How to Keep Healthy Lawns and Healthy Waterways

How to Keep Healthy Lawns and Healthy Waterways
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With the first day of summer just behind us, many around the country are reveling in these longer days by spending time on nature's carpet -- turf grass. Whether you're having a family picnic, playing a game of catch, entertaining friends or taking a nap on a warm afternoon, lawns provide both a functional area and a comforting experience.

As many a front (or back) yard guru knows, keeping grass healthy can be pretty simple, but it takes a little care through regular activities like mowing and feeding. But in recent years a discussion has been brewing around the country over the supposed impact lawn care has on nearby water sources.

You may have read about the record-breaking algae blooms in Lake Erie in 2011 or the toxic red algae bloom that forms off the coast of Florida each year creating a multitude of issues for residents and aquatic life. Excessive nutrients -- primarily phosphorus and nitrogen -- entering lakes, rivers and oceans can feed the growth of algae, bacteria and other organisms. While bodies of water require a natural amount of nutrients to thrive, too much can result in an overabundance of algae growth -- called algae blooms -- that can be harmful to aquatic life and the various industries relying on these water bodies, such as recreation and tourism.

Over the past few years, there has been debate over how much lawn fertilizer is actually contributing to this problem, but recent government studies -- most notably one released at the end of May from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program -- suggest that lawns can actually be an ally in the effort to keep waterways clean. Surprising to some, but not to many turf scientists, the Chesapeake Bay Program found that a "dense vegetative cover of turf grass" on a lawn actually reduces pollution and nutrient runoff.

Thick, healthy turf grass holds soil together to reduce erosion, and its roots work as natural filters that help purify ground water and reduce the amount of nutrients reaching waterways. However, unprotected bare soil and thin plant-cover increase the risk of nutrient runoff by allowing soil to wash away, many times carrying nutrients right where they don't need to be -- into our local waterways.

We've been studying and paying close attention to these issues at Scotts MiracleGro and have introduced new spreader technologies that help consumers reduce the risk of off-target fertilizer applications. We've also worked with environmental stakeholders and removed phosphorus from our main lawn maintenance products and have made sure that our products contain an amount of slow-release nitrogen that leading universities and turf scientists recommend.

Below are a few steps you can take to keep your patch of grass and your nearby waterways healthy:

  • Mow High: Longer grass is stronger grass because it grows deeper roots. It shades the soil, chokes out new weeds, and better absorbs, holds and filters rainfall.
  • Mulch Clippings: Leave clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings quickly break down and return valuable nutrients and organic matter back into the soil where earthworms and microbes thrive. Rich soil helps absorb and filter rainfall, reducing erosion and runoff.
  • Use the Right Fertilizer: Choose a phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer unless a soil test shows a need for this nutrient. Look for a slow release fertilizer that extends the time the fertilizer is exposed to the lawn, thereby reducing the risk of runoff.
  • Get the Timing Right: Apply fertilizer during the months when grass is growing and in need of nutrients to help the grass grow strong, healthy roots - typically the summer months in the South, spring and fall in the North. Avoid fertilizing during the winter in drought years, whenever the grass goes dormant, or whenever the ground is frozen.
  • Clean Up: Keep grass clippings, leaves and fertilizer off of sidewalks, roadways and any other hard surfaces leading to waterways.

Choosing to keep your grass thick, lush and green can have positive environmental benefits. Taking a few simple steps can ensure a strong, healthy lawn for all your summer activities while also protecting our vital water supplies.

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