Switch unused grassy lawns into native plants to protect Delaware
“If I’m not working in the River, I’m working in my garden,” says Maya van Rossum, as she tugs a weedy vine from a cluster of bright phlox.
For van Rossum, river work and garden work are one and the same.
She is the Delaware River Keeper, a position she’s held since 1994. She heads the Delaware River Keeper Network, an environmental advocacy and citizen action organization based in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
van Rossum works to support the entirety of the Delaware River watershed through legal advocacy, community outreach and habitat restoration.
She practices what she preaches. Homeowners play a critical role in the health of local waterways, so van Rossum’s property is more native plants and wildflowers than lawn.
“There’s a big message that homeowners need to hear: A lot of the impact that a home and a homeowner has on the watershed and their water has to do with how they manage their landscape,” she says. “Lawns really contribute to the degradation and pollution of our waterways.”
After she purchased her home in 2006, van Rossum got to work replacing her acre of grass with a sprawling garden filled with coneflowers, bee balm and towering clumps of Joe-Pye weed, now abuzz with pollinating insects.
“When people are more thoughtful of how they handle their landscape, not only do they create a nice absorbent, sponge-like soil that will capture rainfall to prevent flooding, but they provide habitat for butterflies and bees and birds and other wildlife that may be in their area. And that’s good for the wildlife, but it’s also good for the people who are living on that particular piece of property,” says van Rossum.
Maya van Rossum, Delaware River Keeper, promotes reducing lawn cover and replacing it with native plants.
In undeveloped areas, most rain water is absorbed into the ground in a process called infiltration. Once underground, water is used by plants, filtered through root systems, and stored.
But in highly developed areas such as northern Delaware, open spaces have been replaced by impervious surfaces like roads, roofs, and parking lots. Since water cannot penetrate these surfaces, it moves elsewhere as “runoff,” taking with it any oils, chemicals, or other pollutants it picks up along the way.
Lawns aren’t much better.
“When you mow, the soil gets compacted,” says Robert J. Struble Jr., Watershed Conservation Director for the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance. “You’d think a lawn would absorb water—and to some extent it does—but it still creates quite a bit of runoff.”
Consider that, according to a study published by the journal Environmental Management, lawns cover 40.5 million acres of the United States and the scope of the problem becomes clear.
All this runoff means that more water goes directly into local streams and creeks than those waterways can handle. Rather than being absorbed, this extra water wears away the soil and sediment on stream banks and causes flooding.
Excessive runoff after storms can wash out river banks, increasing the sediment in our waterways.
What’s more, since this water isn’t getting filtered through the earth, it takes pollutants right into the streams with it. In many instances, the erosion itself becomes a major source of pollution.
“Soil is good when it’s in place because it’s good for plants to grow in, but once it gets into the water it becomes a source of pollution because it affects the quality of the water and the whole aquatic ecosystem in general,” says Rick Mickowski, Conservation Planner and Public Outreach Coordinator for the New Castle Conservation District. “The sediment affects the aquatic life by coating their habitat and smothering out the insects that live in the water that other critters in there would feed on.”
Runoff from lawns presents another issue.
“Fertilizers, pesticides, things that people put on their lawns; these are things that plants need to live but when it’s rushed into our waterways it becomes very concentrated and you see problems as a result,” says Sarah Bouboulis, Habitat Project Specialist at the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “Nutrient pollution is probably the biggest pollutant that homeowners have to face.”
Despite these issues, van Rossum doesn’t necessarily advocate that homeowners replace their lawns wholesale, just the parts they don’t use.
“I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of people don’t use their front yards for anything other than mowing,” says van Rossum. “In all those areas where you don’t imagine yourself using that landscape, go out and start planting plants.”
Plantain-leaf sedge, or Carex plantaginea, makes an excellent ground cover in dry shade.
Those plants could be groundcovers like native sedges (try Carex plantaginea, or plantain-leaf sedge) or green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum). Or you could try expanding a pre-existing border garden further inward on your property.
“Really, a great way to start is to just start,” says van Rossum.
Rain gardens to the rescue
One way to replace lawn with something more beneficial is to plant a rain garden, which helps absorb water and nutrients from fertilizer that might otherwise travel into a waterway during a rainstorm.
“It’s a do-able weekend project. It doesn’t require any experience and you can do it with just a shovel,” says Struble. “If you have a downspout that’s emptying into your yard, dig about a foot deep where that water collects, add some gravel to help with drainage, and plant it with native plants.”
The rain garden at Mt. Cuba Center captures rainwater and slows its flow to waterways. Learn how to plan and install a rain garden on Saturday, September 9 at Mt. Cuba Center. Register here.
Native plants that are suited for your growing environment will do better and need less maintenance than other plants.
“It’s very, very important that people use native plants,” says van Rossum. “Non-natives don’t provide the kind of food and habitat that our critters need, and they displace native plants that do provide the kind of food and habitat that our critters need. Also one can unwittingly buy a plant that ends up becoming invasive.”
The most surefire way to make certain that the plants you purchase are native would be to visit a natives-only nursery—either in person or online—or a nursery with a natives-only section.
“You really want to utilize native plant nurseries because by virtue of the fact that they are focused on natives, they can sell their plants while making sure that you are only doing the right thing with your plant selection. All they have are good options,” explains van Rossum.
van Rossum in her rain garden.
Native plant nurseries are also an essential source for information about native plants and landscape management. Other resources for homeowners include RainGardensForTheBays.org, a Delaware-centric site that offers step-by-step directions for installing rain gardens, and DelawareLiveableLawns.org, which provides information on everything from good watering habits to calculating the appropriate amount of fertilizer for your lawn.
Ultimately, the best way to ensure your landscape plays a positive role in the environment is to shift focus from maintaining a perfect lawn to providing a native plant oasis.
“All the way around, when people prioritize a naturalized landscape they benefit themselves and they benefit their community in a whole host of ways,” says van Rossum. “And everyone has an opportunity to influence this somehow in their community. It’s a really big part of protecting our watershed and water resources for the benefit of everyone.”
A rain barrel captures runoff for the garden.
Nature’s Landscapes is a monthly column by Mt. Cuba Center, a native plant garden that focuses on the beauty and value of native plants and habitats. This article is written by L J Brubaker, Mt. Cuba Center’s public engagement intern.
This article originally appeared in the July 22, 2017 edition of the News Journal. Read the article here.