Last fall, 533 homeowners in East Falmouth took the time to tell us what they think about the Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign. Those comments made up 41 pages of text, all but a handful expressing strong support for FFL. Homeowners were responding to a survey sent to homes in the watersheds of Great, Green and Bournes Ponds.
Even more helpful were the dozens of suggestions about how to strengthen FFL for 2003. The Falmouth Ashumet Plume Citizens Committee has carefully considered every suggestion, which have played a major role in the design of this year’s campaign. On behalf of FAPCC, thank you all for your help and support. We certainly did hear you loud and clear, and we are taking several steps to put into action many of your thoughtful suggestions.
A great many of you asked for more information about fertilizer, nitrogen pollution, and other actions needed to preserve the quality of our coastal ponds. This column responds to those requests. It will appear most Fridays under the Preserve Falmouth Bays & Ponds logo; we hope you will look for it and become regular readers.
Survey respondents say mailings and nursery recommendations, in addition to news articles, are the best sources of advice about lawn care. The first FFL mailing will be an updated version of last year’s brochure; look for it by the end of May. Copies of the brochure and other “how to” materials will be available at local nurseries and garden supply stores.
You also asked us to address the care of visible lawns like golf courses, businesses, churches and town-owned properties. With the help of a program coordinator based in Falmouth, we are developing specific outreach initiatives in each area, and will report progress in this space.
Responding to yet other suggestions, we will diversify our message delivery to homeowners by enlisting children and teens in new outreach programs, especially this summer and fall. Further initiatives will be announced as the FFL campaign moves forward.
I also would like to respond to a frequent comment along the lines of “why pick on fertilizer when everyone knows septic systems are the real problem?” It is perfectly true that septic field leaching causes 50% of the nitrogen load to Great, Green and Bournes Ponds, while fertilizer causes 20% of the nitrogen load. If total nitrogen loading were a relatively minor problem, perhaps it would make sense to focus strictly on sewering homes located around the ponds.
But, total nitrogen loading is not a minor problem; it’s a huge problem that grows ever more critical as more houses are built. Nor is it just the homes around the ponds that leach nitrogen; every home in the watershed --- 7500 at buildout --- leaches septic and fertilizer nitrogen that travels by surface or groundwater directly into the coastal ponds. That’s what watershed really means.
The quantities of nitrogen being leached into the ponds are so large that scientific models show we must remove half the nitrogen load simply to return pond water quality to conditions typical of the mid-1990s. That result still would leave nitrogen concentration levels considerably higher than the target of the Commonwealth’s Estuaries Program, so even removing half the nitrogen load may not be enough.
But, accepting the imperative to remove at least half the N-load, in theory one way to do that would be to sewer every home in the watershed and then remove all of the wastewater nitrogen at one or more new treatment plants. I say in theory because technology today does not exist to remove more than 90 to 95% of wastewater nitrogen.
As everyone knows, central treatment plants are hard to locate, expensive to build and take a lot of time to permit. Eliminating nitrogen leaching from fertilizer costs nothing, and can be done as soon as homeowners stop over-fertilizing --- an enormous bargain.
Consider the arithmetic. The ratio of 20% to 50% for fertilizer versus septic leaching means that eliminating the leaching from fertilizer would remove as much nitrogen pollution as sewering 40% of the homes. For the 7500 homes expected at buildout, that would mean not having to sewer 3000 of them, a saving of $75 million at the rate of $25,000 per home for the New Silver Beach project.
What price are we willing to pay for lush lawns? The real choice is not between sewers and lush lawns, but rather between lush lawns and clean water.
We continue to welcome feedback and will make every effort to respond promptly. Please send comments to me at 59 Town Hall Square, Falmouth 02540, to The Falmouth Enterprise, or [email protected] Thanks again and keep helping.
Jack Barnes, FAPCC Chairman
In reading the write-in survey responses, we found that many of you wanted more information on a Falmouth Friendly Lawn. In response to those requests, we’ve planned a series of pertinent articles on various aspects of lawn care. These will appear under the Preserve Falmouth’s Bays and Ponds logo. The topics will be from the do’s of lawn care, to how to read a fertilizer label, to ecological landscaping. We hope these articles will be helpful and inspire you to help Preserve Falmouth’s Bays and Ponds.
In the past you’ve heard us say that too much fertilizer is a problem because it contributes to the poor water quality in our bays and ponds. Why is it important to limit the amount of fertilizer applied to your lawn? It’s important because excess fertilizer simply disappears without a trace---leaching into the groundwater or running off in storm water. It then ends up in our bays and ponds fertilizing algae instead of your lawn. When it comes to fertilizers, the less the better for Cape ecology and especially for the health of our coastal waters.
Last fall, 31% of respondents to our Falmouth Friendly Lawn survey reported that they don’t fertilize their lawns at all. For them, ANY FERTILIZER IS TOO MUCH. Such traditional Cape Cod lawns grow in spring and fall and take time out when it gets too hot or dry. Yet they continue to grow year after year, drawing on natural sources of nitrogen. Grass clippings left on the lawn after mowing and atmospheric deposition in the form of rain are examples of those natural sources that take no effort to use and cost you nothing.
The industry standard application rate is about 1 lb of nitrogen per 1000 sq ft of lawn. Research shows grass clippings can contribute about 1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 sq ft/year, which is enough to replace one application of fertilizer. Clippings are 85% water and break down in a week or two. As they decompose, they supply nitrogen slowly and continuously.
A quarter acre lot, which is approximately 10,000 sq ft, gets 3.3 lbs of nitrogen a year from atmospheric deposition in the form of rain. Not all of that may reach the lawn, but it probably supplies lawns with nitrogen at an average rate of ˝ lb per 1000 sq ft/year.
How can you tell if natural sources alone are not enough? Lawns with special conditions like heavy traffic patterns may need help. You can tell by looking at the color of your grass. Is it a nice healthy green or does it have a yellowish tinge? If it is yellowish, it needs nitrogen. But before you apply any fertilizer, you need to get a soil test done to determine the PH. If the PH needs to be adjusted, you need to do that first so that the grass will be able to take up the nitrogen that is in the fertilizer.
When should you fertilize your lawn if it really does need it? Most Extension Services say the most effective time is early fall. Fertilizing then encourages denser roots, which add energy reserves for spring, and helps resist disease in the summer. Before you go out to buy your fall fertilizer, we’ll have an article on how to read a fertilizer label so that you’ll know what to look for in the store. ONCE A YEAR IS PROBABLY ALL THAT’S NEEDED.
Whenever fertilizer is used, the type is as important as the amount. The words to look for are “Water Insoluble Nitrogen” (WIN). The higher the percentage of WIN, the slower release of the nitrogen, the longer lasting the feeding of the lawn, the less leaching of nitrogen into our bays and ponds, and, therefore, the less damage to our coastal waters.
I mentioned that 31% of the survey respondents didn’t fertilize their lawns at all; another 9% have no lawns at all, and another 20% only fertilized their lawns once a year. The remaining 40% of respondents applied fertilizer to their lawns more than once a year, and they accounted for the lion’s share [80%+] of all fertilizer being used on home lawns.
The Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign is making a special appeal to those of you who are in that category of fertilizing more than once a year. PLEASE HELP US REDUCE THE POLLUTION IN OUR BAYS AND PONDS BY LIMITING YOUR FERTILIZER USE TO JUST ONE STANDARD APPLICATION PER YEAR. This means 1 lb of nitrogen or less for every 1000 sq ft of lawn.
If we all follow the guidelines for maintaining a Falmouth Friendly Lawn we WILL have an impact. I look forward to your continued feedback to me at 59 Town Hall Square, Falmouth 02540 or [email protected]
Chair, Falmouth Friendly Lawn
Hila Lyman resides in East Falmouth and is a member of the Ashumet Plume Citizens Committee, a master gardener and past President of the Falmouth Garden Club.
When you fertilize your lawn, you’re fertilizing more than your lawn. Falmouth residents probably know this better than anyone. By some measures, between 20% and 50% percent of the fertilizer we spread on our lawns leaches out through the watershed to our shallow coastal ponds, harbors and bays and fertilizes them too, causing serious damage to coastal ecosystems and Falmouth pocketbooks.
We are experiencing a worsening problem first hand in Falmouth: Waquoit Bay has lost its eel grass and the scallop beds and the diverse biological communities they supported. Seaweed chokes Great, Green Pond and Bournes Pond. In addition, West Falmouth Harbor has lost 80% of its eel grass beds. And there is more seaweed rotting on our beaches, more jelly fish and fewer young fin fish, and murkier water. All that damage is caused by excessive nitrogen loading. The increase in closures of shell-fishing areas is directly related to N-loading, too. A future article will look at N-loading’s significant impact on property values and resultant taxes.
Fortunately, Falmouth is mobilizing to stop the N-loading problem before it gets much worse. Lawn owners will play a key role. Why? Because it’s estimated by local scientists that nitrogen from fertilizers, chieflylawn fertilizer from homes in Falmouth watersheds is responsible for up to 20% of the problem (Failing septic systems account for about 50% of the problem. Atmospheric deposition from fossil fuel combustion causes most of the rest). And it’s the cheapest part of the problem to solve. Simply by changing our fertilizer practices we can get 20% of the way to the goal of healthy coastal watersin Falmouth with no increase in taxes.
While most of these weekly columns will focus on your lawn, this week we look at eel grass beds – our marine lawns. The condition of eel grass beds isan excellent indicator of aquatic health. If we do a better job reducing nitrogen leaching from fertilizer, we’ll see improvements in the eel grass beds, and that benefits all Falmouth residents.
Both turf grass and eel grass need nitrogento grow. Nitrogen is a necessary component of living cells. It’s part of the chlorophyll molecule too, essential to the conversion of sunlight to chemical energy. Nitrogen also happens to be the plant nutrient in shortest supply in coastal waters. When it’s added from land and air, even in minute amounts, it stimulates the growth of primary producers – phytoplankton (microscopic algae) and the large floating seaweeds that catch in boat props and wash up on beaches. It doesn’t take much nitrogen to stimulate algae growth. The upper limit of safe concentrations for healthy ponds is right around .5 parts per million. Above that level, algae production increases and water quality becomes unsatisfactory. For West Falmouth Harbor the state recommends a benchmark of .37ppm. That’s only .07ppm above the background levels of N in Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound.
