Redefining the beautiful lawn when it comes to Chesapeake Bay's health

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, April 25, 2010

As I squirted Roundup herbicide on what I considered unsightly weeds in my front yard recently, two guilty questions suddenly arose in my brain: How much am I poisoning the Chesapeake Bay? And, because I've written indignantly about authorities' failure to protect the bay, am I a hypocrite?

So I did some research and learned the problem wasn't the Roundup. My main offense, environmentally speaking, was wanting to have a lawn at all -- or at least a big, permanently green, uniformly grassy one.

I was aware of that, but only vaguely. Now it's clear I should adjust my vision of how my yard should look. I should replace some of the grass with ground cover, shrubs and trees, preferably native species that support local wildlife. I shouldn't overload it with fertilizer or water but just let the grass go brown during hot, dry spells.

In general, the yard should be less orderly and more wild. If it attracts critters, even mice and snakes, that shouldn't be a nuisance but a positive sign of biological enrichment.

"People have to see beauty in their yard in a different way," said Laura Beaty, 63, of McLean, a natural yard promoter at the Potowmack Native Plant Society. "They shouldn't be so fussy and tidy."

A new mind-set about yards is especially important in our region because bad lawn habits threaten the bay, one of the world's largest estuaries and an authentic natural treasure.

Overuse of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on lawns is a significant source of bay pollution. Admittedly, they're not the worst offenders. That dubious award goes to agriculture, followed by sewage and air pollution.

But lawn fertilizer is one of the principal contaminants in urban-suburban runoff, which is the only major source of bay pollution that's actually rising, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of the Environmental Protection Agency, the District and the six states in the bay's watershed.

A study issued this month by the Chesapeake Stormwater Network found that what it terms "mowed turf grasses," or lawns, have become the biggest single "crop" in the watershed. The most concentrated patch of lawns, by far, is here in the Washington region.

"By changing [yard owners'] attitudes and behaviors about what constitutes a green lawn, it may be possible to achieve major runoff and nutrient reductions to the Chesapeake Bay," the report says.

The study noted that if the $5 billion a year spent on lawns in the watershed were shifted entirely to cleaning up the bay, it would raise enough money in five years or less to cover the full cost of restoring the estuary.

All of this raises an obvious question: What will the neighbors think?

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