Orlando transitions to Bahia turfgrass

Bahia is a tough grass and produces a wiry seedhead that is rough on mowers and blades, but the grass also requires much less water and weed control/fertilizer applications than maintenance-intensive grasses like St. Augustine.
Photo courtesy of Forest and Kim Star/starrimages.hear.org/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Sometimes you have to spend money to save it. Sounds strange, but anyone who has tried to make their home or business more energy efficient, for example, knows that there’s usually an upfront investment required to produce long-term savings.

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.”

The test site is where the city of Orlando stripped off existing St. Augustinegrass from a roadside median and hydroseeded with Bahia, along with some bermuda and rye. Bahia goes dormant in cool weather (this photo was taken during the region’s record-setting cold snap in January), but returns with vigor and color in warm weather.
Photos courtesy of John Hogue/city of Orlando, unless otherwise noted.

With Orlando facing the same urgency as cities everywhere to trim budgets, the mayor’s office signed off on Hogue’s proposal to conduct a test to see how the lower-maintenance Bahia would perform. That 2008 experiment took two different forms, explains Hogue. “In one area, we killed out the St. Augustine with herbicide and hydroseeded the area with a Bahia-bermuda mix. In another section, we actually stripped the turf off and hydroseeded that.”

The goal in trying the two techniques to compare costs incurred various changeover methods. “We knew sodding would work, but we knew it would be expensive, so we wanted to experiment with these other approaches,” says Hogue. “In both cases, the new grass came in fairly well, but it took time. In the first example [St. Augustine killed, but not removed], it took about a year to really get a good turf reestablished, and where we removed the St. Augustine, it took about six months to reestablish a good turf. And, of course, we had to water everything well over that time.”

The estimate for simply killing the St. Augustine and hydroseeding Bahia overtop was about 60 cents per square foot; the cost of removing the St. Augustine and hydroseeding was about 70 cents per square foot. Both were about half the cost of stripping the existing turf and laying down new Bahia sod (approximately $1.30 per square foot).

The city’s leadership was concerned about the amount of time it took to reestablish lush turf via hydroseeding, so, when approval was finally given to change out the city’s median turf to Bahia, the decision was made to spend the extra money to remove the existing turf and resod, rather than hydroseed. “We just didn’t want to leave our medians looking that bad for that long of a period,” explains Hogue, adding, “When you take into account the cost of irrigation water and irrigation system maintenance for the six months needed to establish the seed versus one month needed for sod establishment, the overall costs are comparable to the first method.” Intensive irrigation for six months just didn’t make sense, because water savings were one of the primary reasons the city decided to move to Bahia in the first place.

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.”

To help keep down the costs of switching to Bahia, Hogue is arranging for labor through the state of Florida’s inmate worker program. “We would contract for a certain number of inmates for, say, one year, and we’ll pay for the guards and the equipment they need,” he explains.

The first step will be to remove the existing grass. Again, Hogue has crunched all the numbers and determined that the most economical route is for Orlando to purchase the necessary sod cutters. “We priced it out and we can buy sod cutters for about $8,000 a piece. We want to do that project in about five months, and we would need about three strippers to get that done, but buying them is cheaper than renting them over that time period, then we’ll probably just sell them afterward.”

Some 15 to 20 sod farms have expressed interest in bidding to supply Bahia sod for the project, says Hogue. The hope is to begin removing sod in April, with resodding to follow. “Really, the best time to be putting down new sod would be in May and June, just before our rainy season, when we’ll need a lot less irrigation water to help get the new sod established,” he says.

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.

This test site is where the existing St. Augustinegrass was killed with an herbicide, but left in place and hydroseeded with a Bahia mix. While both test sites eventually filled in well, the time and water it took to establish hydroseeded Bahia convinced Orlando that it would be better to remove the existing turf and put down Bahia sod.

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.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.