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Watershed
Restoration
THE CLEAN WATER BOOK:
CHOICES FOR WATERSHED PROTECTION
     
CHAPTER 6:
LAWN AND GARDEN CARE
 

How you care for your lawn and garden has an impact on the environment. Even though it may only be a small patch of greenery, all lawns and gardens across the state have a major impact on New Jersey's waterways and ground water. Fertilizers and pesticides used on home lawns and gardens can be a significant source of water pollution. Taking care of your local waterway or aquifer starts in your own backyard.

Caring for your lawn and garden in an environmentally sensitive way can increase its positive impact on the environment. When managed properly, a lawn and garden can be an asset, providing the benefits of soil erosion control, recharging ground water and even filtering contaminants from stormwater.

Many of us enjoy growing our own vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. By using proper gardening techniques, you can produce plants to be proud of while preserving the soil and its fertility. Rainfall absorption will be enhanced, and local streams will be protected from sediments, nutrients and chemicals.

To get the most out of your garden, it's important to pick the right spot for planting or the right plants for the spot. Choose a site with the recommended amount of sunlight and the correct soil type for plants you want to grow. Or, if there is a specific site in which you want to create a garden, choose plants with suitable soil and lighting requirements. For example, do not plant a sun-loving flower in a heavily shaded site.

 

LESS GRASS, LESS WORK...

In general, lawns require a lot of maintenance - mowing, constant watering and fertilization. By minimizing the amount of lawn in our suburban landscape and using vegetation with lower maintenance requirements, we can reduce the risk of water pollution. Frequently, a side benefit is more time to do something else!

Some locations are unsuitable for lawns due to poor soil types, steep slopes or light conditions. When tree shade prevents lawn growth, shade-tolerant ground covers, shrubs and other vegetation may be more suitable plants.

As an alternative to large lawns, grow trees, shrubs, flowers, ground covers or other plants that are suitable for your soil type and climate. Consultation with either your local garden center or Rutgers Cooperative Extension (http://njaes.rutgers.edu/county/) about suitable plants for your yard is recommended. Consider using native plants that are adapted to your local environment and will be less likely to need frequent fertilization and pesticide use.

Another possibility to consider is landscaping for water conservation. Many towns in our state have watering restrictions during summer months. The use of plants with low watering requirements will help your landscape remain attractive even during these restrictions. Frequently, these plants also have reduced fertilizing and pesticide requirements and many are native species.

Consider a rain garden for your yard. A rain garden is simply a garden that captures rain water, allowing it to soak naturally into the soil and reducing problems with runoff and standing water. It also can filter and reduce pollutants in runoff, such as nutrients and pesticides from lawn applications and oils and metals from cars and roads.

Along with providing a pleasing solution to runoff problems, a rain garden attracts butterflies, insects, birds and other wildlife. Create rain gardens in your own yard to address wet problem areas. Landscapers, builders, or volunteers also create them to enhance a lawn, park, neighborhood, school or even a median strip in a parking lot.

 

START WITH HEALTHY SOIL

Healthy flowers, shrubs, trees or vegetables start with healthy soil. Many garden soils can benefit from the addition of organic matter and other nutrients. Composted vegetable scraps, grass cuttings and leaves are excellent sources of both.

Mulching can add nutrients, make the soil more workable, aid rain water penetration and improve the moisture-retaining capacity of the soil. Mulch should be used to minimize bare, exposed soil in your garden. Unprotected ground loses nutrients and needed topsoil much more quickly than planted soil. Bare soil places added stress on nearby plants by expanding temperature extremes and reducing available soil moisture.

Mulch cuts down on weeds and the need for water. Mulch can be grass clippings, wood chips, leaves or black plastic. In addition to mulching, consider close plantings of different, but compatible, plant species to make the most out of your garden area.

 

CHOOSE FERTILIZERS TO SUIT YOUR NEEDS

Using fertilizers adds nutrients to the soil. However, the nutrients in fertilizers contribute significantly to water pollution problems in New Jersey. That's why it's important to apply fertilizer according to instructions at the proper time and rate so that you use no more than is necessary. Twice as much is not twice as good.

Test your soil before applying fertilizers. Soil test kits are available at most garden centers or contact Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Soil tests will show how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium your fertilizer should contain and whether or not you need to adjust the pH.

Plants have different fertilizer requirements during different times of year. For example, cool season grasses need the most fertilizer in the fall and spring when they are at the peak of their growing season. The plants must be able to absorb the nutrients or they will simply wash away, wasting your time and money and causing environmental harm through runoff. Consider using natural or slow-release nitrogen fertilizers. These are less likely to contaminate ground water because they release the nutrients slowly.

