Gardening : Best Practices for Lawn Care and Gardening in Florida

The below excerpt is taken from the book "Gardening and Landscaping in Central Florida" by Marlys Bell. This book is an excellent read for anyone interested in lawn care in Florida. This book deals with Gardening best practices, tips and techniques to grow an vibrant and green lush garden.


 This chapter outlines the principles for gardening in central Florida, with a special section for turf maintenance.  At the end of the chapter is a monthly calendar of activities and special garden related attractions and treats.  As suggested in the introduction, Florida has unique environmental issues.  The presence and absence of water, the soil conditions, and the press of development, which affects wildlife are examples of interrelated issues that should be of concern to everyone.  The gardening practice and decisions of individual homeowners can affect our environment- both positively and negatively.

     To help each of us garden responsibly in ways that protect and rebuild Florida’s natural environment, the University of Florida’s program “Florida Yard and Neighborhoods”, promotes “Florida friendly” horticulture practice.  In addition to supporting the environment, being ‘Florida friendly’ saves you time and money because its overall goal is to cooperate with nature or local natural conditions, rather than battling the elements.  In general, that means conserving water and energy inside and outside the home, using fewer chemical, planning landscapes which need less maintenance and which support local wildlife while also fulfilling aesthetic, functional, privacy and home beautification needs.  IN addition, the skillful use of trees and shrub and other plant material can successfully moderate the climate around your house and reduce air conditioning bills, while also improving property values.


The following “Florida friendly” principles provide a framework for landscape maintenance. Tips which translate the principle into practice are also included.


The goal is to match the plant’s requirements or preferences with the site conditions and other environmental conditions, so that time, effort and resources needed to maintain the landscape can be reduced.

The Reality

Too often plant needs are ignored when determining where they will be planted. For example, putting azaleas in full sun in sandy, alkaline soils when they prefer partially shady conditions and acidic, organic soil, increases the likelihood they will need more water and more frequent fertilizing and attention, because they are more likely to attract pests and be under constant stress. Similarly, planting hibiscus in area where deer are free to roam creates conflicts because keeping the deer from them will be an ongoing battle. A better approach is to plant something the deer do not like so they will avoid your yard and search for food somewhere else.

The Florida Friendly Response

Instead of fighting or ignoring nature, work with it, follow its lead. 

     The list of landscape plants in Chapter 3 provides suggestions for plants that do well in this area. It also includes the conditions under which they will do best, and indicates if they are native plants. If there are native plants growing on your property, leave them if possible since they are likely to be supporting local wildlife. Consider adding more native to your landscape, but ask as many questions about them as those that are as native, since they also have particular oil, light, drainage and water needs. Just because they are native does not mean they will grow anywhere; you need to replicate their native habitat. A native plant may lose its desirable characteristics (such as pest tolerance.) when placed in a highly fertilized and irrigated landscape. When determining if this the right plant for this place, some factors to review are:

  • What are the sun, water, and soil conditions of the plants? Do they match those of the site? If not native, does it come from a part of the world with similar conditions, i.e. hot, humid summers and a potential killing freeze in winter? Will it be grouped with other with similar requirements?
  • Is it reliably hardy? If not, is the site sufficiently sheltered, or will you be able to protect it in cold weather? If it is damaged by frost, what impact will it have on the “year-round attractiveness” of your landscape?
  • Are there special conditions which need to be considered about the site or the plant? For example, where salt spray and/or brackish water are issues, the plant’s ability to adapt is an important factor in deciding whether this is the right plant for this place. Examples of plant factors which negatively affect appropriateness are plants which have thorns near walkways or plant which attract bees near patios.
  • Is the ultimate size of the plant appropriate to the site, surrounding structures, and plants around it? What about its root structure and likely competition with other root systems landscapes and underground utilities?
  • Is it an easy-care plant that grows with minimal intervention? Does it attract bugs and other pests and how prone is it do disease?


The goal is to water only those plants that need it and only when they need it. This practice will reduce watering, fertilizing and maintenance costs and result in healthier plants while conserving scarce water resources.