Complicated things happen when algae begin to dominate shallow salt water systems. Dying seaweed can blanket bottom sediments and deplete oxygen levels there. This may bring about a shift in benthic life from larger less mobile invertebrates, like clams and quahogs, to shorter-lived opportunists like polychaete worms that survive by completing life cycles between periods of low oxygen. Oxygen depletion may make the bottom unsuitable for diatoms too that need to spend part of their life cycle on the bottom. These are important food for small invertebrates like copepods and shrimp that feed fin fish. High sulfide levels from decomposing algae and low oxygen may make it impossible for eelgrass to get oxygen from bottom sediments. Extreme eutrophication can deplete all oxygen and lead directly to fish kills and dead zones like we have seen in Perch Pond.
Algae dominance in eel grass environments also reduces light. Eel grass needs clear water and plenty of sunlight to thrive. Floating algae mats block light; population explosions of micro-algae reduce water clarity; and feathery filamentous algae attach directly to eelgrassfronds, shading them and sealing eel grasses’ fate. Eel grass without lots of light literally fades away, from bright green to gray to patchy brown. When it’s gone, so are all of the jobs it does. Eel grass fronds filter particulates and help keep water clear; eel grass provides structure for an entire ecosystem of invertebrate life forms including scallops. Eel grass provides cover and food organisms for young food fish. Eel grass roots anchor bottom sediments. When the roots of eelgrass die, bottom sediments are more subject to disturbance and water clarity gets even worse.
So when you’re contemplating how tocare for your lawn this spring, keep those eel grass lawns in mind, too. And begin adopting some of the simple practicesrecommended to make your lawn Falmouth friendly. This column is intended to help guide you. If you have questions send them to Tim Traver c/o Falmouth Friendly Lawn Program at 59 Town Hall Square, Falmouth 02540 or [email protected]
West Falmouth & Woodstock, VT
Tim Traver is a freelance writer who writes for several conservation newsletters and has managed wildlife preserves in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont.
May 9, 2003 Enterprise article
Falmouth lawns are greening up beautifully and growing fast by mid-May. It can be hard to keep up with all the yard work that needs doing, from raking up dead leaves you missed in the fall, to planting, pruning and mulching. Your grass appears to need mowing every time you turn around. The to-do list is endless. So take a break for a few minutes, and let’s review the nuts and bolts of a Falmouth Friendly Lawn. A few simple tenets of low input lawn care will save you some time and money plus help restore our coastal ponds and harbors.
*First, resist the impulse to fertilize in May. From now on that can be a once-a-year job in September, if at all, when the grass starts growing again with cooler fall temperatures. Fall fertilizing, using slow release, organic types, encourages denser root growth that adds energy reserves in the spring and helps resist disease in the summer. As Hila Lyman, chair of the Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign, pointed out in the Enterprise two weeks ago, even without any chemical fertilizer, your lawn is getting nitrogen it needs for spring growth. The truth is, she said, we can cut way down on fertilizer use or eliminate it all together. It’s also worth a reminder that grasses are highly evolved plants designed by nature to grow quickly and thrive in some of the most disturbed and nutrient poor settings in the world.
*Set the cutter bar on your mower high in May so that it cuts at 3 inches, or no more than 1/3 of the shoot growth at one mowing and leave grass clippings. Setting the cutting bar high could mean that you have to mow your lawn once or twice more frequently this spring but healthier grass roots over time and longer stems that shade out weeds are well worth it.
*Soil depth and quality is the most important factor when it comes to establishing healthy lawns. Lawns on six inches of loam will be more drought resistant, greener and healthier with lower added nitrate requirements. Routinely top dressing a lawn with half an inch of compost in early May seems luxurious but it is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
*Monitor rainfall in May and water only if needed. Your lawn only requires one inch of water a week. A simple way to monitor rainfall is to set out a few empty tuna cans. A full can equals an inch of water. One early morning watering a week to supplement natural rainfall is best: it encourages your lawn to grow deeper roots.
* Test your soil, particularly your soil’s pH from time to time. Acid soils (lower than 6.0 pH) block your lawns ability to uptake nitrogen and other essential nutrients. Spreading fifty pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet of lawn can raise your pH by as much as 1 point. But October is a better time to spread lime since it takes several months for lime to show its effects. The Master Gardener volunteers at the Cape Cod Extension Office in Barnstable tell me they’ll test your soil’s pH for you for a nominal price (call 508-375-6690).
*May and September are the best times of year to establish new lawns and replant disturbed or diseased areas. Use a mix of turf-type tall and fine fescues and perennial rye grass for reseeding. Fescues are tough but attractive, lower maintenance bunch grasses that have been genetically breed for turf. They can thrive in sun and shade, and are drought and disease resistant. Bill Clark, lawn specialist at UMass Extension, also recommends endophytic seed types. These are grass varieties that have been developed with natural cinch bug and sod webworm fighting capacities. A lawn with a higher diversity of species will fare better, cost less, and outperform a monoculture over the long run. If your lawn is mostly one species like bluegrass, consider overseeding with fescues and perennial rye grasses to increase plant diversity and establish a turf that is lower maintenance and drought tolerant.
*May is a good time for planting shrubs and trees. Hila is thinking beyond her lawn. There’s nothing more beautiful than native cape vegetation,” she says. Native trees and shrubs, grasses and flowers are low maintenance and drought tolerant too. They also create pocket habitat and corridors for wildlife. May is great time to get away from your lawn for a walk around the woods and fields to see what’s native and in bloom. Blueberries, viburnums, laurels, dogwoods, are coming into their season. Hila and many other gardeners in Falmouth are slowly replacing their lawns with wild gardens, restoring them to former glory.
Questions? Email FFLs at [email protected]. Next week, what to look for on a fertilizer label.
Why talk about fertilizer in May? Doesn’t the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign recommend that to save our salt ponds and harbors from nitrogen pollution we fertilize our lawns, if at all, once a year and only in the Fall? This is true. But we recognize that switching over to Falmouth Friendly Lawn practices is a long-term enterprise. If your lawn is accustomed to fertilizer applications, then it may need a spring feeding to stay green. It could take a year or more to make a transition to a lawn with healthy microbial systems and nutrient balances that don’t require heavy season-long doses of nitrogen. Newly established lawns, particularly shady ones, may need a boost in spring too. If you’re applying fertilizer this spring, try to keep these few FFL ideas in mind.
Buy a fertilizer that is at least 30% water insoluble nitrogen (WIN). You can determine this by looking on the bag for the table that breaks down total nitrogen into total soluble and insoluble forms. WIN nitrogen is bound up in more complex molecules and doesn’t dissolve in water. Instead, it breaks down through biological decomposition and becomes slowly available to grass roots. This slow release increases feeding time, minimizes groundwater leaching, and encourages microbial growth. What’s most important from an FFL standpoint is this slow release aspect. Some synthetic fertilizers contain 30% or more slow release nitrogen. This is usually sulfur-coated urea (a highly soluble form that has to be converted to ammonium or nitrate before plants can use it). Organic fertilizers – these come from sources that were once alive like composted animal manures, plant proteins, fish meal, seaweed and composted sewage sludge -- often far exceed the 30%WIN rule, but 30% synthetic slow release is okay, too. Mahoney’s Garden Centers has just switched over its own 4-step brand to meet the 30% slow release rule in response to the Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign. It prints the %WIN and slow release in large numbers on the front of the bag to make it easy for consumers. Mahoney’s brand includes a polymer form of urea called Nutralene that requires microbial breakdown. Cataumet Garden Center carries types that meet the 30% rule too, including Organica Brands. Both shops carry several pure organic and organic/synthetic blends as well. To determine whether or not a bag of fertilizer is at least 30% WIN (and slow-release), simply divide the total % WIN and slow-release, by total % nitrogen content. Organica Lawn Booster, for example has 8% total nitrogen: 7.5% WIN and .5% water soluble. It’s 95% WIN. The higher the percentage the better!
It’s easy, and tempting, to over-fertilize. But remember, more is not better. The right amount will prevent turf burning and reduce leaching. Before going to the garden store, figure out how much lawn you have. Pace it off. The average human gait is 2.5 feet per single stride. The bag will tell you the coverage rate. A 25# bag of Organica Lawn Booster, for instance, covers 2,500 square feet. Organica is made from composted sewage sludge--Plymouth’s finest. It’s an 8-1-1 mix: 8% nitrogen; 1% phosphorus; 1% potassium. The big three numbers on every bag give you the breakdown of these essential plant nutrients. Nitrogen promotes cellular growth; Phosphorus is important in photosynthesis and metabolism; Potassium for plant structure, including root development. The first number is the one FFL is focused on since it is nitrogen leaching that’s killing our coastal ponds and harbors.
The industry rule of thumb for nitrogen application is roughly 1# per 1000 square feet of lawn per application. Much over that rate and you may be putting more nitrogen on your lawn than it can handle. Soluble nitrogen not quickly taken up can escape into the water table. You can readily figure what rate of nitrogen application the manufacturer is recommending by multiplying the total percent of nitrogen in the fertilizer by the number of pounds of fertilizer then dividing it by the total square foot coverage of the bag. The Organica example above applies nitrogen at 1 pound per 1250 square feet, well below the rule-of-thumb (.08x25 lbs./2500).
There are so many choices today that it can be mind-boggling trying to decide which fertilizer to buy. If you stick to the 30% or greater WIN/slow release rule, and apply it at suggested rates, you can’t go wrong. Many products are available that blend in herbicides and pesticides. While Falmouth Friendly Lawns doesn’t take a stand, remember that plant diversity and a healthy microbial community contribute importantly to healthy lawn systems. Special situations might be addressed better through spot treatments rather than broad scale application.
Questions or Comments? Email FFLs at [email protected]. Next week: You can’t see it and you can’t smell it: how real is atmospheric deposition of nitrogen anyway?
We’ve been talking a lot about lawn fertilizer in these columns over the last month. Lawn fertilizers, including golf course applications, account for up to 20% of the nutrient enrichment crisis in Falmouth salt ponds, harbors and estuaries. That means Falmouth citizens can fix 20% of the problem, without expensive new taxes just by changing the way they manage their lawns. A Falmouth Friendly Lawn is a healthy and attractive lawn that doesn’t need as much nitrogen.
