Green Lawns May Not Be "Green" - Southern Maryland Headline News

Green Lawns May Not Be "Green"

Commentary by Tim Rowland

Those of us who are not farmers or do not own a sewage treatment plant might assume that our individual nitrogen and phosphorous footprints are relatively small and, as such, that we can hold our heads high as we contemplate the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

As we blow the fallen leaves to the curb and apply one more chemical dressing to our manicured lawns, we might even breath deeply of the crisp autumn air and celebrate our oneness with the environment we so treasure.

Except that our backyards can be hotspots of what’s known as nonpoint source pollution, meaning pollution emanating not from pipes, but from places such as fields and lawns where we may not expect it. Indeed, “turf” is so overlooked as a source of nutrient runoff that a preliminary, 132-page plan for nutrient reduction in Pennsylvania included only three paragraphs dedicated to lawn-care products.

One culprit is the bags of lawn fertilizer hawked by the Scotsman shouting “feed it!” to his neighbor, with the implicit message that allowing the lawn to go unnourished is akin to starving a child.

But those nutrients that green up a lawn first thing in the spring are also the very same nitrogen and phosphorous made infamous by barnyard manure and failing septic systems.

In fact, spreading manure on farm fields these days comes with more safeguards than is required for the thousands on thousands of acres of lawns, golf courses and institutional campuses that make up greater suburbia.

The threat is reduced when lawn fertilizer is used with care and conscience. But safe to say, not everyone does so. For example, soil should be tested prior to the application of fertilizer for the simple reason that the grass might not need it

Equally sensible is a quick and easy calculation to determine the size of the lawn; where fertilizer is concerned, more is not better, and it’s difficult to apply the correct amount without knowing the square footage of the grass on which it’s being applied.

And some fertilizer behavior that seems particularly egregious under the spotlight of analysis might not appear so to the average homeowner. For example, lawn fertilizer does battle with kitty litter as the suburb’s most popular driveway de-icer. But when the snow and ice melt, these nutrients wash straight into the storm sewer to our creeks, rivers and finally, the Bay.

Other ground rules should be common knowledge, but often aren’t: Lawn fertilizers and pesticides should not be spread within 15 feet of stream banks; granules should not be carelessly tossed onto sidewalks or pavement; and fertilizer shouldn’t be applied on frozen ground or if heavy rain is forecast.

And today’s guidelines will be tomorrow’s law. A number of measures will go into effect in Maryland next year, capping the amount of fertilizer than can be used per 1,000 square feet of lawn, prohibiting application from Nov. 15 to March 1, and the use of the product to melt snow. Lawn fertilizer containing phosphorous will be banned altogether, except as a starter for new lawns.

Similar restrictions will eventually be in place in all Bay watershed states as they develop urban nutrient management plans to comply with EPA directives.

But homeowners don’t need to wait for the long arm of the law to arrive before they consider Bay-friendly, lawn care measures.

A simple bird bath or feeder can attract singing pest controllers. Leaving grass clippings to decompose on the lawn can add organic matter and cut down on the need for fertilizer. Taller grass —3 inches in height — shades out weeds and helps absorb rainwater. A yard with more shrubs and less grass requires less mowing time and less fertilizer.

And, when cleaning up the fall leaves, it pays to remember that a single two-cycle engine, the type common on leaf blowers, can pump as much pollution into the air as 50 automobiles.

Late this summer, the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial received some unwanted attention for a creeping scum in its waters that tourists said reminded them of pea soup.

This soup was in fact algae, which was more than happy with the shallow, warm pool and nutrient-rich water piped in from the Tidal Basin off the Potomac River.

The reflecting pool got the ink because of its celebrity among tourists. But life-suffocating algae is becoming more and more common in ponds and watercourses well upstream of the Bay; nutrients aren’t just a problem at the final stop on the route. Any number of our waterways are nestled in emerald green lawns that are well-cared for and well-fed. But feeding this grass also feeds the Bay. And unlike our lawns, this is a meal our national treasure can ill afford.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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