Yard-911

Dear Yard 911,

I'd really like to minimize my grass... particularly since we haven't been able to actually get any to grow under all of the oak trees in 22 years. With hardscaping and shade-tolerant, low maintenance plants as much as possible. I terraced the back yard next to the canal, but the front yard looks like ... dead grass and weeds.  What types of plants can I use in place of grass?

- Want To Be Grass-Free, Gibsonton

Dear Want To Be Grass-Free,
We certainly applaud you for wanting to reduce the amount of grass in your landscape, as Floridians use 1 billion gallons of water every day just to water grass! (Not to mention the fertilizer and pesticides that grass requires too). You have discovered the hard way that grass does not do well in full shade. Most turfgrasses used in Florida need 6-8 hours of full sun to look their best.  Groundcovers such as dwarf jasmine (also called jasmine minima or Asian jasmine), liriope or a combination of shrubs and groundcovers, are usually a better understory choice beneath trees.  I have a large live oak tree in my front yard and I got rid of the pathetic sickly looking grass under it a few years ago and  created a beautiful understory using a combination of native shrubs like Simpson’s stoppers, dwarf Walter’s viburnums and Oakleaf hydrangea, along with some bromeliads, gingers, cast iron plants, and caladiums in summer. It is very colorful and attractive now. I also made a winding pathway of pea gravel through this area so I can stroll and admire my plants. Hardscaping, as you mentioned, is also an excellent alternative to grass. Outdoor “rooms” such as a seating or dining area, or pathways of permeable materials like stones, pea gravel, shell or even pine bark add visual interest while giving you more reason to spend time in your yard—and enjoy it more! If you have not taken any of the Extension workshops in Florida-Friendly Landscaping, I’d highly recommend them. Check out upcoming workshops at  http://www.eventbrite.com/org/468730304?s=6298232 General info about designing a Florida Yard can be found at www.floridayards.org, including some sample landscape designs and a searchable database  of Florida-friendly plants. Thank you for your interest in Gardening Like A Floridian!

Dear Yard 911,

My Mother is a Suburbanized New Englander and she want's her 'northern plants and especially GRASS!!' I've been in Tampa Bay since I was 18, My Mother's a Healthy and Fit 86 Year Old Work Horse. She's been here for 30 years now. She STILL WANTS HER NORTHERN GRASS!! She learned her lesson about Northern Plants, but she just can't get it with the grass. Me Perssonally, I dispise grass. It's a cultivated weed in my eyes. It sucks nutrients out of the soil, is great food for insects, and requires constant Un-natural chemicals to m,aintain. Anyhow, She's fired many Gras Cutters either because they won't cut it as short as she wants (for her own good), or because when they do, the lawn burns out and becomes a weed farm. On the same note, she's had several Lawn spraying companies. All because what she want's she can't have. Mother nature say's so. So, is there any grass that will withstand our Scorching Heat, Humidity, Super Dry, then Super Wet climate? The only thing I've found is "Carpet Grass." Which, quite frankly, is easy to deal with. [Extra Info] My lawn is Carpet Grass mixed with low growing Thyme. The thyme is stronger than the carpet grass and overtakes it easily but slowly. My lawn Smells Good, is easy to walk on (like a plush carpet), and is easy to care for. If we get a lot of traffic in a certain area and the Thyme gets demolished, the carpet grass takes over quickly (to patch the hole) while the Thyme slowly takes over the Carpet grass. It needs to be trimmed about once a month, and Thatched once a year, right after the last Freeze. Fertilizer, Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant food monthly. What could be easier. Besides, If I'm cooking something, I can go out and pluck some Thyme from my lawn (Orange, Lemon, Regular, Apple). Cheers, BuBu