One reason we can use less fertilizer on our lawns is that, unfortunately, the atmosphere is depositing more and more nitrogen on our lawns for us. When it comes to protecting coastal waters, air and water quality are closely linked. But how real is this invisible atmospheric source? Where does it come from? And how much nitrogen does it add to our waters?
Two weeks ago, the Falmouth Enterprise ran an article about a recently released report by the American Lung Association on air quality. Barnstable County had the highest ozone days of the 14 Massachusetts counties that submitted statistics. Ground level ozone causes human respiratory diseases and damages forests. Barnstable County ranked seventh in the nationwide study for incidence rates of pediatric and adult asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In our region, ground level ozone is mostly generated by nitrogen oxide emissions. These emissions come from gas-powered vehicles and power plants from both distant mid-western heavy industrial sources and sources close to home. They also cause acid rain and greenhouse warming. Ozone (O3) is formed when warm temperatures and sunlight cause nitrogen oxides to react with volatile organic compounds: gas and solvent vapors, and the natural emissions of green plants. These same nitrogen oxides react in the atmosphere to form other compounds, including the nitrate that is deposited on land and water. Other atmospheric deposition is in the form the ammonia (NH3) that comes from animal feedlot wastes and agriculture.
How much nitrate is deposited on our lawns by atmospheric deposition? The Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring nitrogen oxide emissions in eight Northeastern watersheds for more than ten years. Rates vary widely across the region. The Massachusetts Bay watershed, downwind from Boston and Plymouth receives approximately 61 lbs of nitrogen annually per acre. That’s about 1.4 lbs per 1000 square feet of lawn annually.
Researchers at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Reserve (WBNER) have been studying the impacts of nutrient enrichment, including the loss of eelgrass beds, on a more local scale here in Falmouth for several decades. Their findings show that the Waquoit Bay watershed receives 11 lbs/acre of atmospheric nitrogen annually, or about .25 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn. That’s a significant amount of nitrogen which reduces in real numbers the nitrate that needs to be added to our lawns. Combined with the nitrogen in grass clippings left on the lawn after mowing, the need to add more nitrogen is minimized, and the FFL goal of a single application of fertilizer to lawns in the fall more quickly attained.
Of course atmospheric deposition is a source of lawn fertilizer we hope someday will have disappeared. The key to reducing atmospheric sources of nitrogen lies in strengthening the U.S. Clean Air Act, the primary federal law governing nitrogen emissions, and becoming more energy efficient at home and work.
One of the most interesting findings from Waquoit Bay is that the amount of atmospheric nitrogen deposition there has not changed in 60 years. The sources have changed but not the amounts. In the 1940’s the Cape had many more farms and farm animals than it has today. Animal wastes emit ammonia and fertilizers used on farm crops, especially urea, vaporize to ammonia gas (NH3) that later is dry deposited or absorbed by plants. Over the past 50 years the Cape has seen big increases in the number of gas powered cars and houses that need electricity for heat and light. What caused nutrient enrichment at Waquoit is the jump in human population, more cars, and increased land development. The number of houses in the Waquoit Bay watershed went from fewer than 250 in 1938 to more than 4000 50 years later. Wastewater generation increased from 2000 kg /year in 1938 to more than 35,000 kg/year today. Wastewater and fertilizer were minor sources of nitrogen inputs in 1938. They are they major sources today.
For more information on what you can do see the recent WBNER publication, Nitrogen from the Atmosphere(www.waquoitbayreserve.org).
Next week, we’ll look at grass clippings:the rationale for leaving them in place; the contributions in nitrogen and organic matter they make to healthy lawns; and how to avoid the problem of thatch, caused by buildup of undecomposed organic matter.
Your questions or comments are welcomed at [email protected].
Isn’t it nice when the right thing to do is also easier, less costly, and in the long run healthier for you? Letting grass clippings lie where they fall (grasscycling), rather than bagging them up for the landfill, is a prime example of a winning lawn management strategy that’s also friendly to our coastal ponds and estuaries.
There are two primary reasons why (not including filling up our landfill prematurely) grasscycling makes good sense. First, dried grass clippings contain 3-5% nitrogen that when returned to your lawn provide a slow release source of nitrogen which doesn’t pollute coastal waters. This is not “new” nitrogen. It was already available in the soil and was taken up as a nutrient by your growing lawn. Lawns that have a higher percentage of clover and other nitrogen fixing plants may even boost that nitrogen content a bit. By recycling fixed nitrogen instead of removing it, you reduce your lawn’s reliance on added chemical fertilizer.
Second, grass clippings provide a steady diet of new organic matter to your soil. In the long run soils that get back their grass clippings tend to hold more moisture longer, and grasses on these soils are deeper rooted for drought resistance. They don’t require as much added nitrogen. Soils with higher organic matter are likely to contain healthier microbial communities too.
Are there any downsides? Well, clippings can be tracked into pools and homes by children and dogs. If clippings are too thick, they can smoother living grass or accumulate under growing turf to form an impervious layer of thatch. Clippings can look unruly it they sit in long swatches on top of an otherwise green lawn. Fortunately, some simple grass cutting techniques can alleviate these problems.
A few years ago our 20 year old-reliable mower died and we bought a mulching type rotary mower. Mulching mowers are no more expensive than other rotary mowers. They have a food processor-like blade that minces the grass clippings and then distributes them evenly out the back. Traditional rotary mowers scythe clippings into a windrow out the right side of the mower. If you don’t have a mulching mower, you can still leave your grass clippings on the lawn, but the next two tips become more important.
Grass blades should be cut high and dry so they filter down through the lawn bed to the soil surface instead of resting on top. Never cut the grass wet! It will clump, look ugly, and may injure growing grass underneath. Most sources recommend cutting at most 1/3 of the grass stem. With a conventional side exit mower you might ere on the conservative side by cutting even less blade. Does this mean cutting grass more frequently? Not necessarily. If you leave your grass taller there’s evidence to suggest that growth will be slower and that unwanted broad-leaved weeds will be naturally shaded out. Also, certain, more robust grass species are slower growing. The fine-leaved fescues, including sheep fescue and creeping red fescue, are slower growing and more drought resistant than the much-vaunted Kentucky blue grass types. You may want to overseed with these in the fall.
We set our cutting deck at the next-to-highest setting on our mulching mower. We also have the cutting bar sharpened every spring. This leaves a three-inch tall turf with a nice clean cut, not a tear that can injure roots. The cuttings disappear into the turf as soon as they are cut.
Will leaving grass clippings on the lawn cause more thatch conditions to occur? Thatch is a condition caused by a build-up of unbroken down organic matter, grass stems, crowns, roots, etc., under turf. It’s caused by a number of factors including poor soil pH, excessive watering, soil compaction, and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. Thatch greater than ˝ inch in depth can prevent air, water and nutrients from reaching the roots. If you do not already have a thatch problem, leaving the grass clippings on the lawn will not create a problem. On a lawn with thatch problems, you need correct the problem at its source by adjusting soil pH; reducing fertilizer and pesticide consumption; and deep watering once a week. Dead sections of lawn need to be de-thatched. The easiest way to do this is to rent a de-thatching machine. They look like lawnmowers but have blunt vertical blades that dig up and mulch the top inch of turf. This is an opportunity to reseed with an appropriate Cape Cod friendly seed mix.
Creating a Falmouth Friendly Lawn is a rewarding process and a goal to aim for. Leaving grass clippings is just part of a new way to think about the long-term health and beauty of your lawn and our coastal waters.
Questions or comments are welcomed at [email protected]. Next week we will review important questions to ask a lawn service provider.
According to surveys conducted by the Ashumet Plume Citizen’s Committee, about 16% of Falmouth area landowners hired a lawn care service to chemically fertilize their lawns last year. These companies – and Falmouth has a variety of them -- typically sell you an annual program that includes up to seven trips to your lawn per season to apply fertilizer and lime, kill broad-leafed weeds, and control lawn pests with chemical pesticides. If you currently use a lawn care service or are thinking about hiring one, then consider choosing a business that understands the connection between clean coastal waters and lawn care. Hire a professional willing to work to insure there is minimal nitrate leaching from your lawn into groundwater and coastal ponds. Consumers ultimately control what goes on their lawn. The more consumers request coastal Falmouth Friendly approaches to lawn care, the more responsive the lawn care industry will become.
Here are a few questions to ask your lawn care professional that will help keep the industry and your lawn on an improving environmental track. Included are a few questions they should be asking you.
First, ask them if they know about the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign. Your contact with a lawn professional is an excellent outreach opportunity! Let them know of your interest in having a Falmouth Friendly Lawn.
If you’re talking to your lawn mowing service, ask them to mow high, cut only a third of the grass stem, and leave the grass clippings. Higher is better for a healthy lawn. Bill Clark, turf specialist at MA. Cooperative Extension, reminded me that root depth is proportional to the height of your grass. Short mowing stresses your lawn and dwarfs root systems. Bad news if you’re trying to grow a more drought resistant lawn. You may like the putting green look, but short turf needs more water and labor to maintain. Go long. Three inches should be your minimum.
Ask the lawn service if they test for soil pH and nutrients before making a management plan for your lawn. Falmouth soils tend to be acidic and well-drained, but there’s a lot of soil variety in Falmouth, and no two landscapes are identical. Testing is important. The same question applies to pesticide and herbicide applications. Will they check out your lawn to see whether you have specific problems – grubs or cinch worms, for instance, before recommending pest treatments? Or are they using the law of averages and applying pesticides and herbicides to counteract problems that the average lawn might have. Ask if they take an Integrated Pest Management approach (more about IPM in future articles).
Ask them what type of fertilizer they use, the nitrogen content of the fertilizer, and what percentage of the nitrogen is WIN or slow release. WIN stands for Water Insoluble Nitrogen. It takes longer to break down than soluble forms and therefore minimizes leaching. Falmouth Friendly Lawns recommends that at least 30% of the nitrogen content in lawn fertilizer should be WIN. Slow release, or controlled-release, as Scott’s describes their products, are the next best thing. Controlled-release nutrient compounds are coated with sulfur and polymers designed to release nutrients over weeks, even months, not days.