The Reality

In general, we are over watching our landscapes wasting money and endangering the health of plants. Too often all plants in the landscape are watered on a predetermined schedule because the irrigation system is on a timer set for certain days of the week. In addition, the watering is frequently sprayed onto foliage and not the roots. These practices encourage shallow root systems, leeching of nutrients and rapid growth which requires more frequent cutting (in the case of turf), pruning (for shrubs), and increased likelihood of disease.

The Florida Friendly Response

The chapter on PERONALIZING YOUR OUTDOOR SPACE and INSTALLING YOUR NEW LANDSCAPE provide information about designing irrigation systems and landscapes so they are Florida friendly. Following these suggestions will conserve water and reduce irrigation costs while also stimulating healthier plants requiring less maintenance.

Watering Suggestions

  • Select drought tolerant plants, and group plants with similar watering needs together.
  • Design the irrigation systems so that zones are set up to reflect plant need, both in terms of frequency as well as method. Select the right kind of sprinklers for the kinds of plants, e.g. bubblers for trees and shrubs, versus overhead sprinklers for turf.
  • Take the irrigation clock off automatic and put it on manual so that decisions about when and where to water are based on observations about plant conditions and micro climates in the yard. Get to know the micro climates in your yard, and make watering decisions accordingly. Plants will need more water when it is hot and less water when it is cooler. Plants in the sum and on berms will likely needs more frequent watering than those in the shade and low-lying areas.
  • Water only those plants that need it rather than turning on the whole irrigation system. If the plant shows signs of stress in the either hand water, or water on the next authorized watering day for your area. Signs that the plant needs water are:
  • Wilting, or grass blades Folding in half or soil from the root zone feeling day. In addition it may look bluish gray and leave foot prints when walked upon.
  • for perennials and shrubs, the Signs are: wilting, yellowing, browning leaf tips, or leaf drop Gradually condition plants to need less water by allowing more time between watering to force them to grow deeper roots.
  • Irrigate early in the morning when it is cooler and not windy, and evaporation loss will be reduced. Water deeply, not superficially, to promote deeper root systems. On average, provide 3/4 inch of water per application.
  • Apply 2-3 inches of organic mulch to help improve water retention, to reduce soil temperature and to reduce erosion and weeds. Weeds soak up water and nutrients which could be going to the plants.


The reasons for using mulch are to reduce the amount of fertilizers and soil amendments the amount of fertilizers and soil amendments that need to be added routinely; to reduce the costs of supplemental watering by retaining moisture in the soil and lowering its temperature; to reduce erosion, and to reduce the amount of maintenance required by minimizing the growth of weeds.

The Reality

Too often, homeowners complete their new landscaping, add plastic or fabric barriers and cover the soil with stones (or some other non biodegradable substance such as gravel, lava rock or ground up tires) and think they have selected a low maintenance solution to landscaping. The reality as organic mulch and also make soil temperatures warmer, increasing watering needs. White rocks reflect heat which is stressful to plant and fabric barrier (which should always be used between the soil and the non-biodegradable mulch), reduces the amount of oxygen which gets through to roots and other soil microbes. The permeable ground cloth also inhibits the development of beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms. Impermeable materials such as plastic should never be used because they interfere with air exchange between the atmosphere and the soil, which is important for roots and microorganisms. Other issues when using non-biodegradable mulch (like stones) are that when leaves and other substances fall on it, it creates additional maintenance since it now looks “messy,” and plants will need to be fertilized more often since nothing is being added to enhance the soil.


The Florida Friendly Response

Use organic mulch (bark, pine needles, compost, grass clippings, ground up leaves, wood chips, or other biodegradable materials) which feeds the soil and improves its texture, making fertilizer supplements increasingly unnecessary (at least for trees and large shrubs) as the soil is enhanced over time.

Mulching Tips

  • Create your own mulch by recycling pine needles, ground up leaves, or a combination of compost, twigs, leaves, and grass clippings. (Some leaves and grass clippings mat, so should be used in combination with other substances.) When buying mulch, consider melaleuca, Australian pine, and eucalyptus which are invasive trees which we are trying to eliminate, rather than cypress which is increasingly scarce. (These mulches are marketed as “Enviro” mulch.)
  • Add 2-3 inches of organic mulch around the root balls of plants and trees. Do not place mulch against stems and trunks, as it may cause water retention next to trunk tissues and increase the likelihood of disease.
  • Place mulch about 12 inches from foundations or structures in order to guard against termites which are attracted to moist areas.
  • Stir or rake the old mulch periodically to renew the color and to promote air and moisture circulation and to prevent matting.
  • Replenish mulch to a depth of 2 inches when soil begins to show through in spots.


