Bahia in Orlando
In the same March issue of Turf Magazine, where I wrote an article about protecting landscape equipment with equipment floater insurance, I saw an interesting article by Patrick White on the city of Orlando switching from St. Augustine grass to Bahia grass. The article discussed how the city is spending money now to make the switch in order to save on the upkeep of the turf in the future. Here is a link to the full article and below are some quotes that I found interesting:
The city of Orlando has decided to make a major investment in the turfgrass on its street medians in order to produce significant savings down the road. Currently, roadways there sport lush St. Augustinegrass, a beautiful turf type that helps Orlando live up to its billing as the “City Beautiful.” The problem is that St. Augustine is also expensive to maintain, requiring frequent mowing, watering and fertilizer and weed control inputs in order to keep it looking great. Sacrificing a little appearance for dramatically lower expenses seems logical, especially in these days of tight budgets, so Orlando will be making the move to Bahia grass.
“Bahia is not native to Florida, but it used commonly. I’d guess about 95 percent of the parkways in the state have Bahia turf beside them,” says Trevor “John” Hogue with Orlando’s Public Works. “Here in Orlando, we’ve got about 1.2 million square feet of St. Augustine turf in our roadway medians and some of our parkways. I did a budget analysis, and we’re spending right about $700,000 to maintain that grass, between mowing, chemicals and water.”
Hogue says the entire project will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million. That’s a lot to spend to get rid of beautiful, healthy turfgrass, but he expects the switch to Bahia will save the city between $350,000 to $400,000 per year in maintenance and water costs, so in just four to five years, the project will have paid for itself, and the city will be realizing substantial cost reductions.
Just as important as the cost savings, says Hogue, are water savings. “With the Bahia, we’ll be saving about 50 million gallons of water per year in irrigation. We have a real problem providing water for everybody here. It’s hard to believe in Florida, but we’re running out of good water.”
Once the new Bahia sod is established, the city will be able to shut down the extensive irrigation system that currently waters the medians throughout Orlando. “The Bahia will quit growing and go dormant in cool weather. It survives, it just puts its energy into sending down deep roots,” Hogue explains. “Really, it’s best not to water it during this time, because the weeds tend to use the water to take over.”
The grass will yellow/brown-out a bit during these stretches, but once the warm, wet weather returns, so does the vigor of the Bahia. “It’ll come back and be just as green as ever, as long as you put a little fertilizer on it,” says Hogue. “You do have to have a little weed control still, but the cost to maintain it is about one-third of what it costs to maintain St. Augustine.”
Not only will Orlando be able to completely stop irrigating the turf, mowing will be required less often because the Bahia will be dormant for long periods of time. “Before recent budget cuts, we were mowing the St. Augustine 42 times a year; because of budget cuts we got that down to 20,” says Hogue. “Because the Bahia will be dormant in the wintertime, we’ll mow that 12 to 15 times a year. In January, February and March, you don’t have to mow it at all.”
Bahia, in the warm summer months, is both fast-growing and durable. “It’s a tough, wiry grass. It’s not something you’d want in your front yard or to walk barefoot through, and to mow it, you need to keep your blades very sharp, but driving down the road at 50 miles per hour, it looks good,” says Hogue.
That sentiment is not universally shared. There has been some grumbling in Orlando that the new grass is not attractive enough, especially during the dormant phase, for a city that prides itself on appearance. One local landscaper quoted by an Orlando television news report on the issue described the Bahia as “tacky.”
Many others in the city appreciate the ability of the grass to reduce costs and water use. The real test of public sentiment will be when the changeover actually occurs, explains Hogue. In part, that’s why the decision was made to sod, the transition will be much faster without a long period of bare ground or thin turf on high-profile medians in town, some of which are in front of businesses and residences.
Bahia is not problem-free, admits Hogue. “It is susceptible to mole crickets, so there is a once-a-year application we’ll need to do in the spring,” he explains. “It does take a good, high-quality mower to cut through it. We’re going to use big, bat-wing mowers wherever we can, or big zero-turn mowers.”
While certainly not the grass of choice for all locations, Hogue says that in roadside settings, Bahia works great. “It does the job, and it takes a lot less fertilizer and mowing, and it takes no irrigation water.”