James Tavares: The Grassmaster

James Tavares: The Grassmaster
Interview by Hannah Lutgen

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing James Tavares, owner and expert sod grower in Maui, Hawaii. Without further ado, let’s meet James and learn about turfgrass maintenance:

Q. Hello, thanks for meeting with me. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised on Maui. I attended St. Anthony School . I received a Bachelor of Science degree in General Agriculture in 1979 and a Master of Science degree in Horticulture from University of Hawai’i at Manoa (UH Manoa) in 1983. I am married with 3 children 1 granddaughter.

Q. What inspired you to start your own business growing turfgrass?

I was the teaching assistant for Dr. Charles Murdoch as an under grad at UH Manoa. He got me interested so I became his research assistant and did my masters degree in Horticulture Science specializing in Turfgrass under him. At the time, I was interested in becoming a gold course superintendent.

Q. How long have you been growing turfgrass?

After graduation in 1983, I returned to Maui with 5 ziplock bags of different kinds of grass stolens and began planting trays. At that time, I was working for the NiFTAL (Nitrogen Fixation by Tropical Agricultural Legumes) project and two years later became an Extension Agent with University of Hawai’i at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). After thirteen years working as an Extension Agent, I made a decision to start my own business. I applied for a lot at the Kula Ag Park and got it in 1987. My business name is Grassmaster.

Q. What did you enjoy about being an Extension Agent?

Being on the frontlines, walking the grounds with different landscapes and finding new pests and diseases such as hibiscus erineum mite and bougainvillea looper and publishing a paper to help growers.

Q. What are you top 3 favorite varieties of turfgrass?

I like El Toro zoysia the best – it has few insect and disease problems, grow very tight so it chokes weeds, uses less water and fertilizer than other grasses, and has some shade tolerance. Overall El Toro zoysia is a lower maintenance turfgrass that looks good. I think seashore paspalum is the most beautiful grass and feels the softest but requires high levels of maintenance to achieve the prefect look. However, seashore is sometimes called the environmental turfgrass because it tolerates brackish and effluent water making it useful in areas where water quality is poor.


Q. What is the best turfgrass for shady areas and how many hours of direct sunlight does turfgrass need to grow?

I think St.  Augustine grass is the most shade tolerant but still has its limits.  My rule of thumb is a minimum of 4 hours direct sunlight but can grow well under trees if the canopy is thinned and raised high enough.  These shady conditions will require a higher mowing height and less foot or dog traffic in order to keep it looking good.  This grass has few if any rhizomes so if it does back, it has to grow in from the sides.

Q. What types of turfgrass do you sell?

Since I started over 30 years ago, I have older varieties that I think all perform well.  Adelaide seashore paspalum; El Toro, Emerald and 23Zoysiagrass; St. Augustine grass and trying a little centipede grass.

Q. What advice are you willing to share regarding proper planning, fertilization and turfgrass maintenance?

For planting, proper soil prep is important.  How well the root zone is amended will make a big difference in the overall health of the grass.  A soil test will tell you what you need to add.  Try to use slow release fertilizers in the maintenance phase and apply on the lean side otherwise growth is too vigorous and you risk excess nitrogen running off into our storm drains and the ocean.  Keep mower blades sharp.   Reels cut lower and give a cleaner cut than rotary mowers but are more expensive.

Q. Is it important to adjust mower height and/or irrigation duration and frequency throughout the year?

Each grass has a preferred mowing height. Cutting too low can kill the grass, especially St. Augustine and weeds can infiltrate.  If cut too high, water penetration is more difficult and diseases and insects could become problems.

I see more problems with homeowners not adjusting watering schedules from summer to winter and then back to summer.  There are differences due to where you live like elevation, leeward vs windward, sandy vs clay soil, but in general, grass will need more water in the summer and less in winter.

Q. What are the most common pests and diseases affecting turfgrass?

Every summer, armyworms and grass webworms become a problem here in Maui mostly on seashore paspalum and the bermudagrass hybrids.  The Southern Chinchbug is another insect pest that seems to only affect St. Augustine grass in the hotter and dryer areas.  It will kill the grass if left untreated unlike the caterpillars who only eat the above ground parts of the grass allowing the rhizomes to regenerate.  The most prevalent disease is Dollar Spot caused by a fungus on seashore paspalum although golf courses encounter others on their greens.

Q. Do you have any tips or disease and pest prevention?

Watering early in the morning will allow the grass time to dry during the day so it’s not too wet going into the night.  Free moisture on the leaf at night gives fungus the conditions it needs to grow and spread.  Mow disease infected areas last to reduce spread of the organism and wash mowers before moving to another area.  Watch for caterpillars in the hotter months.  Mynah birds feeding in the lawn are good indicators of a problem.  Lay 12″ square pieces of plywood out on the grass in the evening and turn over the next morning to see if caterpillars are present.  Treat if needed or let the birds take care of it.

Q. It is a pleasure talking with you James, your passion as a grower truly shines! What do you love most about your job?

Being a farmer has some major challenges but working outdoors and being my own boss is what makes it all worthwhile.

Thanks for your time, James!







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