Homeowners in Mashpee recently received a letter from the town asking them to eliminate the use of fertilizers on their lawns, and residents came together Tuesday night, September 14, in an online forum to discuss and learn more about lawn care and how it affects clean waters.
Guests discussed lawn alternatives, finding the best grass for the environment and homeowners’ lifestyles, the harmful effects of certain fertilizer nutrients and how to fertilize responsibly, and town bylaws for responsible property care.
Mashpee Clean Waters, Mashpee Environmental Coalition and Mashpee Environmental Oversight Committee organized the meeting and asked four experts to speak.
Russ Norton, an extension educator for the agriculture and horticulture program for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and with the University of Massachusetts Amherst landscape nursery and urban forestry program, presented on best management practices for soil and nutrients in lawns.
He said an improperly maintained lawn could cause nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the environment, which can pollute water bodies and other environmentally sensitive areas.
To prevent this, homeowners and businesses can choose grass and vegetation that captures and filters pollutants while still providing function and appeal.
“If you are in the plant world, you’ve probably heard this statement a lot in the past; it’s all about choosing the right plant for the right place,” Mr. Norton said. “This applies to grasses just as it applies to any landscape plant.”
Mr. Norton said fine fescues are the ideal grass for low-maintenance lawns where nutrient drainage is concerned. Fine fescues are also most well-suited to the type of soil on most of Cape Cod. There are other characteristics, however, such as shade tolerance, heat tolerance and drought tolerance, that are important to consider for specific sites.
Homeowners often mow their lawns too low, the educator said. Keeping grasses between 2½ and 3 inches will keep lawns healthier by allowing grass to establish deeper root systems and prevent drainage of harmful nutrients. Watering deeply but infrequently also encourages deep rooting.
For fertilizing, Mr. Norton recommended getting a soil test. UMass Amherst offers soil tests for homeowners to drop off a sample of their lawn to test for nutrient levels and soil acidity. This information can help people find the right fertilizer fit for their lawn.
“When we’re fertilizing, we should be basing our fertility on what is actually going on in our soils,” he said. “We generally don’t need phosphorus in our soils, so a soil test can prove that.”
Ashley K. Fisher, Mashpee’s natural resources director, said fertilizer has three fundamental nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. In the common fertilizer someone might pick up at the grocery store, the bag usually has three numbers on it. These numbers correlate to the amount of nutrients in that particular fertilizer.
Homeowners want to pick a fertilizer based on their soil chemistry, Ms. Fisher said. Since phosphorus is not needed for most Cape soil, she said to look for bags with a “0” in the middle, as that indicates there is no phosphorus in the mix.
“I’m sure you’re all aware that we had two cyanobacteria blooms and events at Mashpee Wakeby for the second year, and in Ashumet,” she said. “So this just goes to show that we’re still getting an input of phosphorus.”
Mashpee town bylaws prohibit nitrogen fertilization onto lawns between October 30 and April 14 and disallow its application onto impervious surfaces such as parking lots and driveways, within 100 feet of protected wetlands and within 24 hours of a heavy rain event.
These bylaws are all intended to prevent nutrient runoff into waterways.
In addition to picking the correct fertilizer and grass for your lawns, guest speakers at Tuesday night’s event discussed the importance of buffer zones in reducing freshwater pollution.
Katelyn Cadoret, assistant conservation agent for the Mashpee Land Stewards Program, discussed how the Mashpee Conservation Department enforces the Wetlands Protection Act to enhance, maintain and restore buffer strips.
Buffer strips are made of native vegetation and separate lawns from wetland areas. The Protection Act requires a 50-foot minimum buffer strip for properties that border wetlands to protect the water quality of the natural resource.
The act, and other Mashpee town bylaws, regulate what kinds of vegetation are required in buffer strips that will best absorb harmful nutrients before they reach protected areas. Mainly, they encourage the planting of fine fescues and other native Cape plants.
The town does allow selective cutting of buffer strips if a resident applies and proves that the cutting will not interfere with the quality of the buffer strip.
The conservation department has a webpage with a list of native species that work best for buffer strips and for lawn alternatives.
Virginia Scharfenberg of the Mashpee Environmental Coalition gave a presentation on her experience with lawn alternatives. Through intentional landscaping and planting native species, she showed how Cape residents have been able to prevent nutrient runoff while still maintaining aesthetically pleasing lawns.
“When you’re looking at alternative design and practices, you’re working with the Cape Cod environment that we have. We want to protect our aquifers and fresh waters,” she said. “Have a great landscape to look at and know with a good conscience that you’re helping preserve the beauty of our Cape Cod.”