- BuBu, Hudson

Dear BuBu,
In a word, BuBu, the answer to your question is "No!" There really isn't any turf grass that is easy to grow and maintain in Florida. But you know this already.  You are a True Floridian. Your mom, on the other hand, hasn't quite gotten the knack of  designing her yard for the place she lives NOW -- and in fact has lived for the past 30 years.  Please tell her  (very nicely, because we respect all mothers) that no matter where she came from, she is a Floridian now. In Florida, we do things differently and we understand that we are never going to have the same color of green grass that we had in New Jersey or Connecticut or Vermont or Ohio or other places "up north." If she insists on sticking with grass, she must STOP scalping it with lawn mowers. How is grass supposed to grow and be healthy without blades to sop up sunlight and kick start photosynthesis? Scalping grass is THE leading cause of lawn disease and failure. If she has St. Augustine grass, which is the most common, it should never be mowed lower than 3.5 to 4 inches! Grass mowed higher has stronger, deeper roots and is less prone to disease and pests. These words are straight from the mouth of our Be Floridian partner John Pfeiffer, of Pampered Yards Lawn Service. John has a degree in turfgrass management, and he knows lawns. You can also tell her grass in Florida should not be green year-round. Yes, Florida is a lush state and we can grow many things all year, but even our grass needs a break in the winter. It is dormant then and it actually turns brown naturally, especially as far north as Pasco County. Finally, and this is just a wild guess, she may be overwatering her lawn -- a leading cause of weeds, thatch and fungus in turf.  Right now, we are under a Phase II Water Shortage and none of us should be watering our yards more than once a week. That's really enough at any time of year. If she doesn't believe any of this, have her call one of our Be Floridian partner companies for help. You can find them on our website at http://www.befloridian.org/partner-companies/ Good luck! We've heard New Englanders can be pretty headstrong.      

Dear Yard 911,

We have a lanai which covers our pool in the back of our home and there is a hill behind it. The builder put Bahia grass in and we do have sprinklers there. I have had to replace quite a bit of it with sod and seeds but it still has bare spots. Can I put in St. Augustine back there as this at least spreads. If you have any other suggestions, I would appreciate it.

- Fighting An Uphill Battle, Holiday

Dear Fighting An Uphill Battle,
If you have had to replace sod every year in this location, that is a clear signal that sod is probably not the long-term answer to your landscape problem. We would actually NOT recommend using grass on a hill because of the difficult of mowing, watering and fertilizing it evenly.  We can't imagine trying to mow grass on a steep slope – that’s a lot of work! And we here at Be Floridian are about less yard work. not more!

Bahia is definitely the hardiest and best grass for Florida overall, and requires the least care to look good, so if you are having problems with bahia that really is a sign that you need to rethink grass in this area. On a slope or hill, why not try a spreading groundcover like Asiatic jasmine (also called jasmine minima or dwarf jasmine) or perennial peanut that will spread and NOT require mowing or much water at all once established? I am assuming the hill gets full sun so either of these choices would be good.

Info about Asiatic jasmine can be found here:

http://landscaperschoicenaples.com/plantproduct-guide/item/98-jasmine-minima-asiatic-jasmine.html

Info about perennial peanut can be found here:

http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep135

Unless you really are into bodybuilding, we'd encourage you to plant something that is easier to take care of (MOW) than grass on a slope. You really are fighting an uphill battle with that!

Dear Yard 911,

We live in an area with mix of grass lawns and Florida friendly lawns. We have a few people who took out grass, plopped in plants and now the weeds and grass are 3 feet tall between plants. The lawn is ugly and children trip on the sidewalks where potato vines have taken over. What can be done? We all agree both types of lawn take some work but what do you do about the people you just stick stuff in and think they never need to do any trimming or weed pulling?

- Next Door To A Nightmare, Palm Harbor

Dear Next Door To A Nightmare,
Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? That is certainly true of landscape choices. Some of us prefer very formal, manicured landscapes while others like a less structured, even “jungly” look. And of course some of us don’t really care too much about appearance at all – we all know someone who says  “If it grows in my yard and it’s green, it stays.”   True Floridians know that all landscapes require care and maintenance to look their best.  Grass typically requires the most effort to maintain, but grass-free landscapes of shrubs, trees, flowers and groundcovers also require regular pruning, weeding and  disease or pest control (the non-toxic kind, preferably!).   Having a Florida-friendly yard does not mean letting whatever wants to grow in your yard just pop up and spread like the Little Shop of Horrors.  A true Florida-friendly yard is actually a landscape that is PLANNED to conserve water, minimize stormwater runoff, and provide wildlife habitat.  Here at Be Floridian we try to showcase a variety of low-maintenance, Florida-adapted yards that look beautiful while helping to protect what we love about Florida. Plus, taking care of our yards (no matter what type of plants we prefer) is just the neighborly thing to do. With your neighbors, try telling them (nicely, please) that you noticed they are having trouble  keeping up their yard and offer to help them prune and weed, starting with the sidewalk areas where you feel there is a hazard for children.  Hopefully this will work and your assistance will only only be needed once because they'll get the message.  

