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Trimming Lawn Fertilizer Pollution

Gardening 1 (2)Lawns have multiplied across the Chesapeake Bay watershed to cover almost four million acres, more than all of the corn, wheat, and other crops combined.  Runoff of lawn fertilizer makes up eight percent of the pollution that causes low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program.

In Maryland alone, homeowners spend more than a billion dollars a year just fertilizing and maintaining their lawns.

But not every homeowner. “Lawn is not all that attractive, in my opinion,” said Lynn Dickens (above), an artist and gardener who lives in Parkville, northeast of Baltimore.

Gardening 2While her neighbors spend their weekends nurturing their lawns, Dickens is deliberately killing hers. Over the last six years, she has been gradually replacing her grass with a colorful jungle of ferns, cardinal flowers, wild ginger, and other plants native to Maryland.

“I’ve never been one to water or fertilize a lawn, but a lot of people who choose to have lawns spend a lot of resources on them,” said Dickens, as she showed a visitor her native plant garden on a recent morning. “Native plants that are adapted to an area really don’t require that kind of attention or fertilizer.”

Dickens is one of more than 800 people who have been trained by the University of Maryland Extension to be what is called a “Bay Wise Master Gardener.” Her lush landscape reduces water pollution and attracts a greater diversity of butterflies, birds, and insects. The photos accompanying this article are of her property.

Gardening 3To read about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s “Gardeners for the Bay” program, and tips on how to maintain a healthy landscape, click here.

Now, lawns are a cultural issue -- to some people, giving up turf would be like surrendering baseball or the American flag.

But even traditionalists are being required to become more ecologically sensitive in their lawn care these days.

In 2009 and 2011, the Maryland General Assembly passed lawn fertilizer control laws, following the example of Minnesota and a dozen other states. These laws prohibit phosphorus from maintenance lawn fertilizer applied by homeowners; limit the amount of nitrogen allowed in lawn fertilizer; bans spreading of the chemicals within about 15 feet of most waterways; and prohibits landowners from spreading fertilizer between November 15 and March 1, or whenever the ground is frozen. 

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In 2011, the Virginia General Assembly also passed a ban on phosphorus in most lawn fertilizers.  This ban, like the one in Maryland, will help the states meet new EPA pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, which require steps to achieve a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen and a 24 percent in phosphorus by 2025.

Gardening 5“We have made some steps forward that I think are going to improve water quality – that is the bottom line,” said Dr. Gary K. Felton, an associate professor at the University of Maryland College Park who studies lawn fertilizer.  “Will it be a drastic improvement?  No.  But (lawn fertilizer) is not a drastic part of the problem. It’s a part of the problem, and we need to do the Triple E. ‘Everything, Everywhere. Everyone.”

The largest lawn company, Scotts Miracle-Gro, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bay area states in 2006 that led to a  77 percent reduction in phosphorus in lawn fertilizer by 2010 and a 33 percent reduction in nitrogen.

In the face of increasing state actions to ban phosphorus in fertilizer, Scotts went further last year and pledged to remove all phosphorus from lawn maintenance fertilizer nationally by 2013. Smaller lawn fertilizers across the country made similar announcements.

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“We support efforts for water quality and water conservation and we want to be a part of those efforts,” said Chris Wible, Director of Environmental Stewardship at Scotts.

Tom SchuelerTom Schueler (left), Executive Director of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network and author of a report called "The Clipping Point," cautioned that the elimination of phosphorus will not remove all pollutants from lawn fertilizer. Nitrogen remains.

He said homeowners still need to be extra conservative with lawn chemicals. People should recycle their grass clippings back into their lawns, to act as a natural fertilizer. And they should keep their grass at least two and a half inches long, so it works like a sponge, Schueler said.

“You know what I would do is just take a two year pledge -– kind of a zen approach,” Schueler said. “Sit on your deck, have a cold beverage, and not fertilize your lawn.  See what it looks like in a year or two.  And if you don’t like the quality, then consider maybe fertilizing it at a very small rate.  You’ll save money. And you’ll save time.”

In this case, you can be more green by doing less.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

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