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Protecting Florida homes from invasive plant species

September 30, 2021

By Mitchell Moore

Management of Florida’s non-native species is needed to preserve the values provided by natural areas to homes and neighborhoods

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida struggles with more non-native plants and animals than any other part of the country. This is largely due to Florida’s subtropical climate, giving invasive species a longer growth period than most other parts of the country.

Non-native and invasive plant species destroy natural ecosystems by displacing native plant species and outcompeting for sun and nutrients. Some of the most common invasive plant species invading southwest Florida are melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, and Australian pine.

Species such as these are problematic in natural areas within residential communities due to their fast growth rate, location of infestation, and limited access. These species can cause damage to both natural ecosystems and built infrastructure. Therefore, it is necessary to prevent invasive species overgrowth. When properly managed, these areas increase home values and improve the quality of life for those who live near them. Living in proximity to a thriving ecosystem can reduce stress and improve happiness and health. The challenges presented by invasive species are not unique to our home state. Much of what we present as solutions here will work in other areas.

The importance of integrated pest management

For homeowners, homeowner associations, and community development districts, controlling invasive species presents many challenges. These groups must account for annual budgets, homeowner dues, and the management of their natural assets. Invasive species not only displace desirable vegetation but also invade landscaped areas and private property. This reduces the area that can be mowed and requires more labor-intensive methods, such as line trimmers. It also requires recurring trimming of the invasive plants in overgrown areas.

If an invasive species has been identified within your community, there is no need to panic. This is the first step of integrated pest management. Residential communities may be placed into two categories regarding invasive plant species management—pre-development initial treatment and post-development initial treatment.

For pre-development communities or new subdivisions, developers are often required to remove invasive species from the property before obtaining a certificate of occupancy. The invasive plants are typically removed or treated from the natural areas prior to or during construction. This gives the vegetation management contractor more access to the infested areas. This includes mechanical removal, which is more cost-effective than manual cutting and removal techniques. What’s more, the resultant biomass is often removed from the project site by the land clearing contractor, typically by burning. 

A time lapse video of the removal of invasive species.

Post-development communities are typically older and more established. However, they can also be newer communities that either were not required to remove invasive vegetation during construction or have neglected the management of their natural areas for several years. These communities often have barriers to access natural areas such as homes, landscaping, ponds, and utilities. Initial treatment within these communities often requires a larger amount of manual labor and temporary staging for biomass. Along with this, off-site disposal may also be required, including the restoration of common areas such as re-sodding and landscape replacement.

The duration of the removal process depends on many factors. These include approved regulatory permits or resource management plans, target species, density, stem size, endangered species, and access. While initially it may seem like the invasive plant life is completely removed after the initial work, communities must be diligent in providing ongoing maintenance to prevent regrowth from years of seed source already present in the soil. As the natural areas progress over the years and native plants can recover and thrive, the effort and the cost of maintenance is reduced. However, the cost to perform another initial treatment within the same area after many years of neglect may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, wasting the previous investment.  

Before and after: Removing and controlling invasive species improves the aesthetic of a development’s natural environment and makes room for native species to return and thrive.

Ecosystem benefits

Removing invasive species is an important component in overall ecosystem restoration. The process gives native flora and fauna the chance to flourish once again. Natural areas that have been restored to a native habitat almost immediately see an increase in wildlife activity. For example, areas previously overgrown with Brazilian pepper are opened to a more diverse population of birds and small animals. Within the first few years, pollinator-attracting plants, such as beautyberry, buttonbush, goldenrod, loosestrife, and Spanish needle, begin to thrive, providing much a needed habitat for bees and butterflies. By removing invasive plants, the aesthetic of the area also improves. Rather than seeing monocultures of one or two species, a more diverse palette of native species emerges.

Overgrowth issues are not unique to just non-native invasive plants. Many Florida ecosystems are naturally maintained by wildfire, historically sparked by lightning. Pine flatwoods are one of these ecosystems, found between residences and wetlands in southwest Florida. These ecosystems typically have a canopy of either longleaf pine or slash pine. They also have a sub-canopy that can become dominated by dense saw palmetto. Since fire management in residential areas is usually not an option, these areas may need to be maintained every few years. Maintenance of these areas includes the use of low ground pressure equipment, such as a forestry mower. Canopy trees are avoided in this process, but the sub-canopy is reduced in place and left to naturally restore over the course of several years. Once this is completed, these areas need to be closely monitored to be sure that invasive vegetation isn’t introduced.

The removal of non-native plants in residential natural areas goes hand-in-hand with the maintenance of a stormwater management system. Natural areas, especially wetlands, are often integrated into the stormwater systems and usually have at least one or two drainage structures linked with each wetland area. If neglected, invasive vegetation can grow over these structures, limiting their function. Removing or treating non-native and, in some cases, native vegetation helps stormwater management systems continue to function properly.

The benefits of maintaining the natural ecosystem in your community are numerous. It is important to maintain the growth of invasive plant species. This helps ensure that residences are not surprised with unplanned special assessment fees, loss of value of common and private property, and higher landscape maintenance fees. However, the greatest benefit is restoring the land to the beauty that made people want to move here in the first place.

  • Mitchell Moore

    Mitchell works on projects that preserve and restore the natural environment. This includes wetland mitigation, non-native vegetation management, phosphate mine reclamation, stormwater system management, and native planting, seeding, and landscaping.

    Contact Mitchell
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