Bay Watch and Be Wise

Story by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer

Some simple suggestions for protecting our watershed.

Joni Mitchell warned back in 1970 of developers who would pave paradise to “put up a parking lot.” This surreal vision of a future where citizens will visit a “tree museum” and be charged “$1.50 just to see ’em” if society doesn’t change its destructive patterns, is chillingly prophetic. In our own Chesapeake Bay watershed, for instance, forests have been cleared at an average rate of over 100 acres every day between 1985 and 2004.

The bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed covers all or parts of six states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia) and the District of Columbia and is home to 16 million people, projected to be 18 million by 2020. It is those millions of humans who are impacting the bay’s natural habitats, which include open water, underground grasses, marshes, wetlands, streams, forests, and the aquatic reef, causing loss of wildlife and disruption to our entire ecosystem. But what can we as regular homeowners do in our own yards to help save the bay? Plenty.

The major cause of water pollution is runoff, the erosion of soil and pollutants (sediment and chemicals) when water rushes off the land. A first and vital step that homeowners can take to help the bay is to do everything possible to stop runoff. The most important step property owners can take is to limit use of fertilizers and pesticides, substituting environmentally friendly methods whenever possible that improve the health of soil and manage pests and disease.

Minimize your need for watering the landscape by implementing “water-wise” landscaping methods. Plant native trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that stabilize soil to prevent erosion, filter air and sediment, and restore the habitat for disappearing wildlife. It is logical that indigenous plants are best adapted to existing soil and climate so they need less human help (such as fertilizing, watering, and applying of pesticides and fungicides) to thrive.

Gary Waugh, public relations manager for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (VDCR), advises, “I hear many people say they are going to spread fertilizer before it rains so it will ‘soak in.’ More times than not, fertilizer applied before a rain runs off rather than soaks in. That’s money you’ve wasted and unwanted nutrients in your streams. Wait until after a soaking rain to apply.”

Because historically present wildlife have become dependent on native plants for food and  breeding and nesting sites, invasive and non-native plant species can upset the ecological balance, so avoid them. Natives, however, create habitats that most closely resemble the historical natural areas of the Chesapeake watershed. If you are lucky enough to own property next to a stream, channel or shoreline, encourage riparian forest buffers to stabilize those waterways with their root mats. They’ll also supply food, cover and shade for the wildlife.

Regular homeowners: Rethink your lawns! Could you get by with smaller areas of high-maintenance grass? Labor-intensive lawns are time bandits for nine months of the year when it comes to mowing, and they are environmentally costly in terms of watering and maintaining a healthy and attractive appearance. Determine how much lawn you actually need for recreation and walkways, then on the rest, go natural. Create appealing front and backyard island beds, planted with trees, then interplanted densely (8-10 feet apart) with understory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that require minimum maintenance and even help conserve energy. Providing shade from harsh sun in summer, trees can increase air-conditioner efficiency by 10 percent, while evergreen and deciduous trees can shield your house from winter winds to lower heating costs. Their wide root systems hold 14-16 times more runoff than a mowed lawn.

Trees add privacy, buffer noise, and create a great backdrop for showy flowers. Establish a butterfly or hummingbird garden, a water garden, a meadow, or any combination of natural areas to attract wildlife and reduce maintenance. A water garden attracts birds, frogs, dragonflies and salamanders, which are interesting to watch and eliminate bugs naturally. To reduce chemicals, try spot-treating with insecticide soaps. Learn integrated pest management, the system of planting natural repellants to unwanted bugs, while encouraging the “good bugs” like ladybugs and praying mantises, that eat the pest population.

For areas you decide to keep in lawn, select a variety that needs little fertilizer such as tall fescue, fine fescue or zoysia grass, establish a healthy stand of turf by seeding between late August and late September, and keep the grass height on the long side (three inches or more). Allowing short clippings to remain on the lawn actually maintains nutrients and density on an unfertilized lawn. Aerate to reduce soil compaction. Have your soil tested at your local extension office and then fertilize only once a year (in the fall), and only where the test has indicated nutrient deficiencies. Keep any water-soluble fertilizer off all paved areas where it could be washed away by rain.

Rethink “weeding.” Pour boiling water over stubborn weeds to kill them, burn them with a propane torch, or spray full-strength vinegar on young leaves (which works especially well on a hot day). Try to have tolerance for the occasional dandelion or at least remove each plant manually with a pronged “weed-popper” or trowel instead of zapping it with a toxic chemical. As an alternative to chemical fertilizers, begin feeding your lawn with compost or organic fertilizers so that healthy grasses out-compete the weeds. A compost pile recycles food waste, grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste that improve the texture and productivity of your soil. Composting can be as simple as depositing leaves in a corner pile to decompose, or buying a bin designed for the purpose. The pile will “heat up,” producing microbic activity if you alternate one part brown material (leaves, straw, or sawdust) to one or two parts green material (fresh grass clippings, vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells), sprinkle with water to keep it from drying out, and turn the pile occasionally to speed up decomposition. Adding a layer of soil and some ground limestone also aids the decomposing process.

The need for weeding is reduced greatly by using mulch, which is also key to managing erosion. Homeowners, look for signs of erosion (exposed roots, stones, gullies, silt build-up in low areas, deepening and widening of drainage ditches) and address them by covering bare soil, by sowing cover crops such as crimson clover over bare areas in winter, directing water away from homes where the vegetation you have planted promotes infiltration — a slowing of water to a trickle through channels made by plants’ roots. Use water-wise methods known as xeriscaping (Greek for “dry landscaping”), which include proper timing of watering, watering thoroughly to develop deep root systems, selecting plants that require less water, as well as zoning irrigation and mulching to conserve precious water. In addition, install raised beds that direct water onto grassy or natural low-lying areas away from the house, or create a rain garden away from the home area where water can collect during heavy rain. Make walkways permeable by using wood chips, gravel, or even bricks set in sand. Opportunities abound for interesting design when patios and walks of large stones are laced with gravel or creeping groundcovers such as thyme for sunny areas or mazus or ajuga for shade.

In planned community developments, work with management or resident groups to create naturalized areas or create a commons where neighbors can work together on a vegetable garden subdivided into plots for residents. Golf courses are great places to create new habitats. Get involved beyond your immediate property by creating educational and recreational opportunities for the children of the community. To create a schoolyard habitat, contact Project WILD, a national program designed to emphasize wildlife education. Participate in the bay’s Oyster Gardening program by building a float and receiving “seed oysters” to grow until they are about two inches long, then releasing them to a new home on a manmade reef, constructed by placing oyster shells on the hard bay bottom where reefs used to exist but were destroyed by centuries of dredging and tonging. This gets oysters off the bottom, where they can begin filtering the bay and offering habitat to other aquatic life. Start implementing bay-friendly principles in your home landscape and community now. In addition, lend your volunteer support to the effort, and spread the word: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”



Better Backyard: A Citizen's Resource Guide to Beneficial Landscaping and Habitat Restoration in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, published by the Chesapeake Bay Program office. Call 1-800-YOUR-BAY or visit online at  www.chesapeakebay.net.


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is the source for 10 tips for a bay-friendly lawn, online at www.cbf.org.


The VDCR’s Natural Heritage Program publishes brochures on native plants; see www.dcr.state.va.us/dnh. Brochures on watersheds, Virginia's rivers, and How to Keep Your Grass Green and the Bay Clean are also available online at www.dcr.virginia.gov.


For a list of nurseries that propagate native plants, contact the Virginia Native Plant Society at www.vnpl.org.


For information on Riparian Forest Buffers, visit the Department of Forestry at www.dof.state.va.us.


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