By Barbara Luck, Washburn County Lakes and Rivers Association 6/17/20
Sometimes less is more. In the case of lawn care, that approach can be helpful to both you and the environment, lakes, wetlands and rivers.
In Northwest Wisconsin many lakes and streams provide an abundance of year-around recreation and the outdoors provides an experience of peace and tranquility. During COVID-19, we are especially fortunate to be able to de-stress with a walk in the woods, boat on a lake, or fish a stream. Awareness of the impact of human activities and proper care will ensure continued enjoyment. Lawn care greatly impacts our waters – minimal lawn chemical treatments, leaves and grass clipping management and shoreland protection are all examples of ways to lessen the impact.
In terms of lawn treatments, WI DNR recommends a conservative approach to treating your grass and plants. Start by testing your soil through UW-Extension (https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/news/2018/03/30/soil-testing-for-the-homeowner/) or buying a test kit at a garden center to determine if fertilizer is needed. If you decide to fertilize your lawn or plants, do so conservatively using phosphorus-free fertilizer. Wisconsin Statute 94.643 prohibits use of phosphorus-containing lawn fertilizer except for establishing a new lawn. Extension research suggests lawn fertilizing should begin in early October, not spring or summer, as fall application promotes deep and healthy roots. In terms of mowing, consider mowing less of your lawn. When you mow, leave the grass longer to maintain moisture and reduce new weeds due to healthier, thicker grass. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn where they act as a natural fertilizer. You can also limit the need for herbicides by growing disease-resistant plants or choose to pull weeds by hand.
An important part of lawn care is to nurture the shoreland buffer, which is the natural vegetation area next to the shore. A buffer helps contain grass clippings, soil, and leaves, keeping them from polluting the water. These materials contain nitrogen and phosphorus which can cause nuisance algae growth and can reduce oxygen in water. Reduce the amount of lawn you mow along the shoreline or simply stop mowing it. This can help keep geese from coming on your property. And, in the fall, rake leaves away from the buffer and water. This not only helps protect water quality, it also provides natural habitat for wildlife. Your buffer will remain natural if it is left as is, but you can expand it if you wish by planting native shrubs, grasses, and trees.
Things you can do to maintain a healthy buffer include:
-directing stormwater away from the water into a rain garden
-decreasing the amount of mowed shoreline to let taller, native plants grow
-increasing the width of the buffer by adding native plants
-limiting impermeable surfaces such as paved areas.
For helpful lawn and buffer care, visit https://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/supps/2003/feb03/home.htm and https://healthylakeswi.com/files/2020/06/NativePlantings-HealthyLakeFactSheetSeries2020.pdf, respectively. You may just find a few more free hours for yourself this summer.