Dear Yard 911,

I was wondering the most Florida friendly way to deal with a soggy, reverse slope lawn. The lawn slopes and floods the garage. In addition, slight rainfalls create a swamp like environment on the lawn. Are there plants or any soil strategies that could help us drain the lawn for Xeriscaping?

- Soggy , St. Petersburg

Dear Soggy ,
Although there are certainly plants that don't mind "wet feet," we recommend you deal with your drainage issues before tackling a landscape makeover. If water is flooding your garage or standing for extended periods on your lawn even with light rains, you may have a serious drainage problem that could cause water damage or affect the foundation of your house.  Extension experts we consulted about your problem suggest contacting an environmental engineer who can come to your property, assess the situation and recommend permanent solutions. One option might be to install a French drain --  a trench covered with gravel or rock, or containing a perforated pipe, that can divert excess water away from your house. Several landscaping companies in the area install French drains. (It's a small consolation, we know, but your problem is not all that rare in our area.) Just get references and make sure the company you  hire is licensed and experienced in French drain installation. A permit may be needed, and you certainly want to make sure you don’t make the problem worse, or shift it to your neighbor’s property. Once the drainage mess is under control, check out the resources available on our website at http://www.befloridian.org/additional-resources/ for advice on creating a Florida-friendly yard.  Just remember the most important rule of gardening:  Right Plant, Right Place! Take a good look at your yard, what kind of soil you have, how much sun you get, whether water is still standing in a few places after a rain, and choose your new plants accordingly. Let us know how you do and good luck!

Dear Yard 911,

We have a deer problem, they eat everything! They have eaten most of the plants in my yard. Is there a resource that lists plants that deer do not eat. The have eaten all of my hibiscus and even my roses thorns and all. I would really like some color and I love flowers. Can you help?

- Done With Deer!, Palm Harbor

Dear Done With Deer!,
Oh deer!!! We had to consult Be Floridian partner Pam Brown, of Pampered Gardeners garden coaching service, to answer this one! Pam lives adjacent to Brooker Creek Preserve in North Pinellas, and she too has frequent freeloading deer munching her landscape and then hoofing it back to the woods. If they're hungry enough, Pam says, deer will eat pretty much any plant. However, she has found the following flowers to be more or less reliably deer-proof: Madagascar Periwinkle, Society Garlic, Angelonia, Ixora, Crown of Thorns, Plumbago, Oleander, Verbena and Petunias. As you have discovered, roses and hibiscus are "deer candy" (and in our experience, squirrel candy too!). Shrubs that deer tend to turn their cute little noses up at include Dwarf Yaupon Holly, Dwarf Walter's Viburnum, Simpson's stopper, Ligustrum, Sweet Viburnum and Podocarpus. Pam suggests you take a gander at this IFAS publication on ornamental plants and deer for more ideas: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW13700.pdf Finally, she notes that spray repellents work, but they are usually smelly and you need several in your arsenal so that you can rotate them. Good luck and remember that sharing our homes with wildlife is a part of being a Floridian and, if worse comes to worse, think of the great natural fertilizer those deer droppings are providing to your yard!        

Dear Yard 911,

What are these black grasshopper like things that are all over the place, on the walls, in planters, on the bark of my trees and in the lawn? What can I do about them?

- Going Buggy, Tampa

Dear Going Buggy,
Sounds like you are being invaded by lubber grasshoppers!  If the photo below matches what you see in your yard, those are baby lubber grasshoppers. They are the bane of every gardener in West Central Florida at this time of year. Left to eat in peace, they will indeed munch on every plant in your yard and grow to become very large grasshoppers with even bigger appetities.

  There are several non-toxic ways to get rid of lubbers. In fact, there are almost as many methods as there are plants these munching machines like to eat. You can smash them with a brick, cut their heads off with  scissors, or throw them to the ground and stomp them. But our favorite way, and the least "icky" for us squeamish types, is to toss them into a bucket of water with some dish soap. The dishwashing soap breaks the surface tension of the water so the little boogers sink instead of swim. When we have a lubber invasion, we generally just leave a bucket of soapy water handy for a few days and toss them in as we encounter them in our yard. When we don't see any more lubbers, we just toss the water with the drowned lubbers. There are many, many good bugs in our yards, but the lubber is definitely not one of them.

Dear Yard 911,

I recently came across a large number of yellow jackets/hornets at the base of a tree on my property. I had someone (a bee specialist ) come out and take care of it. He took out a large nest but the yellow jackets keep coming back. I've been trying to fill in the area with sand as he suggested but I can't get rid of the bugs long enough to do it. How can I discourage them from returning to this tree? Thanks!

