EnvyHow You, Too, Can be King of the Grass

Green With Envy
Scott Holstein

If you are yard-obsessed and jogging jealously past your neighbors’ lush lawns, you’re not alone. Floridians love their yards, even more so than the rest of the country, according to the National Gardening Association, and that’s saying a lot now that gardening has become America’s No. 1 hobby.

“It’s because of the nice climate that we have, especially in Tallahassee,” said Jared Hatcher, president of Mowing Masters Lawn & Landscape. “There is lots of shade and a lot of trees, and I know a lot of neighborhoods take pride in their landscaping with lawn-of-the-month contests.”

Taking pride in your yard is one thing, but sometimes it can go a little too far. Realtors complain that some homeowners — especially those who moved here from cold regions — are so enamored by their pleasant new climate that they overwhelm their yards. Balance is the key, Hatcher said. You need a nice mix of evergreen plants and shrubs, and annuals and perennials for color.

 “Sometimes less is more,” he said. “A lot of it too is making sure the landscape doesn’t overgrow the home. We’ve done jobs where we’ve renovated landscaping (because) the shrubs and trees got so big they hid the house or (became) too much for the yard. The smaller the yard, the easier it is to become crowded.”


Planning Matters

Hatcher said planning the perfect garden for your yard takes good planning and foresight. There are a lot of variables to consider, with perhaps the biggest thing being time. Do you have time to maintain it? Or, if you are going to pay for a professional, how much are you willing to spend? The more annuals, flowers and bedding there are, the more weeding and upkeep of mulch and pine straw is required. A lawn with just grass is going to take less time and tending.

“Also, if they are going to do it themselves, they need to consider pets, if they have dogs. Also, if they have kids, you’re going to have to plan for a play set or a swing set. There are a lot of variables, but (the major ones are) time, money, pets and kids,” he said.

Many mistakes can be made, but one point is especially prickly: Homeowners buy plants without knowing their growth habits. Hatcher said this should be an integral part of any planning process, whether you do it yourself or have it done professionally.

“If you’re going to do it yourself you could have a landscape architect or company draw up a design or plan for your yard after consulting with you,” he said. “Ask about upkeep and maintenance, what you want your yard to look like. Obviously a good company will consider the size of how big the plants will be fully grown. If you’re going to do it yourself, most plants have tags that give you planting instructions, amount of sunlight and water needed, spacing and size when they are fully grown. That is a good guide to go by.”

How much “green” to get the grass green?A typical estimate for lawn service will include prices for weekly lawn cut, weeding beds, trimming hedges, a chemical program, etc. These items may be priced individually or lumped together as a monthly maintenance price. Usually, companies discount prices if you sign up for several services.

A weekly lawn cut for half an acre averages $30 to $50.
Expect to pay $25 to $50 per month for weeding beds.


Landscaping Myths

Taking care of a yard is mired in myths that can lead to common landscaping mistakes.

“Water your lawn in the evening to conserve water.” Not true. Doing so is harmful. The water ends up sitting on top of the grass, allowing lawn fungus and disease to fester.

“If I mow my grass shorter, I won’t have to do it as often.” Not so. You’ll rob your lawn of its ability to produce sugar from photosynthesis, exposing sensitive root systems to excessive sunlight and giving weeds a leg up.

Brave New Lawn

The lawn is the most changed area in today’s yard. For some years now, homeowners have been re-thinking that perfect lawn we know from putting greens and English manor houses. Tired of high water bills, mowing every week and a schedule of fertilizing and weed control applications, they’re taking a good, hard look at new garden strategies.

Xeriscaping, a term based on the Greek word for “dry,” is one of those strategies. It emerged first in the Western U.S., where water resources are thin, but has spread to other regions.

“Many xeric principles are simply common sense,” explains Pam Johnson of Barefoot Lawncare, based in Santa Rosa Beach. “For example, it includes using native plant materials rather than exotic imports. Playing up the colors and textures of indigenous vines, shrubs and perennial flowers can create fabulous gardens.”

Hatcher said he hasn’t seen that kind of landscaping in Tallahassee as much, but he’s noticed that some neighborhoods tend to make use of the native or naturally occurring plants that haven’t been “planted” there.

“Whatever is supposed to be there naturally, is there,” he said.

“And there are many types of grasses, some of them drought-resistant,” adds Denelle Polk, owner of Pizazz-Scape in Fort Walton Beach, “so even if you’re conservation-minded, you needn’t forego a lawn.”


Florida-friendly grasses

St. Augustine grass, the most widely used in Florida, is the closest the state comes to a native grass. This grass is believed to be indigenous to the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean. It produces a blue-green dense turf that has good salt and shade tolerance, but it has its negatives. It needs lots of fertilizers and water, doesn’t wear well and generally doesn’t stay green throughout the winter months.

In Tallahassee the predominant grass seems to be Centipede, which requires less fertilizer and maintenance. This grass, which is only adapted for Northern Florida, grows best in acidic, sandy soils that don’t retain water and it survives dry spells well. Both types have found a home here in places suited for them, Hatcher said.

“St. Augustine grass doesn’t do well unless it’s in the shade and has plenty of water. It takes more fertilizer, because it’s more prone to weeds and disease. In the shadier areas there’s a lot of St. Augustine,” he said.

“As far as big open yards and pastures, those are definitely going to be Bahia — unless planted in Centipede. Centipede is less maintenance and does well in the sun. It normally won’t grow in the shade. When it comes to neighborhoods and lawns, what we maintain is 70 percent Centipede and 30 percent St. Augustine. But both need a lot of water.”


The Right Landscaper

There are a lot of landscaping services out there, but if you’ve decided you want someone who doesn’t just arrive with a machine and spend 15 minutes charging around your lawn, you need to do some homework.

Instead of just opening the phone book and signing a contract with the first company listed, you should interview a few firms. Remember, not every lawn care service offers the same services, certifications and professionalism.

Hatcher suggests you get references from each company you’re interviewing, and then go look at the lawns and gardens they’re taking care of.

“I’d ask for 10 examples of jobs they’ve done around town,” he said.

Also make sure the service has business, liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and ask whether they provide work beyond lawn care.

“A company that is licensed, insured and established is probably going to be more expensive than someone without license and insurance,” Hatcher said.

Johnson jumps right into the fray and suggests you ask this question: “Do you have a pesticide license?”  She says the answer will tell you a lot more than whether the person you’re interviewing is legally allowed to treat your lawn. It will also reveal if he has had some training beyond mowing his parents’ backyard.

Also, make sure the firm gives proper notice before spraying chemicals, as you’ll want kids and pets out of the way. Finally, be sure to outline the work to be done in writing.

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