For over 50 years, the suburban ideal for beautiful landscaping has included a perfectly manicured, emerald green lawn. In Texas, more than one billion dollars is spent every year for the maintenance of home lawns and over 60% of the maintenance cost is for water.

In an effort to achieve a perpetually green landscape, homeowners along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast actually weaken their lawns with excessive water, fertilizer, and pesticides making them susceptible to insect and disease infestation. Runoff from improper watering carries excessive fertilizer down storm drains and directly into our waterways. Fertilizers feed algae that remove oxygen from the water resulting in fish kills. Pesticides are toxic to many forms of aquatic life. The WaterSmart approach to lawn maintenance is a combination of practices that maximize the conditions for good growth and minimize the potential for weeds, pests and disease.

Turfgrasses for the Upper Texas Gulf Coast

The “right plant in the right place” is the watersmart mantra, and it applies as well to what kind of turfgrass to plant. Choose the grass that will provide the best groundcover for the site, whether it be full sun, full shade, waterlogged, etc.

St. Augustine remains a favorite for most lawns on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. Properly managed, it is an excellent choice. This grass often gets a bad rap from the environmental community, but it is not grass itself that is the problem so much as using it in the wrong places and overmanaging it. Carpet grass is its close cousin and it flourishes in the local prairies. St. Augustine does best in partial shade. It can survive in full sun, but to thrive it will need a lot of water.

Bermuda grass may be the best choice for full sun areas with no shade.

Zoyzia grass is a recent introduction that is gaining popularity.

Seashore paspalum is an exciting new entry for Gulf Coast turf grasses. It is a native grass to our area (although commercial cultivars appear to be from Australia) and is very salt tolerant.

Aggie Turf Grass Selection Tables provide information on most of the above grasses with their particular tolerances and needs.
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Irrigation Guidelines

  • Use less water. Overwatering is the most frequent mistake a homeowner will make in lawn care. It is one of the main causes of brown patch. Follow these simple rules for watering:
  • Wait until it wilts. Grass will not suffer with a little wilting. A good sign for grass just starting to wilt is tracks left in the grass after you walk across the lawn.
  • Never apply water to the point of runoff. Water only as much as the soil under your lawn will absorb. On clayey soils or shallow claypan soils, this might mean 1/4 to 1/2 inch per application. Use a small tuna or other can to measure how much water you are putting out, and time your application appropriately.
  • In the summer, up to 50% of our municipal water supplies is used to water landscapes! Do your share to conserve!

Fertilization of Lawns

Avoid using the synthetic, quick release fertilizers. Think organic. Organic lawn care is based on the premise of feeding the soil as well as the grass. The soil food web is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms, insects, spiders, etc. Organic fertilizers nourish microorganisms as well as provide nutrients for plant growth. In addition, they are slow release in form providing a long-term food source. This healthy fertilizer might be composed of fishmeal, bone meal, blood meal, seaweed, cottonseed meal, compost or other materials.

Organic fertilizers may be more expensive than chemical fertilizers, but they do many jobs. Not only do they feed the plants and soil, but they also reduce pollution on land and in our waterways. The best organic fertilizers will come with a guaranteed minimum analysis, a set of three numbers, which indicate the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the formula.

How much is enough? The recommended rate for our region is 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for any single application of fertilizer. To figure out the amount of fertilizer needed, divide 1 by the percentage of nitrogen (the first of the three numbers on the label) and then multiply by 100. For a fertilizer with a 5% nitrogen, apply 20 pounds of fertilizer/1,000 square feet (1/5X100=20) Fertilize twice a year, spring and fall. With any fertility program, it is important to have a soil test completed every 2-3 years to learn how much fertilizer is really needed, and to make sure excessive levels of nutrients such as phosphorous do not occur. Remember to avoid over fertilization of any sort.

Compost is the ultimate soil additive. It is much more than simply a fertilizer. Good compost acts as a soil stabilizer and a sponge that not only retains water, but also releases it when needed. It is nature’s ultimate slow-release fertilizer. All compost is not the same, however. Low quality compost the kind most commonly available may actually tie up nutrients needed to feed lawns. Always ask about the source of the compost and what went into it. High quality compost is fully decomposed and has no odor. Spread high quality, finely screened compost 1/6 to XX inches thick once a year in spring or early summer. Be careful with manure-based composts. These composts may be very rich in phosphorous, which could end up in the runoff from your lawn. Apply manure-based composts sparingly.
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Mowing Recommendations

Mow at the right height and grasscycle. Taller grass develops deeper roots and thus makes better use of water in the soil. But not all grasses perform equally well at the taller heights. The best procedure therefore is to mow the grass as high as possible consistent with best performance.

  • Recommended heights for St. Augustine grass is 2.5-3.5 inches, Bermuda grass 1-1.5 inches.
  • Never mow more than 1/3 of the grass length. Cutting too much at once stresses the grass and can lead to insect or disease problems.
  • Never bag your lawn clippings! Grasscycle! Lawn clippings can supply up to 25% of your lawn’s needs. Use a mulching mower. Mulching mowers make smaller clippings and blow them down into the grass where they can quickly turn into fertilizer.

Lawn Pest Management

The goal of watersmart management is the development of healthy turf that resists pests with little intervention.

On the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas, chinch bugs and brown patch are our biggest pests.

Chinch bugs thrive in dry, stressed grass. Proper irrigation is the best way to keep these pests at bay. A diverse lawn is often the best protection for chinch bugs. A mix of bermuda grass and St. Augustine provides great protection, although this kind of mix may not be appealing to some homeowners.

Excessive water and fertilizer promotes brown patch. Reduce irrigation in the Spring and Fall to avoid the wet condictions necessary for brown patch. Use organic fertilizer and decomposed compost to build the soil food web under your grass. Brown patch does not destroy a lawn. It is a cosmetic issue that can be reversed by appropriate watering and fertilization.

A weed is just a plant that is out of place. A little toleration is the best remedy for most situations. A “hand remedy” is the best solution for the larger variety. The promotion of healthy turf is the key to crowding out weeds.

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