For established lawns, a fertilizer with no phosphorus is recommended. Most of New Jersey soils provide all the phosphorus your lawn needs. Adding more phosphorus to your lawn can runoff to your local stream or lake. When using fertilizer, read and follow the label directions. Avoid getting fertilizer on sidewalks and driveways, where it can easily be washed into storm drains. Watch the weather, so that you can avoid applying fertilizer just before a heavy rain.

 

WHY IS pH IMPORTANT?

Maintenance of the correct soil pH allows for the maximum use of soil nutrients by grass and other plants. Acidic soils (pH less than 6) can make essential nutrients unavailable for uptake by grass. The addition of lime to maintain pH is essential. For lawns, ground limestone can be added to the soil to maintain the pH between 6.0 and 7.0. The addition of lime makes these nutrients available as well as increasing the drought tolerance of the lawn. Lime can also improve the soil structure, make pesticides more effective and create a better environment for soil microorganisms and bacteria that help to convert organic matter to usable nutrients.

FERTILIZER BAG NUMBERS

The numbers on a bag of fertilizer refer to the percentages of plant nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphates (P) and potassium (K) in the fertilizer. In a 100-pound bag of 5-10-10 mixture, for instance, there would be 5% (5 pounds) nitrogen, 10% (10 pounds) phosphate and 10% (10 pounds) potassium.

These nutrients are necessary for plant health and growth. Nitrogen is needed for healthy green growth and regulation of nutrients. Potassium and phosphorus help proper root and seed development and disease resistance. The wrong amount of fertilizer applied at the wrong time can cause disease and weed problems, poor root growth or excessive top growth.

MOW YOUR LAWN AT THE RIGHT HEIGHT

Proper mowing is crucial to the health of your lawn. Most grasses should be cut at a height of from two to four inches and cut frequently enough so that no more than a third of the leaf area is removed. Continuous mowing below one and a half inches tends to weaken the turf. Keeping your grass at two to four inches in height helps shade out weeds, promotes healthier root and leaf growth and retains soil moisture. This helps the grass survive drought, insects and disease.

When you mow, leave the grass clippings on the lawn, by using a mulching mower. This also cuts down on your time maintaining the lawn since you no longer need to rake and bag up the grass clippings. The clippings decompose on the lawn and return valuable nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers.

 

CONSERVE WATER

Over watering is one of the most common mistakes made in lawn care. Once a lawn is established, water it only during very dry periods, giving it only as much water as the soil can absorb. Moisten the soil to a depth of six inches, which usually means using about an inch of water. Avoid frequent shallow watering of established turf; it will cause shallow rooting, invites crabgrass invasion and encourages disease. Water early in the day; this will reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation and the likelihood of disease.

To reduce the need for watering your garden, use plants that are drought tolerant such as many native species. Also, place plants with similar watering requirements together. This way if you choose to use plants that have higher watering requirements, you will only need to water a smaller section of the garden.

 

PESTICIDES AND PEST MANAGEMENT

To many homeowners, pest control is synonymous with chemical pesticides, and quick eradication is the goal. "Pesticides" is an umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides. Designed to kill "pests," this big family of chemicals can also be dangerous to human health and the environment. There is considerable controversy about the potential risks associated with some pesticides. Some studies have linked pesticides to health risks for humans exposed to high concentrations over long periods of time.

In addition to these long-term consequences of pesticide contamination, acute pesticide poisoning can occur. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, stomach and intestinal upset, numbness of extremities, spasms, convulsions and heart attacks. It is important to be extremely careful in handling pesticides and to use safe alternatives whenever possible.

When deciding whether or not to use a pesticide, there are several things to consider. You need to decide if the amount of damage is unacceptable. The mere presence of a pest does not necessitate the use of a pesticide. Do you really need a perfectly weed-free lawn? If you decide there is enough damage to take action, consider alternatives such as biological controls or mechanical methods. If you decide a pesticide is necessary, choose the right one of the job. Make sure it controls the pest in your situation. Apply the pesticide properly and be sure to store or dispose of any leftovers correctly.

 

CONSIDER USING INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a system of reducing pest problems using environmental information along with variable pest control methods. These methods include physical, mechanical, biological, cultural and chemical means of reducing pests. While pesticides can be used in this balanced management strategy, drastically reducing their use is IPM's primary goal. Sometimes several of these steps are taken at once to reduce pest damage.

Integrated Pest Management allows people to take part in an interconnected, dynamic environment. Management is a far better alternative than "seek and destroy" elimination styles. IPM saves money compared to traditional costly pesticides, which need to be applied year after year. But, the best reason to institute IPM is that it helps to restore and maintain a healthy environment.

