Wellington at Seven Hills HOA

Florida-Friendly Landscape: Winning the Turf War

by Kathy Danforth

Wellington at Seven Hills Homeowners Association of Spring Hill has been named one of the winners for larger communities in the Florida-Friendly Landscape division of the Communities of Excellence Awards. The winners were announced March 30 at the Communities of Excellence Conference and Awards Ceremony at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Conference Center in Hollywood, Florida. Heather C. Price, CMCA and Dan Dameron, Grounds Manager, represented Wellington at this conference. As a savvy community association, they have found that converting to an environmentally responsible style of landscape, rather than battling their natural soil and weather, is a big win rather than a loss.

The Wellington at Seven Hills’ developer designed the community as a conventional, lawn-favoring neighborhood. After many years and several failed attempts at maintaining a lush carpet of green, the association began to research alternative options as opposed to the expensive, water-starved monoculture commonly referred to as Floratam St. Augustine. This was a difficult task due to residential expectations, derived from the years of experience with their lawns in the northern states.

The association covers 402 acres, with the Master association responsible for common areas and the Patio and Villa associations responsible for maintaining the grounds around those homes. In 2009, The Wellington at Seven Hills Board of Directors began to budget for Florida-Friendly Landscape practices within the community.

The Wellington boards and committees have been instrumental in spearheading this unique style of landscaping throughout their community. By spring of 2010, these environmentally responsible practices were being implemented on common grounds as well as a few select residential properties, which were used as example sites to promote residential interest. These properties helped educate homeowners and correct the misconception that implementing Florida-Friendly landscaping would make their yards look like desert wastelands. Residential interest was minimal at the start. Most of the homeowners originated from the North, where lawns are lush and green. They moved to this area to retire and would have packed up their lawns along with their luggage if they had known what a challenge growing turf would prove to be in this bipolar horticultural zone. These residents spent many years enjoying their Kentucky Bluegrass and were expecting a similar or, in some cases, exact lawn as they had up North. This assumption was quickly redefined six months into their Florida residency.

In the spring of 2010, a select willing few were chosen to represent the community’s efforts to conserve natural resources and implement Florida-Friendly landscapes in some of the worst areas of lawn decline. These homeowners were chosen by willingness to participate, condition of lawn, and how many times the property had been resodded in past years.

Dameron, who is a Florida Certified Horticulture Professional, originally became involved with Wellington as a consultant. He explains, “My company was invited to develop a program that would troubleshoot the entire community. We addressed why we were having these issues and what we could do to remedy it.”

Dameron came on board as an employee in 2011 as success and acceptance of the new style grew in the association. “They needed Dan’s expertise in the community if they were going to move forward with the Florida-Friendly landscaping,” manager Heather Price states.

Since the homeowner associations were paying for replacement when turf didn’t survive, Price comments, “When you replace sod two or three times, you have a problem. The budget was going over and they had to find an end to it. In the spring of 2011, the Wellington Patio Association approved a Florida-Friendly landscape conversion project consisting of 350-plus homes. Each homeowner was given the option of converting their trouble areas of lawn into Florida-Friendly or replacement of Floratam St. Augustine. If a specific property had a history of numerous lawn replacements, Wellington attempted to encourage the homeowner to try the new landscape solution. The project started out, as expected, with little acceptance to the new Florida-Friendly look. As the project unfolded, residents started to see the results of an aesthetically pleasing design and the use of colorful plant material, and their vision of a desert landscape rapidly became a memory.

Homeowner education is the starting point for converting problem areas. Dameron relates, “I’ll visit with each homeowner and if we’ve replaced the sod a number of times, I’ll educate them as to why turf probably won’t work again. So far, everyone has agreed to Florida-Friendly landscaping because they see it’s the right thing to do. We design it together using aesthetically-pleasing plant material specific to our area, not just to Florida. Knock Out roses and Viburnum have been popular plants. Some homeowners have wanted an extravagant tropical look, and we do have the ability to have that appearance.”

“We have a lot of education going on in the community,” Price notes. “Dameron recently put on a landscaping presentation and more people showed up for that than for the annual meeting! He presented information not just on Florida-Friendly landscaping but on the proper way to install landscaping in your yard and do’s and don’ts when it comes to lawn care. Even the homeowners whose yards are not maintained by the associations came to learn. We’re constantly addressing Florida-Friendly landscaping and water conservation in the newsletter, so the community stays educated.”

Residents are now being asked to get on a waiting list for their Florida-Friendly conversion due to the overwhelming interest and budgeting restraints. Wellington at Seven Hills plans to implement this project every year as needed until the monoculture of St. Augustine turf and irrigation dependency is drastically reduced, leaving an array of colorful, drought-tolerant landscape scenes throughout the community they have all grown to cherish.

 Their landscape maintenance contract has been revised to reflect the need for a specific fertilization schedule. All Florida-Friendly landscape areas will be fertilized twice a year with a slow-release granular application. Once established, this will be revisited for revisions. Their landscape maintenance contract has also been revised to reflect the need for a specific pest management schedule. In addition, the Architectural Review Committee changed this year to implement Florida-Friendly Landscape.

Due to the sandy soils, percolation rate, lack of existing roots, and nutrients in the soils, by watering the full duration they were losing the majority of their water. The battle in the community was primarily against their soil. “We have sugar sand in Spring Hill,” Dameron reports. “The percolation and ability to hold nutrients is worse than beach sand.”

 Wellington is seeking a variance (as of early July) to county watering requirements, which would conserve water while enhancing their plant health. Dameron relates, “For several years, watering was restricted to once per week. In 2011, they gave us permission to water twice a week for the full time, but in Wellington, we watered twice each week for less than half of the time—we ran zones twice for 25 minutes each week rather than once for an hour. We have tens of thousands of irrigation heads, using 15.5 gallons per minute per zone, so we were saving a substantial amount of water. We tested it last year on the turf and it works. I’m showing them the numbers we have, and we’re using more water for the exact same location watering once per week.”

Dameron adds, “Now more than ever, we want to implore people to convert to Florida-Friendly. If the county won’t give us a variance, turf is out.” The area has been in a drought, which has been a challenge, but demonstrates even more the advantage of working with the local conditions rather than fighting them. “The turf stresses in a matter of days,” Price observes, “so with one day of watering each week the turf shows stress for several days. None of the Florida-Friendly plants show signs of drought because we use the right plant palette. When Florida-Friendly is installed, the irrigation is adjusted to low irrigation so there is no wasting of water.”

The area around homes is individually metered and savings are hard to estimate, but for common areas, Dameron reports, “For zones, which are converted 100 percent to Florida-Friendly with zero turf, we’ve cut back 80 percent on water usage compared to turf. That’s a huge savings, and it’s more aesthetically pleasing!”

Another benefit of the native plants is their attractiveness to the native wildlife. “Rabbits love the plants, and we’re seeing more birds and butterflies,” Dameron states. “Many of the residents relax and watch the birds and butterflies and love it.”

 “We’re saving the association money down the road by practicing the proper Florida-Friendly landscape techniques,” Price states. “Initially there was a lot of opposition since people didn’t want a desert-type yard, but there’s no conflict now. We don’t force anyone, but by the time we’re through educating them, the majority choose Florida-Friendly because they know it is right. They’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results!”

Given a choice between a thriving, attractive landscape that lasts and a series of dying blades of grass, Wellington has been convinced that Florida-Friendly practices administer the right landscape for their community.