By Lee Hayes Byron, County Extension Director and Abbey Tyrna, Water Resources Extension Agent
As I travel around Sarasota County, I see so many examples of sustainability and best practices applied in peoples’ yards, homes, and neighborhoods. These community members are taking action in ways that are important to them and making a difference for us all. In this new series, “In The Neighborhood,” we will highlight a few of these community members and the steps they’ve taken to protect our shared environment.
It is fitting to start with an individual who has been living his principles while also working at the community scale to make system-wide change in the county where his family has lived for five generations. Jon Thaxton has been a Realtor, an environmental advocate, a County Commissioner, and more before serving in his current role as Senior Vice President of Community Leadership for Gulf Coast Community Foundation. At a recent event to honor his lifelong impact on our community’s history, one of my tablemates said, “I have enjoyed hearing Jon Thaxton speak many times over the years, but my favorite by far was a morning spent in Jon’s yard hearing about his approach to his landscape.” Having just visited Jon’s yard myself a couple weeks before, I couldn’t agree more.
Jon grew up in Osprey and has lived on the same property there for 20 years. In that time, he has transformed the standard 80’x120’ residential lot into a model example of sustainability. He modeled his home after the Florida House design, aiming for the minimum impact they could have in the square footage (aluminum roof, wrap around porch with clothesline under the overhang, passive solar, energy efficiency, and so much more). While that itself could be its own story, the focus of my visit was his yard, which he has carefully molded into not just Florida-Friendly, but also bay-friendly and wildlife-friendly.
When he bought the property, there was a forest of Brazilian Pepper (which he removed), some oaks and palms (which remain) and that’s it. Everything else he has carefully added over the years, with the goals of keeping all the stormwater created from his roof onsite, managing nutrients, attracting wildlife, enriching the soil, recycling yard waste, and creating a natural enclave for him and his wife to enjoy.
There are now 42 cabbage palms, 17 live oaks, 12 red cedars, and countless other primarily native plants filling multiple layers of a complex ecosystem from top to bottom and front to back. Each of the cedar trees was a Christmas tree in a 3-gallon pot, which was planted on the property after serving its role for the holidays. The back of the property is along a creek, which is lined with mangroves (all of which he planted). He even has a “pet mangrove” in a pot, which he grew from seed and is now 18 years old.
In maintaining this landscape, he uses virtually no potable water for irrigation (only watering his potted plants with captured rainwater), no fertilizer, and no pesticides (he said: “the only weeds are wanted plants growing where they’re not wanted”).
Around each corner, he had a story of where he had salvaged something from. One walkway was made of pavers which were repurposed coral rock from the wall of the Sugar and Spice restaurant when it closed in. Another was lined with boards from docks or houses around the community. Planks in another area were from the flooring of a 200 year old tobacco warehouse. Jon’s unique combined passions for sustainability and history made for a fascinating story of upcycling throughout his yard.
Jon was very proud of his “beautiful, black, flaky soil.” He said, “we need to stop treating soil like dirt!” He collects yard waste from his neighbors to add to his mulch, lines his walkways with the palm fronds that have fallen from his cabbage palms over the last 20 years, and claims there is no place you can dig in his yard that you won’t find earthworms.
To meet his goal of ensuring no stormwater runoff leaves his property, he has shallow swales strategically placed throughout the property to allow rainwater to be absorbed onsite. And that’s after the rain is captured in the nearly complete tree canopy (“the first half inch is captured before the first drop hits the ground”). He has five rain barrels, with lines running to support areas that may need watering or to fill his fish pond if needed.
All this work to build multiple layers of diverse habitat has clearly worked in attracting wildlife. An avid birder, Jon keeps a list of bird species he’s seen just on his own property. There’s a red shoulder hawk that nests each year, blue jays, 2 broods of Carolina wrens, screech and bard owls, and many more. He’s seen 10 species of snake including pinewood, ringneck, coral, yellow rat, red rat, ribbon snake, mud snake, and more. He’s seen a bobcat four times this year. River otters and leopard frogs love his small fish pond.
After an hour exploring just 1,600 square feet, it was clear we hadn’t even scratched the surface of this property’s complex story. In this neighborhood, there is one yard that stands out as a unique model of sustainable landscaping, stormwater, and wildlife best practices.
If you’d like to learn more about how to follow Jon’s lead in your yard, here are some helpful resources:
Photo Credits: Jon Thaxton and Lee Hayes Byron