It has been a tough summer for the Bay. Water quality monitoring data showed a large area of oxygen-depleted water in the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay, from the Patapsco River near Baltimore to the mouth of the York River near Hampton Roads.
Oxygen-depleted water occurs nearly every year, but in the past 20 years, scientists have never before seen this extent of oxygen-deprived conditions.
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 most dramatic reaction to this is when blue crabs crawl out of the water in search of oxygen.
The combination of excess nutrients and sediment flowing into the Bay, along with heavy rains and cool temperatures contributed to this summer’s condition.
The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are found in organic matter, fertilizers, pet wastes and more. During this unusually rainy year, nutrients from streets, lawns, farms and sewage treatment plants washed into streams and rivers, eventually entering the Bay.
These excess nutrients fuel the rapid growth of algae, also known as 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 Bay watershed. Each of us contributes to nutrient pollution. One way to reduce the amount of nutrients we contribute is through conservation landscaping, sometimes referred to as “BayScaping.” Conservation landscaping has as specific goals the reduction of pollution and the improvement of the local environment.
Many typical landscapes need high inputs of chemicals, fertilizers, water and time, and require a lot of energy (human as well as gas-powered) to maintain.
The effects of lawn and landscaping on the environment can be reduced if properties are properly managed using correctly applied organic alternatives. Environmental impacts can be reduced more by decreasing the area requiring gas-powered tools, planting 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 naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. The structure, leaves, flowers, seeds, berries and other fruits of these plants provide food and shelter for a variety of birds and other wildlife. The roots of these larger plants are also deeper than those of typical lawn grass, so they are better at capturing rainwater.
While non-native 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 non-natives. And, because they are often more resistant to insects and disease as well, native plants are less likely to need pesticides.
With conservation landscaping, there is often less maintenance over the long term, while still presenting a “maintained” appearance. Conservation landscapes, like any new landscape, will require some upkeep, but are 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. The money spent replacing one’s current landscaping can be recouped by using less chemicals, water and gas.
Conservation landscaping can also address areas with such problems as erosion, poor soils, 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.
To collect and filter runoff, depressions can be created and planted with native plants suited to temporary wet conditions. These “rain gardens” will capture water and hold it for a day or two and remove pollutants washing off the surrounding land.
Habitat is where wildlife finds food, water, shelter and breeding or nesting space. Planting a variety of plants is gardening, but for greater ecological value, group plants according to the conditions available in the garden. Plants that share similar requirements and are naturally found together in plant communities make up habitats.
Instead of planting a tree in the middle of the 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 fall and winter.
All animals need water year-round to survive. Even a small dish of water, changed daily to prevent mosquito growth, will be enough 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 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 Chesapeake Bay 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, these treasures can be conserved for future generations.
More and more public buildings in the Chesapeake watershed are using BayScaping.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BayScapes and Schoolyard Habitats Programs: www.fws.gov/r5cbfo
- Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, BayScapes Program: www.acb-online.org
- National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitats and Schoolyard Habitats Programs: www.nwf.org
- Natural Resources Conservation Service, Backyard Conservation Program: www.nrcs.usda.gov/feature/backyard
- “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping”: www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/nativesMD/index.htm
- “Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas”: www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/
- “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping”: Chesapeake Bay Watershed, This color guide, which should be available by November 2003, provides planting requirements and uses for than 400 native plants. Write to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 177 Admiral Cochrane Drive, Annapolis MD 21401.