You may not be playing golf on your lawn, but that’s no reason it can’t look great

By Jeff Wilson, Ph.D.

Having a beautiful lawn is not something that happens by chance. A lot of hard work goes into having clean, manicured turf. Weeds, insects, and diseases can all wreak havoc in a short amount of time if left unattended. The best defense is to have a full, healthy turf that can survive these pest issues. 

A healthy lawn is the best prevention against turf pests. Photo ©karamysh/shutterstock.com.

To make this happen, first select the appropriate turf variety for your location. There are four primary warm-season turfgrasses that thrive in the South: bermudagrass, centipedegrass, zoysiagrass, and St. Augustinegrass. St. Augustinegrass does best in the lower third of the state, while the others can grow from the Gulf Coast up to Zone 7.  

All turf species cannot grow in all areas of a lawn. These four main types all do well in full sun, but each has different shade tolerances. Bermudagrass needs a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Centipedegrass and zoysiagrass can tolerate as little as three to four hours of sunlight and be healthy, while St. Augustinegrass can grow in filtered sunlight. 

A properly maintained yard that is healthy and lush, that is watered, mowed, fertilized, and sprayed correctly is the ultimate prevention of pest problems.

The second step is to prepare the area for seeds, plugs, or sod. Seeding is the least expensive method but cannot be used with St. Augustinegrass. Plugging uses sections of sod cut into smaller pieces to cover more area with less expense. The quickest, but most expensive, method is sodding. All methods need a weed-free soil bed to establish properly. Some do require more “grow in” time than others. Select the option that best suit your needs. 

Fall armyworms (see worms in inset photo) eat the tender new growth of bermudagrass turf. Photos courtesy of Sid Mullis.

The third step is to maintain turf correctly. This means watering, fertilizing, and treating for insects, diseases, and weeds appropriately. Your lawn should receive at least 1 inch of water per week, and only when it doesn’t receive that amount from rainfall. This usually means watering twice a week, about 30 minutes each time. It is best to water deeply and infrequently to avoid disease problems. 

Numerous fertilizer options are available, so choose one that fits your maintenance plan. A quick-release product may provide rapid growth, but may not last much longer than a month. A slow-release product that releases over time may provide more even, consistent growth. The surest method is to follow the results of a soil test.  

As you mow, scout the turf area for insect and disease issues. Note any changes in turf appearance, such as a lighter green color or disease spots. These could be early symptoms of a problem and the sooner you can detect and control can have a big impact on the severity of the issue.  

Large patch is a fungus that attacks roots of centipedegrass and St. Augustinegrass. Photo courtesy of Sid Mullis.

The three main insect problems in turfgrass are fire ants, chinch bugs, and fall armyworms. Fire ants appear in all turf types, while chinch bugs are primarily found in centipedegrass and St. Augustinegrass; armyworms mostly appear in bermudagrass and zoysiagrass. For fire ant control, treat the lawn area with a bait product. These are applied up to three times per year and provide a high level of control. The recommended application times are around Easter, July 4, and Labor Day. In addition to using baits, you may have to occasionally treat a mound with a drench insecticide. 

There are many potential turf diseases that could affect your lawn, but the most common are dollar spot, large patch, and spring dead spot. Dollar spot is a fungus mostly seen in bermudagrass. It attacks stressed areas first and moves from there. It is most prevalent during periods of warm, humid weather with cool nights. It kills the grass in 2-3-inch spots and can be spread throughout the yard by mowing. 

Large patch (brown patch) is a fungus that attacks all warm-season turf types. Most prevalent in spring or fall, it can grow from a small area to several feet in diameter quickly as it attacks the turf roots. 

Spring dead spot is mostly a bermudagrass issue that also attacks the roots. It usually appears in late summer or fall and usually goes unnoticed until spring green up. That is because the roots decay over the winter and come springtime, those areas don’t green up. 

To control these pests, maintain adequate moisture and nutrients, avoid thatch buildup and late afternoon watering, and mow at proper height. You know, all the things you are supposed to do anyway. If the problem is severe, then a fungicide application may be necessary. 

The last issue is weeds, and we all have them. Some are annuals and return each year from seed, while others are perennial and return from the roots, which are more difficult to control. There are annual winter weeds and annual summer weeds. The most common annual summer weed is crabgrass, which grows in all turf types. 

Crabgrass is the most common summer annual weed. Photo courtesy of PJ Gartin.

The best way to control these annual weeds is by applying a pre-emergent herbicide in the fall and again in early spring. Timing is important when doing this. A pre-emergent product can prevent as much as 80 percent of weeds from germinating, therefore keeping your lawn healthier. 

Virginia buttonweed and dallisgrass are two of the more difficult perennial weeds to control. Usually one treatment will not eliminate these weeds and multiple applications may be necessary. Remember to select a weed control product that is labeled for your turfgrass as well as the weed you are trying to control. 

A properly maintained yard that is healthy and lush, that is watered, mowed, fertilized, and sprayed correctly is the ultimate prevention of pest problems.  

A healthy turf has a greater chance of surviving attacks from these pests. Remember, if the grass is greener on the other side, someone is doing a better job.

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