Yard Care Practices for a Healthy Watershed

Yard care

By: Kadafi El-Kardah, Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Taking care of your yard is a great outdoor activity for the whole family – and with most of us staying home to help control the spread of COVID-19, there’s never been a better time to get your hands dirty. If you are up to the challenge, there are plenty of yard improvement projects you can do right now that will help save you money and beautify your property. An area of land that drains into a particular river or body of water is known as a watershed, and it should always be kept in mind during the discussion and implementation of yard improvement projects. When it rains, pollutants from our gardens, sidewalks, and streets are picked up and carried to the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, sources of our drinking water. Because land activity is directly linked to watershed health, maintaining a healthy residential landscape is something good you can do for the environment. 

Here are a few best practices to follow when taking care of your yard:

  1. Testing Your Soil

Are your plants showing signs of malnutrition? Is your grass rebounding slowly from the winter season? If your answer to either of the two questions is “yes,” you may want to consider testing your soil. A soil test will indicate what your soil needs to produce a strong healthy landscape. A basic test measures the pH level and the potassium, calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium contents in your soil. You can request a soil test from Penn State Extension* or seek out other ways of getting your soil tested during this COVID-19 pandemic. Getting a soil test can save you money on fertilizers. The soil test will help you determine what type and how much fertilizer your property requires. If you need to fertilize, consider using organic products because they can offer many benefits to your plants. Organic fertilizer is made of plant- and animal-based materials and can improve the health of your soil.  They take time to break down, which enriches your soil content. They also contain plant nutrients in low concentrations, so you don’t have to worry about damage caused by overfeeding.  

2. Mowing

Mowing the grass is one of the most physically labor-intensive jobs in maintaining a yard and can be expensive considering costs of gasoline, fertilizer, and herbicide. All of these products can be harmful to humans and wildlife. When it rains, excess fertilizer washes into storm drains that empty directly into local streams.  The added nutrients from fertilizer cause harmful blooms of algae, which reduces the oxygen in the streams available for fish and other aquatic life – so be careful not to over apply. It’s best to leave grass clippings on the ground as a free, natural fertilizer for your lawn. Mowing over fallen leaves is also a good way to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil. 

3. Planting Natives

When speaking about plants, you’ve probably heard the terms “native” and “invasive.” Native plants like azaleas, black-eyed Susans, and milkweed are indigenous to Pennsylvania and will thrive in local soil, often requiring less water and little to no fertilizer. Unlike invasive species that originated elsewhere, native plants promote biodiversity and provide shelter and food for local wildlife. Due to their deep root systems, native plants filter more pollutants and soak up more water than grass. If you are interested in replacing some of your lawn with plants, native plants are your best bet. Don’t have enough space? Not a problem! Many native plants do quite well in containers. 

Invasive plants should be avoided.  These are species that were artificially introduced to the area, so this is not their usual environment. As the name suggests, invasive plants can grow out of control, which can affect the look of your property. They grow fast and can inhibit the growth of the other plants in your garden. They can spread rapidly because birds and wind can transfer the plant seeds around the area. As a result, invasive plants pop up in locations where they were never planted or intended. Since they require effort to control and remove, it’s important to keep up with their growing patterns. 

4. Watering

It is important to be careful when watering. If you water in the morning before the sunrise, more water will soak into the ground and less water will evaporate off your lawn. If you choose to water in the daytime when the sun is out, much of the water will evaporate and less water will soak into the ground. Daytime watering is very costly and provides little to no benefits. To conserve water, you might want to use a soaker hose to water directly into the soil. When watering, you should also be mindful of paved surfaces that may be in your yard or surrounding your landscape. When water runs off a paved surface, it carries debris, chemicals, and other contaminants along with it. In order to protect the health of your rivers, consider reducing stormwater runoff on your property, not contributing to it. 

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5. Managing Stormwater

Managing stormwater on your property will reduce the amount of water running to the storm drain. How can you manage stormwater? Start by implementing the stormwater tools that are best for your property. Philadelphia’s “Rain Check” program can help with that. A collaborative effort of the Philadelphia Water Department, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Sustainable Business Network, Rain Check not only helps residents identify solutions but can also help out with costs. Through Rain Check, residents can get a free rain barrel, or purchase a downspout planter, rain garden and permeable pavers at a reduced cost. The program improves residential landscapes while protecting our rivers and streams at the same time. Due to COVID-19, the past few Rain Check workshops have been canceled, but will return later this season. Visit their website for their upcoming schedule and reserve your spot today!

We hope you found this guide useful and are considering taking some of these steps to care for your yard, save money, and protect the water quality in our rivers.

*Penn State Extension: The Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory remains open; however, they have implemented an emergency contingency plan and are operating at a limited capacity. They request that only high priority samples be submitted at this time. These include drinking water and agricultural samples associated with food/crop production. 

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 About the Author: Kadafi El-Kardah is the Community Engagement Specialist at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC). PEC protects and restores the natural and built environments through innovation, collaboration, education, and advocacy. Through a partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department, PEC is raising awareness of the effects of water pollution via stormwater runoff. For more information, visit their stormwater page at https://pecpa.org/program/stormwater-education .

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