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Lawn Today...Gone Tommorrow (a.k.a. "Assisted Sodicide") PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Sunday, January 25 2009

  By Dan Walton and Laurel Schiller 
Formal lawns were popularized in Britain beginning in the 18th century. In that country of mild climate and evenly spread rainfall, grass does amazingly well. The British penchant for lawns was brought into this country, where in the northeast, and other parts of the country grass also can thrive. South Florida, however, has a climate that includes both warm and dry and hot and wet cycles and soils that do not hold moisture well and are not naturally fertile. Consequently, grass does not do well unless irrigated during hot dry periods and fertilized and treated with pesticides.

These inputs have become increasingly expensive to the homeowner monetarily, and perhaps more importantly, expensive to the environment. For instance, it is estimated that the majority of nitrogen getting into Phillippi Creek and then into Sarasota Bay comes from fertilized lawns rather than from septic tanks. Most homeowners are not willing to apply such inputs and consequently their lawns are not particularly aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, they still have to mow them or have them mowed. This process itself is costly both to the homeowner and to the environment as the amount of gasoline burnt in mowers adds to the urban air pollution as well as noise pollution.

A second problem with grass is that it does nothing about shading the house. House shading is extremely important in this climate since it can reduce air-conditioning needs and thus costs, dramatically saving both the homeowner and the environment. Finally, trees and shrubs, because they have more leaf surface in a given volume of air than grass will increase CO2 uptake, contributing to a reduction in global warming.

All of the above are good reasons for you to at least consider reducing the area of grass surrounding your property. Just reducing grass is only part of the solution, however. Clearly, the previously grassed area must be planted with trees and shrubs in order to obtain the maximum benefit. Rocks or gravel will not suffice. The west side of your house particularly needs shading to reduce the cruel afternoon sun from heating up your house. In addition, driveways should be shaded so that getting into your car on a summer's day becomes less of an ordeal.

We suggest that you draw up a plan for gradually removing your grass where you think it is practical and replacing it with trees, shrubs and to a lesser extent flowers. If you are watering and/or fertilizing your grass, stop doing it sometime before you begin to reduce your lawn. A good time to reduce your lawn is in April and May when rainfall is limited and the temperature begins to increase. In a particularly dry year, much of the plant material will have already died. 
Digging up the grass (Mechanical)
1. Immediate results - Sets up a germination bed for weed seeds
2. Loosens soil if compacted - Hard and hot work
3. Removes all vegetation

Herbicide Treatment (Chemical)
1. Does not produce germination conditions - Takes time to occur; rain may affect
2. Can eliminate grass and weeds completely - Probably requires a repeat
3. May harm other organisms
4. Can be expensive

Light Blocking
1. Can be inexpensive - May not be effective by itself
2. Conserves soil moisture
3. Can add to soil texture and moisture - holding capacity when broken down 
As indicated above, digging up the grass has the disadvantage of allowing the weed seed already in the soil to germinate. The major advantage is that the soil is loosened. If you are dealing with a clayey soil, or one that is compacted, there may be advantages to digging up the turf. If you do, however, you should wait for several weeks until the weed seeds have germinated and then treat the area chemically or with light blockers as described below.

Roundup® - This has become the classic herbicide that effectively kills almost all plant material. It is sprayed on the leaves and translocated to the roots from where it is spread around the plant. This makes it a systemic weed killer. It is now formulated so that by 2 hours after spraying it is not affected by rain. Complete killing requires 7 to 10 days, and a second spraying of missed areas is usually necessary to obtain a total kill. It is relatively expensive. After the grass is dead do not dig it up, or you will be negating one of the principal advantages of using an herbicide. Plant into the dead vegetation, digging holes only sufficiently large to take plant material.

One of its advantages is that its active chemical, glyphosphate, inhibits a specific plant enzyme that is not present in other organisms, so its toxicity is relatively low. It does contain a surfactant, however, that can be more toxic than the active chemical. Consequently, care should be taken to keep it off the skin and eyes. It is also best to keep it away from ponds and streams as there is some evidence that it can cause problems for fish.

Roundup® can be obtained from garden sections in both concentrated and dilute solutions. The concentrated solutions can be diluted and applied with a garden sprayer and the dilute solutions usually come in a small spray bottle and can be applied directly.

Whether or not you use light-blocking to kill grass and weeds you will need it in some form to help keep them out once they have been initially removed.

We are using this term to indicate a layer of chipped bark, leaves, or needles. Such a layer at least 3 inches thick is an effective light blocker. The mulch must be renewed periodically as it will degrade. Spot applications of herbicide may also be useful as weeds reappear. If you purchase mulch, do not use cypress bark. Bald cypress trees in northeast Florida are being decimated to produce this mulch. If possible, purchase a mulch made from melaleuca (punk) trees. This is a nuisance tree whose removal is environmentally desirable. In the spring oak leaves are available in large quantities already packed in bags by homeowners who don't appreciate their value. If you have trees of your own don't rake up the leaves and discard them. Use them as mulch or leave them where they lie if you are trying to eliminate the grass under the trees. Call FPL to see about receiving a load of mulch obtained from chipped tree material.

