Summers are tough on the Chesapeake Bay. Water quality monitoring data show a large area of oxygen-depleted water in the mainstem of the Bay, often from the Patapsco River near Baltimore to the mouth of the York River near Hampton Roads, VA.
Oxygen is vital to the animals and plants in the Bay. During low oxygen (hypoxic) or no oxygen (anoxic) conditions, almost all Bay life is affected. The combination of excess nutrients and sediment flowing into the Bay contribute to hypoxic conditions.
The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are found in organic matter, fertilizers, pet wastes and more. When it rains, nutrients from streets, lawns, farms and sewage-treatment plants wash into streams and rivers, eventually entering the Chesapeake. These excess nutrients fuel the rapid growth of algae, creating blooms that cloud the water and reduce sunlight reaching underwater plants and animals. When these large blooms die, huge amounts of oxygen are used up as they decay.
Sixteen million people live in the Chesapeake watershed. Each of us contributes to nutrient pollution. One way to reduce the amount of nutrients is through conservation landscaping, or BayScaping. The goals of these landscaping practices are reducing pollution and improving the local environment.
Typical landscapes need high inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, water and time, as well as a lot of energy (human and/or gas-powered) to maintain.
Environmental impacts can be reduced further by decreasing the area requiring gas-powered tools, using native species that can be sustained with little watering and care, and using a different approach to maintenance practices.
One of the simplest ways to begin is by replacing lawn areas with locally native trees, shrubs and perennial plants. Native plants occur naturally in the region in which they evolved. Their structure, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries and other fruits provide food and shelter for a variety of birds and wildlife. The roots of these larger plants are also deeper than that of typical lawn grass, allowing them to better capture rainwater.
While nonnative plants might provide some of the above benefits, native plants have many additional advantages. Because they are adapted to local soils and climate conditions, native plants generally require less watering and fertilizing than nonnatives. Natives are often more resistant to insects and disease as well, and so are less likely to need pesticides.
Conservation landscaping requires less maintenance over the long term, while still presenting a maintained appearance. Like any new landscape, some upkeep is required, but it is usually less costly and less harmful to the environment. New plants need watering and monitoring during the first season until they are established. Garden maintenance is reduced to only minimal seasonal cleanup and occasional weeding or plant management.
Conservation landscaping can also be used to address problems such as steep slopes or poor drainage Native species planted on slopes or along waterbodies and drainage ditches help to prevent erosion and pollution by stabilizing the soil and slowing the flow of rainwater runoff.
Planting a variety of plants is gardening, but for greater ecological value, plants should be grouped and planted according to the growing conditions. Plants sharing similar requirements are found together in plant communities that make up habitats. Habitat is where wildlife finds food, water, shelter and breeding or nesting space.
So instead of planting a tree in the middle of lawn, try grouping trees, shrubs and perennials to create layers of vegetation. These layers provide the structure and variety needed to support wildlife. Plants that produce seeds, nuts, berries or nectar provide sources of food. Stems and seed heads of flowers and grasses can provide food and cover throughout the fall and winter.
All animals need water year-round to survive. Even a small dish of water, changed daily to prevent mosquito growth, will provide for some birds and butterflies. Puddles, pools or a small pond can be a home for amphibians and aquatic insects. Circulating water will attract wildlife, stay cleaner and prevent mosquitoes.
By redefining landscaping goals and gradually shifting to using native species, landowners receive greater rewards, in terms of environmental quality, improved aesthetics, cost savings and bringing wildlife to the property.
The region’s wildlife, plants, habitats and network of streams and rivers leading to the Bay are tremendous resources. As the population in the watershed grows and land-use pressures intensify, it is increasingly important to protect our remaining natural areas and wildlife and reduce nutrients flowing into the Bay.
Individual actions are great, and every bit helps no matter what size. By working together, the Bay and its treasures can be conserved for future generations.
For information: check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BayScapes and Schoolyard Habitats Program.
For help in selecting native Bay plants for one’s yard, get a copy of “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping” by contacting Mary Cordovilla at 410-573-4591 or firstname.lastname@example.org.