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It's best to get an early start to control weeds

Editor's note: Jim Roberts is a graduate of the Extension Service Master Gardener class. This column runs biweekly and features information indigenous to the area. To have your question answered, call the Extension Office, 726-2141. For more gardening news, see Section D of today's Times.

It is early January and I hope all of you are off to a good start in 1999, and I wish you the best throughout the year. This is the time of year we need to be thinking about weed control in our landscapes. Getting an early start on weed control is better than waiting until weeds have almost taken over the lawn area.

It has been said that weeds are unwanted plants or plants growing out of place. There are many types of weeds to be found in Florida. Among them are broadleafed weeds such as clovers, chickweed, beggarweed, Florida pusley, and annual grassy weeds such as crab grass, goose grass, and sandspurs.

If you have ever had sandspurs "attack" you in the yard or have stepped barefooted on one in your carpet or rug, you understand the unwanted plant growing out of place concept mentioned earlier.

How do we get rid of weeds or at least control them below our nuisance level? There are essentially five ways to control weeds:

Encouraging a healthy, dense, thriving turf is the first and best method. Healthy turf shades the soil so that sunlight can't reach weed seeds ready to germinate. It also reduces the physical space available for weeds to become established. Proper fertilizing and watering are important.

Proper mowing follows fertilizing and watering. When proper mowing height and frequency are maintained, many annual weeds will be eliminated. Mowing prior to weed seed head formation also reduces weed seeds. Remember the three M's _ mow often, mow with a sharp blade and mow high (preferably no lower than 3 inches).

Pull the weeds by hand. If only a few weeds are present, it is simpler and less time consuming to physically remove the plant. However, if weeds are a major problem, consider other methods of control.

Smothering weeds with a form of mulch to exclude light is effective in areas such as flower beds, foot paths, or other areas where turf grass is not grown. Mulch can be straw, sawdust, hay, wood chips, even plastic film. To be effective when using natural materials, a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch must be maintained to prevent weed growth.

Use a herbicide. Herbicides are chemicals that injure or kill plants. They are safe and effective if product label instructions are explicitly followed. The following paragraphs will provide herbicide information helpful in removing or reducing weeds in Citrus County lawns.

January to mid-February is the time to apply a selective pre-emergence herbicide on your lawn to control specific, annual summer weeds.

Keep in mind that Florida's winters are generally warmer than other areas. It is possible to see grass and weed growth as early as March. Follow weather forecasts for local conditions, and apply before weed growth is seen. For this area of Florida, it is generally recommended to apply the herbicide in late January, unless January has been really cold. Then early February application can be made.

The point is that pre-emergence herbicides must be applied prior to weed seed germination. If applied after weed emergence, they are usually ineffective, wasting your time and money. Pre-emergence herbicides will not control weeds that are actively growing.

One pre-emergence herbicide for use on St. Augustine, bahia and centipede lawn grasses is Balan (Benefin). Weeds controlled are crab grass, sandspurs, goose grass, plus some others. Do not apply to immature turf, newly sprigged or sodded areas. For continued summer weed control, repeat application nine weeks after the initial use.

Another pre-emergence herbicide is Atrazine. It is to be used only on St. Augustine grass and controls a number of broadleafed weeds mentioned earlier in this article. It may be used in newly sprigged, sodded or plugged turf areas with minimal retarding of growth. Do not use under drip lines of trees, shrubs, palms and ornamentals.

As with any chemical, there are safety factors that you must be aware of and use all the time. Remember, herbicides were designed to kill plants, and by this design are all toxic to humans in varying degrees, depending upon the specific herbicide.

Some herbicide safety rules follow: Ensure you read the herbicide label to be aware of all safety rules for the specific herbicide.

Read and follow label instructions to the last letter. Wear the required safety equipment, i.e. gloves, face shield or goggles, long sleeves, hat. Never eat, drink or smoke when handling herbicides; always wash with soap and water when finished. Do not exceed the application rate for the herbicide to avoid injury to turf grasses and ornamentals. Mark off 1,000-square-foot areas, or fractions of this area, to more accurately apply herbicides.

A fact sheet, Weed Control Guide For Florida Lawns, and booklet, Citrus County Lawn Care, are available from the Citrus County Cooperative Extension Office. The fact sheet is free; the booklet is $3. Both can be very helpful in making decisions for the proper care of your lawn.

The Extension Office is on U.S. 41 S at the fairgrounds and is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or call 726-2141.

Do not hesitate to call the Extension Office for advice from the consumer horticulturist or Master Gardener when you have questions, or you are unsure of advice offered to you by others. You will receive unbiased, factual, research-based information obtained under Florida conditions. Enjoy your gardening this year.