Ask your lawn professional how much nitrogen they will put on your lawn in lbs per 1000 square feet of lawn per each application. Ask how many total pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn they intend to apply in a year. Falmouth Friendly Lawns has developed a standard of a single application of 1 lb. of slow release nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn in the fall to promote healthy, deep-rooted lawns.
Here’s a question a lawn care professional should be asking you: Do you water your lawn during the summer? Grass species, especially the cool season types we have around here, go dormant in the summer unless you water your lawn consistently throughout the season. Your grass is not taking up nutrients if it’s not growing. FFL doesn’t recommend any summer fertilization. Tell your lawn care specialist you don’t want fertilizer until the fall. This should translate to dollar savings.
Ask the lawn care professional if they offer an all-organic lawn care alternative. The answer will probably be no, but there are a few such as NaturaLawn of America, SavaLawn and Lindsay Strode of Cape Organics, who take an organic approach, and the number of professionals who offer natural options to landscape care is increasing. Even if the organic option is not available, or not something you’re ready for, ask the agent what practices he recommends to improve your lawn’s microbial community, soil depth and soil aeration. Building good soil should be the objective of any lawn care professional, whether or not organic approaches are taken.
The lawn care industry is a potentially important ally in the fight for clean coastal waters. Those of us who are consumers of these services can help shape the industry.
Questions or comments are welcomed at [email protected].
There may be more golfers in Falmouth than in any other town on the Cape. There are more golf courses. With four public or semi-public courses to choose from, in addition to two private courses, Falmouth can boast over 100 holes of golf. The typical 18-hole golf course is like a giant, 80 acre well-groomed lawn: a pinwheel of fairways and greens, bunkers and roughs worked on constantly by some of the best trained turf experts in the world.
But, as you might expect, golf courses are intensively used
landscapes that require carefully managed
Can golf courses can become net zero contributors to nutrient enrichment in coastal waters in Falmouth? Bucky Hall, superintendent of the Falmouth Country Club, manages the 27 hole club that has Bourne’s Brook flowing through the middle of it. The Cape Cod Commission required nitrate monitoring wells where the brook enters and where it exits the course. Twice annual readings have consistently come in well below the Cape standard of 5 ppm nitrate in groundwater. Annually, pesticides runoff is almost undetectable, says Hall. Aware of the goals of the Ashumet Plume Citizen’s Advisory Committee, Hall is cutting way back on fertilizing the rough on the old course and, depending on soil fertility, reducing fertilization on some fairways with great soil back to near zero. It saves him money too.
Tom Flaherty, superintendent at the Woods Hole Golf Club, doesn’t fertilize his roughs at all. “It’s a balancing act,” says Flaherty. “I’m all for reducing nitrogen inputs but not to the point where turf suffers. There are diseases that come both from over-stimulated turf and low fertility. Healthy turf reduces the need for fungicides and reduces runoff too.” Flaherty says he’d like to get down to 2 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 square feet per year, but so much depends on the weather, soil temperature, and the season. “We monitor plants on a daily basis, using a spectrometer that can do nutrient analysis based on leaf color. The ideal is 4% N in our turf plants.” Hall agrees that managing turf is a balancing act. “The point is to grow healthy turf. It’s more effective at intercepting and incorporating nitrogen.” Hall says the take home message is that “today’s greenskeepers are trained professionals working to keep fairways and greens fast and healthy while minimizing negative environmental effects.”
The typical golf course superintendent has a four year college degree in turf management. He needs to be a chemist, water engineer, fiscal manager, and environmental educator wrapped into one. The industry as a whole is moving toward greater environmental sensitivity. Recently, a group of leading golf and environmental organizations developed a set of voluntary environmental principles that overlap significantly with Falmouth Friendly Lawn goals. For example, recommended practices include utilizing improved drought and pest resistant turf grass varieties; using integrated pest management practices; applying only slow release fertilizer and selected organic products; leaving grass clippings; and incorporating native plants. Flaherty is proud of his extensive stands of the native little blue stem grass in the roughs at Woods Hole – though golfers who shank balls there may not appreciate its native toughness. It can be nearly impossible to hit out of.
Golfers and golf club members can do their part, too, by supporting club efforts to adopt conservation measures, and by accepting the natural limitations of turf grass plants. Brown patches, thinning, loss of color is a part of the game of golf, even with the cleverest greens keepers working overtime to keep the course green. After all, by the original definition Scottish links lands were the low-lying seaside lands. “Characteristically treeless, they were sandy, covered in bent grass and gorse and too poor for farming.” That’s what golf needs to get back to.
Comments or Questions? Please contact Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign, Tim Traver, [email protected]. Next week: Golf courses part 2: Learning from the Pros.
There’s another pro at the golf club. I’m not referring to the one who teaches the elusive science of how to hit a golf ball straight, but to the guy who manages the grass (or water) where the ball lands. The course superintendent, or greens keeper, may have the harder job, especially when you throw in environmental compliance. As Hila Lyman, chair of the Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign points out, thank goodness we don’t have to manage our lawns like they do. Our own lawns are easier to keep green and healthy with even less fertilizer than the most parsimonious greens keeper applies. But we might take a lesson or two from them.
Golf courses are highly specialized playing surfaces designed for heavy use. Woods Hole Golf Club sees over 26,000 golf cart rounds annually, according to Superintendent Tom Flaherty. Falmouth Country Club, says Bucky Hall, may see double that. Greens are cut to within an eighth inch of their life and fairways to half an inch to keep them fast. Grass on a fairway is continually walked on, divoted, and compacted by cart tires. Monitoring turf health, mowing, watering, aerating, treating with nutrients of variable analysis, and dealing with disease are constant preoccupations of the greens keeper. Yet fairways still burn out, get diseased or occasionally go soggy, depending on the whims of Mother Nature. Let’s face it, golf course are thoroughbred turf systems.
Newer golf courses on the Cape have the added responsibility of monitoring nitrate and pesticide leaching. Even the old grandfathered courses these days have to work harder to reduce fertilizer leaching and runoff. In spite of the pressure to stay green, golf courses are looking for ways to cut fertilizer use. It’s a matter cost to the environment, public scrutiny, and tight budgets.
David Mauk has been taking care of turf at the Cape Cod Country Club for 38 years. He describes himself as the guy who cuts the grass, but he has three acres of greens and aprons, three acres of tees, 36 acres of fairways and 40 acres of rough to take care of, and he does a lot more than cut grass. The biggest problem with homeowners, he says, is too much fertilizer. It’s easy to over-fertilize. But more is not better. Over fertilization, just like under-fertilization, can lead to turf problems. Mauk uses a host of fertilizer products in very low concentrations, including foliar sprays in summer at 1/8 lb per 1000 sq feet. but he favors slow release products and uses an organic fertilizer similar to Milorganite much of the year. He applies 2 to 3 lbs of nitrate per thousand square fee of turf per year on his fairways. His rough edges get about 2lbs per 1000 per year. His greens get more – something between 5 to 7 lbs per thousand square feet per year.
Greg Hollick, the new superintendent at Ballymeade, used strictly organic fertilizer this spring. Hollick is a big fan of compost. The best thing for turf, he says, is to build up soil. He spread tons of compost at the club, concentrating on high traffic areas around the clubhouse, bunker and green complex areas, and he uses compost in his divot mix.
Hall, superintendent at the Falmouth Golf Club, stresses the importance of turf aeration. At least twice a year all of his 27 fairways are aerated and the greens are verticut on a regular basis. Aeration keeps plant roots and the microbial community healthy, insuring water and nutrient penetration and the aerobic breakdown of organic matter in soil. Turf stores nitrogen very efficiently, but without gas exchange that nitrogen can’t get to plant roots. There’s also nitrogen fixing going on in the root zone by legumes like clover, but not without gas exchange. Flaherty at Woods Hole Golf Club stresses the importance of testing soil before applying fertilizer. He is no longer fertilizing his roughs at all – that part of a golf course I’m personally most familiar with.
From a Falmouth Friendly lawn standpoint, the most important lesson to be learned from golf courses today may be the hint of a national trend back to the natural – golf courses that nearly disappear into the landscape. This could herald a return to golf’s Scottish roots and the links land concept. A recent article in the New York Times (June 6), describes a new course in Oregon called Pacific Dunes designed by course architect Tom Doaks. He used the natural contours of the coastline and native vegetation to build a walking-only course where fertilizer and pesticides are used only “very very sparingly.” Whatever is applied is entirely organic too. The result is lower operating costs, and a course that is beautiful to walk and play, even in the many shades of brown, gold and pale green the changing seasons give it. Sounds just like a Falmouth Friendly Lawn to me.
Comments or Questions? Please contact Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign, Tim Traver, [email protected]. Next week: How does the town of Falmouth care for its municipal lawns and town greens?
History is always in the making on a village green. The Falmouth village green, originally laid out in 1640, served in 1776 as a training ground for local militias mustering for the American revolution, and then again in 1812 to prepare for a war against the marauding British. According to Mary Sicchio at the Falmouth Historical Society, in 1805 it was the scene of a symbolic skirmish in what’s been dubbed the Falmouth herring war. During a time of heated disputes over fishing rights on the Coonamessett River, someone decided to punctuate their position by shooting off a canon filled with dead herring. Instead of sprinkling the village green with smelly fish, the canon exploded, killing the gunner. Town commons have always been favorite places to take a stand– but, hopefully without fatal results. In the latest virtual war against the nutrient enrichment of Falmouth’s shallow marine commons could it be that the green turf of the village green is the most appropriate place to demonstrate Falmouth’s commitment to Falmouth Friendly Lawns?
Brian Dale is Falmouth’s tree warden and superintendent of parks, forestry and school grounds. He’s been managing municipal landscapes in Falmouth for 19 years with 14 full time and 8 seasonal staff. His duties include caring for parks, including Fuller Park, home of the Commodores, and Goodwill Park; all the town’s school grounds and sports fields, town hall lawns and gardens, library grounds, village greens and town forests spread across the 44 square miles that make up Falmouth.
