To create a visual buffer between the beach and the grounds of this Ft. Meyers resort, McCarley used firebush and silver buttonwood (foreground), with coconut palms and cordgrass (background).

To create a visual buffer between the beach and the grounds of this Ft. Meyers resort, McCarley used firebush and silver buttonwood (foreground), with coconut palms and cordgrass (background).

Credit: Custom Earthworks Design

Drawn to the coast for its natural beauty and wildlife, yet increasingly confronted by red tides, fish kills, and contaminated beaches, many coastal residents are deeply concerned about the environment. While they cannot single-handedly save the coast, a growing number are seeking out builders and landscapers who can help them make a difference in their own front yards--by landscaping with environmentally friendly native plants.

In Fort Myers on Florida's booming southwest coast, Custom Earthworks Design is one of a handful of area design firms that specialize in exclusively or mostly native landscapes. Co-owner Pat McCarley's nine-year-old company has grown steadily as new residents and home builders have sought him out to green yards and businesses with East Palatka holly, Walter's viburnum, dune sunflowers, and other local natives. McCarley says many of his clients "feel like they're doing something positive for the environment. They say, 'I can't go out and save the whales, but I can use native plant species and feel good about it.'"

Eco-Friendly Native Plants. Native plants are healthier for the environment than turf and traditional coastal exotics for several reasons, the main one being that they are accustomed to the dry coastal climate and thus require less irrigation. "We get calls all the time complaining about water bills from people who have just incredibly large landscapes on Sanibel or Captiva, where water is expensive," McCarley says, referring to nearby resort barrier islands. "If you can get rid of more of your grass, you don't have that issue."

That's a selling point not only to residents but also to local governments seeking to reduce water use and nutrient-rich runoff into bays and estuaries. Florida is a leader in the native plant trend because of its year-round growing season and 1,197 miles of coastline. As many as 30 of the state's 67 counties now require at least some portion of native plants in new commercial and/or residential landscapes, notes Cammie Donaldson, author of the annual Native Plant & Service Directory published by the Association of Florida Native Nurseries (AFNN).

"Water conservation is really driving it," Donaldson says, adding that the association's membership has nearly tripled from about 50 members 10 years ago to 140 today. Many native plants are also salt-tolerant, making them ideal for beachfront lots. Accustomed to salt spray, they can subsist on poor coastal soil conditions and are resistant to local pests, reducing fertilizers, pesticides, and maintenance. They draw birds and other wildlife that some homeowners yearn to observe. "They even attract more butterflies," McCarley notes. "There are just all kinds of reasons to use them."

Here, fishtail fern (left) contrasts with the smaller, fragrant wart fern (right), along a path covered in washed shells. At night, the shells reflect moonlight and provide a crunchy sound underfoot for security.

Here, fishtail fern (left) contrasts with the smaller, fragrant wart fern (right), along a path covered in washed shells. At night, the shells reflect moonlight and provide a crunchy sound underfoot for security.

Credit: Custom Earthworks Design

Lee County, Fla., where Custom Earthworks is based, requires 75 percent native plants on new landscapes for commercial development. But that rule is just one motivator for customers of Custom Earthworks, which grew 20 percent annually in its first five years and now handles about 30 residential and commercial developments annually.

Where Landscaping Meets Home Building. Some homeowners contact the company directly, but the firm subcontracts regularly with several custom home builders. McCarley prefers to begin after the home's exterior is completely finished, but he and the firm's three landscape sales designers often put their heads together with builders long before that.

"Because we're responsible for creating the atmosphere around the home, almost every single time our opinion is solicited for things that have to do with the appearance of the home," he says, citing a recent job where he and a contractor decided to add an outside kitchen to spruce up an otherwise unremarkable pool deck area. "We were trying to find ways to enhance the area," he explains. "We were talking about the landscaping but also about the livability of the home."

Lee Staton, a custom home builder and owner and president of Fort Myers-based Nautilus Construction Group, has hired McCarley to landscape at least a dozen of his $1 million-to-$2.5 million homes over the past decade. He says he brings McCarley in "very early" in the process--before construction begins, if possible. That's because it's critical for McCarley to work with the homeowner in choosing a landscape and matching it to the style of the home, a process that is not necessarily rapid or efficient.

"Pat can present different ways of doing it, but [the homeowners] need to have time to digest it," Staton said. "They'll get back together, and they'll have Pat change the drawings, and then they'll get back together and have Pat change the drawings, and so on."

Landscape designer Pat McCarley removed sod from a stormwater pond and replaced it with native plants--such as cypress, leather ferns, and cordgrass--that are healthier for the environment.

Landscape designer Pat McCarley removed sod from a stormwater pond and replaced it with native plants--such as cypress, leather ferns, and cordgrass--that are healthier for the environment.

Credit: Custom Earthworks Design

Once the design is settled, McCarley often needs to start planting before the home is completed so that the end product has a finished look, Staton says. For one house to be finished this summer, McCarley planted four palm trees early in the spring, well before the outside of the home was completed.

Builders also turn to McCarley to solve tricky problems with less-than-ideal lots. For example, with pie-shaped lots, even $500,000-to-$1 million homes may be close together toward the rear of each lot. Keeping the owners satisfied with their privacy often comes down to good landscaping, McCarley says.

"The owner doesn't want to look at a neighbor's garage, and the neighbor doesn't want to look at him," he says. "You've got to find a way to squeeze in a landscape buffer that will serve the purpose, not be a maintenance nightmare, and complement the home that you're landscaping."