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Healing Lake Erie with improved lawn care Featured

Left to right, Becky Simpson, Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District (OSWCD); Cindy and John Minier; Michael Libben, OSWCD; Dave and Katie Kellner.

Two ways to hold the soil and nutrients on a bank, in the foreground and the background.

In the U.S. alone, according to the Lawn Institute, it is estimated that there are more than 31 million acres of grass, an area equal insize to the New England states. Over 80% of this grass is found in residential lawns.

Last week a group of homeowners on Catawba invited Becky Simpson and Mike Libben of the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District (OSWCD) to their homes to make suggestions on how to be better stewards of the environment. Cindy and John Minier and Katie and Dave Kellner of Orchard Beach are particularly motivated because Lake Erie is their front yard.

The Miniers’ ornamental pond welcomes guests. The pond has a small waterfall and fountain to keep the water moving and the pond healthy, plants and fish and “four frogs that just moved in.” When Minier encountered a mowing problem with a mound of poor soil, he replaced it with the pond, creating habitat and an area that no longer needs to be mowed. 

Mowing

Next attention turned to the lawn. Minier uses a mulching mower and leaves the grass clippings on the lawn. Libben said that is one of the most important things that homeowners can do, that “grass clippings provide many nutrients.” Simpson concurred, adding “that means less need for fertilizer.” She also offered that it is generally better to mow the grass higher, since the roots are as long as the grass is high--the longer the grass, the stronger the roots. Dave Kellner, Minier’s neighbor who keeps his grass longer than Minier’s, was glad to hear that fact.

Watering

The next topic was watering. “If you are going to water, keep watering,” advised Simpson, that most people water more than needed. “About an inch a week maintains a healthy lawn, an hour every third day. A lot of people have timers, better to manage the watering.” 

Libben added that when the grass does go dormant in late summer, it is the time to stop watering. It is not dead. “Just leave it. It will come back.”

Fertilizing 

Earlier this year, in realizing the importance to the health of Lake Erie and other bodies of water, the manufacturer Scotts Miracle-Gro, based in Marysville, OH, removed phosphorus from its TurfBuilder lawn fertilizer. Phosphorus is one of the main causes of the algae bloom on Lake Erie. Libben suggests taking a soil sample to determine what fertilizer is needed, and to always check that fertilizer does not contain phosphorus. The OSU extension office has soil testing kits. He also suggested “don’t go right to the edge” when applying fertilizer, to lessen run-off.

With herbicides and insecticides, Libben advised “read the label. Use according to directions and don’t overdo.”

Flowerbeds

Both residences have flowerbeds around the house and near the water. The flowerbeds act as a buffer zone that filters runoff and absorbs chemicals. Mulch and rainbarrels were the points of discussion about flowerbeds. Mulch is important not just aesthetically and to save weeding, but “it reduces the need for watering and keeps the water in the soil rather than running off,” said Simpson. “Older mulch is better for plants. The younger mulch breaks down and takes up nutrients.” Katie added that she learned a lot about mulch and composting from an OSWCD seminar that she attended, and that their homeowners association gets mulch from Catawba Township each spring when they have their neighborhood clean-up day. The residents all help spread mulch in the common areas. Simpson noted that it is important to use a porous mulch in flowerbeds, and mulch cloth rather than an impermeable material like plastic, which overheats the plants and prevents water from filtering down through the soil.

The next suggestion from Simpson was “a rain barrel could be used to water flowerbeds. They come in all sizes and materials.” Cindy was interested to learn more about a ceramic rain barrel that would complement their landscaping. 

Simpson also encouraged the use of native plants that are the best at holding soil and requiring little care. Butterfly bushes and other plants that attract butterflies and honeybees also enhance the environment. 

Trees

Both properties have several older trees of species that are native to the area. Simpson emphasized that trees, especially those more native to the area, hold moisture and prevent erosion and keep the soil, lawn and homes cooler. Miniers have a mature bald cypress and a double-trunked basswood that are close to the waterfront. Kellners transplanted a bald cypress seedling from the Miniers’ tree that is thriving, and also planted a hybrid maple as a memorial to Katie’s mother. 

The trees all hold special meaning for the homeowners, in addition to their aesthetic and environmental benefits. Tree seedlings are available at the OSWCD office. Simpson advised to plan ahead when planting trees, whether you want one that grows more quickly or one that will be for the grandchildren.

The banks

Both properties have steep banks down to the lake. Miniers have all-natural vegetation and Kellners have a less steep and more groomed bank. Both have plants to hold the soil and filter run-off. Libben emphasized that if using an herbicide, especially on the banks, to use “selective spraying. Put it right on the weeds.”

Other 

The Kellners asked advice for building a deck in an environmentally responsible way. Libben suggested using deck material that is “the more porous, the better, and plan ahead for the runoff.” 

“Peer pressure is powerful. See who (in your neighborhood) can use the most native plants, water the least, and keep their lawn mowed at the healthiest height,”suggested Simpson. 

Libben and Simpson offered other simple ways to help heal the lake without leaving your yard:

•When filling your lawnmower, do so on the grass rather than on the driveway. According to Simpson, “One drop of oil can pollute 32 gallons of water.”
•Keep lawn clippings off the driveway and street.
•When you wash your car, do so on the grass.

The Miniers and Kellners were appreciative for all the suggestions from Libbner and Simpson. Katie was “glad to hear we weren’t doing anything that bad.” OSWCD consults are available to homeowners.

Many of the practices that help the environment also save money and work. Less watering, less fertilizer and less weeding all make for more time to enjoy a healthier Lake Erie.

Blue box Win a rain barrel 

To encourage homeowners to think about the valuable resource of Lake Erie, OSWCD today announces a contest for the month of July. Homeowners that submit plans for implementing improvements in environmental stewardship with their lawn care will qualify to win a rain barrel. Submit photos and ideas to www.ottawaswcd.com, or 419-898-1595 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

This article is part of The Beacon’s ongoing series on the Healing of Lake Erie.

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