In the Garden: Going Natural -August 2014

by: Hilary Newell

I can relate to people who are obsessed with their lush green lawns. Really, I can.

My siblings and I spent a great deal of time riding a lawn mower in our youth. That is not to say that our parents made us do it all, just that there was a lot of lawn.

An old farmhouse surrounded by reclaimed cow pasture made for a verdant and fertile landscape on a country road. There were about four acres of mowable lawn, with another acre of sprawling perennial and vegetable gardens, rock gardens, fruit trees, a small man-made pond (previously for watering my grandmother’s dairy herd), a giant black walnut tree that dropped hundreds of pounds of squirrel food every October, and a line of antique maples along the road rounded out the property.

Mom took great pride in how it looked, and we waved at everyone who drove by. One yard was dedicated to badminton, and one to croquet. It looked great all the time. English daisies, crocus, violets, clover, wild plantain, dandelions, Indian paintbrush and patches of moss punctuated the deep green of the grass at varying times from spring through fall. And here’s the most wonderful piece of this picture. There was never any fertilizer, herbicide or other chemical applied. Ever. Nobody ever dribbled chemicals onto the flowers that some called weeds, nobody dug out the dandelion roots. When the grass got tall enough, we just mowed everything down, and it kept coming back and blooming again. We walked barefoot without worrying about being exposed to chemicals, and we didn’t worry about polluting our most precious resource – our drinking water.

Every home is located on a watershed, but why is this important to know? A watershed is an area of land where rainwater, melting ice and snow, and water from creeks and springs is collected and drained into a natural basin. The water in the basin is drinking water, and it could take the form of a lake, an ocean, a river, or in the case of Nantucket, our aquifer. Our aquifer provides all the fresh water we need for drinking, bathing and laundry. In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Nantucket’s and Block Island’s aquifers as sole-source aquifers of tremendous importance. At that time on Nantucket, there were 7,000 year-round residents, and up to 27,000 seasonal residents. While today’s population estimates vary, some believe there are up to 15,000 year-round residents, and upwards of 75,000 people on the island during peak visitors times. But the key to our aquifer’s importance is in this paragraph from the EPA’s website: “There is no existing alternative drinking-water source or combination of sources which provide 50 percent or more of the drinking water to either of the designated areas, nor are there any reasonably available alternative future sources capable of meeting the drinking water demands of the two areas.”

Written 30 years ago, that paragraph is of even greater magnitude now than it was then.

Our aquifer is recharged by snow-melt and by rainwater. In addition, water from septic tanks leaches down through the sand and becomes part of the aquifer. Fortunately, sand (which we have a lot of) is an excellent purifying filter and by the time the water gets down to the aquifer, it is exceptionally clean and delicious-tasting. Nantucket has great-tasting, clean water, but the threat from over-fertilization is very real. The watershed that feeds the harbor has already leaked a lot of nitrogen into that beautiful and valuable

ecosystem. Outdated septic systems and lawn fertilizers are apparently the culprits. And yet some homeowners who visit the island for a mere few weeks in the summer still plant large lawns that remain emerald green from high fertilizer use and thousands of gallons of water.

The shift from natural yards to manicured lawns began in the 1960s, when chemical manufacturers began pulling off a major marketing coup. Commercials in Technicolor told us that a weed-free perfect lawn was the key to keeping up with (and being better than) the neighbors. Dandelions were vilified as they were sprayed with herbicide, shriveling up before our eyes. Homeowners became convinced that the green lawn was tantamount to happiness. Better living through chemicals was the mantra. Chemical companies made millions and millions of dollars persuading people that they need to fertilize more, and follow all the application steps to achieve the neighborhood’s most enviable lawn. They did it brilliantly.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners today use 10 times more chemicals per

acre than farmers do. And they spend more maintaining their lawns than farmers spend per acre. It’s troubling, too, that there are vast quantities of dodgy chemicals under so many kitchen sinks. Thankfully, farmers and professional applicators are required to maintain licenses and earn continuing-education credits in order to obtain what they need for growing crops. Homeowners have no such restrictions and consequently are at serious risk of exposure to themselves and their immediate environment. Carefully-chosen chemicals used properly and according to label directions help protect plants safely and help sustain commercial growing. Using the wrong chemical, or using the right one incorrectly, can harm people and wildlife.

