Jungle Island: An Organic Success Story
One of the biggest objections we hear when promoting organic lawn and landscape maintenance concerns the cost. The overriding perception is that natural fertilization and pest controls cost more, are less effective and generally lead to an unkempt appearance.
That, said Jeff Shimonski, cannot be further from the truth.
The vice president of horticulture for Jungle Island in Miami, Fla., Jeff has never used pesticides or chemical fertilizers on his 18-acre tropical property in the past six-plus years. Having viewed it with my own eyes a week ago, I can tell you the plants are amazingly healthy — just like the bottom line, according to Jeff.
“This is a for-profit business and for the owners it’s all about the bottom line,” he said during our hour-long walk through of the popular tourist attraction. “At the end of the day, we’re saving tons of money by avoiding the pesticides and the fertilizers. And, as you can see, the plants look great.”
Jeff said he grew up in the horticulture industry using the same pesticides we all did. “That’s just what we were taught,” he said.
Several years ago, however, he said he began to have second thoughts about almost daily spraying for insects, including mosquitoes, and also frequent applications for weed control and fungal diseases.
“The sprays really weren’t working,” he said. “Not from a health perspective and also not from plant perspective, either. The insects build up a resistance over time and so you have to apply more and more product and get less and less efficacy.”
When the owners of Jungle Island opted to move the facility to its new location on Watson Island, a one-time hardscrabble landfill between Miami Beach and South Beach, they gave Jeff free reign to design the new landscape with organics in mind. Bringing in thousands of yards of compost was his first move.
After establishing all of his new plants in fertile surroundings, Jeff said the key to subsequent success is to keep his eyes open every day and always resist the temptation to override nature. Here are a few of his pointers I came away with; the principles are the same no matter where you live in the country:
1) RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE — Not every plant will grow in every situation and it’s only when you try to force it that you get into trouble with insects, disease and poor growth factors. When a palm tree became overrun with insects, he cut and removed the palm rather than take out the sprays.
2) FERTILIZER CAN BE GROWN, NOT POURED — In the North, I have long been a proponent of cover crops such as clover, which can trap nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. Jeff introduced me to a tall bush with daisy-like yellow flowers that was grown behind some small palm-like shrubs. The Tithonia diversifolia was, like clover, a legume capable of “fixing” nitrogen. Jeff lets the Tithonia grow for a while so people can enjoy the yellow flowers. Then he cuts the plant to the ground and covers it with mulch. The nitrogen-rich Tithonia becomes the fertilizer that makes the surrounding palms grow so well.
3) LAWNS & LANDSCAPES IN HARMONY — Jungle Island features several lawn areas. One in particular was mostly St. Augustine, which is one of the two most common lawn grasses in Florida. Even without fertilizer it appeared healthy and mostly devoid of weeds, other than a bit of beautiful Mexican clover, Richardia grandiflora. The other lawn area had very little grass, but was really beautiful nonetheless. The 12 or so “weeds” in the large area were thriving in a hardpan soil where constant events made compaction inevitable. The wide variety of plants, according to Jeff, attracted beneficial insects that helped protect the surrounding trees from insect infestation. “If we didn’t have the diversity of species of plants in our lawn, I’m sure the trees would be overrun with insects and disease and we’d be forced to spray the pesticides.”
4) YOU DON’T NEED TO SPRAY FOR MOSQUITOES — At many Florida attractions, daily mosquito spraying is a fact of life — especially if the park offers evening events. Jeff has mastered bio-controls for the persistent pests, which includes constant monitoring of standing water in and around plants and ponds. Rather than try to explain his techniques here, I invite you to check out this page of his web site: http://tropicaldesigns.com/amc-09.html. It’s truly fascinating to me that he has figured this out. Imagine how much municipalities around the world could save on pesticides if they adopted some of these control techniques.