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Georgia Turf Having a Tough Spring

It's a sod story. Dead grass everywhere.

In north Georgia the problem is winterkill.

"Damage has been found everywhere," said Mark Banta, a University of Georgia Extension Service agent in Cobb County. "There's damage on golf courses, sod farms, commercial sites, home lawns and athletic fields."

Temperatures below 25 degrees cause most sod damage. Georgia had many days colder than that this winter and spring.

"It turned cool early this fall and stayed cool later in the spring than normal," Banta said. "Throughout the winter, temperatures were colder than normal, with several seven- to 10-day stretches below 25."

Rainfall in October, November, January and February almost doubled the historical average.

"With these temperatures and rainfall amounts, we expect sod damage in low, poorly drained areas, particularly in water drainage channels," Banta said.

April lows in the 20s and soil temperatures that got up to only 55 degrees didn't help green-up.

Gil Landry, an Extension turf specialist, said the damage he's seen has been severe. In Bermuda sod planted after Oct. 1 of last year, he said, the injury is "sometimes 60 to 100 percent."

Some areas show severe damage to zoysia and centipede turf, too.

"Shaded areas and north- and west-facing slopes show the most injury," Landry said. "Just as in normal years, proper soil preparation, sod quality, installation and turf maintenance can affect winter injury.

"Established turf areas fared better," he said. "And some weren't lost, but are greening up at a slower-than-normal rate."

Weakened turf plants are low on food reserves and likely have shallow root systems. For the turf to recover, Landry said, you have to keep the surface soil moist.

To speed recovery, Banta recommends using complete fertilizer and either applying more or applying more often.

"If you're choosing between two fertilizers, get the one with higher phosphorus content," he said. "Avoid severe cultural practices such as vertical mowing and topdressing until the turf has recovered significantly."

Pre-emergence herbicides, he cautioned, may keep new roots from growing well.

Use higher-than-normal mowing during recovery, he said. That will leave more leaf surface in the turf to help rebuild food reserves.

To make matters worse, sod supplies are low. Some sod farms were damaged, too, and demand is high.

"The Olympics and rapid construction have sucked up the supply," Banta said. "Those who want to replant damaged turf may find limited supplies and higher prices."

In south Georgia, sod is suffering from a different problem: pesky mole crickets.

"They are the single worst pests of turf," said Will Hudson, an Extension entomologist. "Fortunately for people outside the coastal plain, mole crickets don't leave the area."

Mole crickets are underground insects related to grasshoppers and crickets. They tunnel through the ground and eat grass -- just about any kind. Researchers have yet to find a type they won't eat.

"Right now the biggest problem is in some of the golf- course-type turfs," Hudson said. "But they'll eat pasture grasses and get into crops, too."

If you have a mole cricket problem, you know it.

"They don't cause subtle damage," Hudson said. "When they attack grass, they really attack grass. They take it out completely."

You don't have to dig under the soil to find the problem. The grass simply disappears.

"They eat the leaves and stems, and their tunneling does a lot of damage to the roots," Hudson said.

Several things combat mole crickets.

"Depending on where you are, baits can work well, especially on home lawns," Hudson said. "Insecticides work, too. But none is very cheap. Your county Extension agent can help you choose.

"In turf," he said, "it can be very expensive. Golf courses on the coast can spend as much as $1,000 per hole on insecticides. You can see why they worry about it so much."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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