So how can you keep a decent-looking yard without going overboard with chemicals? The Nantucket Land Council and the Town of Nantucket Natural Resources Department have produced a well-researched, peer-reviewed document that answers that question. Two years of study concluded with the publication called “Guidelines for Landscape Fertilizer Use on Nantucket Island.” While the whole document holds much more than the following, here are some of the take-aways:

  • Do not apply fertilizer immediately before or after a heavy rainfall.
  • Do not apply fertilizer between Oct. 16 and April 14.
  • Apply no more than a quarter-pound per 1,000
  • square feet of fast-release nitrogen in a single application.
  • The applicator shall not apply a fertilizer that contains phosphorous unless a soil test determines a phosphorous deficiency.
  • Applications of compost with phosphorous may be applied using Nantucket Best Management practices.
  • A single application of nitrogen fertilizer shall not exceed a half-pound per 1,000 square feet and shall not exceed three pounds per 1,000 square feet annually.
  • When applying fertilizer, applications shall be done no less than two weeks apart until the annual maximum is reached.

If this sounds complicated, know that every landscape company that applies fertilizer must be licensed by the town and that these are the rules they follow. If you don’t understand the regulations, hire someone to do your fertilizer applications. Done properly, your yard can still look great.

But there are also alternatives to this type of turf management. If you want to avoid mowing altogether, you could eschew grass and leave the natural vegetation around your home. The past few decades have seen people planting varieties that require less fertilization and water, though this is not what I’d call a trend. The EPA estimates that watering the nation’s 50,000 square miles of lawns accounts for nearly onethird of our water usage. And while we usually have no shortage of water on Nantucket, much of the nation does. The concern here is with run-off from overfertilization, hence the new guidelines for applicators. Consider adding shrubs and small trees. Smaller lawns are easier to maintain, and growing ornamental plants or vegetable gardens uses a lot less water. Trees and

shrubs are good for wind and weather protection in winter, and act as air-conditioners in summer, and edibles add another layer of benefits. They use less water, you can target your fertilizer applications right to the plants, and you can eat them.

But if you do need a grassy lawn for your family to enjoy, you can let it be more natural by not using herbicides. Once you stop using herbicides, clover and other wildflowers will find their way in naturally. Clover is a clever addition to the yard as it absorbs nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the ground. Its deep roots help stabilize soils and make the lawn drought-tolerant. “Wanted weed” seeds, like clover, can also be purchased and spread through your yard. Thousands of tiny white violets that bloom for weeks in spring volunteered in our yard when we had our backs turned. Now, while the daffodils are blooming, the yard is a sea of white. Once the grass starts growing, the clover begins to bloom and there is another wave of white.

These flowers all attract pollinators and provide food for them before other ornamental and edible crops begin blooming. The edges of our yard are covered with moss, not grass. We carved our building lot out of the trees and there are still a lot of pines and oaks surrounding the house. The trees provide shade, and moss loves shade, so it’s lovely and cool to walk barefoot through the moss on a hot summer day. The moss stays moist and green, even as the grass around it goes dormant.

The obsession with getting rid of “unsightly dandelions” may take a long time to break down, but when you stop thinking of them as noxious weeds, and start thinking of them as free greens for eating, your attitude will shift. Dandelions are delicious raw, picked early in the spring, and you can add them to salads or soups in abundance. Plantain (the “weed,” not the banana-like fruit with the same name) is another lawn interloper that is good to eat when it’s less than about four inches in length. Pan-fry briefly in a little olive oil to bring out the flavor that some think tastes like asparagus. Like dandelions, you can pick them in spring, and when new leaves come in after you have mowed. Several varieties of thyme make great lawn additions. Doretta Klaber (Thymus x citriodorus) and Elfin Thyme (Thymus serphyllum) are both hardy in our area, and form tight mats of greenery that can stand up to foot traffic. Each of them blooms in summer and both are quite drought-tolerant. The scent of thyme wafts up with every footstep.

Consider also adding permanent structures like walls and stone patios. The cracks between the stones in the patio can be planted with herbs and ground-covers that will survive lots of foot traffic without much water. Stone walls, patios and paths add interesting visual elements and offer informal seating areas.

I realize not everyone is ready to give up grassy lawns, but how about shifting the emphasis away from perfectly-manicured, emerald-green lawns that require herbicides and tons of fertilizer and water to stay picture-perfect? Incorporating wanted weeds, ornamentals and some vegetable plants make for a visually appealing and soul-satisfying yard. ///

Hilary Newell is an expert gardener, and can be found at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, where she has worked for over 25 years.

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