- Christine, North Port

Dear Christine,
Ouch! Yellow jackets can be a real pain in the you-know-what. There are pesticides that kill yellow jackets in the nest and it sounds like that is what your bee specialist used. It is possible that, if he didn't apply the pesticide at dusk, not all the yellow jackets were home all tucked in for the night.  Those that weren't in the nest will naturally keep returning to their former home, sweet, home and may even try to build a new yellow jacket love shack.  Now, we at Be Floridian are all about low-impact, non-toxic landscape solutions, so we suggest that you try this "Green" alternative to your "stinging" problem:  Fill a 5-gallon bucket half full of sand and quickly upend it over the nest entrance  (the area they keep returning to).  You need to do this at night when they’re not active -- in fact, that is when they are most likely to be in the nest. In the morning they’ll burrow up through the sand but, hopefully, won’t be able to get back down. Leave the bucket there for a few days (weighting it down with a brick is a good idea) and your yellowjacket troubles should be over.  

Dear Yard 911,

Have you heard of using vinegar to kill grass and weeds rather than herbicides?

- Maureen, Largo

Dear Maureen,
We do not have any personal experience with using vinegar to control weeds but we did find this fact sheet on home remedies to garden problems from the Extension Service – a source we trust. We did read that vinegar may not be effective on persistent perennial weeds (it kills the top growth, but not the roots) but we can’t verify this. We have also read that it works better on young weeds, rather than "grown-up" weeds.  Perhaps the mature weeds are just too smart and experienced? We are big believers in homemade insecticidal soaps and all sorts of other natural, non-toxic solutions to those pesky garden pests, so let us know if you have success with vinegar. At the very least, your weeds will be squeaky clean.

Dear Yard 911,

I cannot get grass to grow in my front yard. Just below the surface are roots everywhere. You can take a shovel and hit it anywhere in my yard and it sounds like you are hitting plywood. I know the soil I have is mostly sand and all the nutriants are probably gone. Would putting sod on top of this be a waste of time and money? What should I do?

- Steve, Tampa

Dear Steve,
Yes indeed, trying to grow grass in your yard would be like to trying to grow grass on concrete! Our friends at the Extension Service say you are dealing with Double Trouble:  dense tree roots and compacted soil, the bane of many urban landscapes. Let us take a wild guess -- you must have one or more large trees in or around your yard! Now shade is a wonderful thing -- we highly recommend it -- but not for growing grass! Turfgrasses in Florida need sun and room to put down roots, and from your description you don't have either. We urge you to kick the grass addiction and work with what Mother Nature is giving you. If you are lucky and have an oak tree, rejoice and let those oak leaves that fall create a self-mulching area. If you don't have a tree that drops leaves, bring in mulch (just not cypress mulch, please -- our wetlands need those cypress trees!) and apply 2-4 inches of mulch. Then try planting some shade-loving plants that don't need much room to grow, such as caladiums, bromeliads or ground orchids.  A shade-tolerant groundcover like dwarf jasmine (jasmine minima) is a tough customer that will grow in almost any type of soil and light, and spread over time to cover your yard.  Best of all, you don't need to mow it! You can also add color and interest to your yard with some creative container gardening. Then you don't have to worry about wrenching your back trying to dig through those tree roots. To learn more about soil compaction, check out this fact sheet on Soil Compaction in the Urban Landscape.    

Dear Yard 911,

Every Saturday, I get “the look” from my neighbors as I head to my boat. What gives? With Muhly grass and mulch, my yard looks great without a lot of work.

- Innocent Until Proven Guilty, Tarpon Springs

Dear Innocent Until Proven Guilty,
Ah, a true Floridian. You know how to work hard … at having fun. If the neighbors want to toil away on a yard like “up North,” let them. Maybe one day they will leave their New Jersey roots back in New Jersey.

Dear Yard 911,

My sister-in-law has a yard that’s a mess. There’s stuff growing everywhere, and her “recycled” planters include car tires and an old toilet (lid up). Is this what a Florida-friendly yard looks like?

- Thumbs Down, Gulfport

Dear Thumbs Down,
No way. As you probably suspect, your SIL struggles a little in the “good taste” department. Florida-friendly means landscaping that thrives in our semitropical climate, needing less water, fertilizer and overall care. Why not give your SIL some ideas by planting a lovely Florida-friendly yard of your own? If all else fails, renovate your half-bath and “borrow” her planter. You can thank her with a garden center gift certificate and a Florida-friendly gardening guide.

