Keeping Your Green Lawn Eco-Friendly -Spring 2016

by: Hilary Newell

AH, THE NANTUCKET YARD. The space around the house that is alternately green and soft on the toes, or dormant, brown and crispy. It is evident by observing some yards that their lawns never go dormant during the summer, and they are manicured to within an inch of their green, leafy lives.

Weed-free and immaculately groomed, Nantucket lawns are often the product of excess fertilizer that is applied at the wrong times of year. They are picturesque to look at, but at what cost? What is the price our precious water resources and surrounding waters pay for the picture-perfect lawns that are so prevalent on the island?

Contamination by way of excess nitrogen and phosphorous, two main components of commercial fertilizer, causes a drop in water quality, with our harbors and great ponds suffering from excess algae bloom, changes in water chemistry and disruption of natural processes that support the shellfish and recreation industries we depend on. Excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorous harm marine life and other animals. Dogs and livestock can become very ill or even die if they ingest the blue algae that has bloomed in Hummock Pond in recent years. Scallop populations have declined alarmingly as a result of diminished water quality in the harbor, with eel grass (scallops’ preferred anchor and home) disappearing at a rapid rate. According to the 2012 Nantucket Shellfish Management Plan, the number of bushels of bay scallops harvested by Nantucket fishermen dropped from 100,000 bushels in 1980 to 12,600 bushels in 2000. In 2008-2009, 13,800 bushels were landed, and 7,000 bushels were harvested in 2009-2010. While there is more to this decline than excess or improperly-applied fertilizer, learning to keep our yards healthy with Nantucket’s water quality in mind, we can help slow the decline.

The town of Nantucket is addressing the failed septic systems that contribute to pollution in and around groundwater, ponds and harbors, but that is not an easy or quick fix. Learning to decrease the use of fertilizers, and using them correctly, can have an immediate impact on water quality.

Nantucket’s soil is largely sand and gravel with very little organic matter. Because of this, the nutrients we apply to make our plants grow will often leach into the groundwater and are never absorbed by the plants we are trying to feed. Recognizing this, the Town of Nantucket, via a 2010 Annual Town Meeting vote, formed a group to study and report on fertilizer use. The group, called the Article 68 Work Group, was comprised of representatives of the landscaping profession, the Harbor Plan Implementation Committee, Nantucket Land Council, Nantucket Garden Club, Shellfish and Harbor Advisory Board, Conservation Commission, and members at large from the community. The report was reviewed by a team of seven scientists and specialists and professors from the horticulture, turf and soil-sciences community. The resulting publication is called “Best Management Practices for Landscape Fertilizer Use on Nantucket Island,” also known as the BMP.

The BMP outlines the dos and don’ts and whys and hows for all fertilizer applications on Nantucket. It’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat reading and is quite technical for the non-scientist. But it is very important to follow these guidelines for the health of the island. If you do your own lawn-care, you need to understand the guidelines, and if you hire someone, it is important to know that the person or company you have hired to do your landscaping has been trained and is following the recommended guidelines.

Cormac Collier, executive director of the Nantucket Land Council, has been educating landscapers and gardening professionals since the BMP was adopted, and says it is crucial that landscapers buy into the program.

In order to find out if your landscape company is committed to avoiding further environmental damage, you must have a simple conversation with them and say, “I want you to maintain my property according to the BMP.” Have that fiveminute conversation and insist that they do it. It is incumbent upon homeowners and landscapers to do what they can to help improve water quality. We are at a tipping point and if we continue to increase the nutrient-fertilizer load, there will be damage that is irreversible.

It should be enough to know that eel grass is already dying and scallop harvests are diminishing each year. Yet it is evident that heavily-fertilized lawns are still in abundance on Nantucket. The cycle of fertilize, water, mow, repeat has to stop. The responsibility for this lies with Nantucket homeowners, as we have some power to take responsibility to ward off the potential destruction of the harbor.

This is an educational process, and the more homeowners know, the better equipped they are to manage the maintenance of their property. Nantucket’s Department of Natural Resources is in charge of enforcement of the BMP, and since its adoption in 2013, enforcement has been stepped up. The penalty for improper application of fertilizer can carry a fine of up to $1,000.

As more septic systems fail, it is critical that we minimize the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that we use, while still creating attractive landscapes around our homes.

If you are doing all of your own fertilizing and gardening, here are the important details. First, get a soil test. This is the best way to tell what nutrients are lacking, or are in abundance in your soil. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst has a very good soil-testing service and results are sent with recommendations based on what you want to grow. Results from your test will include soil pH, the amount of nutrients present, soil texture, the amount of organic matter present, and recommendations for pH adjustment, fertilizer recommendation and soil amendments. The test should be repeated each year if you fertilize with phosphorous, but established plantings should be soiltested every three years. Vegetable gardens should be tested annually. All the information you need to send a sample and get your soil tested can be found at

Using the timing and recommendations laid out in the BMP, you can have a beautiful lawn of green grass. Don’t apply any fertilizer before April 15 or after Oct. 15, never apply fertilizer when a heavy rainstorm is predicted and remember that even if you are using organic fertilizer, you still need to apply it at the correct rate and calculate the correct amount for your spreader. These regulations and explanations for how to do this are all laid out in the BMP.

