LAND O'LAKES — It looks a lot like birdseed.
But the tiny ovals, when spread over bare dirt, can create an entire field of green grass, if you're willing to wait a couple of weeks.
The folks who run the Ballantrae community don't think their residents will mind, especially when they receive their annual fee notices.
"For a fourth year in a row, we've not raised our assessments," said Jim Flateau, chairman of the community development district board. "We don't think they'll mind watching the grass grow if it saves all that money."
The board, which oversees maintenance of the 969-home neighborhood's common areas, needed to replace some patches of thinning sod along its main thoroughfare.
The price: $50,000.
"We choked," Flateau said.
Then he talked with Chris Dewey, the Florida Friendly landscaping program coordinator for Pasco County. Dewey, who often jokes that he's part psychologist, is charged with selling developers and neighborhood leaders on more environmentally sound practices — "the right plant in the right place."
In this case, he didn't have to do much selling. The answer was Argentine bahia, hardy grass that needs little to no irrigation and resists pests.
Unlike the Pensacola variety, Argentine has a wider, dark green blade and puts up fewer seed heads.
"If it runs out of water, it goes dormant until you give it water by rain or irrigation," Dewey said. By contrast, sod must be replaced when it dies.
Now the best part: The bahia would cost at least $35,000 less.
"You have to watch the grass grow," Flateau said. "Some people are used to instant gratification. With sod, you drive to work and when you come home you have instant grass."
The board decided it could live with that. And so far no one has any complaints.
A two-man crew from Dundee spent the past two days spreading the seed over 2.5 acres. Then using a device that looked like a high-powered water gun, they blasted it with liquid fertilizer mixed with mulch made from old newspapers.
If it doesn't rain, water trucks would be brought in to irrigate. But the recent afternoon rains may make that unnecessary, saving residents even more money.
The grass is becoming popular for pastures and areas near retention ponds. It mimics the traditional lawn grass a bit more closely than the other bahia, but St. Augustine remains the choice for lawns. Some older neighborhoods still require it in their deed restrictions but are becoming more open to alternatives, Dewey said.
A law passed in 2009 says homeowners' associations can't forbid Florida-friendly landscaping, but it has never been tested in court. Communities can still set standards, though, and residents still need to operate within guidelines. Ballantrae, which was built out two years ago, doesn't specify a type of grass but its website stressed the need for lawn maintenance.
"There's a continuing dissatisfaction over what it takes to keep St. Augustine," Dewey said. "We've got quite a number of older communities with poorly designed irrigation systems. Do you put in $50,000 or $100,000 to redo the irrigation system? No one's got that kind of money. But you can choose different type of grass that you won't lose because of a poor irrigation system."
Flateau said it's a no-brainer.
"It's Florida-friendly, water wise, and it's good for the pocketbook."