Dear Yard 911,

My husband is deathly afraid of bugs. I think it goes back to when he was little and his sister put a cockroach down his shirt. But now he schedules monthly pesticide treatments for our lawn and I can’t let our dogs play outside for days at a time. Are pests really such a problem in Florida?

- Insectophobe Gone Wild, Safety Harbor

Dear Insectophobe Gone Wild,
Chinch bugs. Spittlebugs. Grass scales. They give us the creeps, too. So yes, there are bad bugs. But there are good bugs, too — and your husband’s monthly chemical dump is giving the bad guys the upper hand. Applying pesticide too often — or spraying the whole yard instead of just the problem spot — can kill beneficial organisms that keep your grass healthy. Plus half the time people put poison on their lawns, bugs aren’t the problem in the first place. Our suggestion? Dig up a grass plug and take it to your local extension office to find out what (if anything) ails your lawn. And then call a therapist to fix what ails your husband.

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Kicking the lawn habit

Start small. Replace a corner of your lawn with a bed of shrubs, small trees and groundcovers. Or plant that butterfly garden you always wanted. Dig up the grass, or cover it with newspapers or plastic sheeting for a few weeks and then remove it. Turn over the soil a bit, plant your new plants, and cover them with about 3 inches of mulch. Water and weed regularly until the plants get a toehold in their new home. You can install some edging to define the new bed and keep that troublesome turf from creeping in.

Then grow. Expand your landscape beds over time, and before you know it you’ll be devoting your weekends to relaxing instead of mowing, weeding, and edging. Add interest to your yard with meandering pathways that define your landscape beds and reduce maintenance time. Pathways can be created from shell, gravel, flagstones or mulch. Add a seating area or water feature, such as a pond or bird bath. You can create themed gardens — with butterfly plants in one bed, and maybe a scent garden in another with tea olives, gardenias and jasmine.

Keep what you need. Pets and kids need a place to play. Respect their turf. Look for unused portions of your lawn to convert to landscape beds.

Location, location

These Florida-friendly plants just need the right home.

Sunny and dry. Hibiscus will produce beautiful flowers with little-to-no care.

Sun/mixed shade and dry. Muhly grass is a low-key beauty that turns bright pink in the fall.

Soggy spots. Florida canna likes to get its feet wet and is a butterfly magnet.

Shade. Cast-iron plant has deep green leaves, needs very little water, and grows in a variety of soils.

Anywhere. Beach sunflower is a low-maintenance ground cover that never stops blooming. It tolerates poor soil, needs little water, and never needs fertilizer.

Waste not, want not

Here’s how to avoid overwatering:

Sure signs. Before watering your plants, look for signs of wilt or if leaves curl. Your lawn needs water when the grass blades fold in, or you can see your footprints when you walk on it.

Get some sense. Place an inexpensive rain gauge in an open area so you can tell you how much rain your yard received, then supplement only if needed. Installing a moisture sensor will also help you know what’s happening at the root level where moisture is most important.

Supervise your sprinklers. If you have an in-ground irrigation system, make sure none of your sprinklers heads are broken. Check on the sprinklers to make sure you’re not accidentally watering the sidewalk or driveway. Keep water restrictions in mind when you set your timer and irrigate early in the morning so the water doesn’t evaporate in the heat of the day. Install a rain sensor if your system doesn’t have one already. Make sure the sensor is pointed up so it can detect when it has rained and prevent your system from coming on.

Indulge. When you do water, give your landscape a good, long drink (one-half to three-quarters inch per application). Your plant and grass roots will grow deeper and stronger than they would if you used less water more frequently. Healthier plants with deep roots need far less water and are much more resistant to disease and pests.

Pest patrol

Know thy enemy. The No. 1 rule for pest control is to know what’s infiltrating your territory before calling in the chemical troops. Call your county extension office if you need help.

Learn to recognize the good guys. Ladybugs love aphids, mites, mealy bugs and leafhoppers. Spiders are your friends — widows and recluse spiders are the only poisonous varieties in Florida.

Less is often best. Many insect pests, such as eastern lubber caterpillars or tomato hornworms, can be easily removed by hand and squashed or drowned in soapy water.

Go natural. A soil-dwelling bacteria called Bacillus thurengiensis (BT for short) is a widely available alternative to chemical pesticides. Sprays made with pyrethrins — natural organic compounds — also are effective.