By: Hazel England – GSWA Director of Education and Outreach, Land Steward
While we all continue to hunker down at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, many of us have a chance to spend increasing amounts of time in our backyards. We are using them as places to recreate, to gain peace while we are not able to visit our usual open space haunts, and to watch the unfolding processes of renewal and resilience that springtime brings. We may even soon be able to use them to gather for some welcome six-feet-a-parties!
Given the increased time in your yard, you may be thinking of new projects to embark upon, to make the best use of your enforced home stay or utilize your unexpected additional captive workforce. Here are some simple suggestions for tweaks you can make to your existing spring garden projects to allow them to also benefit the Watershed. We all know that to have healthy streams and drinking supplies, we have to care for the land around these streams, and that includes your yard!
- Slow Stormwater Moving Across your property.
Disconnecting water from downspouts stops it from rapidly entering storm drains, relieving downstream flooding and allowing it time to infiltrate the water table. Consider creating an intentional infiltration area to manage a portion of your downspout runoff in a constructive, aesthetically pleasing way. This can range from something as simple as adding extenders to downspouts to carry water to a different part of the garden where it can usefully water trees and foundation beds, create a layer of rocks and boulders water can flow over and sink into, to creating a rain garden or bioswale to manage a large percentage of the runoff from a roof or driveway. We will have more on the specifics of creating a rain garden in a future post.
Simplest Step-Try This: Purchase and attach downspout extenders, which can be green, brown or white to match their surroundings. Consider hiding them with the addition of low growing, mounding perennial plants. Direct downspouts to the base of mature trees, where deep plant roots will allow water to penetrate to lower soil levels, or into shrub planting beds. You can dig a shallow slit trench to carry extenders over grassy areas without them detracting from your lawn- lift the sod, excavate a channel deep enough for the extender, pack with loose soil above the pipe and replace the sod again. Since a 1” rainstorm falling on a half-acre plot receives around 13,500 gallons of water, you can make a huge difference just by diverting the runoff from 3-4 down spouts around the house. Pick the easiest ones to change. Imagine the benefit just by slowing this run-off and using it to water the plants in your yard or store it for gradual release to storm drains and streams.
- Reduce What Stormwater Picks up Along its Journey to the stream
As rainwater flows over the surface of your yard, anything on the surface is swept up and carried along with the water into ditches, storm-drains and eventually streams. We call these materials non- point source (NPS) pollutants, and they include substances like winter de-icing salt, excess fertilizer or pesticide, pet waste, soil or sediment, grease or oil leaking onto driveways from cars and volatile compounds from driveway resealing. Take a survey of your yard with a view to reducing your homes contribution to local NPS- what is also known as people pollution.
Simplest Step-Try This: If you have areas for whatever reason that have bare soil, or other piles of dirt around your house, ensure that sediment is trapped from running off into nearby waterways by adding vegetation or bales of straw.
Vegetation makes an effective NPS trap, but addressing bare soil by planting, adding stepping stones or pavers, finishing the construction project or simply covering the soil pile with a thick mulch can have immediate and striking reductions to the total dissolved solids that make their way to streams.
Now is the time to sweep up any loose debris on driveway surfaces, sweep away excess fertilizer that has drifted off lawns onto driveways, and ensure that future fertilizer application does not take place before rain is forecast.
Send bored kids out to pick up after Fido, even if you must bribe them to do it- Yes! Even in the back yard. Animal waste contributes greatly to increased nitrogen and bacterial levels in suburban runoff. Consider performing a leak test for your car, placing newspaper or an old sheet under the car for 24 hours and checking the newsprint or sheet for drips which signify leaking oil. Garages are open and desperate for your business- leak repair could be a simple part of routine maintenance and reduce your contribution to oily runoff.
Finally, in this season of resealing blacktop driveways, chose a sealcoat that has a low VOC or Volatile Organic Content. Insist on sealants that do not contain coal-tar based sealants. Most home improvement stores carry coal tar free alternatives, but commercial applicators may use coal tar sealants because they are cheaper. Check HERE for a list of environmentally sound sealants.
- Change Your Mowing and Watering Regimes.
Read our recent article on simple lawn care steps for a greener, more environmentally conscious yard HERE but as you ready your yard for spring, understand that a healthy lawn can be one with a reduced watering requirement, reduced need for pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer application than the one you likely own now! Allow grass to grow longer- just like your current hair style, which shades the roots, conserving water and reducing stress and therefore disease on the plant.
Simplest Step-Try This: Set the blade of your mower to 3” high, and after the first pass of spring, ditch the bag and allow the grass clippings to mulch and fertilize the lawn. Create a strip of longer length grass around beds and at the rear of the property that you mow less often- perhaps only each alternate cut. This longer grass sward allows deeper roots to form, allowing more water infiltration after storms, and trapping sediment pollutants as they flow across the lawn during storms.
- Be Plant Smart.
As you make plans for new beds, or to replace expired plantings around your yard, you will be looking for new perennials, shrubs, or foundation plantings. With a little research you can ensure that the plants you buy are not going to spread beyond your yard, to reduce biodiversity in neighboring patches of open space- what are termed invasive plants. Many common shrubs and trees sold in box stores are incredibly invasive, and their seeds and berries, spread by birds, mammals and even the wind allow them to invade nearby natural areas. Be particularly wary of plants marked as “deer proof”, as these are often exotic invasive plants which are eaten less by deer as they have little palatability. A recent trip to a large (orange) box store turned up honeysuckle, burning bush, Japanese barberry and privet being sold as great plantings… yet these are the self-same invasive plants our GSWA volunteers and many other stewardship organizations spend thousands of hours removing from woodland understories. A recent study by Cornell university found that alien species annually cause almost $140 billion dollars of damage to the US economy- and government agencies spend more than $100 million annually in their control. Do not be a part of the problem!
Simplest Step-Try This. Check whether the plant you intend to buy is native or invasive at one of many plant-finder sites and commit to avoiding their purchase. By purchasing native plants with similar growth habits, characteristics, and ornamental values, you are not only reducing the future impact of invasive species, but providing valuable habitat for native species, that have co-evolved with these native perennials, shrubs, and trees. Two plant-finder sites to try: Gardenista and NPSNJ.
We will have more in a future article about the specifics of choosing native plants to benefit pollinators, but as you make springtime purchases, choosing native is an easy step you can take.