Five tips to manage lawns for water quality

Lawn area makes up a large part of the land surface in communities. Proper maintenance and management of these areas can protect water quality.

The average homeowner spends a significant amount of time from April through October taking care of their lawn. Mowing, fertilizing, raking, watering this large expanse of green. This area makes up the largest portion of the homeowner’s property. By using good management and maintenance practices, the homeowner can reduce the amount of time needed for these lawn projects and protect local water quality. The Michigan State University Turf Team offers five tips for lawn care:

  1. Mow at the highest setting and recycle the clippings. By mowing the grass at least 3 inches high, you reduce mowing time and the amount of grass being cut off the blade. These smaller clips can be mulched back into the grass to return nutrients to the turf. Consistent mulching of the clippings can reduce fertilizer application by one each year. Mowing at the highest setting also helps prevent weeds by crowding them out and encourages a deeper root system, making the lawn more tolerant to dry conditions and could reduce the need for extra watering. Mowing at the highest setting may also help prevent grubs. When mulching, remember to blow or sweep clipping off sidewalks, driveways and roads to prevent the clipping from being washed into storm drains and local surface waters.
  2. Time fertilizer application. While fall is the best time to fertilize lawns for best results, most homeowners still do multiple applications throughout the growing season. Delay your first spring application until May. Make sure the ground is not frozen or saturated with water to prevent runoff into local water sources. MSU recommends a soil test to insure the nutrients applied are the ones needed. Nutrients not needed will be washed away, impacting streams and rivers.
  3. Choose fertilizers wisely. Michigan has a law restricting the use of phosphorus fertilizers. Fertilizers with phosphorus can only be used on newly seeded or sodded lawns or if a soil test indicates the lawn needs additional phosphorus. This is to prevent excess phosphorus from running into local water bodies. Make sure the spreader setting is correct so you don’t over- or under-apply. This can damage the lawn.
  4. Clean up to protect runoff. Sweep fertilizer granules off walkways and driveways back onto the lawn. (It’s the law in Michigan!) This will keep the product where it should be and prevent runoff that can pollute local streams and rivers. If you wash your spreader after use, do it on the lawn, not on the drive or walk to prevent runoff. Maintain a buffer zone near lakes, rivers, streams and storm drains. A buffer zone is an area (minimum of 10 feet is suggested) where no lawn chemicals or fertilizers are used. Even better is to plant native grasses in the buffer zone between lawns and the water. Never blow or dump grass clippings into any water body. This adds nutrients to the water with negative results to water quality.
  5. Water conservativelyLighter, more frequent watering of lawns is recommended. It should not produce puddles. During hot summer months, many grasses go dormant and turn brown unless watered regularly. This brown color is normal, and the grass will return to its green color with regular watering or rain.

Summers are short enough in Michigan. By following these tips, you can reduce the amount of time spent maintaining your lawn and enjoy the summer weather while helping protect the local water resources Michigan is known for.

For more tips on lawn care, visit the MSU Turf website. Also, visit the Gardening in Michigan website and the Home Lawns page for more Smart Gardening articles, tip sheets and events.

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