Green lawns for blue water and good health

I write a lot about gardening – which native plants attract the most bees and butterflies, how to build a raingarden to reduce stormwater runoff, and where to find local grants for water-friendly gardening projects. (Hint: Sign up for a free site visit at www.mnwcd.org and the Washington Conservation District staff will give you all the advice and resources you need.) As much as I love my native plants and veggie gardens, however, we still have a small lawn in our backyard for the kids and dogs to play on.

Hanging out on the lawn at my mother’s house

Unfortunately, some common lawn care practices can harm wildlife, pets, and water resources. Runoff from commercial, residential, and agricultural areas is the number one cause of water pollution in the United States. Roughly 25% of the private wells in Cottage Grove and Denmark Township are contaminated with nitrates – one of the three key nutrients used in lawn and crop fertilizer, and the National Audubon Society estimates that 7 million birds die every year due to pesticide poisoning (they eat the insects that the pesticides are designed to control). In addition, local cities spend millions of dollars for municipal wells and water treatment to meet the increased water demand during the summer when sprinklers and irrigations systems are running. In fact, the Metropolitan Council has found that most suburban communities use three times as much water during the summer as in the winter.

Happily, there are a few simple guidelines you can follow to get a healthy lawn that looks nice without harming the environment.

  • The less lawn the better. If there are parts of your lawn that you only visit when you are mowing, consider replacing these areas with gardens, shrubs or even native plantings. Go to www.BlueThumb.org to find the best native plants for your yard.
Consider replacing lawn with native gardens or shrubs in places that are hard to mow or rarely used such as side yards, or along driveways and fence lines.
  • Go alternative. Blue Thumb also has info about more sustainable lawn alternatives, including bee lawns, low-mow turf, and perennial ground cover: www.blue-thumb.org/turfalternatives.
Bee lawns feature a variety of low-growing flowering plants such as white clover, creeping thyme, and self heal, as well as low-mow fine fescue grasses. (Photo from Pollinator Friendly Alliance)
  • Take care of the lawn you do have. Mow regularly with a sharp blade to prevent injury to your grass. Taller grass (3-4 inches) grows deeper roots and will be more resistant to drought and weeds. The University of Minnesota Extension recommends one application of non-phosphorus, slow-release nitrogen fertilizer per year, generally around Labor Day.
  • Water less. Frequent watering encourages shallow root growth, which makes the grass weaker over time. Instead, give your grass one inch of water per week on weeks when there is no rain. Remember, the water we use for our lawns comes from the same aquifers we need for drinking water.
Minnesota lawns only need 1-inch of water per week to stay green. If it rains enough, you might not need to water at all.
  • Rake up, sweep up, clean up. Grass clippings, leaves and fertilizer on sidewalks and driveways get washed into storm sewers that connect to our waterways. Keep your pavement clean to protect our water. For extra bonus points, adopt a storm drain near your home – www.adopt-a-drain.org – and make sure it’s clear of litter, leaves and grass throughout the year.
You can help to protect lakes and rivers by adopting a storm drain near you and committing to clean up litter and yard waste that would otherwise wash into our waterways.