As we prepare our yards for a fresh start in 2023, perhaps one of our New Year’s resolutions can be to be to make some changes in how we maintain our landscape. By doing so perhaps we can save some money and have a healthier landscape at the same time. It may seem daunting to adopt all five of these resolutions. Instead try adopting one as the starting point. By doing so you are well on your way to having a healthier landscape.
Resolution #1: Calibrate your sprinkler system
One of the biggest contributors to an unhealthy lawn is too much water. When asked how much water is being applied to our lawns, many of us provide an answer in minutes as in “15 minutes per zone”. In the growing season research has found that Florida turf varieties only need 1-1.5 inches of water a week (including rainfall) to be healthy. Using more creates conditions that favor turf diseases such as take all root rot. This means if we have our irrigation running twice a week as allowed by City of Jacksonville ordinance, we should only be applying ½ to ¾ of an inch at each watering at the most. All it takes to calibrate your irrigation is a few flat containers with straight sides such as cat food, or tuna cans and some time. Scatter the cans throughout your turf at random within the zone. Turn on the sprinkler system for fifteen minutes. Then use a ruler to measure the depth of water in each container. Calculate the average depth of water by adding up the depths in the different containers and divide that number by the number of containers. This will give you the number of inches you are applying in 15 minutes. Use this figure to adjust your timer to apply ½ to ¾ of inches in a watering. Go to: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/water/articles/systems/save_water.shtml for more information.
Resolution #2: Manage turf weeds appropriately
Most of us apply the wrong weed control at the wrong time. Weeds are easiest to control when they are young, the smaller the better. Using a pre-emergent herbicide before the weed seeds germinate is a great place to start treating summer weeds. It is important to read the label and follow the instructions when applying them especially when it comes to watering them in. In addition, read the label to make sure it will be effective on the weed you want to control. A pre-emergent herbicide creates a layer in the lawn or landscape environment that stops weeds from germinating. Too much irrigation will wash the product too deep in the soil to inhibit sprouting weeds.
Preemergent herbicides, may not work on every weed in the lawn or landscape. Some are better at controlling grasses, while others are better at controlling broadleaf weeds. If you have a pest control company treating your weeds in established turfgrass there are many formulations available for them to use. For homeowners, it may be challenging to find some of these products. If you want to control both grassy and some broadleaf weeds a few of the available products include Surflan (oryzalin), Pre-M, Halts Crabgrass Preventer (pendimethalin), and Weedgrass Preventer (bensulide). For primarily broadleaf weeds, look for atrazine as the active ingredient.
Timing is important for preemergence herbicides because they must be applied before the weed has germinated. In Northeast Florida March 1st is a good target date. However, the more specific answer is when day temperatures reach 65°F–70°F for 4 or 5 consecutive days.
What about “weed-n-feed” fertilizers? The fertilizer/ herbicide mixtures are convenient. However, as mentioned, the best time to treat weeds is early spring and we should not fertilize our turf until it starts growing in April. If the temperatures in April are still cool enough according to the instructions on the bag, the fertilizer/ herbicide combinations can be used as a second herbicide application.
To learn more about preemergent herbicides the University of Florida publication, Weed Management Guide for Florida Lawns can be found at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/EP/EP14100.pdf
Resolution #3: When planting trees and shrubs, plant them higher than the surrounding soil
The biggest mistake when planting trees and woody shrubs is to plant them too deep. The old rule of thumb was that when planting a tree, place it so that the level of the soil in the pot was level with the natural soil surface. This method is no longer recommended. The tree or shrub should be planted slightly higher than the surrounding soil. To do this dig the hole a little bit shallower than the container, and as wide as you can possibly make it. A good practice is twice the diameter of the root ball. An easy way to remember not to dig the hole too deep is to use a saying a wise forester once told me; “Plant it high, and it won’t die”. When a tree is planted deeper than it should be, the root system is starved for oxygen, and the tree does not become established in the landscape. Also, with trees planted too deep, the trunks are covered with soil, promoting decay situations.
Resolution #4: Use controlled, or slow-release fertilizer when possible
Every fertilizer bag should have a small box on the label called the “Guaranteed Analysis”. This is where you can figure out what is contained in the fertilizer bag. To figure out if the fertilizer is slow release you will need to check out the source of nitrogen used in the fertilizer. Find a fertilizer that has 30% or more of the nitrogen in a controlled release form. You may find it listed on the fertilizer bag as “slow release”, “insoluble nitrogen” or “polymer coated”. To calculate the percentage of slow-release nitrogen in a fertilizer, take the percentage listed for slow-release, divide by the first number on the fertilizer bag (total nitrogen) and multiply by 100. For example, if a 15-0-15 has 7% water insoluble nitrogen, divide 7 by 15 and multiply by 100 to get 46.67%.
By using a slow-release fertilizer, the nitrogen is available to plants over a longer period of time making it less likely to be leached into the groundwater, or washed away as runoff into our creeks, and rivers during our rainy periods.
Resolution #5 Don’t plant and/or remove invasive plants
You may be asking what does “invasive plant” mean? The University of Florida defines an invasive plant as “an introduced plant that causes harm to the environment, the economy and/or human health. Often displacing native species, these invaders skew the delicate balance between animals, plants and processes such as water flow and fire.” In other words, it is a plant that does not naturally occur in our area and causes great harm to the environment by spreading uncontrollably and displacing native plants. While a weed is any plant growing in a place where it’s not wanted, an invasive weed has the potential to cause widespread change to the natural ecosystem. For this reason, the control of invasive plants starts in our own back (and front) yards. It is important that we know what is growing in our landscapes and determine if they are invasive or not. The University of Florida/ Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has an easy-to-use tool found online at https://assessment.ifas.ufl.edu/ that can help us identify the invasive risk of many trees and plants. It can be used to see if a plant you would like to grow in your landscape is safe to use or if a plant you already have growing in your landscape is invasive. By using this tool, we can determine if a plant is invasive and either remove it, or not plant it in the first place.
Again, trying to achieve all these resolutions may seem impossible, taking smaller steps by following any one of these resolutions can help us create healthy, sustainable, and productive landscapes in the following year. If you need help finding useful, Florida based landscape solutions, try using the University of Florida’s online resource “Ask IFAS” by going to https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.