If fungus doesn't kill it, chinch bugs will

Published September 3, 2006

It's always enjoyable to visit other areas of the country and compare landscaping and plants. Recently an unexpected quick trip led me to Texas, about 35 miles north of Dallas. I was surprised to see that much of the landscape materials used there are the same we have here.

I saw lantana, spirea, liriope, begonias, junipers and many others. The area had been unusually dry this summer, with fountains turned off because of the lack of water, reminding me of problems we sometimes experience here.

One way many of the apartment complexes, commercial areas and some of the houses handled the lack of water was concentrating the colorful plant materials in one or two beds. Those areas were watered and located near the entrance areas so they could be enjoyed. We Floridians might want to try this the next time we have serious water rationing. It is also a good practice to help conserve water any time.

Of course lately we're getting plenty of water from Mother Nature. But, alas, it is not all good news. Our St. Augustine grass that at one time was invaded by chinch bugs may now be suffering from a fungus. I can see the frustration of the gentleman applying the chemicals to my yard.

A neighbor whose St. Augustine was about 70 percent destroyed by chinch bugs is now looking at bahia as a replacement in her 9,000-square-foot yard because it costs less. I mentioned to her that the neighbors would see bahia as a weed, as all the other lawns are St. Augustine. She is so frustrated that she is willing to try anything and has been told (rightly so) that bahia is a low-maintenance grass with few pest and disease problems.

Her announcement led me to do a little research on grass, and I discovered that the University of Florida developed Ultimate Flora Zoysia grass. The last few years of constant battle with our turf may make this recently introduced Zoysia more appealing.

The literature says it has a deeper green color and a finer texture than St. Augustine grass. It is also supposed to need less water, resist chinch bugs and require less fertilizer. Those all sound very appealing to me. I have e-mailed Environmental Turf in Fort Pierce to see if there are any large plantings of it in the Tampa Bay area, as I would very much like to see it. Every time I think of Zoysia I am reminded of the magazine advertisements trying to sell "miracle" grass for every type of condition. I know that Zoysia has moved a long way since those times.

That aside, at this point we have to deal with the turf we have now! And as I said, if you have St. Augustine, you probably also have fungus. There are a number of sprays that you can apply to help control this problem. Make sure the one you choose is labeled for the type of grass in your yard.

The area killed by the fungus will look exactly like the area killed by chinch bugs, so make sure it is still not a bug problem. It doesn't hurt to know a little about your enemy, so if you are still being bothered by chinch bugs this may help.

Adult chinch bugs are about one-fifth of an inch long and black with white wings folded over their backs. These pests are sunshine loving and seldom attack grass in the shade. Because they can fly, it is difficult to keep them out of your yard. They will move in from neighbors' lawns or golf courses.

Scout turf on a sunny day by slowly sliding your foot through the sod and watching for the bugs to crawl across your shoe. You can also determine infestations by using a large coffee can or gallon can with both ends removed. Press one end of the can about 2 to 3 inches into the soil, fill with soapy water, and watch for about five minutes. If chinch bugs are present, they will float to the surface. This test will also bring mole crickets to the surface. If you don't see any bugs, your grass was probably killed by a fungus. The good news is, the fungus seems to be easier to control than the bugs!

Moving away from grass to plant material, your shrubs are probably overgrown. I am constantly trimming a little here, or pruning just a bit from some other plant. The growth rate is phenomenal, and this is all without any added fertilizer to my beds in at least two months.

Many of my portulaca and begonia had been snack food for the apparent families of slugs that took up residence in my yard. Ironically, the portulaca is doing great in my grass. I guess the seeds are being washed into the grass by heavy rains and appear quite healthy sticking out of the lawn. The good news is that they are easy to pull up. This is the perfect example of the definition of a weed: a plant growing somewhere you don't want it to be.

Enjoy the rains and the abundance this time of year, but perhaps from a cool family room overlooking the back yard.