There are few landscape features as widely present and enjoyed in New Hampshire as lawns. Lawns are a beautiful place to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends. Unfortunately, lawns can create conditions that are detrimental to water quality, especially along the lakefront. From unchecked runoff to fertilizers, herbicides, and other chemicals applied to them, lakefront and watershed property owners need to be mindful of the effect their lawns have on water quality. Here are seven things to know and do as a responsible property owner to make sure your green spaces and lake will have a happy coexistence.
Reduce and Eliminate Runoff
Runoff is by far the most significant negative influence your landscape can have on lake water quality. It is runoff that commonly carries chemicals and pollutants from your property into the lake. In nature, runoff is kept in check through natural means, which help slow, divert, and absorb water into the ground. Lawns, especially those that are not well planned or maintained, can be conduits for water into the lake.
The first step in reducing runoff is identifying how water is shed from your property. The best way to discover this is during a rainstorm. As rain accumulates and the ground on your property becomes saturated, excess water will collect and flow towards a low point. If you notice water flowing from your lawn directly into the lake, or easily overcoming drainage or existing barriers to make its way into the lake, you have a runoff concern. You should consider taking steps (some of which are listed below) to overcome this problem.
Lawns absorb water, especially when properly maintained. They are, however, not as effective at absorbing water as natural forests, gardens, or several other landscape features. As a result, when considering adding or renovating a green space on your property, consider the size of the yard you need. Limiting the square footage of turfgrass, especially in favor of forest or garden features, reduces runoff and the need for fertilizers or other chemical treatments.
We often find when property owners begin thinking about landscaping, they envision a “blank slate” to be a swath of lawn, and then consider adding features to that space. Instead, think of turfgrass as a feature. It should accent your landscape and add useable living space, not dominate the landscape. Install the amount of lawn you’ll use. In the long term, you’ll save time and expense as well as help mitigate any associated runoff.
It’s About Both Nature and Nurture
A well-maintained lawn will absorb nutrients and water more effectively than a neglected lawn. As a result, nutrients and water are less likely to make their way to the lake and cause pollution.
Lawns should be dethatched and aerated once a year. Dethatching removes the barrier of organic matter, which limits the absorption of water and nutrients. Aeration promotes absorption by creating voids in the soil and reducing soil compaction. These steps will enable your lawn to best combat runoff, require less fertilization, and allow the turfgrass to outgrow weeds, reducing the need for herbicides. Mowing more frequently, at a higher blade setting allows for healthier turf grass and can encourage deeper root growth.
Additionally, a healthy turfgrass maintenance program encourages these grasses to become more robust. Their roots will grow deeper, facilitating more absorption, reducing erosion, and reducing the need for frequent watering.
Water the Right Way
The idea behind watering your lawn is to ensure the turf receives the water it needs to be lush and viable. The amount of water you need to apply to your lawn varies based upon your specific property, the recent weather, the season, and the health of your turf, however overwatering is detrimental to the health of your lawn as well as the surrounding environment.
Consider a regimen that uses less volume, more frequently, and check the ground before watering. Watering at dawn will reduce the amount of water needed as the surface of your lawn cools, and the sun isn’t causing evaporation. Before you begin, check the soil to see if it’s already moist. If the soil is moist, watering isn’t necessary, and adding water may promote runoff, turf diseases and mold, as well as discourage deep root growth.
Good Barriers Make Good Neighbors
Lawns that parade right up to the lakefront is a common sight on most lakes, but usually this is not best for the lake or property. This type of lawn installation in many cases should be avoided.
First, the viability of a lawn near the water is challenging. The State of NH Department of Agriculture has strict setback laws for the application of fertilizers and chemicals near waterways and watersheds. This makes assuring the viability and attractive appearance of the lawn more challenging and labor-intensive.
Second, lawns immediately adjacent to the lake have a most significant runoff concern because there is nothing to slow, absorb, or prevent runoff from occurring other than the limits of the turfgrass itself.
For these reasons, a barrier of some sort separating the lawn from the lake is a good practice. Barriers may consist of a natural barrier, for example. These options include things such as a strip of natural forest land, installed organic barriers such as a garden or flowerbed, or a drainage solution like a dry riverbed to encourage water to flow to a place where it can be absorbed, such as a rain garden. The wider the barrier, the more effective it will be in protecting the lake from the effects of runoff. The more native species or low-water plants utilized, the more viable the organic border will be.
Apply Chemicals with Care
As runoff is the primary cause for concern regarding lawns and lake water quality, it is essential to know and understand a specific concern. Chemicals commonly applied to lawns are carried in runoff and can be particularly harmful to our lakes.
The best way to assure you are not introducing chemicals to the lake water is not to use them. With 30 years of landscape industry experience landscape, we know this isn’t going to happen universally. Instead, let’s focus on some things to be mindful of while applying chemicals.
A little goes a long way. When applying any sort of chemical to your lawn or gardens, it’s always possible to add more if you need to, but you cannot remove the substances if you over-apply. Carefully follow the instructions supplied by the manufacturer and consider applying less. Chemicals that are over-applied may not be fully absorbed or adhere well, making them susceptible to runoff. Similar to the expressed method to prevent over-watering, consider applying chemicals in lesser volume more frequently to control their use and effectiveness better while reducing waste and pollution.
Be mindful of the weather. Do not apply chemicals on a windy day, or if rain is in the immediate forecast. This can cause the chemicals to be blown or washed away (often ending up in the lake), and they will not have remained in place long enough to be effective.
Follow the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture regulations, as mentioned previously. If you’re unfamiliar with these regulations, including volume and setback requirements, you must become familiar before applying chemicals yourself. These regulations are intended for the safety of you, your neighbors, and our lakes.
Do not do allow a contractor who is not licensed to apply chemicals to your property. Similarly, to a do-it-yourselfer, a contractor should know the Department of Agriculture regulations. The best way to know if they do is to ask if they are licensed. A contractor who is applying chemicals without a license is breaking the law and is more likely to do environmental damage purposefully or not.
Trust the Pros, But Ask Questions
As landscape professionals, we have a bias toward encouraging lakefront and watershed property owners to hire a professional landscaper, and we believe there’s a good reason.
Owning property in an area adjacent to a waterway comes with a level of responsibility to be a good steward of your land and how it may affect water quality. Landscaping, in particular, can look deceptively straight-forward, and as a result, most property owners consider doing some of these tasks themselves. Unfortunately, many property owners lack knowledge of regulations and landscaping practices for water protection resulting in damage to the lake. Worse, there are landscaping contractors who are also unskilled and lack the experience and knowledge to protect lake water from landscaping activities adequately.
Property owners who want to protect the lake, regardless of if they have or want a lawn, would be well advised to seek a professional to install or service their properties. Furthermore, vetting a landscaper by asking questions about licenses, certifications, experience, and associations is a good practice. Both the New Hampshire Landscape Association and the National Association of Landscape Professionals offer professional memberships and certification requirements, and are a good place to start. A quality landscaper can demonstrate a track record of responsible behavior, in addition to satisfactorily answering any questions you have about their qualifications.
Being able to enjoy your outdoor spaces, including lawns or other features, is your right as a property owner. Protecting our lakes is the responsibility of property owners, service providers, and our community at large. Thoughtful execution and behaviors can help assure both.