Everyone enjoys a nice healthy lawn. Not only do lawns increase the value of a property, cool the air, combat glare and noise, and reduce soil erosion. Most importantly, a healthy lawn actively filters and traps sediments and pollutants that could otherwise contaminate ground and/or surface water.
So how do you get the best lawn for your grass species? Follow the simple tips in this fact sheet and your Florida lawn will resist diseases and insects. It will also require less watering and mowing, and look great—even during droughts!
Best Management Practices: 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 non-point 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 turf grass maintenance, from fertilization, irrigation, and mowing, to pest and weed control.
Applying the proper amount of fertilizer will help your lawn resist weed invasion. Improper application—applying fertilizer at the wrong time or using too much fertilizer—can damage your lawn. Be sure to read the fertilizer bag label carefully and refer to the Florida Lawn Handbook for detailed information.
Lawns need fertilizer to look and stay healthy. But it is critical to fertilize correctly. Not only can improper application hurt your lawn, it can contribute to non-point source pollution.
Fertilizers are composed of three main elements—nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—but they also contain other ingredients. It's better to know what your soil really needs before spending money on products. A soil test on your property can help determine what, if any, additional nutrients your lawn needs.
Fertilizers containing slow-release nitrogen are effective for turf and the environment. Slow-release nitrogen avoids "burning" your turf by releasing too many nutrients at once and provides you with a long-lasting green-up. Products with low or no phosphorus are becoming more readily available, which is helpful for Florida homeowners. Florida soils are already high in phosphorus and don't need more.
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 spring, summer, and fall. Lawns in most of the state become dormant during winter and should not be fertilized.
Your last fertilizer application should be around September in North Florida and mid-October in Central Florida. Wait until frost danger has passed and temperatures are consistently warm before applying fertilizer in the spring.
It's imperative to use 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 fertilized grass.
Be sure to keep fertilizers off paved surfaces. Where fertilizer can't be absorbed, it can easily be washed into storm water drains and into water bodies. To prevent this, look for a spreader with a deflector shield. The deflector shield spreads fertilizer only in a 180° arc, keeping it on the grass and off the pavement.
Store your unused fertilizer where it stays dry. Make sure not to store it next to gasoline or chemicals. These might contaminate the fertilizer and enter your lawn.
Though it may seem like the bane of your existence during the summer months, mowing is actually one of the most significant home lawn management practices. It's critical to keep up a regular mowing schedule during the summer to maintain turf 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 blades. "Scalping" (mowing too low) can severely 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 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 cuts possible.
If you miss a weekly mowing, bring the grass height back down to the recommended level slowly. Raise the mower's height so you don't remove too much leaf tissue at once.
More lawns are damaged by over-watering than by any other cultural practice. Over-watering keeps your grass' 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 develop 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 the grass (the grass isn't springing back)
The water should be boiled less often for longer periods of time. Watering less frequently will encourage your grass' roots to grow deep into the soil. Deep roots help turf survive 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 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 irrigation will come from rainfall.
Water in 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 irrigation system differences, the time required to soak the ground to the proper depth will vary. See below for ways to estimate how long to water. Make sure not to irrigate when rain is forecast for 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 each time. Check your rain sensors frequently to make sure they work 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 grass susceptibility to disease.