Professional and commercial agriculture experts have used the IPM method of controlling pests for many years. The emphasis of the program is not only on keeping pests at low levels, but also the judicious use of other pest control strategies so that pesticides are used less often, and the least toxic produce is used.

 

SOME BASIC GUIDELINES TO FOLLOW WHEN USING PESTICIDES

  • Follow the directions on the entire label carefully. Make sure the pesticide controls the pest in your situation.
  • Buy only what you will use for your current needs.
  • Be sure to wear protective clothing such as gloves, boots and goggles.
  • Wash your hands immediately after applying the pesticide.
  • Apply only the amount specified on the label and only to the plants and areas listed in the instructions. More is not better.
  • Make sure people and pets are out of the area during application and until the spray has dried, or longer if indicated by the label. Cover or remove exposed foods, fish tanks and pet food and water dishes during and after application.
  • Never apply near wells, streams, ponds or marshes unless the instructions specifically allow for such use.
  • Never apply to bare ground or eroded areas. (When it rains, many pesticides bind tightly to soil and can be carried along with sediments to storm sewers and streams.)
  • Don't apply if rain is forecast, unless such application is otherwise specified on the label. (Some pesticides do need to be watered in after application.)
  • Spot treat when possible. This means applying the pesticide in smallest possible area.
  • Choose the least hazardous pesticide. Consider both the toxicity of the pesticide and how it is to be applied. Pesticides with the words"warning" or "caution" on the label are considered least toxic, and the signal word "warning" indicates higher toxicity than "caution." A low toxicity pesticide may be hazardous if sprayed over a large area. A pesticide with higher toxicity may be less hazardous if used only for spot treatments.
  • Clean your equipment properly.
 

STORING AND DISPOSING OF PESTICIDES

Unused pesticides should be stored in an area well away from living areas. The place you choose should have a cement floor and be well lit and well ventilated, insulated from temperature extremes, out of direct sunlight and out of a child's reach. Always keep pest control products in their original containers with labels intact.

Pesticides can seriously contaminate the local environment if they are spilled. If a pesticide leaks or is spilled in the garage, on the driveway or on other outdoor areas, do not hose down the spill. This will cause further contamination and may carry the pesticide to storm sewers or other water sources. Contact one of the phone numbers below depending on the severity of the problem. You can obtain additional information on specific pesticides from the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network by calling (800) 858-7378 (toll free number).

Pesticides should never be buried in your yard, burned or poured into storm drains or your toilet. Some pesticides and their containers release toxic fumes when burned or wetted, and sewage treatment plants do not employ the kinds of microbes that would neutralize the pesticide's harmful effects. The best method for safely disposing of pesticides is to avoid disposal by buying only as much as you plan to use and to use them up according to label instructions.

Counties in New Jersey have organized Hazardous Household Waste Collection programs for unwanted pesticides and other hazardous household waste. Contact your local government to learn when collection programs are available in your area.

 

IMPORTANT PHONE NUMBERS

  • To report the misuse of a pesticide, call the NJDEP Bureau of Pesticide Compliance at (609) 984-2011.
  • In a pesticide health emergency, call the NJ Poison Information and Education System at (800) 222-1222.
  • For general questions about pesticides and their use, call the Pesticide Control Program at (609) 530-4070 or visit www.nj.gov/dep/enforcement/pcp/
  • If significant amounts of pesticide spill directly into water, notify NJDEP Environmental Action Hotline at
    (877) WARN DEP [877-927-6337], DEP or your local health department.

A WORD ABOUT LAWN SERVICES

Lawn services are an increasingly popular alternative for lawn maintenance . Before signing a lawn care contract, make sure the company is reputable, tailors its maintenance schedule to your specific lawn needs, has adequately trained personnel and has insurance. All professional pesticide applicators and applicator businesses must be licensed by the NJDEP's Pesticide Control Program. They are required to provide you with a consumer information packet before any professional spraying takes place. Consider using a lawn care company that practices IPM. If you have any questions regarding pesticide use, possible environmental or health impacts, or the licensing status of a lawn service or an applicator, contact the NJDEP's Pesticide Control Program at (609) 530-4070.

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Lawns and gardens can benefit the environment and add value and beauty to your home.

  • Choose the right plants to fit your site.
  • Consider using native plants or drought tolerant plants.
  • Reduce your lawn area.
  • Start with healthy soil.
  • Conserve water.
  • Only use fertilizer when necessary.
  • Minimize you use of chemical pesticides by using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to control pest insects, weeds and disease.
  • If you do use pesticides or fertilizers, carefully follow the label directions for use, storage and disposal.
 
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Last Updated: June 8, 2012