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Replace your lawn with native plants - October 6, 2011

As the growing season ends and your lawn needs less mowing and begins to brown, why not consider replacing a bit of it? Trade it in for some native plants -- which require less water, less fertilizer, less maintenance and, ultimately, less of your time and money.

Next spring and summer, you'll have less mowing to do and you can feel good knowing that the changes you've made help protect water quality and wildlife habitat.

American homeowners use about 40 million pounds of pesticides on the lawns every year and they use these chemicals at 10-20 times the rate farmers do. Since colonial times, the conversion of natural land for human uses has been the primary cause of the decline of animal species and water quality.

There are well over 685,000 acres of residential lawns in Maryland. In the coastal bays or any watershed, as more forests and farmland yield to housing developments, new and long-time residents can take the lead in mitigating these losses by replacing a portion of their lawn space with native plants.

Consider for a moment that about 150 years ago lawns didn't even exist on the Eastern Shore. Aside from robins, deer, Canada geese, and a few other common species, most living creatures have little use for turf. From the standpoint of native wildlife, lawns -- largely monocultures -- are worthless and they often add to the proliferation of nuisance species.

Turf grass does not grow here naturally, and it takes a lot of time, money and maintenance to keep it growing here. Native plants; however, belong here. They grow here naturally. And they slow runoff rates and absorb larger quantities of nutrients and chemicals, helping to keep our bays clean.

Aside from the day of planting, you won't need fertilizer for native plants and you should rarely, if ever, need pesticides, which have been indicated as a major chemical contaminant in the Chesapeake and coastal bays.

Tree planting can be especially helpful. Even when far from a water body, tree roots reach well into the soil to tap and recycle groundwater. Trees also convert greenhouse gasses and clean pollutants and nutrients from the air.

For that part of your lawn that you choose to maintain, consider caring for it a bit differently. Water it early in the morning one day per week. Daily watering keeps roots at the surface which causes damage to your grass. Most sprayers and sprinklers lose 90 percent of water to evaporation.

Remember, too, that grass stays healthier and grows slower when it's cut longer. Close-cut grass loses thickness, requires more water, and is prone to disease. Allow grass clippings to decompose on your lawn to earn the equivalent of one to two fertilizer applications per year.

If you must fertilize, choose a fertilizer that has at least 1/4 of its nitrogen in a slow release, water insoluble form. Never apply fertilizer within 50 feet of a water body. Over-fertilization makes lawns more attractive to disease and pests.

For pesticide substitutes, try soap solutions (1 tsp. Ivory liquid, 1 gal. water), boric acid, or insect growth regulators like Precor. Put up traps and barriers, remove ivy, standing water, animal wastes, and other pest attractors.

Remove pest eggs, cocoons and larvae by hand. Never ever use moth balls to control moles. They are among the most toxic of all household chemicals.

Always remember to weigh the costs of flawless lawn with its impact on your local environment. Making a few simple changes and some environmentally-friendly choices can improve the beauty of your yard for years to come and protect local waterways and wildlife.

If you're interested in learning more about opportunities to help protect our bays -- right from your own backyard, please contact the Maryland Coastal Bays Program at or visit www.mdcoastal for more information.

Samis is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program


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