Our Florida lawns are becoming active once again, now that the weather is warmer and days are longer than 12 hours. This also means lots of calls and walk-ins to the UF/IFAS Pasco County Extension Office with questions about lawn care.
Some of the more popular questions this year have been the use of pet and family-friendly alternatives to chemicals for control of lawn diseases. The best “alternative” to chemicals would be to prevent the disease from happening in the first place. The best way to prevent or reduce disease in your lawn is to use a lawn grass that’s less susceptible to disease combined with Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Principles to manage the lawn properly.
The first Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principle is to put the right plant in the right place. Selecting the right lawn grass suited to your specific site can greatly reduce the need for fertilizer, irrigation and pesticide usage.
Watering your lawn only when needed not only helps to conserve this valuable resource, but also helps to reduce disease, since excessive moisture often encourages disease development.
Mowing your lawn to the proper height, which for most of our common Florida lawn grasses is 3 inches to 4 inches high, all year round, is a must for a happier, healthier lawn. Fertilizing with the right fertilizer at the right time and in the right amount also greatly reduces the incidence of disease in your lawn. To make your lawn more pet and family-friendly and lower the risk of disease, you can use compost on your lawn a source for nutrients, instead of fertilizer.
Compost is organic matter made up of any number of manures, bone meal, dried blood, or plant and animal waste. Kitchen scraps are an excellent example of items around your house you can compost. There are compost bins and barrels that speed the microbial breakdown of these substances into nutrient rich, soil-like matter that can be spread among your plants and across your lawn. Lawn clippings left in place, instead of being raked up and thrown away, will compost in-place, and return nutrients back to the soil. Since these materials act as slow-release fertilizers, the nutrients don’t leach easily from the soil, or as quickly as fertilizer, and don’t contribute as much to water contamination making them much more environmentally and wallet-friendly. An added benefit of using compost on the lawn may be disease suppression.
While there’s no definitive research to prove that adding compost helps reduce disease problems in the lawn, anecdotal evidence suggests there may be a benefit. Microbes that occur naturally within the soil can out compete those disease-causing microbes, especially when the lawn is healthy. Good microbes can produce inhibitory chemicals that can kill disease-causing microbes. Those good microbes come from compost. So, by adding compost to your lawn, you are not only adding plant nutrients, but potentially limiting the ability of disease-causing microbes to cause damage to your lawn. Because of the need for microbial activity, compost is more dependent on soil temperature and pH to help release the beneficial plant nutrients and produce the disease inhibiting chemicals, which benefits the lawn.
If you choose to add compost to your lawn, here are some helpful hints:
- Only use compost that has undergone significant decay. Finished compost will smell “earthy” or “mushroom-like.” You should not be able to recognize what it was previously.
- Get your soil tested for pH. Soil test kits are available at the Pasco County Extension Office.
- Only apply the compost to the lawn when the temperature is above 80 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure the microbes are actively breaking it down and releasing the nutrients to the lawn.
- You can apply a thin layer of compost in a process called “topdressing” over the existing lawn. If you’re topdressing, apply ½-inch to 1-inch of material to the lawn. A lawn fertilizer spreader can make this job much easier. You may need to screen out larger pieces in the compost that won’t go through the holes of the spreader.
- If you don’t have compost, you can purchase peat moss from most big box retailers and nurseries. Topdressing with peat moss has been shown to lower disease problems specifically in St. Augustinegrass, like ‘Floratam.’
- Plan to topdress your lawn once in the spring, when daily temperatures are staying constant between 75 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and once in late summer when daily temperatures are holding steady at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- Run a rake over the lawn to work the compost down to the soil.
For more information about producing your own compost, selecting the proper turfgrass for your lawn, fertilization, irrigation, proper mowing height, or to get a soil test kit, stop by or call the University of Florida/IFAS Pasco County Extension Office (http://pasco.ifas.ufl.edu/).
Whitney C. Elmore is the Pasco County Extension director and Urban Horticulture agent III, and Jim Moll is the Pasco County coordinator of the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program™.
By Whitney C. Elmore and Jim Moll
This column was adapted from UF/IFAS Extension publications: “Turfgrass Disease Management” EDIS Publication #SSPLP14 by M.L. Elliot and P.E. Harmon. “St. Augustinegrass for Florida Lawns” EDIS Publication #ENH5 by L.E. Trenholm, J.L. Cisar, and J.B. Unruh, and “Peatmoss Topdressing Control of Take-All Root Rot on St. Augustinegrass” by P.F. Colbaugh, X. Wei, and J.A. McAfee, of the Texas A&M Research Center.
Published April 1, 2015