Dale’s rule of thumb is that his staff cuts the equivalent of three eighteen-hole golf courses worth of grass every week. They also plant and weed flower beds and do whatever else needs doing on town property. They built all the benches, tables and pavillions at Goodwill Park without special capital outlays, for instance, using their own portable saw mill to cut the lumber. We’re do-it-yourselfers, he says. His biggest challenge in June? Keeping up with growing grass.
Dale is in the aesthetics business, as he puts it. Part of the tourist draw to Falmouth, he says, is the beauty of its villages, and public places. And part of the draw is clean coastal waters. Tourists aren’t going to come either if the town looks ragged, or the ponds and beaches are polluted, he says. While maintaining healthy turf for aesthetic reasons is his primary goal – on playing fields it’s a question of player safety -- Dale also considers himself a charter member of the friendly lawn effort in Falmouth.
About 35 acres of his lawns are what he calls primary areas: varsity playing fields, town hall, library, and village greens. These get more attention than the rest. That attention includes fertilizing two to three times a year using only sulfur-coated urea – a pelletized slow release fertilizer. His application rates are around 2 lbs a year per thousand square feet, he thinks. This is a higher frequency than the once-a-year application Falmouth Friendly Lawns recommends, but lower than the typical professional lawn care application rate. Dale acknowledges there’s leaching of nitrate going on – up to 20 percent for sulfur-coated urea. But the other 80 percent of the municipal lawns Dale manages don’t get any fertilizer at all. This may be more a function of a limited budget for fertilizer and staff, but it means that there’s less nitrate leaving municipal properties and traveling into coastal ponds than from many private properties.
Dale cuts the grass at about 2.25 inches – short by Falmouth Friendly Lawn standards, but leaves all the grass clippings in place. This practice is beneficial because grass clippings return a very slow release organic form of nitrogen to grass roots. He’d cut higher if he could, but there isn’t enough time to adjust cutter blades, he says. Playing fields can’t be cut much higher that 2.25 inches anyway, so it all gets cut the same. Falmouth Friendly lawns recommends cutting residential lawns at 3 inches and removing no more than 1/3 of the grass blade. Tall grass promotes deep roots and shades weeds too.
Dale employs many other environmental friendly lawn care practices. He has cut back by 99 percent his use of roundup and other herbicides. He weeds most primary areas – including the mound at Fuller field -- by hand now, he says.
Dale’s only irrigated lawns are his varsity playing fields – including Fuller Field and the village green at Teaticket. The rest of municipal Falmouth’s lawns, including the village green don’t get watered at all during the summer. With no watering, moderate fertilizer applications using slow release products, leaving grass clippings for their nitrate and organic matter, and mechanical weed removal, the village green in Falmouth comes pretty close to being Falmouth friendly. What’s his secret, then, to keeping the village green green all summer long, I ask? Shade, says Dale. Shade is our biggest ally. The other secret, he says, is maintaining proper pH. Land owners should test soil at least once a year. And act accordingly.
We all need to think outside the box, says Dale. People have the mindset that they have to have the perfect lawn. But there’s other values at stake. Clean salt ponds are just as important.
Comments or Questions? Please contact Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign, Tim Traver, [email protected]. Next week: The costs and benefits of clean water.
Clean salt ponds and estuaries are better for business and less expensive for taxpayers in the long run than polluted water. A Falmouth resident doesn’t have to think too long on this to know it is true. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council show a strong correlation nationwide between clean water (fresh and salt), and healthy, economically thriving communities. It turns out that our organic currency: land, air, and water resources – including forests, beaches, prime agricultural soils to eel grass and scallop beds, and ozone free air -- beget our dollar economy. Common sense tells us to invest in the protection of nature’s endowments – to spend the interest they generate and not run down the principal.
What’s so valuable about salt ponds and estuaries? EPA estimates estuaries provide more than 75% of America’s commercial fish catch and 90% of its recreational catch – a resource worth $1.9 billion annually, excluding Alaska. Nationwide, fishing, boating, tourism and other coastal industries provide 28 million jobs. In the average year some 180 million Americans visit ocean and bay beaches, generating $8 to $12 billion. There are 25,500 recreational facilities on American coastlines. In Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bay, the fish catch is worth $240 million annually, beach going generates revenues of $1.5 billion annually while marinas generate another $1.86 billion. Of course, there are benefits of clean estuaries that are harder to put a dollar value on. Wetlands filter nutrients and other pollutants running off land. Estuaries provide important habitat for birds and all manner of vital biodiversity lower down on food webs. The beauty alone of estuaries and salt ponds gives value and draws us to them.
Jack Barnes, chair of Falmouth Ashumet Plume Citizens Committee, points out that to quantify the scenic dimension of estuaries – it’s desirability as a real estate location – you need look no further than your tax bill. It’s no secret that assessed value of land near water is high and climbing sharply, he says. To assess the value of such land, the town assessor uses water-influence factors that multiply the valuations of water front land and land with water views. For waterfront land, the water-influence factors ranges from 1.5 to 5.0; for land with water views, the factor ranges from 1.21 to 3.75. Let’s say your water front property has a water influence factor of 5 – the top of the range. If your land were assessed at $4/square foot before the water influence factor was applied, it would be taxed at $20/square foot after the water-influence factor was applied.
Water factor premiums add up to a lot of real estate value, says Barnes: $2.1 billion of assessed value last year alone. That means that 39% of the total assessed value of all residential property in Falmouth (including base land value and structures) is due to water factors. These generated $17 million in annual tax payments last year. If water factor premiums begin to drop-or worse yet, disappear altogether-- because coastal ponds and bays become infected with scummy algae, foul odors and fish kills, then the financial loss will not be confined to those whose property is affected by water factors today. Diminished value of those properties will cut deeply into the town-wide tax base, tax revenues will fall sharply and everyone else in town—no matter where they live—will see dramatic increases in their tax bills. That is unless town budgets and services are slashed, an unlikely event. The impact of deteriorated water quality has caused a spiraling down of property values in other towns (in the 90’s, John’s Pond residents suffered this decrease). It’s a difficult and expensive trend to reverse. Polluted harbors, salt ponds and dirty beaches scare away tourists, too. Businesses in Falmouth contribute some $5 million in taxes annually -- a tax base that also will shrink if tourism falters.
The Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign aims to significantly cut down on lawn fertilizer use to reduce nitrate leaching into estuaries and destroying water quality. Over the next ten years, if 100% of Falmouth residents were to cut out lawn fertilizer use altogether, or went to only one fertilizer application in the fall, then we could achieve 15 to 20% reduction in nitrate leaching at no cost to Falmouth taxpayers. David Palmer, president of FACES, points out that cutting out nitrogen loading from lawn fertilizers could reduce the number of homes that need to hook up to sewer lines in the future. At an average cost of $20K per home to sewer, the savings in waste water treatment bills to Falmouth tax payers could be $60 million for East Falmouth alone.
There’s another economic factor to nutrient enrichment I call the plover factor. Piping plovers are small light colored birds that once nested on Falmouth beaches. It’s hard to see them and easy to overlook their importance, since they seem to have no bearing on our day to day lives. Valuing piping plovers and working to restore them to their historic breeding grounds says something very positive about the community working to save them. Plover-saving increases the value of a place by increasing its social capital. Doing something to protect clean, clear estuaries, even if you don’t use them everyday, builds relationships within the community and enhances a place’s overall quality of life. That’s something hard to quantify but equally well worth working for.
Comments or Questions? Please write Tim Traver ([email protected]). Next week, Using Compost to build topsoil
“Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.”
Sir Francis Bacon
We’re on the brink of the dog days of summer, and over in West Falmouth we’re hoping we don’t see a repeat of last summer’s terrible drought conditions. Americans love our green lawns, so it’s with some chagrin that during an especially hot and dry July we see them go dormant and begin to turn brown just when the barbecue season hits stride and the kids are practically living outside. While it is not a goal of a Falmouth Friendly Lawn to be green all the time – that’s simply unrealistic given our climate and prevailing soil types – it is a goal of a Falmouth Friendly Lawn to have a healthier, more drought resistant turf that rebounds quickly after drought, and does so without heavy inputs of water, fertilizers and chemical herbicides and pesticides that are costly to the pocketbook and our marine environment. Over the past ten weeks we’ve talked about some of the basic tenants of a Falmouth Friendly Lawn: cut high (3 to 3.5 inches at least); leave grass clippings; use grass seed varieties like fescues adapted to Cape conditions; cut way back on fertilizer use by fertilizing, if at all, only once in the fall; read fertilizer labels to be sure to use slow release types; and use lawn chemicals very sparingly, if at all. All of these practices promote drought resistance. Today, let’s talk watering and soil amendments – two important keystones to drought resistance.
Most of us in Falmouth, according to surveys, don’t water our lawns at all. Shady lawns, lawns with deep soils and deep-rooted turf hold up well during dry seasons without watering. But if you have very thin, well-drained soils, you may need to water to keep your grass alive. If so, then build up to watering it only once a week, deeply. Early morning watering is best so that grass blades have a chance to dry quickly (don’t forget voluntary water restrictions between 7 am and 7pm.). Lawns need only one inch of water a week, including any rainfall that will ease the need to water. Deep watering promotes deeper root growth than frequent light watering. Conversely, frequent light watering doesn’t penetrate, and turf roots learn to grow shallow to make use of this water,
which also helps to create thatch. But shallow-rooted grass is far more susceptible to drought. Leave a few empty tuna cans around the lawn so you can learn how long it takes to give your lawn that once-a-week soaking of an inch of water. To help water penetrate to the roots you may want to consider improving your lawn’s aeration. You can rent gas-powered aerators that take small plugs out of your lawn, or your lawn care provider can do this for you. The best time to aerate is early or late in the season during these low stress, high growth periods.
Under all grass is soil. Good soil is the foundation of good grass. My brothers, my father and I have become exasperated over the years with our finicky lawn, and we suspect it’s because of shallow topsoil. We have a hunch that the farmer who sold us land 60 years ago, also sold off our topsoil – and probably to our neighbor next door, where the grass is always greener. Soil is a complex substance physically and bio-chemically. It’s occupied by plants, animals and thousands of kinds of microbes. The ecological rule of thumb is that it takes from 300 to 1000 years to build an inch of soil without introducing organic amendments. That’s too long for most of us. Short of bringing in new topsoil, is there a way to build good soil faster? Many experts say yes. Minding pH, aeration, leaving clippings, tolerating higher plant diversity in the lawn – clovers, wild strawberry, creeping yarrow, and bunch grasses – and, especially, regular top-dressing with compost are all ways to build soil depth.
