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The brown, brown grass of home

As the afternoon thundershowers return, the question now is whether to replant the lawn or hope the rain just brings it back.

By MARY COLLISTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


Perhaps you're one of the lucky ones. Ever mindful that Florida lawns are fragile, you set your sprinkler timer for the correct watering day and kept a close enough vigil to pull your lawn through the merciless drought.

Or maybe you used the drought as an excuse and abandoned your lawn entirely.

Either way, odds are you're looking out at your landscape today and seeing patches of something that looks more like hay.

As the temperatures soar, some of us face the unpleasant prospect of replacing sections of lawn, while others will be replacing the entire lawn.

"I think everyone still has a nasty taste in their mouth for resodding," said Steve Rey, co-owner of Green Thumb Landscaping at 6913 Sheldon Road.

"You won't really see it until we get the afternoon weather patterns back. Then it's going to hit like crazy. I would be surprised if we didn't have a shortage of sod, come August."

First question first: Do you need to replant your lawn? Or will the rains just bring it back?

Here's a clue: If your grass has survived, the current rainshowers should be turning it green. In fact, if the rains continue, you should see explosive growth.

But if, as you read this, you still have brown patches, there is work to be done. The size of these dead areas will help you decide which method of replacement is best.

Plant or Pay?

If the damage was substantial, you'll want to weigh the hard labor of replanting against the costs of paying someone else to do it; or buying sod and installing it yourself.

A pallet of St. Augustine sod, enough to cover about 400 square feet, costs between $100 and $125. Bahia ranges from $50 to $55. You can lower these prices if you order in volume.

Then the real work begins.

If you choose to have the sod installed you'll pay about $25 a pallet. If your site needs preparation, the costs vary widely and increase geometrically. You can lower the labor costs by hiring some strong teenagers in your neighborhood. Make sure you see the sod before having it delivered or get a reference from a friend, as quality can vary widely. Paying a little more for quality sod is worth it.

What kind of grass is best?

It should be obvious, if it wasn't before the drought, that turf grasses are thirsty plants. The four most common turf grasses in the area are Bermuda, St. Augustine, centipede, and Bahia. Bahia and Bermuda are generally rated as excellent at tolerating drought. In fact, it is best if water is cut back during the summer for both Bahia and Bermuda. This allows them their normal dormancy. St. Augustine grass can take a little drought, while centipede is the least tolerant.

Unfortunately, there is not one superior turf grass for this area. To have a lawn you must choose which is best for your location, for your lifestyle, and for the appearance of the landscape you are developing. As you begin making the choice, ask yourself the following questions and discuss the answers with experts, including Cooperative Extension Service staff in Seffner, reliable nursery personnel or gardeners whose lawns you admire:

How much money and effort do you want to expend when starting the lawn?

How much time do you have for maintenance?

Does a dormant lawn bother you?

How much sun and shade does the lawn area receive?

How important to you is it to have a picture perfect turf area?

When will be the time of most use?

After these questions are answered, consult the grass selection chart. It is best not to mix different varieties of grass since each has different cultural needs.

You should also consult your deed restrictions or homeowners association before making any radical changes. Some developments specify types of lawn grass, such as St. Augustine.

How do I prepare my soil?

Soil preparation is hard work, but shortcuts here will result in poor performance. If you are replacing dead grass, remove all traces of the grass and work the soil with a plow or tiller. Work peat moss, ground bark, compost, topsoil or perlite eight inches into your soil. Then rake in about 10 to 15 pounds of a 12-4-8 fertilizer for each 1,000 square feet. Ideally, grasses prefer a pH of about 6.0. This may be a good time to have your soil tested by the Extension Service, which can give you directions on improving your pH if necessary.

How do I seed?

If you are seeding a lawn (common Bermuda, Bahia or centipede) make sure you use the right amount of seeds. For common and hybrid Bermuda, use about one to one and one-half pounds per 1,000 square feet. You can toss it by hand or use a spreader, for more uniform coverage.

Lightly rake in the seed, and roll. Keep the soil continually moist for three to four weeks after seeding. The seed will take 10 to 14 days to germinate. Mow when the grass is slightly above desired mowing height, usually three-quarter to one and one-half inch tall. Fertilize after the second mowing with about one pound nitrogen per one thousand square feet.

