Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
May, 2011
Regional Report

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One square foot of healthy turf grass produces oxygen more efficiently than any other kind of plant.

Living with a Lawn

Somewhere between golf course perfection and a weedy patch of "mow what grows," there's a nice green lawn that works hard for your landscape.

Why Bother with Turf?
There's a movement to eliminate lawns or at least drastically reduce their size in the landscape. The naysayers insist that green good looks are not enough to justify their often-large carbon footprint. Others deny there's any problem and intend to keep to their costly rituals so their lawn looks the best on the block. Most of us take neither of these positions, but would be wise to consider them, even if we steer the center course in our own yards.

For example, mowing the lawn can be healthy cardiovascular exercise rather like golf. Factor in riding mowers and golf carts, however, and the benefits decline. A healthy lawn offers design strength to the landscape. Like an attractive area rug, its presence makes everything else look better in relation to it. A bed of ground covers or a mulch blanket may not bring the same drama to a small garden design but is certainly more practical to maintain than acres of turf grass on a larger property. The presence of a nice green lawn adds hundreds of dollars to your property value, but a pro-quality putting green kind of lawn may not. Much as an outdoor swimming pool in Maine is not necessarily an asset, a high maintenance lawn can turn off potential buyers.

The physical attributes of turf grass may reveal the best reasons to keep having a lawn. Turf grasses prevent erosion, can slow down a fire, and lower summer temperatures by about five degrees compared to an adjoining concrete surface. A lawn can measurably reduce pollutants in the air. A 50 foot x 50 foot patch of lawn produces as much oxygen as four people need, while at the same time it absorbs noise and common pollutants like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

A simple, basic routine of lawn care can keep a modest patch of green benefits without breaking the carbon bank. This acknowledgment is particularly true in our regions, where southern turf grasses can grow with much less maintenance than some lavish on them.

Predictably Nice Lawns
Basic good care of turf grass depends on control of three factors, soil, water and sunlight. Less than half a day of sun makes for a struggle to grow any kind of lawn and is not advised. Watering the lawn ranges from the carefully timed in ground system to the occasional afternoon sprinkler-dragging ritual. Like most things turf, seek to be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. But even if you "let Nature do the watering," watch where you walk in very dry weather. If you leave visible footprints when you walk across the lawn, it needed water about two days ago.

All warm season turfs grow best in well-drained, uncompacted soil with a pH 5.5-6.5, or slightly lower for St. Augustine. If you have never tested the soil for pH and nutrient needs and the lawn's performance has declined over time, take the time to test before liming or fertilizing. Generally speaking, a slow-release fertilizer formula combined with regular mowing and watering will grow a healthy lawn that can outgrow many weeds and survive common pests. A lawn in stress, however, will have more trouble with both.

Lawn Issues
Whether you grow St. Augustine, zoysia, centipede, or Bermuda grass, and even if you grow a beautiful lawn, one day there will be a disease or insect problem. Some of the most common are easy to recognize. Large, browned areas in the open lawn have one of three probable causes. In a dry spring and summer, check for chinch bugs. In wet weather on the Southern Coasts, it's likely brown patch fungus. The browned areas decrease in size in drier weather and increase with rain. Further south, take-all-root-rot is a problem at this time of the year. Its damage does not change with weather and is usually fatal. Common insects capable of damaging the lawn include grub worms, aphids, and the aforementioned chinch bugs. Grub worms prefer dry areas, such as those missed by sprinklers or located next to hot concrete driveways and sidewalks. Common as they are, piercing and sucking insects like aphids often go unnoticed in lawns until the sooty mold fungus begins to grow in their "honeydew."

For help identifying lawn problems and the particular solutions available in your area, consult the horticulturist at your favorite garden center or your county Extension agent.

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