The most productive ecosystems in the world aretop-dressed annually, too. Salt marshes get daily influxes of particulate matter that gets trapped by Spartina stems. The Palouse region of southeastern Washington has the deepest soils in the world because of wind-deposited silts from the south. River bottoms and deltas get annual silt deposits from spring floods. Why not top-dress our lawns with compost? Compost is full of nutrients, microbes and organic matter. You can make your own; you can buy it by the cubic yard; or you can get it free from the town of Falmouth. Shannon Goheen, a landscape designer and coordinator of the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign, recommends annual top-dressing. She says to go light and apply it over a three or four year period. Spring or fall are the best times. A quarter inch to a half inch at a time is sufficient. If my math is correct, to top-dress a thousand sq ft of lawn with 1/3 inch of compost takes one yard of compost. Commercial compost costs between $30 and $40 a yard, not including delivery. Compost is also excellent for trees, shrubs and vegetable gardens.
Think of compost top-dressing as an investment in your property. A few years’ efforts will save many years of work spreading fertilizer while protecting the value of your property from the consequences of pollution of our coastal ponds from fertilizer leaching.
Comments or Questions? Please write Tim Traver ([email protected]). Next week, Rethinking the American Lawn
Sometimes it helps to go to the extremes to make a point. Take Harvard Yard, for instance, and the North Bridgewater burial ground – two lawns, each over 200 years old, that couldn’t be more different. In May, I walked through Harvard Yard on my way to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. It must have been close to graduation because the commons had been roped off, reseeded, fertilized, new turf rolled out in places, and all clipped to perfection. It was a sea of ordered green, all of it grass – probably all of one species-- and not a single blade out of place. Of course that didn’t keep the co-eds from jumping the ropes and spreading their blankets out on it. The powerful effect was one of perfection and order, the green of the turf framed by red brick dormitories and white columned meetings halls.
The next day I found myself on a dirt road, off another dirt road in nowhere, central Vermont – North Bridgewater to be exact -- where there are more overgrown cellar holes than homes and lawns. Here, across from an early 19th century farm yard where 4 generations of the same family have resided, is the North Bridgewater burial ground, surrounded by a wobbly stone wall and shaded by sugar maples. Some 40 to 50 souls are buried here, including a dozen veterans of the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War. What I noticed under the American flags was the turf: as green and clipped as Harvard Yard, but speckled with the tiny pink and white flowers of ground flox and strawberry flowers, and here and there spread by soft mosses, purple and yellow violets, and red clover. While grasses were dominant – there must have been 10 species – the turf was an entire botany of meadow plants that had made a home there, in spite of regular mowing, and endured. In fact endurance, was the enduring image of the North Bridgewater burial ground, every bit as powerful as the turf as Harvard, but more harmonious to my eye. And the last fertilizer it got was probably sheep dung in 1890.
These two lawns reflect two strongly divergent views of beauty. Two philosophies if you will. The grass in Harvard Yard epitomizes the American lawn ideal. It reflects the human capacity to control nature and make beauty out of chaos. Yale ecologist Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, in their book, Redesigning the American Lawn, describe the roots of our attraction to this kind of lawn they have termed the Industrial Lawn. We now know that an industrial lawn takes a tremendous amount of energy and resources to maintain. We know that there are significant environmental costs in terms of water usage; air pollution (from 40 million unregulated lawn mowers employed to maintain it); the loss of biodiversity; and water pollution from fertilizer runoff. Our 32 million acres of lawn across the country take a 32 billion dollar industry to maintain annually! In 1984, our lawns got more fertilizer and chemical pesticides than used by all of India in the same year.
But, an increasing number of Americans are choosing to go with another kind of beauty found in places like the North Bridgewater burial ground – a human-maintained ecosystem for sure, but one modeled after natural processes and native communities where there is plenty of room for biodiversity. Bormann terms this type of lawn, the Freedom Lawn. These require little maintenance. Seeds drift, in and if plants can stand regular mowing, they might become established. Naturally drought and disease resistant, Freedom lawns require no fertilization or watering, less mowing, and certainly no herbicides or pesticides.
Growing interest in this kind of lawn reflects a broad-based renewed interest in ecologically friendly landscapes. Many homeowners are discovering that they need less lawn. Less lawn means less mowing and more time for other things. They are converting corners of home landscapes to plantings of native and naturalized plants that are well-adapted to Cape soils and climate and require less chemical inputs. These self-maintaining landscapes are modeled after natural communities, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, including beneficial insects and butterflies. They link corridors for the movement of wildlife through suburban areas. William Niering, past director of the Center for Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies at Connecticut College, was a pioneer in the ecological landscape movement. He even started an organization called Smaller American Lawns Today (SALT) in 1997, devoted to raising awareness about how homeowners can minimize their impact on land, air, and water by creating ecologically sound landscapes.
In Designing with Nature, a booklet published by the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in East Falmouth, the freedom landscape is described as reflecting the genius of the place –“the forces… hidden behind the surface of things which determine the uniqueness of each place.” They are enduring, sustainable, self-managing and beautiful, and don’t need the constant attentions required by turf monocultures. The Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign is developing a Cape Cod ecological landscaping guide too that should be available by September 1. Planning principles, plant selection (with care to avoid invasive plants) and maintenance will be covered.
The next few weeks of this Falmouth Friendly Lawn series are directed to everyone who has an interest in learning more about ecological landscaping: using ecological principles to design and install landscape plantings for lower maintenance time and cost, less environmental impact, and a different kind of enduring beauty.
Questions, comments welcomed. Please send them to: Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign column, c/o Tim Traver [email protected]
The Falmouth Friendly Lawn campaign is an ongoing educational effort designed to show Falmouth residents how small changes in their lawn care practices can, in aggregate, have large benefits for salt ponds and harbors that can be destroyed by nitrogen loading. But you may be thinking beyond lawn care practices. You may be in a lawn downsizing mode. Lawns are expensive and time-consuming to maintain. They use lots of gasoline – 200 million gallons annually. Lawn mowers are highly polluting too. Less lawn can mean more shade – natural air conditioning for the home in the summer and a weather break in the winter. Less lawn may make more habitat for catbirds and Carolina wrens. Downsizing your lawn can contribute to improved water and air quality, as well.
Hila Lyman, an enthusiastic home gardener and chair of the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign, has been returning ever-bigger corners of her yard to the wild for years. Her advice is to make a plan before you begin.
The late William Niering – author of The New American Lawn, and, arguably, the father of southern New England’s ecological landscape movement – would agree with Hila. Make a plan. Niering was director of the arboretum at Connecticut College in New London and a botany professor. He experimented widely with native grasslands and landscaping using the native and naturalized plants available on site. Here are a few items to consider before you begin downsizing your lawn and going natural.
First, get to know your landscape. You may think you already do. But do an inventory anyway, noting what trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants you already have. Create an interpretive map of where they are. While you’re in this assessing stage, note all of the various site characteristics of your property. Where are the interesting views, wet places, dry places. Note unusual boulders. Know the compass points. Where is north? Where is it particularly sunny? Where does it stay coolest longest? Note persistent problem areas on your lawn. Get to know your topography. Put everything on your map. If you have children, involve them in the exercise.
Second, know how all parts of your lawn are used now, and how you wish them to be used in the future. Is part of the lawn used as a touch football or croquet field? Do you entertain? Is there a jungle gym? Is there a vegetable garden now? If not, where is the best location for one? Are there pathways? Important vistas? You may discover areas that have no pressing function at all. Consider letting the lawn grow up to meadow there or converting to low-maintenance native plantings.
Third, get to know your soil. How well-drained is it? Is it stoney, loamy, silty or sandy? Is it clayey in places? Very detailed information and maps of Falmouth soils can be found in the soil survey of Barnstable County produced by the Soil Conservation Service – perhaps more information than most of us need for yard plantings, nonetheless, it is helpful to know your soil type, profile and characteristics. Call the Natural Resource Conservation Service (508) 771-6476 for a free copy.
After assessing your site and identifying current and future functions, it’s time to consider budget constraints. Downsizing an entire lawn over a very short time span would be considerably more expensive than starting small and doing edges, corners, and small sections one at a time. Falmouth Friendly Lawns recommends starting small and making changes deliberately.
Finally you’re ready to design the planting itself. The Waquoit Bay National Estuary Research Reserve publication, Designing with Nature recommends looking to nature for design models (available at the center in East Falmouth). Do some walking in parks and nature sanctuaries and observe. Notice patterns: how plants blend together on field and marsh edges: how trees partition space with each other and with shrubs below. Use natural communities as a guide, and begin with what you have. Diana Balmori, landscape architect and co-author of Redesigning the American Lawn, notes that landscape designers often speak about a vision for a piece of land – they approach landscaping by looking at the land’s capabilities.
Michael Talbot of Michael Talbot and Associates, Inc, in Mashpee has a succinct primer on the principles of ecological landscape design. It’s only six pages long but is essential reading for homeowners considering downsizing the lawn to create the home landscapes that perform environmental and aesthetic functions at a far lower cost to the pocketbook than industrial lawns. Information about this publication is available at www.michael-talbot.com.
One of the best features of living on the Cape is the landscape itself. There are wonderful potentials in every lawn, and every homeowner to use the plants, plant communities, soils and climate of maritime Falmouth to blend the human environment with the natural. There are some pitfalls to avoid, too. Over the next two weeks we’ll take a closer look at the broad range of native and naturalized plant materials available to the Cape gardener interested in shrinking the size of the manicured lawn.
It’s quite possible that, in the final analysis, the friendliest Falmouth Friendly Lawns will be the smallest ones. Out would go the regal expanse of manicured green and in would enter the mini-lawn, surrounded by naturalized Cape forest and patches of wild meadow. Tantalizing potential resides in a shrinking suburban lawn. But how to get there? For starters you could simply let some of the small neglected or steep, hard-to-mow sections of your lawn grow into meadow, mowed once annually.
