, e.g.). This will be before most birds nest, and after migrants have gone through and eaten the energy-rich berries the myrtles provide. Large shrubs like wax myrtles that are cut too low will put all of their energy into producing new growth and may not flower or produce berries.

  10. Since trees and other plants rely on their leaves to produce energy for their survival, always prune sparingly. Overpruning leads to sprout growth; repeated overpruning can lead to dieback and loss of the plant. A good rule of thumb is to prune only what is necessary, and never more than 30% of the leaf surface area. To see an illustration of proper pruning cuts, visit www.treesaregood.com (Select "Tree Care Information", then "Pruning your trees").

  11. Palms should never be pruned above the horizontal, and never have more than 30% of their green leaves removed. Since palms take needed nutrients out of leaves as they die, regular pruning of palm leaves (fronds) can result in nutrient deficiencies. It is best for the health of the palm to only remove brown (dead) leaves. To learn more about palm care, visit University of Florida Extension's website at www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_palm_care.