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Landscaping and Lawn Care

Minimum Measure: Public Education and Outreach on Stormwater Impacts

Subcategory: Education for Homeowners

Photo Description:  Applying too much lawn fertilizer can significantly contribute to water quality problems

Description

This management measure uses education and outreach to control the effects of landscaping and lawn care practices on stormwater. Lawns produce significant amounts of nutrient-rich stormwater runoff, and research shows that such runoff can potentially cause eutrophication in streams, lakes, and estuaries (CWP, 1999a, and Schueler, 1995a). Research also suggests that suburban lawns and municipal properties produce more surface runoff than previously thought. (CWP, 1999b). Pesticide runoff (see Pest Control fact sheet) can contaminate drinking water supplies with chemicals toxic to both humans and aquatic organisms.

Homeowners tend an estimated 40 million acres of turf (Environmental Science and Technology, 2005). If classified as a crop, lawns would rank as the fifth largest in the country on the basis of area after corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay (USDA, 1992). Fertilizers applied to lawns are roughly equivalent to the application rates for row crops (Barth, 1995a). Urban lawns receive an estimated five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre annually (Schueler, 1995b).

Despite this, few residents consider lawn fertilizer a cause of water quality problems. Less than one-fourth of residents rated it a water quality concern (Syferd, 1995 and Assing, 1994), although that rate rose to 60 percent for residents living close to lakes (Morris and Traxler, 1996 and MCSR, 1997). In one Minnesota survey, only 21 percent of homeowners felt their lawn contributed to water quality problems. Interestingly, more than twice that many felt that their neighbors' lawns did (MCSR,1997). Few suburban and rural landowners are aware of their lawn's nutrient needs. Surveys indicate that only 10 to 20 percent of lawn owners take soil tests to determine if fertilization is even needed (CWP, 1999). Most lawn owners don't know the phosphorus or nitrogen content of the fertilizer they apply (Morris and Traxler, 1996) or that mulching grass clippings into lawns reduces or eliminates the need to fertilize. Helping residents, municipalities, and a lawn care professionals learn methods to reduce fertilizer and pesticide application, water use, and land disturbance can help alleviate the effects of a major source of stormwater pollution in residential communities.

Applicability

Lawn care, landscaping, and grounds maintenance occur in all parts of the country, in all types of climates, and in every type of community from rural to urban. Lawn fertilization is one of the most widespread watershed practices conducted by homeowners. In a survey of resident attitudes in the Chesapeake Bay, 89 percent of residents owned a yard, and of these about 50 percent applied fertilizer every year (Swann, 1999). The average rate of fertilization in 10 other resident surveys was even higher, 78 percent, although this could reflect the fact that these surveys were biased toward predominantly suburban neighborhoods, or because they excluded non-lawn owners. Because lawn care, landscaping, and grounds maintenance are such common practices, education programs that teach residents, municipalities, and lawn care professionals to reduce the stormwater impacts of these practices are an excellent way to improve local water quality.

Design Considerations

To reduce the effects of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide on receiving waters, educational program designers should consider targeting lawn care industry workers first. Nationally, seven to 50 percent of consumers use lawn care companies. Lawn care companies exert considerable authority to change homeowner's lawn care practices. For example, in a Florida study (Israel et al., 1995), 94 percent of lawn care companies reported that they had authority to change practices, and that about 60 percent of their customers were at least "somewhat receptive to new ideas." De Young (1997) also found that suburban Michigan residents expressed a high level of trust in their lawn care companies.

Local governments hoping to influence lawn care companies must have programs that actively support companies using fertilizer and pesticide-limiting techniques. Providing promotional opportunities is one way to do this. For example, Virginia's Water Quality Improvement Program offers lawn care professionals the opportunity to agree to use more environmentally friendly lawn care practices. In exchange, lawn care companies can advertise their participation in the program as a promotional tool (VA DCR, 1999). Certificates for completing training workshops are another effective promotional tool. Lawn care company representatives, for example, could be given a certificate for completing a workshop organized by a cooperative extension office.

Training lawn and garden center employees in lawn care and pollution control is another important message-spreading tool. Studies confirm that the two most important sources of consumer lawn care information are product labels and store attendants. Florida's Yards and Neighbors program has worked with a national hardware and garden chain to provide reduced pesticide and fertilizer information to its store employees (NRDC, 1999). A key element of such a program is the promotion of watershed friendly products. Employees trained in the use of such products can advise consumers at the point-of-sale on proper application techniques.