The goal is to use to smallest amount of the most long-lasting fertilizer possible to produce the desired result which reduces costs, pollutants, plant disease and maintenance.

The Reality

Too often, in the quest for the greenest law and healthiest plants, larger quantities of fast acting nitrogen are used to stimulate growth which then results in more frequent mowing and pruning and leeching of pollutants into the ground water. In addition, excess nitrogen reduces plant resistance to disease, insects, and environmental stresses such as drought and cold injury.

The Florida friendly response

The calendar of MONTHLY ACTIVITIES suggests a schedule for when plants should be fertilized if supplemental fertilizer is necessary. Fertilizing is determined to be necessary when the plant is not producing the desired response (fruit growth or flowers).  Soil testing may reveal nutrient deficiencies which should be addressed.  The best approach is to feed the soil (not the plants) by adding organic material, compost and mulch (improving the soil’s texture and fertility).

     Generally, plants should not need to be a fertilized more than 2-3 times a year established and thereafter only as necessary, especially if compost or organic mulch is being applied periodically.  Turf, on the other hand needs to be fertilized regularly to maintain its attractiveness.  More specific information about fertilizing grass is included in the TURF MANAGEMENT section of this chapter. In general, over fertilizing causes more problems than under fertilizing.

     We used to think that different plant had different nutritional needs and that each needed a different fertilizer formulation.  As a result, there were fertilizers developed specifically for palms, citrus, turf, and acid loving plants. Now, however, as a result of recent research and the availability of new fertilizers in the market places, there are fertilizers that can be used on everything: palms tree, shrubs, turf, perennials, and citrus.  These fertilizers were originally developed for palms which ideally need a fertilizer ratio of 2 (nitrogen), 1 (phosphorus), 3 (potassium), 1 (magnesium) and 100% with 3-4% magnesium and other microelement, all of which are slow release.  These fertilizers can be safely and effectively used for everything, including turf greatly simplifying the task.

     In fact, using a fertilizer like the one described above should be considered whenever palms are part of the landscape.  Most turf fertilizer have slow release.  The result is that the palm founds begin yellowing, showing evidence of potassium or magnesium nutrient deficiency.  Because the nitrogen is released slowly and the potassium and magnesium have already dissipated (because they were not slow release), the palm gets too much nitrogen.  Therefore, it is much better to use a product where all of the ingredients are slow release.  Palm fertilizer also need to contain a significant amount of magnesium, (preferably 3-4%), manganese, and other microelements.


Fertilizing Tips

  • Use compost and organic mulches which will break down and slowly add nutrients to the soil. Leave grass clippings where they fall which ad nitrogen o the soil.  Other sources of nitrogen are compost, cottonseed meal, and clover.  Organic sources for phosphorus are compost and rock phosphate.  Potassium is found in compost, aged manure and fire, place wood ashes (which also raises pH). Aerobic compost teas (derived from earth worm castings) applied frequently also improve soil texture and fertility.
  • Avoid fertilizers that also contain weed killers or insecticides. Treat those weed or insect problems specifically rather than generally.  Read the directions carefully. For example, the use of atrazine, (the chemical commonly used in the “weed” part of “weed and feed’’) can kill or damage grass if temperature are over 85 degrees when applied.
  • Fertilize at the drip-line of plants and read the directions on the label. Do not use fertilizer spikes or other forms of fertilizer which concentrate large does in small areas.  Instead spread smaller amount over a large area.  Frequently, fertilizer need to be “watered in’’ to prevent burning of grass or groundcover, or to prevent nitrogen loss through volatilization.  Do not fertilize during protracted heat waves because the heat increases the chances of burning the plats, and the fertilizer reduces plant tolerance to heat and drought stress.
  • Do not fertilize palms with fertilizers that have only nitrogen in slow release from. Look for 100% slow release of all ingredients and do not use magnesium (Epsom Salts) alone without potassium, or it can create a potassium deficiency.

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