Gardening: Which grass is right for you?

Eileen Ward
Close up of green grass.

Following are four types of grass used in the Marco Island area and some tips on maintenance.

Bermuda is the grass used on golf courses. It likes to be cut at a very short .5-inch to three-fourths inch making it ideal for golf. It is not desirable for home use due to the high level of maintenance needed. It needs mowing times two to three times a week during the growing season and must be fertilized five to six times a year. It is also not tolerant of shade making it susceptible to disease.

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Bahia is used on some lawns but is now seen less and less. It looks more like northern grass but it has a short life span of 3 to 5 years. It does tolerate foot traffic better than St. Augustine and it is drought tolerant and will regenerate from rhizomes when water is reintroduced. Bahia is a pasture grass not meant to be watered, fertilized or mowed. A high cut is necessary to keep Bahia healthy and this allows for seed head development. It is not tolerant of shade or salt. And thinning turf allows for weed invasion.

Just because the weather is cooler doesn't mean you should stop cutting your grass.

St. Augustine “Floratam” is the most desirable lawn grass. It is very salt tolerant and due to horizontal stolon growth areas damaged by water or insect problems will fill back in. A high cutting height develops a deeper root system for drought tolerance. Long blades shade the stolons and soil for less water evaporation. Longer blades also emit an enzyme which is toxic to chinch bugs. And finally, the thicker grass inhibits weed growth. It should be noted that a low cutting height will stress the lawn causing a shallow root system and allowing sunlight to dry the stolons and soil requiring more water and encouraging chinch bugs to the dry, stressed areas. Weeds can easily invade the sparse turf. Chinch bugs and grubs are the two most damaging insects for St. Augustine. Chinch bugs cause yellowing along sidewalks and driveways or surrounding old dry spots. The spots will grow and soon double in size. Spread the grass blades at the edge of yellowing or damaged areas and look for black bugs with white wings running around the soil or at the base of the grass blades. Grubs cause the lawn to turn brown as if it has no water. Pull on sod and if it pulls up with no resistance from roots grubs have eaten them. Treat quickly and roots will regrow and regenerate the lawn.

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Empire Zoysia is the new grass on the block and is fast becoming popular. It thrives in our tropical climate yet shows some cold hardiness. It claims to be drought tolerant with infrequent, deep watering but will go off color with drought and cold so can be unsightly during the height of our season. It also must have a lot of fertilizer to keep a good color. It has a deep thick root structure and because it is maintained at 1" to 2" looks more like northern grasses. Also performs well in sandy soil and weed tolerant due to thick growth. Problems include sod webworm, billbugs and grubs causing damage along with dollar spot disease. It is moderately shade tolerant but will thin with too much. This is not the environmentally friendly grass it is touted to be due to the water and fertilizer needs.

Watering two times a week reducing it to once a week or even once every other week in cooler winter weather should keep most lawns in good shape. Stream and rotor heads should run a minimum of 30 minutes in shady areas to 60 minutes in sunny sloped areas. Pop up or mist heads should run a minimum of 15 minutes to 20 minutes per zone depending on sunlight and sloping. Never mix stream & rotor with pop up mist heads in the same zone or in systems still using a turret valve due to different run times. Check for heads blocked by new or grown shrubs or grass. Know that broken risers can affect the pressure in that entire zone. Your lawn should have about 1 inch of water a week. So, each run should be one-half to three-fourths of an inch. Use cans to measure water output. Place somewhere dry and somewhere lush to check for problems. Individual zone valves and digital timers allow watering for different run times as needed throughout the yard. Turret valves and mechanical timers cannot.

Sometimes something other than grass would better suit your yard or lifestyle. Children and pets should have an area of lawn on which to play. (Bahai being the grass of choice here). Swales should always be sodded as grass and other green plants hold top soil in place, trap sediments and absorb nutrients and other pollutants which can pollute water. The same applies along seawalls. Try to use ground covers, ornamentals or grasses to filter pollutants from your yard. Leaching is a process whereby pollutants are flushed out of the soil by water as it percolates through the soil. With no roots to absorb and use these nutrients and other pollutants they end up in our environment. Gardens with paths throughout the yard can create small worlds of plants, ground covers and mulch. Include some patios or ponds and it can be a place of great relaxation for you and the local fauna.

Things to look for when hiring a lawn service. First determine what level of service you are looking for. Do you do your own gardening and just need someone to mow the grass? Or do you not want to think about your yard maintenance? Do you expect perfection, or will you tolerate a few weeds? These things should be spelled out clearly at the initial meeting. Is the company licensed and insured? Licenses include lawn maintenance, landscaping if removing or planting shrubs and trees, pesticide spraying license to treat lawns, special fertilizer license to fertilize, restricted use license for using round up for weed control in beds or spray caution chemicals on shrubs and trees. Insurance should include general liability for damage done to your property and workmen’s compensation for injured workers, so they don’t come after you for compensation.

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Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413.