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In Your Own Backyard

There's one place where you can and should take control of the environment - your backyard. Whether it's an urban lot or several acres in the woods, whether it's on the coast or hundreds of miles away in the watershed, your actions there help determine what flows to the Sound. Remember - if you live in the Long Island Sound watershed, you are a nonpoint pollution source for the water in the Sound.

Take a moment to survey your property - the paved surfaces, the soil, the lawn, the garden, the trees and shrubs, the drainage patterns, maybe a pond or stream. There's an environmentally responsible way to manage all these areas, guided by two fundamental principles:

  • Slow down the passage of water from and through your land to give natural purification processes a chance to act
  • Prevent pollution of water that flows off your land

Control your runoff

The goal is to prevent rainwater runoff from rushing directly into the nearest storm sewer or stream. In a residential area with individual homes on one-acre plots, up to 20% of the natural surface area has usually been replaced by impervious surfaces. In a more densely developed urban area, peak stormwater runoff can be five times greater than in natural countryside.

Exactly how to slow down stormwater runoff from your backyard depends on the slope of your land and the porosity of your soil. The worst problems arise where the soil is clay, which doesn't absorb water, or where the water table is close to the surface. If water collects in puddles on your lawn and then runs directly to the street, regrading or terracing might help. Another possible remedy is directing runoff water into a small pond or holding basin from which it can drain slowly.

Take a look at the direction of runoff from your paved surfaces. It's best if the water spreads out over the lawn or some other area where it can seep into the soil. If there is erosion along the water's path, adding gravel, adding mulch, or placing plants along the path can slow down the runoff.

You can also prevent erosion and slow down runoff by controlling the surface materials in your yard. Driveways, sidewalks, and patios don't have to be concrete or asphalt. Instead, there are many porous surface materials that allow rainwater to seep into the ground. When the opportunity arises, choose gravel, crushed rock, or paving materials such as brick, flat natural stone, or modular concrete blocks that can be laid over a firm, well-drained foundation of gravel and sand.

Also, take a look at the surfaces underneath downspouts. It's common for the water to flow through a pipe or concrete channel onto the driveway and the street. Or perhaps you have an eroded gully where the water strikes bare soil. Here is another place where the water could instead be directed out over the lawn or allowed to flow over a porous, gravel-filled area that lets it drain into the ground.

Needless to say, trees, shrubs, and groundcover are an asset. They are beautiful. They slow down runoff. And they prevent erosion. It's not necessary to have exotic and unusual species. In fact, plants that are native in your climate and terrain are best because they've shown their ability to survive there.

Study your lawn and garden

For lawns, the goal is to maintain a lush and healthy stand of grass while minimizing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Sometimes growing a weed-free, dense stand of grass seems impossible. But the experts tell us it can be done in an environmentally sound manner.

Some serious study is needed to get a lawn right. It’s necessary to examine the conditions under which your lawn must grow.

  1. Choose grass seed according to how much sun and shade you have.
    Seed put down between August 15 and September 30 has the best chance to thrive. The grass will get a firm footing before winter and will then grow vigorously from early spring on. A healthy stand of grass will resist invasion by weeds and insects, and needs few fertilizers and pesticides.
  2. Don’t mow your grass too low.
    Weed seeds need sunlight to germinate, and the sunlight reaches them more easily when the grass is low. Also, taller grass develops a healthier root system. For most lawns in the northeast, a mowing height of approximately 2 ½ inches is about right.
  3. Don't fertilize until you have tested your soil.
    Then give it only what it needs. Remember - lawn fertilizer contains nitrogen and excess put on the lawn or spilled on paved surfaces can reach the Sound. Kits for testing the nutrient needs of your soil are available from local nurseries, mail-order nurseries, and garden supply stores. Fertilizer is most effectively used by the grass when applied in October. (The Cooperative Extension Center in your area will probably do soil testing for a modest fee. These centers, part of the nationwide Cooperative Extension System and run by the U.S. Dept. Agriculture, also provide information about water quality, waste disposal, integrated pest management, and other environmental concerns. See listing at the end of the Soundbook for phone numbers.)
  4. Only use herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides as a last resort.
    Closely watch what is happening on your lawn, and only use pesticides to correct problems that you have identified. The cautions about fertilizers and pesticides apply to your garden as well. Don't apply tomato fertilizer and tomato insecticides just because you have tomato plants. Many approaches can be tried in the garden before resorting to fertilizers and pesticides. A good compost pile may provide all the nutrients your garden needs. Some insect pests can be picked off by hand or washed off with a strong spray of water. Others can be controlled with nonpolluting insecticidal soaps, dormant oil sprays, or microorganisms such BT (Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as milky spore). When you do need a commercial pesticide, buy only the the necessary amount and handle it carefully according to the guidelines discussed below for household hazardous wastes.
Soundkeeper, Inc.