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The Garden Doctor

The lawn that doesn't run your life

By JOHN A. STARNES Jr.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 10, 2000


Let's face it: Most of us have a love-hate relationship with our lawns. We slave over them with weed-and-feed fertilizers, fungal and insecticidal sprays, mowers, edgers, blowers and incredible amounts of water. Or we fork over a lot of money to a lawn service that is just as likely to use all those chemicals.

We continually repair broken sprinkler heads, add new lines and adjust heads, buy new timer clocks and valves, all for the privilege of generating huge monthly water bills.

Yet if we do not chase the grail of the perfect lawn, our similarly struggling neighbors and friends may question our patriotism and social status. What are we to do?

Take a new look at lawn love and what it does to Florida's increasingly strained environment, which simply cannot sustain millions of thirsty, chemical-drenched St. Augustine and Bahia lawns.

Folks still want a big, lush lawn without the worry and expense of continually fighting chinch bugs, fungal diseases, mole crickets and weeds.

Before sprinkler systems and lawn chemicals became the norm, Bermuda grass was the grass for Central and South Florida and still is the top choice for playgrounds, seaside parks and stadiums, such as Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

We've all noticed escaped Bermuda thriving along roadsides, where it receives no care whatsoever. It loves the alkaline crushed oyster shell and/or limestone marl below the blacktop.

Demanding varieties of Bermuda have been bred for golf courses, where it is ruthlessly mowed low so balls can roll on it. The tough varieties Bermuda 419 and Tiftway are virtually immune to the bugs, fungi and weeds that trash St. Augustine and Bahia lawns. (Overuse of high-nitrogen chemical lawn fertilizer can encourage fungal diseases on any grass, including Bermuda.)

Bermuda grass needs much less water than St. Augustine. Like St. Augustine, it grows best if acid soils are sweetened annually with dolomite. Note: Your soil is likely very acid if you see a lot of acid-indicator weeds. Among them are oxalis (looks like clover but has small yellow or pink flowers and tart edible leaves that taste like rhubarb), dollarweed (looks like little lily pads in the lawn) or sedge grass (not a true grass; little clumps with spiky seed heads) and sandspurs. A soil test by your local agricultural extension service can confirm your soil's pH, or level of acid or alkalinity.

A Bermuda lawn on fertile, non-acid soils tends to have few of those acid-loving weeds. It is an aggressive grass that tends to choke out weeds; because of that, keep it out of flower beds by edging them with a barrier. Many people prefer its soft texture to the coarseness of St. Augustine.

With the annual spring droughts and the arrival of chinch bugs and mole crickets, plus those acid-loving weeds, our St. Augustine and Bahia lawns stand as much of a chance of emerging victorious as would Richard Simmons making a guest appearance on WWF Smack Down.

Garden centers can make special orders of plug trays of Bermuda 419 or Tiftway. Plant them, evenly spaced, all over your existing lawn for a bug- and disease-resistant "blended lawn" like our grandparents grew. A mixture of grasses is far less attractive to pests than a monocultural lawn of one kind of grass.

I plugged my own lawn in Tampa this spring by using a shovel vs. a plugger tool so as to plant them deep in the soil, barely protruding, to avoid their drying out and dying. If you wait till the summer rains return (if they return!), they'll water the plugs for you.

Feeding your blended lawn each March, July, September and December with a good organic such as Ringer Lawn Restore or fish meal from a feed store, giving it a deep weekly watering during the dry season and mowing it 3 to 31/2 inches high will give you a fine, non-toxic lawn far kinder to your budget and the environment.

It is commonly held that one must use a reel mower on a Bermuda lawn. That is true only if one is after that golf-course effect, as many of us have noticed whose chinch-damaged St. Augustine lawns have been "invaded" by wild Bermuda. Just keep the mower blades sharp, and do not gather up the clippings. Let them fall back into the lawn where they can become compost. Thatch is a problem only on chemically maintained lawns that have few surviving beneficial bacteria and earthworms.

Helping make our neighborhoods neat and attractive by keeping up our gardens and lawns is a healthy and admirable goal. Letting our lawns dominate our lives and plunder Florida's increasingly scarce water supplies while leaching pesticides into the environment is not. All the time and money a blended Bermuda lawn can free up will let us enjoy our lives in Florida even more.

John A. Starnes Jr. is an avid gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida nd Colorado. He can be reached at: THEGARDEN-DOCTOR@worldnet.att.net

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