By John Hughes
If you are among the many coastal residents whose lawns sprout St. Augustine grass, you might have painfully learned that it’s not easy being green in Palm Beach County.
Lethal viral necrosis, a disease first found here about a decade ago, has earned its ugly name, turning verdant lawns dingy, then dead.
Horticulture experts who are on the hunt for a remedy say that any lawn where St. Augustine grass has rooted is vulnerable to LVN.
“Parts of southern Palm Beach County are heavily impacted,” says John Roberts, Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension agent. He says the county is “ground zero” because here is where the disease first appeared, although it has recently been found in other counties.
Roberts was one of the speakers appearing in a Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County extension webinar in December that devoted two full hours to concerns about LVN.
St. Augustine grass was the most common grazing fodder when Palm Beach County was home to large cattle pastures, which are mostly gone now. LVN is a legacy of that era.
Is your lawn St. Augustine grass? One way to find out is to examine the leaf blades. St. Augustine is distinguished by broader leaves up to ¾ inch wide and forming what has been called a boat shape.
There are several varieties of St. Augustine grass. At least two — Palmetto and CitraBlue — have shown resistance to LVN. But Floratam, to which LVN is fatal, is the most prevalent of the cultivars in Palm Beach County.
How do you stop LVN? You don’t. LVN is spread through contact when infected sap gets spread — from mower blades, from soles of shoes. … Essentially, any object or particle that can carry an LVN germ is your lawn’s enemy. Sort of the horticultural world’s COVID-19, minus the social distancing.
The prognosis for LVN is as bleak as its name. An infected lawn will be dead in about three to five years, Roberts says.
Has LVN infected your lawn? If there’s a discolored spot in the lawn, take a worm’s eye view and look for any anomalous yellowing in the leaf grains. In particular, Roberts says to look for a “mosaic-type” pattern of broken yellow lines.
If you don’t trust your eyes, see the report at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, available here: www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/PP313.
Concerned lawn owners might also send grass samples to the Rapid Turf Diagnostic Service at the University of Florida ($75 per sample).
“A lot of people get emotionally tied up to their lawns,” Roberts says. “They like coming here, oftentimes from other parts of the country, and having a nice green lawn all throughout the year. It’s very distressing to come in and see that it’s brown and only going to get increasingly brown. …”
Sometimes landscapers are scapegoats for that distress — caught between LVN and clients who simply want the grass to be greener on their side.
“We’re caught in the middle a lot of the time,” says Tyler Reiter, director of Florida Image Landscaping, who is believed to be the first to identify LVN in Palm Beach County. “Often, it’s unfair. People point fingers. They think landscapers transfer it. Well, landscapers might transfer it, but they don’t mean to. It’s like COVID. Nobody’s trying to transmit COVID. …”
Reiter says roughly 30% of his clients are coastal, from Hypoluxo Island to Gulf Stream and Highland Beach.
“I do see a lot of LVN throughout Delray and Boca — however, none that are my customers,” he says.
A couple of years ago Reiter moved into the West Lake community — designed to have about 4,500 homes. He found LVN in his neighborhood and thinks that eventually every lawn will need to be resodded with an LVN-resistant species. Currently, lawn owners could expect to pay about $2 per square foot.
“Homeowners associations are superspreaders,” Reiter says.
He is often called in as a consultant when the grass starts to fade.
“I talk about LVN every week,” Reiter says. “I empathize with people.”