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Florida's frozen lawns are chance for do-over and do away with St. Augustine grass

This winter's frigid weather may have killed not only your palms and tropical shrubs, but also your entire lawn.

"St. Augustine grasses such as Floratam can freeze dead," said Jim Moll, Hernando County's urban horticulture extension agent.

To which I'm tempted to say, "Hooray!"

I'll refrain because I know how brutally expensive it is to re-landscape a yard, and I know that a lot of people plain can't afford it right now — and that the shabbiest corners of the county would look even worse as miniature dust bowls than they do as St. Augustine prairies.

Still, I hate Floratam.

One of the most common lawn coverings in the state, it was bred to resist chinch bugs. But, as most homeowners know, these insects have evolved to view Floratam the way movie vampires do pale-skinned starlets. Really. Chinch bugs feed by piercing the blades of grass and sucking them dry.

Floratam can't survive drought without regular soakings of, usually, our drinking water. It can't survive flooding. It doesn't really like full sun and definitely can't handle heavy shade.

"It's kind of a Goldilocks plant," Moll said. "It has to be just right. Not too wet, not too dry. Not too hot, not too cold."

Too cold, according to textbooks, is the mid 20s. But just because the temperature dropped below that point several times this year — and bottomed out at 14 degrees on Jan. 11 — you don't have to give up on your lawn just yet.

For one thing, the cold approached gradually, giving grasses time to slide into a semi-dormant state before the hardest freezes hit. Look for green grass to sprout starting in mid March. And if you don't see it by early April, then give up … and replant with something other than Floratam.

About the only threat it can stand up to is pesticides, which, along with its otherwise delicate constitution, makes it the perfect base for a chemical-soaked, heavily irrigated, environmentally toxic Florida lawn.

Moll, being a part of the state's agricultural establishment, doesn't hate it as much as I do. (And, having studied this all his life, maybe he's a little better informed.)

Floratam can be ideal for slightly shaded yards with clay-based soil, he said. But in the typical sandy, sunbaked Florida lawn, bahia grass is better, or at least tougher — able to survive droughts, freezes and chinch bugs.

An even better option, said John Korycki, director of the county's Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program, may be to replace the dead grass with mulched beds. Asiatic jasmine is good ground cover, requiring very little water or care once it's established. The same is true of decorative Fakahatchee and sand cord grasses.

As though anticipating the freeze and the subsequent need to replace yards, state legislators passed a law last year that gives you more power to replant responsibly even if you live in a deed-restricted subdivision that tries to mandate that every yard be a plank of Floratam.

Though a Cooperative Extension Service workshop on Friday about this new law and drought-tolerant landscaping has pretty much filled up, you can find information on these topics by visiting its Web site — www.co.hernando.fl.us/County_Extension — or by calling (352) 754-4433. Then, if you have to say goodbye to your Floratam, you can also say good riddance.

Florida's frozen lawns are chance for do-over and do away with St. Augustine grass 02/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 5:17pm]
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