Alison Robb, botanist, artist, and founder of Nature’s Circle, a sanctuary without walls in Woods Hole, began doing just that 20 years ago. Except for the few paths she mows through her small-sloped lawn, she lets the grass grow to seed and the non-invasive flowers that drift in to flower. On a recent walk around Robb’s property, she described her love affair with butterflies. There were Silver-spotted Skippers flitting around the flowering hedge, and a Red Admiral was sipping from tiny white and yellow fleabane flowers. The mowed pathways gave a sense of order to the small round meadows where we found St. John’s Wort, Queen Ann’s Lace and yarrow, Black-eyed Susans and the few perennials she’s added over the years and the delicate Purple Love Grass, Eragrostis spectabilis, all in bloom. The thick hedge she encouraged between her lawn, her neighbor’s drive and the road for privacy was an edible landscape for people and birds. She’d added Chinese chestnut, raspberries, blueberries and let bayberry, white oak, and cherry trees volunteer and prosper. “These days,” she said, “aside from adding cow manure and pulling up invasive plants like bittersweet and swallow wort, there’s little to do to maintain this.” Sometimes in the evenings she likes to sit in one of two blue recliners at the bottom of the yard and gaze up to where the blue sky, her path and her green plants converge – a vision of an interconnected world. She created a mini-refuge that welcomes resourceful flowering plants, birds that eat gin berries, and pollinating insects. “If you simply stop mowing but once a year,” says Robb, “a meadow will happen.”
There is the latent urge in our lawns to become something greater than lawns. Could they become small refuges for some of our most endangered grassland plants, for instance? Chris Neill, an ecologist at the MBL Ecosystem Center and president of the Cape Cod chapter of the Sierra Club, thinks so. Naturally occurring grasslands, Neill points out, were once extensive on coastal headlands, glacial moraines and outwash plains, from the immediate post-glacial period forward to recent times. An entire suite of plants and animals thrive on grasslands, from grasshopper sparrows and short-eared owls to certain orchids, blue-eyed grasses, blazing stars, wild indigo, golden asters, and orange milkweeds. Ironically, with the demise of native grasslands, suburban lawns are now the most extensive grasslands we have. Could our Falmouth Friendly Lawns be scientific restoration plots waiting to happen?
The front lawn at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is perhaps the best local example of a lawn now home to new colonies of a rare plant -- one of Massachusett’s rarest, sand plain gerardia, Agalinis acuta. It occurs on only 13 sites from Maryland to Massachusetts. Sandy and nutrient poor to begin with, the Waquoit lawn had the right biochemical profile to support plants like little blue stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, an attractive prairie grass native to coastal New England that sand plain gerardia parasitizes to survive. Joan Muller, WBNERR education coordinator, described the partnership between scientists, including Chris Neill and Paul Somers, chief botanist from the state natural heritage program, and volunteers like Pam Poloni, that went into making the sand plain gerardia restoration project so highly successful. It you go you’ll see the purple spires of A. acuta blooming with the stiff stems of blue stem in September.
Most of us, though, probably won’t be conducting scientific experiments on our lawns in the near future. We won’t be counting up its biodiversity or control burning in the spring. We like some lawn that is green most of the year. If we could shrink what we have to mow, and do it in a way that increases beauty, value, and water quality – without losing the sense of open space a lawn gives – we’d likely be for it. Letting unused lawn corners, grass copses under juniper groves, difficult to mow slopes, and private backyards grow into meadows by mowing only once a year in March is just one way to downsize a lawn, while adding wonder and biodiversity in the process. Plantings of native/naturalized, non-invasive shrubs and trees also accomplish the objective of smaller friendly lawns. Next week we’ll highlight approaches to increasing shrub and woodland cover for beauty, wildlife, and cleaner air and water.
Comments and questions welcomed. Please email: Falmouth Friendly Lawns c/o [email protected]
If you’re thinking about gardening with native plants, and want to do something literally wild with your yard, look around in the woods and open spaces of Falmouth. Ecological landscaping begins with noticing plants. There’s bound to be something that catches your eye. For instance, tupelo trees (sour gum, black gum, Nyssa sylvatica) are just plain pleasing. They turn a brilliant red in early fall. Christiane C. Collins of Cottage Lane in West Falmouth agrees.
Last week I called up Collins to ask her about her favorite native plants and her landscape tinkering philosophy. She and her husband George bought the old Gifford Farm 40 years ago and have been planting and thinning ever since. While most of us don’t have the raw material she has -- a salt pond, a forest remnant, stone walls and an old meadow -- I thought there might be a few favorite ideas she could pass along to readers with an interest in using native or well-adapted and non-invasive trees and shrubs.
“Well,” she said, “you know, tupelos really are stunning. They’re wetland trees, and they seem to propagate through their root systems, but I found that they can be moved, if you take care of them, keep them watered when they’re getting established they thrive on drier sites. I planted some close to the house so we could view them from the windows.”
She also loves red cedars and has dug them up along the railroad tracks and planted them around. “Nature needs a little help,” she said. “I wouldn’t just let things go. For instance, vines are quite attractive, some people love them, but if you really want to preserve shrubs and trees, you have to go after the vines. And you can’t have a meadow, in a picture book sense, unless you manage it. The bull briar and bittersweet will take over. We always mow under the cedars by the pond twice a year. Once in early summer after the daisies, then again in the fall. I love the blue thistle that grows in the open under the cedars – it’s strong and attractive (food and nesting material for gold finches too).”
Other favorite trees of hers include black locust (considered an invasive). “Some people don’t like it, they call it messy. Beauty, I suppose, is in eye of the beholder.” Locust is a legume, like the pea, so fixes nitrogen in the soil. Its beans are food for birds and small mammals. Speaking of the wildlife, she’s seen woodchuck, muskrat, raccoons, red fox and coyote occasionally come through, and once she thought she saw a pair of bobcats. “Could that be?” she asked. Bird life is abundant, too, with the regular contingent of yard birds like Carolina wren, house finches, cardinals and cat birds. But also herons, egrets, ducks and geese on the pond and wetland edges, and the occasional striking visitor like glossy ibis.
She’s moved shrubs and smaller trees into the yard. Viburnums are a favorite. Arrowwood viburnum, (viburnum dentatum) with straight shafts, once used by indigenous people to make arrows, is an attractive native choice with dark bluish berries. The other native viburnums work well in the yard, especially nanny berry, V. lentago. She’s transplanted bayberry, holly, beach plum (Prunus maritima). Salt spray rose, Rosa rugosa, though it’s Asian, is widely escaped and is a favorite part of the Cape Cod landscape too. There are so many others to consider. Alternate-leafed dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, a small tree with unusually artistic branching, is a personal favorite. Shadbush with its white flowers in spring, and Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, a wet-loving native shrub in the holly family with bright red berries in winter are outstanding, and if you have some damp soils, so is sweet pepper bush, Clethra alnifoli, with its sweet smelling spike of white flowers. And don’t overlook all the native honeysuckles simply because Japanese honeysuckle is so invasion.
How does she decide where things should go? “I follow my eyes,” she said. “I don’t want a hard edge between what’s cultivated and what’s wild. I like gradual visual transitions. Tupelos, cedars and the other things I plant are not a barrier. A view is not just of water. A view can be geared to anything – to trees, or to a long wall, or to a path leading into the woods. Whoever said the only important views were of water?”
Recently, Collins worked with the 300 Committee to set aside 8 acres of her property so it would never be developed. “I don’t look at my property as a suburban landscape. I think of it as Cape Cod landscape.” There aren’t many flower beds here. Some Asian lilies by the wall. I think of myself as a guardian – helping, but letting nature do its thing.”
By the way, Christiane never uses fertilizer on her lawn, and keeps a wide wild buffer between her yard and Oyster Pond. Both practices help our salt ponds stay healthy.
Comments or Questions welcomed: Tim Traver, [email protected]
Gardening Away the Lawn
We do have a love affair with our lawns but lawns take a tremendous amount of energy, money, and time to maintain. Depending on how a lawn is managed, the costs may be felt far from the lawn itself in the salt ponds and estuaries further down the watershed. Over fertilization of lawns degrades water quality in nitrate-limited salt ponds, harbors and bays, and the economic impacts can be significant. We’ve been talking all summer about ways to make our lawns more Falmouth Friendly – that is, friendly to our salt ponds. Maybe it’s time to heed the words of the Paul Simon song – 100 Ways to Leave Your Lover – and think about reducing the commitment by downsizing the lawn. And there are at least 100 ways.
One way is to convert unused corners of lawn, or areas where grass grows poorly, to beds for hardy, drought resistant plant material. Hila Lyman, Falmouth Garden Club member, and chair of the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign loves color and has been converting mowed areas of her yard to tree and shrub habitats accented with flowers, perennial flower beds, and meadows for years. Hila suggests starting small; picking a corner that doesn’t get used; and employing a relatively painless method for converting tough turf to garden soil.
Hila prefers curved lines to straight ones, and uses a rope to lay out the initial edges of any new bed. She then tries different patterns, being careful to make sure the mower can easily navigate the curves. Once she gets the right shape, she marks the edge with lime or spray paint. When she’s creating flower beds, she makes them 4 to 5 feet wide. She wants to be sure she can reach the middle of the bed from either side so she can maintain it from the edges.
In October to early November, she lays down eight sheets or so of newspaper over areas of lawn she wants to plant in the spring. She weights down the paper with mulched oak and maple leaves and seaweed; her husband uses the mower to shred the leaves. In spring she’ll top off with manure and roto-till. “Our first project was to turn the front lawn into flower beds for butterflies and birds,” she said. “My husband dug up the turf by hand. It was quite a job. This other method is so much easier, and you save your energy for the fun stuff.”
When to plant? “Most experts tell you fall is the best time, but I prefer spring for two reasons,” said Hila. “Spring planting gives plants nearly six months to establish themselves before going dormant. You have to water and care for them while they’re getting established, but I don’t mind that. And in spring the selection of plant materials at the nurseries is much greater.” She buys plants at the local nurseries but shops by catalogue too including website visits to White Flower Farm and Weston Nursery.