It is very difficult to eliminate turf using only mulch. Several inches of newspaper under a 3 inch layer of mulch will greatly increase the effectiveness of the mulch without keeping moisture from reaching the soil. The paper will last 6 months to a year before it is degraded. It is possible to kill turf by using the mulch/newspaper combination without other treatment, although a prior treatment with Roundup® will further ensure success.

This is a chemically treated fabric that prevents light from reaching the soil, while allowing water and fertilizer to pass. Much is spread over top of the fabric for aesthetic reasons and to retard its decomposition. You can plant through it by slicing openings in the fabric. A 3 ft. x 65 ft. roll costs about $5 and is available in most garden sections. Larger rolls are also available.

Shade produced by trees and shrubs will reduce weed growth, if not completely eliminate it, as the plants mature. This will be particularly the case if you do not irrigate the plants, since without added water they will effectively compete with most weeds for soil moisture. As suggested above, do not rake up the leaves as they will add mulch. If you mulch the area around the trees or shrubs out to the drip line, this combination will be highly effective in reducing weeds. Keep the mulch about 6 ft. from tree trunks as they moisture they will retain can lead to root rot problems.

(a.) Turf grass should never be allowed to grow inside the drip-line of trees or shrubs, as it will reduce the soil moisture and nutrients needed for their growth.
(b.) Do not dig up the turf inside the drip-line of trees since you may damage the delicate feeder roots. Use a herbicide or mulch to kill the turf.  
Once you’ve thoroughly examined your lawn and declared it not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead (i.e. morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead) and you're ready to plant, start with trees. Large native trees anchor your home, add height, and soften the building mass. Think of them as the ceiling of your landscape. They provide needed shade during the seven months of the year when temperatures reach daily highs above 85F. degrees. In an urban setting, it is comforting to know that they provide a family's supply of oxygen. Make sure they will thrive on the site you choose because they are going to be there long after you’re gone. Pick cold hardy species that can withstand temperatures as low as the mid twenties. They should also be drought tolerant if your site is high and dry so they can exist on natural rainfall once established. Or they should be able to withstand wet feet if the site you choose does not drain well in the summer months. Place your trees at least 25 feet from your home, driveway, or road. They need to establish a strong root structure to withstand high winds.

Native palms are excellent accent plants adding that tropical touch we are thrilled to find in Florida. They have a fibrous root system concentrated at the base of their trunk so it is possible to plant them nearer (eight to ten feet from) the house foundation. Use them in clusters for a naturalized look. In nature, many grow as an understudy to big trees and can be planted as such in your yard. Remember, they too need to be cold hardy and drought tolerant.

Large native shrubs form the walls of your landscape. We suggest killing the peripheral twenty feet of lawn in your backyard and planting several large groupings of various size shrubs to form a natural green border. Not a hedge. Space your large shrubs so that they can reach their full height. No one wants to trim all summer in the heat. Large shrubs block views, create privacy, and reduce noise from air conditioners and neighboring pool parties. They also provide nesting habitat and/or shelter for migratory and resident birds. Choose cold hardy species for barrier plantings and add frost sensitive plants that bloom over a long period as accent plantings for color and contrast. Place smaller shrubs at random intervals in amongst the larger shrubs forming layers of plantings between your house and the property edge. This will give you a naturalized border that does not require much care once established.

Native vines can be placed at the base of trees or palm clusters and allowed to ramble up the support provided. Or they can be trained on trellises that work particularly well in narrow spaces on the side of your property to block neighboring views of windows, garages, and storage spaces. The trellis alone provides almost instant privacy and fast growing vines will cover large sheets of latticework in a growing season. Vines can create a floral wall and many attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Native clump grasses, native ferns, native low growing shrubs, and the native cycad, coontie, are excellent low maintenance alternatives to lawn and form the floor of your landscape. They should be planted in groups of a single species (perhaps seven, eleven, fifteen specimens) to create larger areas of contrasting form and texture. Don’t think color here. Think ability to cover large areas of ground under trees, around large specimen or cluster palms, or accent shrubbery. Some species thrive in full sun; many need filtered light or partial shade to do well. Work on one planting area first and see if the plants you choose do well there. If they thrive, repeat this planting palette elsewhere.

Be cautious about groundcovers in our area. Many cover the ground where you plant them and then keep going. Some root at every growing node and will need constant edging to keep them from trailing over driveways and sidewalks or into and over plants and planted areas. Some are very difficult to get rid of if you decide you don't want them anymore. We suggest trying a few plants in an area you want to cover and seeing if you like the results before you remove large quantities of lawn and plant in mass. Several types of groundcover can be mowed and maintained as a lawn replacement. Groundcovers are an excellent alternative to grass on septic fields or to hold banks along canals. Several are salt tolerant and will thrive in full sun, drifting sand conditions. Just ask questions before you buy and try a few plants first.

Specialty native plantings such as a butterfly or hummingbird garden or small pond are exciting ways to add focal points to your landscape. Place them near your Florida room, screened lanai, or out the kitchen or office window. They will attract nature to your door and provide hours of viewing pleasure. I put in a small pond near my back porch and instead of burying my nose in a book, I often find myself watching the dragonflies dash about over the water's edge.

Lawns are environmental wastelands. Think native trees, multisize shrubs, vines, grasses, groundcovers and specialty gardens and start replanting. You’ll add life to your landscape! 




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