Credit: Custom Earthworks Design

That challenge would be the same for native or non-native plants. But many people underestimate the versatility of natives, often stereotyped as "weedy," McCarley says. In fact, while native species have a more natural look by definition, they can serve many different tastes and home styles. "We've done native landscapes where they've been very natural, very barrier-island-like. But we've also done 100 percent native projects that are very formal and elegant" using, for example, royal palm trees.

Staton agrees. His 5,000-square-foot homes tend to be on the formal side, based on classic English, French, and Italian designs. "One thing Pat is able to do," he says, "is incorporate natural or native plants, trees, and bushes in a fashion that looks correct in that caliber of a home."

McCarley says the up-front cost for native landscapes closely mirrors traditional landscapes. Custom Earthworks' prices start at $15,000 for new homes, and they climb from there. One residential landscape on Captiva Island came to $90,000. Individual plants run from $1.50 per plug for common species like dune sunflower to at least $600 each for slow-growing, 6- to 8-foot buccaneer palms.

Whatever the up-front cost, McCarley emphasizes that native landscapes are less expensive than their counterparts in the long run because of savings in water, fertilization, and maintenance. "For the homeowner, it's cheaper," he says.

McCarley's greenery palette contains about 200 plant species, including a few exotics. When he first launched his business in 1997, it was difficult to find many of the plants he needed, but the increase in demand has helped solve that problem. Availability remains an occasional issue, however. Since last summer, McCarley has had to search hard for mangroves. As he notes, that's ironic, considering that just two decades ago Florida builders and developers were ripping them out by the acre. "Mangroves are popular because they help to preserve our coastline and they provide fish habitat, so they're in high demand," he says.

Green Building and Native Landscaping. Statewide in Florida, Custom Earthworks is unusual in its focus on new construction, and native landscapes in general remain "a niche market," says Laurel Schiller, vice president of the Association of Florida Native Nurseries and co-owner of Florida Native Plants, a Sarasota native nursery and landscaping firm.

Credit: Custom Earthworks Design

Tastes are changing, but the process is incremental, and numbers remain small. She describes her typical customers as current Florida residents tired of the constant watering and maintenance that comes with exotic landscapes, as well as environmentally aware baby boomers buying early retirement or second homes.

"They grew up with Earth Day in the school system," she says. "Their whole background is different from the background of the generation before. The generation before ditched the Everglades, drained the rivers, and cleared the land."

That said, she emphasizes that a big part of her work is getting the message out about native plants. Indeed, there's an obvious education gap. Staton, the custom home builder, says his customers usually don't ask for natives but are enthusiastic once they learn of the benefits. "They like seeing what they see, and 'Oh, by the way, you don't have to fertilize the hind out of it and you don't have to maintain it every day.' So it's kind of a double attraction," he says.

Schiller says green-oriented customers are not uncommon, but the building community has been slow to catch on. She says she often receives calls from transplants unhappy that a builder or developer has wiped out most of their tree canopy and who are hoping Florida Native Plants can help them restore the natural look.

"Our business is about trying to give people the opportunity to live in the backyards of their property," she says. "So much of it is so cleared that they are eight to ten years from a canopy again."

The fast-growing green building trend toward more environmentally benign, energy-efficient homes would seem to present a natural opportunity for native landscaping to move onto center stage. But Schiller worries that there is a "disconnect" between the practices and standards of green building and the potential of native landscapes to enhance "the green effect." Designers and builders will tout thermally efficient windows without considering the benefits of the tree canopy, for example, which can do as much or more to reduce home cooling loads. "People will say, 'We're cutting solar radiation by 30 percent, and I think, 'A tree on the southwest side will do that too,'" she says.

"I think the building industry has been much more interested in the 'hardscaping' without seeing that it could and should be both," she notes. "The savings will be much greater if you're using old Florida landscaping techniques that cool and shade."

This story first appeared in COASTAL CONTRACTOR magazine.