Dear readers: I offer a brief, fun Florida History Quiz:
When Juan Ponce de León stepped ashore in 1513 as Florida’s first undocumented immigrant, he reportedly said:
A) “Damn! If I’d known this place was so horticulturally challenged, I’d have brought along the lawn sprinklers and fertilizer.”
B) “Wow! I’ve never seen a place so stunning and lush. Let’s call it La Florida—the Land of Flowers!”
The point being that with our natural abundance of rainfall, sunshine and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, Florida could justifiably have “In God We Trust” stamped on our landscapes and lawns, and not just on our currency and license plates.
This is the truth our trusted institutions and political leaders dare not speak: Really, we’d do just fine without the lawn sprinklers and fertilizer. And Florida would be a better place.
But artificially maintained lawns look so pretty, you say. And they’re good for the economy! They provide jobs for irrigation installers and the turfgrass and fertilizer industry and university researchers. Why would we want to upend the established order?
In a word, sustainability. Those six syllables are more than a marketing buzzword. What it means is that the old ways are destroying our waters and diminishing our children’s future.
Let’s wade in for a closer look, shall we?
Florida’s waters are in terrible shape and if you’re wondering where to point a finger, groundwater overpumping and fertilizer pollution are high on the list of culprits.
All of this is underscored in the alarming new WATER 2070 report by the 1000 Friends of Florida planning advocacy group, in cooperation with the Florida Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida GeoPlan Center.
Here are the twin takeaways from the report: With a projected 15 million thirsty new residents due to arrive here in the next half century, we Floridians need to seriously reduce our water consumption or we’re screwed.
And this: "The single most effective strategy to reduce water demand in Florida is to significantly reduce the amount of water used for landscape irrigation.”
In plain English: The needs of tomorrow are more important than the lawns of today. And if we don’t change our ways, we can kiss our springs goodbye.
We knew—or we should have known—this moment of reckoning was coming. The world is running out of fresh water. And the reality of life on a finite planet demands a new way of thinking about water and Florida’s future.
Meanwhile, a 2014 IFAS survey shows that we Floridians are concerned about water and the environment and we’re willing to cut back—but only if it doesn’t affect our lawns.
How can this be, you may be wondering. Here’s a clue: When IFAS speaks, Florida listens.
Few institutions statewide rival the clout and credibility of the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, or have done more for the common good. But when it comes to IFAS and water conservation, what’s the message we hear?
Let’s be clear; if you find it incomprehensible that so many Floridians are hooked on chemically-dependent, irrigation-intensive lawns despite the well- documented collateral damage they exact on our waters, know that IFAS didn’t create this problem.
But their solution, the “Florida-Friendly” landscaping program with its supposedly “responsible” use of fertilizer and lawn irrigation—has unintentionally enshrined the normalization of abuse.
Think about it. “Friendly” means “able to coexist without harm.” If someone you love got lung cancer, would you encourage them to smoke “only when needed”? Or would you suggest they give up their harmful habit altogether?
We can’t irrigate and fertilize our way to a better tomorrow. It ain’t gonna happen. But IFAS stubbornly resists promoting ZEROscaping as the truly friendly-to-Florida option. Yes, ZEROscaping, which is to say, managing our lawns with zero irrigation and zero chemical inputs. For the love of Florida, mow the yard a few times a year as you wish but otherwise, let it be.
We have coddled our lawns too long. Stripped of their resilience per IFAS guidelines too many Florida lawns now live in a state of learned dependency.
It is a dereliction of civic duty to deplete and poison our springs and aquifer for the sake of our lawns, no matter how pretty they are.
And then there’s the spiritual component. I can think of no finer way to honor the Creator, however known, than by living sustainably here in Creation.
We who say we care deeply about this place are called to grow our ethical imagination and social responsibility. For as Lyndon Johnson said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
IFAS has led the way in creating beautiful lawns. Now comes the higher challenge: One authentically sustainable lawn at a time, we need IFAS to lead the way in creating a better Florida.
John Moran is a Gainesville-based nature photographer and water