Through spring is the season of regrowth, autumn is the season for landscaping yards. More than 13 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and most of them have yards and gardens that they regularly tend. Every time it rains, soil, fertilizers and pesticides from these yards are carried into streams, creeks and rivers. Eventually these compounds enter the Bay, polluting the water.
Fertilizers are made up of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. In the water these nutrients cause algae populations to grow rapidly or “bloom.” An overabundance of algae clouds the water, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV. SAV beds are an important source of food and habitat for fish, crabs, waterfowl and other wildlife.
When the algae die, they begin to decay. During that process, bacteria consume large quantities of dissolved oxygen from the water. Often dissolved oxygen levels become so low that fish, shellfish and other aquatic organisms may die.
Soil particles in the water column also block light to SAV and may completely cover organisms that cannot move, such as oysters.
Herbicides applied to lawns and gardens to kill weeds may also kill aquatic plants. Insecticides can be toxic to aquatic insects, as well as to the multitude of wildlife species that may feed upon them. Many pesticides accumulate in the tissue of organisms, such as fish, without actually killing them.
However, animals that feed on contaminated organisms may suffer. The pesticide DDT is an example of this phenomenon known as bioaccumulation. Bald eagles preying on fish contaminated with DDT laid such thin-shelled eggs that they broke prematurely.
Homeowners can reduce the amount of pollutants they contribute by turning their yards into BayScapes. BayScapes are yards landscaped with low maintenance plants. BayScaping uses techniques to conserve water and reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides. By creating natural areas, BayScapes also provide habitat for many wildlife species.
One of the easiest ways to begin BayScaping is to reduce the amount of lawn area. Traditional lawns require constant maintenance such as watering, reseeding, raking and weeding. Ground covers are an excellent alternative to replace some lawn areas. Ground covers are low growing plants that do not require as much attention as grasses.
You can limit the amount of pesticides used in your yard by choosing insect- and disease-resistant plants. Many types of insects and other animals prey upon insects that can be harmful to plants. Encourage these beneficial creatures to inhabit your yard. Spiders, lady beetles, praying mantises, birds, bats, lizards and toads are a few of animals that act as natural insecticides.
To discourage the spread of disease, remove damaged or diseased parts of plants. To reduce the use of herbicides, remove weeds by hand and learn to live with some weeds in your yard.
Excess or wasted water runs off the land carrying nutrients, sediments and pesticides into nearby waterways. By planting species that are tolerant to drought, you reduce the amount of water applied to yards. Simple techniques such as using soaking hoses, watering during the early morning or early evening hours, and mulching gardens and flower beds all help to conserve water.
Another way to reduce the amount of maintenance is to plant native species Although experts disagree on the definition of a native plant, for the purpose of BayScaping, a native plant is defined as one that would have been present when Christopher Columbus came to the Americas. Native plants require less water, fertilizer and pesticides because they are adapted to the local climate and soil types. Replacing non-native plants with native species also saves time and money!
You can attract local wildlife including birds, butterflies and other insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals to your yard by planting native vegetation that provides food for these animals. Nectar, berries, nuts, leaves and bark of many native plants are valuable food sources for wildlife. By arranging plants in a less formal way, with a variety of flowers, shrubs, and trees clumped together, you provide cover and nesting for breeding areas.
We often think that our responsibility ends at our property line. However, the decisions made in individual yards can have far-reaching effects. Start thinking about how you can reduce water and chemical use. Replace high maintenance lawns and exotic flowers, shrubs and trees with plants adapted to this region. Do not try to redo your yard all at once. The task can be overwhelming. Successful BayScaping includes planning. Try focusing on one small area at a time. After a few planting seasons you should be pleased with the results!
Homeowners can get more detailed information to help them turn their lawns into beautiful and low maintenance BayScapes by ordering the free BayScapes packet. Each packet contains a fact sheet on the following topics: Integrated Pest Management; Using Beneficial Plants; BayScapes for Wildlife; Integrated Pest Management; Bayscaping to Conserve Water; Conservation Landscaping; Creat-ing Landscape Diversity and Bayscaping for the Long Term. An action guide accompanies each fact sheet to help homeowners inventory their yard, identify problems and suggest what they can do to change plain yards into beautiful and environmentally healthy areas.
To order a BayScapes Packet, call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office at (410) 573-4578, or the Chesapeake Regional Information Service hotline, 1-800-662-CRIS. The BayScapes program is an environmental education initiative developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay Field Office and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.