Your Route to a Healthy Lawn

Best Management Practices (BMPs) are techniques you can use to get the healthiest lawn possible. Following BMPs can save you time and money. They also help to reduce nonpoint source pollution, which is when excess or misapplied fertilizer enters water bodies, causing unhealthy algae growth and contaminating our water supply.
Lawn-care BMPs were developed by the University of Florida, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the pest control and lawn-care industries, and environmental groups. BMPs address every aspect of turfgrass maintenance, from fertilization, irrigation, and mowing, to pest and weed control.

Fertilization

Applying the proper amount of fertilizer will help your lawn resist weed invasion. Improper application—applying fertilizer at the wrong time or applying too much fertilizer—can damage your lawn. Be sure to read the label on the fertilizer bag carefully and refer to the Florida Lawn Handbook for detailed information.

Fertilize Correctly

Lawns use fertilizer to look their best and stay healthy. But it is critical to fertilize correctly. Not only can improper application hurt your lawn, it can contribute to nonpoint source pollution. Be sure to follow UF guidelines on fertilization, paying special attention to rates and timing. For more information, please refer to EDIS publication EP221, General Recommendations for Fertilization of Turfgrasses on Florida Soils.

Fertilizer Components

Fertilizers are composed of three main elements—nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—but they also contain a variety of other ingredients. It’s better to know what your soil really needs before you start spending money on products. A soil test on your property can help determine what, if any, additional nutrients your lawn needs. Contact your county Extension office for information on how to submit soil samples.

Fertilizers containing slow-release nitrogen are good for both your turf and the environment. Slow-release nitrogen avoids “burning” your turf by releasing too many nutrients at once and provides a nice long-lasting greenup. Products with low or no phosphorous are becoming more readily available, which is good for the Florida homeowner. Many Florida soils are already high in phosphorous and don’t need any added.

Good Timing

In South Florida, you can apply fertilizer throughout the year. In North and Central Florida, it’s better to fertilize only during the growing season—during the spring, summer, and fall. Lawns in most of the state go dormant during the winter months and should not be fertilized.

Your last fertilizer application should be around the end of September in North Florida and mid-October in Central Florida. Wait until the danger of frost has passed and temperatures are consistently warm before applying fertilizer in the spring.

Application

It’s important to use your fertilizer responsibly. When fertilizing near water, leave a 10′ strip around the water as a buffer zone. This unfertilized strip will protect the water body from nutrient leaching or runoff from the fertilized grass.

Be sure to keep fertilizers off of paved surfaces. Where fertilizer can’t be absorbed, it can easily be washed into storm water drains and from there into water bodies. To prevent this, look for a spreader with a deflector shield. The deflector shield will spread the fertilizer only in a 180° arc, keeping it on the grass and off the pavement.

Storage

Store your unused fertilizer where it will stay dry. Make sure not to store it next to gasoline or chemicals. These might contaminate the fertilizer and make their way into your lawn.

Mowing

Though it may seem like the bane of your existence during the summer months, mowing is actually one of the most important home lawn management practices. It’s important to keep up a regular mowing schedule during the summer to maintain your turf’s maximum health.

Here are some suggestions to make your mowing life easier:

  • Mow at the highest recommended height for your grass species.
    Bahiagrass: 3.5 – 4″
    Centipedegrass: 1 – 2″
    St. Augustinegrass: standard cultivars, 3.5 – 4″; semidwarf cultivars, 2 – 2.5″
    Zoysiagrass: The majority of these cultivars should be mowed at 1.5-2″
    Never remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade. “Scalping” (mowing too low) can badly stress your turf, leaving it vulnerable to disease, drought, and insect or weed invasion.
    Leave grass clippings on the ground. These actually act as compost, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. They can reduce your fertility requirements and add organic matter to the soil.
    Keep mower blades sharp. Dull mowers tear leaf blades, stressing the grass and making it more vulnerable to pests and disease.
    Do not mow when your lawn is wet. Wet grass clippings keep your mower blades from making the cleanest possible cut.
    If you do happen to miss a weekly mowing, bring the height of the grass back down to the recommended level slowly. Raise the mower height so you don’t remove too much leaf tissue at once.

Irrigation

More lawns are damaged by over-watering than by any other cultural practice. Over-watering actually keeps your grass’s roots in the top few inches of soil, which reduces your lawn’s ability to tolerate stress. A healthy lawn has deep roots. To train your roots to grow more deeply, follow these tips:

Let your lawn tell you when to water. A lawn is ready for watering when it shows at least one of the three signs of lawn thirst:

  • Folded leaf blades
    Blue-gray color
    Footprints visible in grass (the grass isn’t springing back)

Water less frequently for longer periods of time. Watering less often will encourage your grass’s roots to grow deep into the soil. Deep roots help turf survive stresses like drought and traffic. How often to water depends on the season, your soil type, the amount of shade in your yard, and other factors. During times of active growth (spring, summer, and fall), lawns generally need watering once or twice a week. During the winter, you may only need to irrigate every 2-3 weeks (in North Florida). Remember that some of this irrigation will come from rainfall.

Water the proper amount. In most of Florida, this means applying ½ – ¾” of water during a single irrigation session. South Florida’s sandy soils may need the ¾” rate, while North Florida’s heavier clay soils will probably only need the ½” rate. Do not water to the point of runoff (excess water that your grass cannot absorb). Because of the differences in irrigation systems, the time required to soak the ground to the proper depth will vary. See below for ways to estimate how long you should be watering. Make sure not to water when rain is forecast in the next 24 hours!

Check your sprinkler system. If you use sprinklers, place straight-sided cans like coffee or tuna cans around the perimeter of your irrigation zone and see how long it takes to fill the cans to ½ or ¾”. This will tell you how long to run your sprinklers for each time. Check your rain sensors frequently to make sure they are functioning correctly.

Irrigate around sunrise. Irrigating in the early morning will allow the leaf blades to fully dry out during the day. Irrigating in the late afternoon or evening leaves the leaf blades wet, which may increase the grass’s susceptibility to disease

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