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THIS GRASS NOT GREENER ON ANY SIDE OF THE FENCE

If you moved to Florida from up North, you might remember your first, puzzling encounter with the stuff that covers most of the state's suburban lawns.

You could tell it was grass because it was green and grew in blades. But, otherwise, where was that softness that all but sent an invitation to play touch football or find a shady spot for a nap? Where was that gentle sensation, somewhere between a massage and a tickle, when you walked across it barefoot?

This bristly, fibrous grass didn't tickle; it poked. If it didn't need mowing or send shoots across the driveway, it could have passed for AstroTurf.

Eventually, we newcomers learned it was called St. Augustine grass or Floritam, the name for a once pest-resistant relative introduced in 1973. Bugs have since adapted so, now, no variety of St. Augustine can survive without large doses of pesticides. Or fertilizer. Or water.

Which leads to this question: Why not get rid of it?

This is hardly a radical idea. When the County Commission discussed a new landscape ordinance last month, a majority said they should and would do it eventually. One, Diane Rowden, wanted an immediate ban of St. Augustine, as did several audience members, including former Republican commission candidate Janey Baldwin.

But the commission couldn't pull the trigger.

As a result, when the ordinance became law Monday, it was already obsolete.

It does some good things, better protecting majestic trees and preserving natural areas in new subdivisions and shopping centers. It also has been praised for cutting the allowed area of St. Augustine and other thirsty grasses from 75 percent to 50 percent of new lawns.

But, put another way, that means our commissioners allowed half our lawns to be planted in a grass they know is environmentally harmful.

Toxic is a better word, say many naturalists.

One I interviewed last year said the standard practice of planting St. Augustine grass on sandy soil "is basically growing it hydroponically.'' That means its nutrients must come from the nitrogen-based fertilizers seeping into the aquifer and making an algae-clogged mess of the county's most outstanding natural feature - Weeki Wachee Spring.

Jim Moll, the urban horticulture extension agent at the county cooperative extension service, said St. Augustine accounts for 99 percent of turf disease cases he sees. Treating these means applying pesticide, or, more often, a series of applications. The other most common lawn grass, Bahia, accounts for less than 1 percent of these complaints, he said.

Bahia has another big advantage. It can live almost indefinitely without water in a brown, dormant state. If St. Augustine goes brown, it's dead, Moll said. Preventing this requires watering at least once a week during the hot tail end of the state's rainy season. The recommended amount of each watering is nearly 1 inch - as much as falls during a summer thunderstorm.

Though commissioners know all this, their vote was not really a mystery. It was a compromise to satisfy builders, who like St. Augustine because they think prospective homeowners do.

Last fall, a rumor circulated that homeowners in new subdivisions were ripping out sections of Bahia planted to comply with county code and replacing them with St. Augustine.

Not only was that false; most of the homeowners I talked to told me they would love to do the opposite. They resented the amount of effort and chemicals required to maintain St. Augustine. They realized that keeping it green meant effectively draining the county's rivers and lakes.

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