When it comes to Florida turfgrass varieties, durability and disease resistance probably trump soft and fuzzy. Although we are seeing a few finer textured grass varieties such as Zoysia and Seashore Paspalum enter the market, the two predominant varieties remain St. Augustine and Bahia. Neither of these grasses are known for their soft texture or fine appearance, but rather their outstanding feature is the ability to survive in the tough conditions Florida offers up to lawns.
Our state is a hostile environment for turfgrass. When my family moved to Florida in 1971, almost all lawns consisted of a base of Bahia with all kinds of weeds mixed in, the most notorious being the dreaded sandspur. Needless to say, if you walked barefoot through a patch of sandspurs, it was an experience you didn’t wish to repeat. Bahia is now considered primarily a pasture grass and is used mostly for highway right of ways and as erosion control, but still finds it’s way into many Florida lawns. It is a narrow bladed grass that needs minimal irrigation. It can make a fairly handsome lawn when properly cared for, but will go dormant most winters. It will become thinner with age and good cultural practice includes over-seeding every 3 years or so to maintain a good thick stand. Otherwise, it will tend to become weedy. The old saying goes “if it’s green and it grows, mow it and call it a lawn” applies to most Bahia lawns. It’s use as a home turfgrass is mostly limited to homes without irrigation or those wishing for a more environmentally-friendly lawn.
St. Augustine grass has become the most prevalent turfgrass variety in Florida. There are many cultivars with Floratam being the most common. It is a fairly course textured grass that spreads easily by way of runners. This enables it to regenerate quickly when damaged by insects or disease. It thrives in our hot, wet summers, but will require generous irrigation if rainfall is not available or inadequate. It needs to be cut higher than most other grasses at 4″-5″. There are several other cultivars commonly available that offer a slightly finer texture and perhaps more shade tolerance. Bitter Blue does well in the central and northern parts of the state and Seville and Palmetto do well throughout the whole state. I prefer Seville for it’s greener color, finer texture and excellent shade tolerance.
When starting a new lawn or renovating an existing lawn, you will most likely be using sod. Only Bahia can be seeded and it is a tricky and somewhat expensive proposition. Although St. Augustine grasses cannot be grown from seed, they are often available in plug form. These are 3″-4″ potted squares of grass that usually come in trays. Plugging is a good way to fill in bare spots or holes in your lawn, but for larger areas sod is going to be the best way to go.
Depending on where it is grown, sod will be “muck” or “sand” grown. When sodding Bahia, it is best to match your existing soil-type. Muck grown Bahia does not perform well when laid on sandy soil. On the other hand, muck grown St. Augustine sod performs exceptionally well where-ever it is laid. My advice is to seek out and plant muck grown St. Augustine cultivars whenever possible. There are several reasons for this. The muck layer attached to the sod holds together better than the sand layer. Often when laying sand grown we find the sand has dried and when lifting a piece we lose all the soil. This leaves a bare root piece of sod that struggles to get established. The intact muck layer protects the roots and gives the newly laid sod a “buffer” when recovering from the process of being cut and laid. In my experience, muck grown sod “hits the ground running” and keeps on out-performing it’s sand grown cousin over time. I have dug up muck grown after many years and found the original layer of muck still intact. It happily roots right into our sandy soils, but maintains it’s thicker lusher appearance for it’s lifetime.
So what about “barefoot” Florida turfgrass? Does such a thing exist? Well, yes. The above-mentioned Zoysia seems to be gaining popularity and in coastal areas where salt-tolerance is a major concern, Seashore Paspalum is being used. My experience with Zoysia is that it probably doesn’t suffer from many more maladies than St. Augustine, but it seems to be less able to bounce back. It is a viable choice if one is willing to put in the extra effort it will require. There are a whole passel of cultural requirements to properly care for it. Many of these can be safely skipped, but at the risk of future issues. It is not uncommon to mow Zoysia well above the recommended height of 2″-3″ and it is extremely difficult to find anyone who has the suggested reel mower to give it the optimum cut. It seems to tolerate these deviations well enough though. Sharp blades and mowing with a walk-behind mower deliver better results than mowing with a commercial lawn tractor. While it will give a softer texture to walk on, without the close-cropped mowing it may not give a noticeably finer appearance than a nice Seville lawn from any kind of distance. It sometimes has a tendency towards a yellower color during the summer. It’s also the least shade-tolerant turfgrass for our area. Even given these limitations, it may well be worthwhile to grow. Particularly in small areas where it can be given the proper care. It is especially striking in a small courtyard setting where a close-clipped, perfectly level,circular lawn would compliment any manner of garden. And if that garden is home to an avid golfer, all the better!
I would be remiss to talk about Florida turfgrass without mentioning the environmental impact of maintaining a perfect lawn in our challenging climate. With the possible exception of Bahia, all the above mention turfgrass varieties require a high level of care. Under ideal conditions, with ample water from rain and no pest issues, mowing and trimming a lawn uses a great deal of fossil fuel. Under most circumstances, your lawn will require water in addition to rainfall as well as a fairly routine pest control and fertilization regimen. Reducing the lawn size, using turfgrass less reliant on supplemental water and pest control where possible can go a long way towards a lower environmental impact. Most lawns will have some presence of potentially damaging insects or even disease. A grub or two is unlikely to cause any real damage, dozens of grubs will make their presence known and can then be treated. During times of drought when water restrictions are at their strictest, it is likely your lawn will sustain some damage. One of the hardest things we as gardeners have to endure is watching our plants suffer for any reason. Unfortunately, Florida often finds itself in the throes of devastating drought one year and floods the next. Either of these conditions can cause irreparable damage to our lawns and gardens. It is our responsibility to always treat the environment with respect and realize that as with any aspect of the garden, there will be good years, great years, horrible years and everything in between. Our lawns are an integral part of the garden, possibly the highest maintenance part. All parts of the garden should work with nature, not against.