Centipede is seeded at a rate of one quarter to one-half pound per one thousand square feet. Mixing the seed with fine sand increases ease of seeding. Lightly roll in the seed. The seed takes three to four weeks to germinate. Keep soil continually moist for three to four weeks.

Centipede can also be established be sprigging. Sprigs, or two-inch plugs of sod, are typically set on one-foot centers. For best results one end of the sprig should be exposed. Sprigs are rolled and watered like seeds. You'll want to rent the roller from an equipment rental shop.

Mow the grass when it is 1 to 2 inches high. Fertilize after first or second mowing at a rate of one pound of nitrogen for 1,000 square feet. Once established, centipede is a low-maintenance grass requiring less fertilizer and mowing than other grasses.

St. Augustine

By far the most common grass in subdivisions is St. Augustine, which comes in several varieties. It can be established either by sod or plugs, 3-inch square hunks of grass that come in trays of 18 for about $3 a tray. Plugs are typically placed 12 to 18 inches apart. Once established, St. Augustine's aggressive runners grow into the gaps.

You can buy or rent a special tool for making custom-fit holes for each plug.

Sodding costs two to three times as much but is easier to care for initially. Prepare the soil as you would for seeding. Butt the pieces of sod as close together as possible without overlapping. Roll the sod once it is all installed and keep continually moist for two to three weeks to encourage rooting.

What's the best way to mow?

Do it frequently enough to maintain the desired height without removing at any more than a third of the leaf blade at a time. St. Augustine is happiest at 11/2 to 3 inches long, Bahia, 21/2 to 3 inches. Hybrid Bermuda is kept short, just one-half to 1 inch with common Bermuda at 1 to 11/2 inches. Centipede should be mowed at 1 to 11/2 s.

Centipede should be mowed at one to one and one-half inches while St. Augustine is happiest at one and one-half to three inches long.

Keep your mower blade sharp. Most fungal diseases are spread readily by mowers, and the incidence of disease is aggravated if the leaves are mutilated when cut.

It is also preferable to cut grass when it is dry, not wet. The grass mows more easily, there is less tracking and compaction, and the chance of spreading diseases is reduced. There is also less clumping of clippings, which, when wet, form small, thick masses that can smother the turf, ferment, and contribute to the thatch layer.

How much water will it need?

While emergency water restrictions will sometimes dictate, it's best to water your lawn when you see any of the following:

The soil is obviously dry.

The lawn has a bluish-gray cast.

The grass leaves are wilted and folded or rolled up.

Footprints remain in the lawn for a time after the impression has been made.

The rule of thumb for watering established lawns is as follows: Always water as least 1 inch at a time. Light waterings keep the surface soil continually moist, which encourages shallower rooting of the turf grass and also promotes the germination of surface-situated weed seeds.

If renovating or replacing your lawn sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is. There is no shortcut method that will give favorable results, other than the costly option of hiring professionals for planting and maintenance.

Do I really need such a big lawn?

Remember that grass uses more water and requires more maintenance than any other part of your landscape. You might want to concentrate the use of grass in areas that are used for recreation, and switch to other ground covers for a more balanced landscape.

A colleague, garden writer Monica Moran Brandies, suggests alternatives that include aloe, beach sunflower, junipers, kalanchoe, lantana, liriope, sea oats, periwinkle and golden creeper. Brandies' book, Xeriscaping for Florida Homes, (Great Outdoors Publishing Co.) might be helpful if you choose that route.

Some other ground covers for sunny areas that have worked for me include thyme, oregano, creeping Charlie with its pretty yellow flowers, portulaca, mondo grass, ivy, verbena or jasmine. If you have some shade try ferns, ajuga, dwarf gardenia, or scented geraniums. Most of these ground covers won't take foot traffic so you may want to add a pathway through the plantings.

"I'd say prudent homeowners, when it comes to their yards, are going more heavily for the ornamentals," said Rey, the Citrus Park landscaper. "They want plants that will at least survive in semi-drought conditions, maybe grassing a smaller area but not as much as before."

Whether it's ground cover or landscape plants, Rey said this year's conditions have forced people to educate themselves on water needs.

"People who come into our garden center are saying, "I want something that will survive if I don't stand there with a hose and water it.' "

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