From my experience, good flower growers are careful planners. Hila is no exception. As she thinks about what plants to put in a bed, she thinks carefully about the amount of sun the plants will get, how wet the soil is, what the mature height of the plant will be, how wide it will grow and when it will bloom. She tries to choose the right plant for the right place. She tends to select varieties that come from native stock, or are at least very hardy for zone 7. “It’s fun to accent tree and shrub plants with drought tolerant flowers,” she said. But she is careful about color. In the front garden, with its flagstone paths designed in the shape of butterfly wings, she attracts butterflies and birds using raspberry colored bee balms, perennial salvias, and scabiosas (“they’re a little fussier about water”). She uses lots of white and pink cone flowers and sea lavender, Rudebeckias, and poppies too-mostly in pinks and pale purples, not red or orange. Obedient plant, both white and pink, are well represented. For fall blooming she favors variants of perennial asters, combined with a tall, pinkish composite called boltonia.
An enthusiastic gardener is always dreaming of the next project. Hila’s most recent effort followed a home addition that disturbed large areas and left compacted soil on the north and west sides of the house. With the help of her husband and Michael Talbot, an ecological landscape designer, she transformed the construction site and an area of pine forest full of vines and cat briar into several habitats that feed birds, look beautiful and don’t need mowing. Hila stated, “Cleaning out this area of vines and Japanese honeysuckle, we found plants like Sassafras and blueberry. My advice is to go slowly when you’re clearing and look carefully. You may find plants worth saving that are already well established.”
The newly created habitats include a “rain garden” which is filled with low bush blueberries, and an ornamental variety of the native shrub Clethra alnifolia , sweet pepper bush, red osier dogwoods, and five different varieties of viburnum; all planted in groups of three. A pitch pine forest has been enhanced with American holly, red bud and even an umbrella pine. Closer to the house, on the sunny west side, she’s inter planted ornamental grasses for a small meadow garden with liatris, Echinacea (coneflower), Rudebeckia (black eyed susan) and Russian sage. Once established, all of these require little maintainance and are drought tolerant. Wood chip pathways lead through it all, connecting the house to the shed and the road edge.
Hila’s next project is to under-plant her new trees and shrubs with native wild flowers. As any gardener knows, the wish list is endless.
Questions or comments? Please contact Tim Traver < [email protected]
Invasive Plants: Know the Dirty Dozen
By some measure, up to 80% of the plants found on Cape Cod today arrived after European settlement. Some of the alien arrivals were carried over and planted deliberately by colonists – many of our common pasture grasses and forbes, including Timothy and Red Clover, arrived that way. Others secretly hitched rides: sheep wool, canal boats, railroad cars, and eventually automobiles helped distribute clandestine newcomers far and wide. Some migrated northward or eastward over time, spreading along with bird species like house finch, others invaded simply as a result of the massive land use changes taking place during the first centuries of settlement. Quite a number of these non-natives fit in nicely, thank-you, and became respectable naturalized citizens. Other unruly types, once established, proceeded to take over. Termed invasive by the state botanists and land managers who serve as stewards of what remains of the Cape’s natural forest and open space lands, these pocket monsters share certain characteristics: they adapt quickly to local conditions; they are extremely mobile and can establish themselves rapidly in a variety of settings; they threaten native flora and what remains of the Cape’s natural plant communities; they don’t have enemies to curtail their populations; and they’re very difficult to eradicate.
Falmouth Friendly Lawns recommends that landowners become aware of these plant aliens that crowd out our natives; that they not plant them in their yards; and that they try to remove them from their properties. Evaluations of invasive plants are made regularly by the Plant Subcommittee of the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Group. This group provides an annotated official list of invasive plants, updated regularly, and makes control recommendations to the Massachusett’s Office of Environmental Affairs. Nature’s Circle and WBNERR also produce information on invasive plants, and information on plants not to plant in place of your lawn will be included with the ecological landscaping materials being developed by Falmouth Friendly Lawns Campaign. You might also try the invasive species website of the US Dept. of Agriculture [www.invasivespecies.gov] and use the "Species Profiles" Link to see photos of these highlighted plants. Or try the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England on the UCONN site [http://invasives.eeb.uconn.edu/ipane]. There’s no shortage of information on this topic available on the web. Have fun surfing.
Here are a dozen invasive alien plants for the environmentally literate landowner to watch for, with recommendations for removal methods.
□ Autumn Olive and Russian Olive (Eleagnus sp.) are small silver-leaved trees that produce copious amounts of red berries birds love to eat and transport. Once promoted as a popular “conservation” planting, Eleagnus has run amuk and should be pulled or dug up, making sure the entire root is removed.
□ Black Locust (Robinia pseudoaccacia), originally from southern Appalachia, is lovely to some of us (good fence post wood), but its habit of bird-transported colonization and root sucker growth makes it pernicious to those who know better. Control is by application of Roundup two or three times to freshly cut stumps.
□ Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is from Asia. Who would have thought that the star of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn could have a dark side? But, it does. Control is by pulling before three months old – the tree develops a deep taproot by then and becomes much more difficult to remove.
□ Norway Maple (Acer platinoides) was planted widely after the turn of the century. It displaces other dominate hardwood trees in Cape natural areas and should be removed from adjacent properties by girdling.
□ Invasive vines include Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus ), Black Swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum nigrum), Multi-flora rose (Rosa multi-flora), Grape, (Vitis sp., there are several species, some of which are native, and they hybridize), and Catbrier (Smilax sp.) which is not technically invasive but thrives on borders and in unmaintained openings and mixes with other invasive vines to create the impenetrable tangle loved by rabbits and catbirds and generally unloved by landowners. Virginia Creeper, (Parthenocissus sp), is native but guilty by association. All of these vines take determination to remove. They need to be pulled up by roots, or cut several times and treated with Roundup.
□ Shrub species to watch for and certainly not buy and plant include Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) whose berries are eaten and spread willy nilly by birds. Uproot the entire bush with a mattock or hoe. Burning Bush (Euonymus sps.) is removed by pulling seedlings and cutting and grinding bushes.
□ The honeysuckles, especially Morrow’s, Japanese and bush honeysuckle (Lonicera sps. ) are invasive and once established become difficult to remove. Mow them when they are just establishing themselves or pull them carefully to get all the roots.
Of course there are many other well-known invasives of roadsides and wetlands. Purple loosestrife may be the most notorious, or perhaps it’s Phragmites, a tall delicate reed, cousin to Egyptian papyrus, that overtakes our cattail wetlands. Or perhaps it’s Japanese knotweed or Chinese bamboo. Has anyone found a way to rid herself of a bamboo grove?
The landowner that recognizes these plants can take steps to remove them and in their own small way contribute to the stewardship of the Cape’s biodiversity and the health of its natural communities.
Comments or questions welcomed: Please send inquiries to Tim Traver for Falmouth Friendly Lawns, [email protected]
Putting the Lawn to Bed the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Way
Here’s a checklist of late season Falmouth Friendly Lawn care activities with the caveat that your lawn may fare just fine even if you don’t do any of them. But doing them should help promote a healthier turf over time.
□ Establishing new lawns/ repair: Early September is the best time of the year to establish a new lawn and replant disturbed or diseased areas. Bill Clark, lawn specialist at U Mass Extension recommends getting started right away on replanting. The end of month may be too late to give new seeds time to germinate and get established. He recommends a mix of turf-type tall and fine fescues and perennial rye grass for reseeding along with some topsoil. Fescues are tough but attractive, lower maintenance bunch grasses that have been genetically breed for turf. They can thrive in sun and shade, and are drought and disease resistant. A lawn with a higher diversity of species will fare better, cost less, and outperform a monoculture over the long run. If your lawn is mostly one species, like bluegrass, consider over-seeding with fescues and perennial rye grasses to increase plant diversity and establish a turf that is lower maintenance and drought tolerant.
□ Fertilizing: Falmouth Friendly Lawns recommends cutting back or eliminating entirely lawn fertilizing. But weaning your lawn may take some time. If you’re still fertilizing once a year, Falmouth Friendly Lawns suggests fall as the best time. Fall fertilizing, using slow release fertilizer, encourages denser root growth that adds energy reserves in the spring and helps resist disease and drought in the summer. Buy a fertilizer that is at least 30% water insoluble nitrogen (WIN). You can determine this by looking on the bag for the table that breaks down total nitrogen into total soluble and insoluble forms. WIN nitrogen is bound up in more complex molecules and doesn’t dissolve in water. Instead, it breaks down through biological decomposition and becomes slowly available to grass roots. This slow release increases feeding time, minimizes groundwater leaching, and encourages microbial growth.
□ Liming: Fall is a good time to test your soil’s pH and apply lime, but only if it’s needed. Lawns are healthiest when a pH between 6.5 and 7.0 is maintained. . Acidic soils block your lawns ability to uptake nitrogen and other essential nutrients. The Master Gardener volunteers at the Cape Cod Extension Office in Barnstable tell me they’ll test your soil’s pH for you for a nominal price (call 508-375-6690). Or you can buy a pH test kit at your local nursery for several dollars. When you get the results of your soil test, they generally will tell you if you need to apply lime and, if so, much. Lime is finely milled limestone rock – calcium carbonate --. /span>Not only is calcium a macro-nutrient needed by plants, but liming reduces the amount of free hydrogen in soils, and it increases the availability of other vital plant nutrients (N, P, K, Mg). September through October may be the optimal time to spread lime because, depending on how finely milled the lime is (pelletized lime is very fine limestone held together in tiny pellets by water soluble glue – it’s easier to spread and breaks down in rain water), it may take several months to change soil pH.
Keep your lawn at least 2 to 3 inches tall for insulative purposes and to maintain grasses photosynthetic functions. Root depth is relative to the length of the stem. And leave those grass clippings in place!
The beauty of a lawn, is in many ways is its apparent simplicity. Following FFL’s simple ecological prescriptions for lawn care keeps these cultivated systems looking quite compelling – Mother Nature and Father Time, as a scientist friend likes to say, are better engineers in the long run than any of the human variety.
This is the last regular column in the FFL lawn care series. We wish to thank the Falmouth Enterprise for running these articles through the summer. More information is available on the Falmouth Friendly Lawn Campaign (including back issues of this series) on the Ashumet Plume Citizen’s Committee website www.geocities.com/ashumet2001.