Is St. Augustine turf grass an invasive plant?

by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
as printed in TCPalm on June 12, 2019

The fifth extinction wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists say we humans have started the sixth extinction. What are we doing to our planet to cause this?

One major factor, among many, is our use of chemicals including fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to support and beautify our lawns (e.g., St. Augustine turf grass).

In 2005, American lawns covered 63,000 square miles. That would cover all of Florida, and more. Turf grass is our most irrigated crop (three times more than corn, and we do not even eat it). The primary purpose of turf grass is to make us look and feel good.

University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Science provides good advice on how to create a Florida-friendly landscape. St. Augustine grass (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/lh010) (Stenotaphrum secundatum), native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, is listed as a “Florida-friendly plant” – and the most common lawn grass in Florida.

But it isn’t friendly.

Invasive species have been defined by a number of scientists and organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1999 Presidential

A Florida-Friendly home that uses native plants instead of grass (Photo: Submitted)

Executive Order 13112): “An invasive species is defined as a species that is: 1) non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration; and 2) whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration defines invasive species as “an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native … invasive species are capable of causing extinctions of native plants and animals, reducing biodiversity, competing with native organisms for limited resources, and altering habitats.”

Therefore, St. Augustine grass should be on Florida’s Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Plant list.

Why should St. Augustine grass be labeled an invasive pest plant? Turf grass requires more than just rainfall — 9 billion gallons of U.S. water a day; 200 gallons per day per person!  In Florida, 64 percent of our drinking water goes to irrigation; rising to 88 percent in the summer. We are running out of drinking water. Of all Earth’s water, only 1 percent is fresh and available. For our survival, it’s cheaper to pay people not to have a lawn.

Invasive turf grass lawns requiring mowers, trimmers and blowers are not fuel efficient and contribute to sea rise and global warming:

A new gas-powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution emissions in one hour of operation as 11 new cars each being driven for one hour, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Turf grass impacts our health, adds to global climate change, raises sea level, destroys our environment, plants and wildlife, and thus, our economy.

What an ecological disaster!

Additionally, turf grass has replaced viable native habitats. Thousands of non-native plants, including trees from foreign lands, are replacing our native plants. Foreign species have forced out our natural Florida species. Without native plants, butterflies, bees, birds, fish and other wildlife die.

We need to recognize the many opportunities “going native” in our landscaping brings to us. New jobs will become available. The folks who now grow, mow and blow turf grass can be retrained to propagate and care for native plants and trees in the landscape. Knowledge and hard labor that not everyone can do is required, but much can be learned on the job.

  • 2 billions gallons of gas used per year;
  • 41 billion pounds of CO2 released per year;
  • 13 billion pounds of toxic and carcinogenic air spewed;
  • 100 million pounds of damaging lawn chemicals and fertilizers put into our waters.

Native plants and trees can be planted artistically and maintained to beautify our yards, yet bring back our wildlife and protect our waters. Let’s all start a garden and lawn revolution. Cammie Donaldson, executive director of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries, says: “Turf does little and demands a lot. We need landscapes that do a lot and demand little, ASAP!”

Richard H. Baker, Ph.D. (Contributed Photo)

Let’s revise Florida’s landscape ordinances to reduce invasive turf grass 50 percent in yards to save our Earth.

Richard H. Baker is president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society.