But there are other methods of achieving beauty around your home that minimize the amount of inputs you need in the first place. While certain companies believe your lawn should be the envy of every other homeowner, you, as the homeowner, need to decide how important it really is. There is beauty in a meadow planted with native grasses, and there is minimal care required once established. The BMP recommends following the model of sandplain grasslands, one of our endangered native-plant communities. These are found in very few places around the globe and we are lucky enough to have many acres here on the island. Made up of little bluestem, switchgrass and Pennsylvania sedge, this is an aesthetically pleasing, natural-looking landscape. There may be a few landscapers who can recreate the sandplain grassland effect on your property, but otherwise, it would be difficult to achieve this unless your property is already contiguous to a naturally-occurring grassland area.

Ground-cover plants are an excellent alternative to nitrogen-requiring grasses. You should take note of how much sun and what type of soil you have in the area you want to plant. Ground-covers are plants that grow to a maximum height of less than three feet, but for lawn replacement, I like to use plants that only grow to four or five inches. Some ground-covers feature flower stalks that rise up above the low growth, creating even more interest.

For shady areas, try Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff). While it may look fragile, it is extremely durable and very attractive. Soft green leaves are whorled and the tiny white flowers appear in May and June. Sweet woodruff does well in crevices and walks, and it thrives in most soil types we find on Nantucket. The effect is enchanting and it will spread nicely in moist shade.

Another nice shade-loving ground-cover is ajuga. There are lots of varieties with foliage colors ranging from nearly black to brightly variegated. Once established, ajuga will creep along the ground, forming new plants via runners. Some are tolerant enough to withstand foot traffic, and can be nestled into the cracks between flagstones.

Corsican mint is another shade-loving, low-growing ground-cover that can be walked on regularly. It is the smallest member of the mint family and has tiny, bright green leaves with an intense crème-de-menthe fragrance. Even tinier mauve flowers appear in midsummer. It’s particularly nice in an area where you walk, as stepping on the plant will release its scent.

Lamium is another shade-loving ground-cover of note. With a few varieties included in the Proven Winners collection, lamium is an extremely reliable plant. Don’t let the common name spotted dead nettle ruin this for you. All the varieties in the Proven Winners collection are beautiful, reliable and unique. Ghost has silver foliage with purple flowers, White Nancy has silver foliage with a green edge and stunning white flowers, and Orchid Frost has silver and green foliage with pink flowers and fulfills the “spiller” part of a mixed container as well.

If you have more of a sunny location that needs some ground-covers, consider some varieties of thyme. Many of these can tolerate heavy foot traffic and again, will release their scent when they are stepped on. Bressingham is a creeping thyme with very green foliage. Growing only two to three inches tall, it spreads to eight to 12 inches wide. Give it full sun and good drainage and it will come back year after year. Hot pink blooms in early spring fade to soft pink in late spring. Elfin thyme is a mat-forming plant that does great between flagstones or at the edge of a yard. It tolerates light foot traffic, and grows to just one to two inches tall. An early-summer bloom of lilac-purple is a bonus for this perennial.

Red creeping thyme carpets the ground with red blossoms in spring. This ground-cover is great interspersed with other thymes or tucked into the yard where it can spread. It’s also nice in rock gardens or in the cracks of a stone wall. Probably the most wellknown creeping thyme is woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus). It is a fast-spreading ground-cover that quickly blankets an area with fuzzy leaves that stand up to moderate foot traffic. This is a good choice for replacing large portions of a lawn.

Irish moss (Sagina subulata) forms a lush and dense carpet of green. Small, star-shaped white flowers appear in spring and it is an ideal ground-cover. This plant is an excellent choice for woodland areas, along streams, on small slopes or between pavers. Scotch moss is almost the same with bright green foliage. They are great when planted near each other and are tolerant of quite a bit of sun.

Choosing native plants to use at the edge of your wild lawn is great for folks who think they don’t have a green thumb. Requiring little or no irrigation or fertilizer, native plants are all around us and can be used as low-maintenance pieces of landscape plans that need more maintenance.

What are some of these native plants? Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva ursi) rarely reaches six inches tall, usually hugging the ground. Spring brings unique flowers followed by red berries in summer. In the way of shrubs, we can take a look at Viburnums, various Ilex (holly) and Mryica (bayberry).

Each of these has great appeal to wildlife as well. Birds survive winters by eating the berries produced on all of these shrubs, and until the berries are all eaten up, they look beautiful.

If you’re thinking edible landscaping for humans, think Vaccinium (blueberry) and Prunus (beach plums). Win, win, win! Blueberries have unique small flowers early in the growing season, then produce delicious fruit as the summer wears on. Beach plums put on a spring show with bees working the clouds of white flowers that provide fruit in late August and early September. Naturalized beach plums and blueberries require almost no work, and do not need to be fertilized with a commercial product. A small amount of compost spread around the base of the plant each fall provides enough nutrition to keep them producing fruit. If you are building a new home in a previouslyundisturbed location, consider leaving as much of the native flora intact as you can. Coincidentally, using native plants will reduce deer-browse, too.

California has been struggling with lawns and water use for years. Their issue is that they don’t have enough water. Ours is just the opposite. We have plenty of water, but we have already begun to damage its pristine quality in our harbors and ponds. We have a responsibility to try to halt any further destruction, and we can have an immediate impact if everyone follows the rules outlined in the BMP. ///

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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