Environmental Corner

Lawn and Garden Activities

Serpentine pathway stones on a park lawn (concept)Homeowners can employ some simple lawn and garden activities that will benefit the overall stormwater quality at various stages of the landscaping process. If you are in the initial stages of planning and designing your landscaping, or if you are making modifications to an existing landscape plan, the new design can incorporate several techniques. The site design should promote natural vegetation growth while minimizing water loss and contamination. The general topography of the site needs to be considered. If the site has significant grade changes, plant materials with strong rooting characteristics should be used to stabilize slopes, preventing soil erosion. Exposed soils on slopes should be avoided, whenever possible. Different plant materials have different watering needs and should therefore be grouped according to their watering needs. Soil conditions vary from site to site over time. Soil tests can be preformed every 3 to 4 years to determine the amount of nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy lawn. Soil test kits can be purchased at local garden centers or online at very reasonable costs. Indigenous plant materials should be selected to create an environmentally friendly landscape. Native plant species are generally more water efficient and disease resistant. Your local nursery or landscape contractor will be able to assist you in the selection of native plants that will thrive in your particular site and soil conditions. Whenever possible, planting on non-turf areas is encouraged because lawns require more water and maintenance that wildflowers, shrubs, trees and other types of ground cover. If turf is used, it is important to select a type of grass that can withstand drought and that becomes dormant in hot, dry seasons. Again, local nurseries or landscape contractors can assist in the proper selection of plant materials for your site conditions.

spring gardeningMaintenance of your landscaping should take in other considerations. When watering your landscaping, remember that the vegetation does not absorb much of the water that is applied to lawn and gardens. When water is applied too quickly, it is lost as runoff along with the top layers of soil. To prevent this, it is important to encourage the use of low-volume watering approaches such as drop-type or sprinkler systems. When mowing lawn areas, the grass should not be cut shorter than 3 to 4 inches in height, and mulched slipping should be left on the lawn as a natural fertilizer. Mulches help retain water, reduce weed growth, prevent erosion, and improve the soil for plant growth. Mulches usually consist of wood bark chips, wood grindings, pine straws, nut shells, small gravel, or shredded landscape clippings. The application of fertilizers should be minimized and not over-applied when used. If at all possible, less toxic alternatives to commercial fertilizers, such as composted organic material, should be used. Likewise, pesticides should be used on lawns and garden gardens only when absolutely necessary. Pesticide use can be avoided entirely by selecting hearty plants that are native to the area and by keeping them healthy. Damaging pests should always be removed by hand, if possible, using chemical pest control only if other approaches fail. If it becomes necessary to use chemical pesticides, the least toxic pesticide that targets the specific pest in question should be chosen. For example, if a pesticide is labeled with the word “Caution”, it is less toxic than one that is labeled “Warning”, which in turn, is less toxic than one that is labeled “Danger/Poison.” Remember that when applying pesticides wear the appropriate protective equipment listed on the label and read and follow all safety precautions listed on the label. Tools or equipment used to apply or incorporate pesticides should always be rinsed in a bucket and the rinse water applied as if it were a full-strength pesticide. Any unused pesticides can be saved or disposed of at a household hazardous waste collection site. Pesticides and fertilizers must not be disposed of down the storm sewer drain or storm sewer system. Landscaping services should be reminded not to perform this illegal practice.

Using proper landscaping techniques can effectively increase the value of property while benefiting the environment. Attractive, water efficient, low maintenance landscapes can increase property values between 7 to 14 percent (USEPA, 1993). These practices also benefit the environment by reducing water use, decreasing energy use (because less water pumping and treatment is required), minimizing runoff of storm and irrigation water that transports soils, fertilizers, and pesticides, and creating additional habitat for plants and wildlife. Proper landscaping activities are very cost effective. Promoting the growth of healthy plants that require less fertilizer and pesticide applications minimizes labor and maintenance costs of lawn and garden care. Using eater, pesticides, and fertilizers only when necessary and replacing store-bought fertilizers with compost material can increase the savings for a property owner as well as benefit the environment.

This article is a joint effort between the Winnetka Park District and the Village of Winnetka to promote Best Management Practices (BMP’s). These practices reduce the impact of non-point source pollution. Homeowners and businesses can incorporate BMP’s into their daily activities to improve water quality and reduce runoff.