Florida Friendly Plants

Watering a Florida Lawn

By Brett Dworski and Leigh Hanlon, Tribune Brand Publishing

Your lawn can reveal a lot about you: how much water you use, how often you edge, trim and mow and how committed you are to a green lifestyle.

Many of these practices involve water because despite the fact that Florida is a peninsula, flanked by ocean, and metro Orlando is peppered with lakes and ponds — the Orange County Water Atlas surveys nearly 700 of them — water is still a precious resource that must be used wisely.

“Newcomers and residents alike need to understand where we get our water,” says Kevin Burns, Orlando Utilities Commission’s conservation manager. “We tap into the aquifer,” (a fresh water source deep underground). “The reality is we’re not making any more water, so we need to be smart about how we use it.”

Water-wise consumers already know how to reduce consumption inside their homes by installing low-flow faucets, toilets and showers, and by ensuring there are no leaky pipes or fixtures. But what goes on outside your home can also significantly affect the size of your water bill and the impact you water habits have on the environment, according to Gregg Sampson, an OUC conservation coordinator.

One significant factor in determining residential water use is the type of grass in your lawn. According to Sampson, four of the most popular Orlando-area turfgrasses are St. Augustine, Floratam, Bahia and Bermuda. Each has advantages and disadvantages — and some homeowners don’t restrict themselves to a single variety, mixing and matching as sun and shade require.

So which grass should you plant? Let’s take a closer look at the types.

St. Augustine — One of Florida’s most popular grasses gets by mainly on good looks that give a home curb appeal. For homeowners who take pride in their lawns, St. Augustine’s lush blue-green turf is irresistible. Its horticultural beauty, however, has a price. According to Florida Landscaping Today, St. Augustine grass  “…does not perform well during dry periods (and) requires proper mowing, watering and fertilization.” It’s also susceptible to chinch bugs, nasty little creatures that suck the juice out of individual blades of grass.

Floratam — As an alternative, many developers now opt for Floratam, a St. Augustine cultivar that was developed and released in the early 1970s. According to OUC experts, this grass can develop into a beautiful lawn if irrigated and fertilized properly. Floratam, however, does have a few disadvantages: it’s slow to recover from drought or a general lack of watering. And although it initially resisted pests, lately Floratam has become a favorite food for chinch bugs.

Bahia — This grass is a familiar fixture along Florida roadsides. “It’s very sturdy, relatively low maintenance and can thrive with limited water, fertilizer, mowing and pest control,” according to Sampson.  That makes Bahia fairly environmentally friendly.   And according to the University of Florida Center of Landscape Conservation and Ecology, Bahia has the ability to re-seed itself and it has relatively few disease and pest problems.

Bermuda — This turfgrass is fine textured and dense but not generally recommend for household lawns because it requires a lot of maintenance.  “You find this type of grass on golf courses, athletic fields and in high-profile residential and commercial landscapes” Sampson says.  Although Bermuda can be very attractive, it has limited cold tolerance and poor shade tolerance. Bermuda can also be susceptible to insects and nematode pests.

Want to know more about turfgrass? Check out this University of Florida guide.

A few words about watering

Proper irrigation is almost as important as turfgrass selection. According to Sampson, OUC recommends that homeowners provide their lawns with one-half to three-quarters of an inch of water per week.

OUC customers whose address ends in an even number water on Thursdays and Sundays; those with odd numbered addresses on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “We recommend not watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” Sampson says.

A rain gauge can help you determine how much water you’re using on your lawn. An empty tuna can serve as an inexpensive yet effective rain gauge, Sampson says.

When it comes to lawn sprinklers, OUC recommends drip, bubbler and micro spray heads rather than rotor heads. In addition, because so many sprinkler systems operate during the middle of the night, Sampson says homeowners should briefly test their sprinkler heads during the day to make sure they’re all operating properly. Some repairs and adjustments are simple, but sometimes it’s best to call a professional.

Residents in some OUC served areas can hook up to a separate, secondary system that provides reclaimed water suitable for landscape and lawn irrigation. This highly treated wastewater is safe for human contact, but it is not potable — and signs warning folks “Reclaimed water in use – do not drink” are prominently displayed on property using reclaimed water.

Sampson says homeowners should also look into whether they qualify for rebates under the Florida Water Star Certification program. Those who meet the requirements could be eligible for a rebate of up to $300.

Size matters

Did you know the size of your lawn can sometimes reveal where you’re from? According to Sampson, traditional Florida homes have fairly spacious yards, but when developments started popping up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of northern transplants wanted homes that were closer together with front porches and smaller lawns similar to the neighborhoods they left behind.