A recent Center for Watershed Protection (CWP) survey of 50 nutrient education programs provides insight on how to make outreach programs more effective. The study revealed a number of important considerations for increasing the public's recall and application of pollution prevention messages. Table 1 lists tips that help relay pollution prevention messages and change pollution-producing behaviors.

Table 1. Tips for creating more effective resident lawn care outreach programs

Tip 1: Develop a stronger connection between the yard, the street, the storm, and the stream.

Outreach efforts should continually stress the link between lawn care and the undesirable water quality it helps to create (e.g., algae blooms and sedimentation).

Tip 2: Form regional media campaigns.

Communities operating on small budgets should consider pooling resources to develop regional media campaigns that use techniques proven to reach and influence residents. Regional campaigns allow communities the flexibility to hire professionals to create and deliver effective media messages. The campaign approach also allows communities to use a combination of media, such as radio, television, and print, to reach a wider audience. Since no more than 30 percent of the population recalls any single outreach technique, effective media campaigns combine several different techniques. See the Using the Media fact sheet.

Tip 3: Use television wisely.

Television exerts the most influence on the public, but communities must carefully choose which channels to use. The CWP survey found community cable access channels less effective than commercial or public television channels. Program managers should consider using cable network channels targeted at specific audiences. They should develop thematic shows that capture the interest of home, garden, and lawn enthusiasts (for example, "Gardening by the Yard"). Well-produced public service announcements on commercial television are also a sensible investment.

Tip 4: Keep messages simple and funny.

Watershed education should not be preachy, complicated, or depressing. Indeed, the most effective outreach techniques combine simple and direct messages with humor.

Tip 5: Make information packets small, slick, and durable.

Educators continually struggle to hold the public's interest while conveying detailed information on good lawn care behaviors. One should take care not to create a ponderous or boring handbook. Create small, colorful and durable packets containing key lawn care behaviors, advice, and direct contact information. These packets can be kept in kitchen drawers or on workbenches for handy reference when the impulse for better lawn care behavior strikes.

Tip 6: Understand the demographics of your watershed.

Understanding a watershed's unique demographics helps program managers decide which outreach techniques will likely work in that area. For example, if some resident speak English as a second language, a fraction of the outreach materials should be produced in their native language. Similarly, watershed managers might consider sending their messages though direct channels to particular groups, such as church leaders, neighborhood newspapers and television channels. See the Tailoring Outreach Programs to Minority and Disadvantaged Communities and Children fact sheet.

Pollution prevention programs may also incorporate strong messages promoting a low- or zero-input lawn. Watershed education programs might strongly advocate reduced turf area, the use of native plants, and an end to chemical fertilization (Barth, 1995b). This message balances the pro-fertilizer messages marketed by the lawn care industry.

Program managers need to incorporate some method for evaluating their program's effectiveness at reaching residents. See the Attitude Surveys fact sheet. Many programs use "before and after" market surveys for insight into what residents understand, the number performing good lawn care practices, which outreach techniques are working at a community level, and what behavioral changes to expect.

Alternative landscaping techniques such as nature-scaping and xeriscaping can also be used. Xeriscaping is a viable alternative to traditional landscaping. Xeriscaping conserves water and protects the environment by reducing water use (TAMU, 1996). It needn't result in cactus and rock garden landscapes. Rather, cool, green landscapes can be achieved and maintained with water-efficient practices. Xeriscaping incorporates seven basic water-reducing principles (NYDEP, 1997):

  • Planning and design. Consider sunlight, soil and drainage conditions; desired maintenance level; which existing plants will remain; plant and color preferences; and budget.
  • Soil improvement. Mix peat moss or compost into soil before planting to help the soil retain water. Use terraces and retaining walls to reduce water run-off from sloped yards.
  • Appropriate plant selection. Choose low-water-using flowers, trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Many of these plants need watering only in the first year.
  • Practical lawns. Limit the amount of grass area. Plant ground-covers, indigenous plants, or slow-growing, drought tolerant vegetation. If replanting lawns, use drought-tolerant grass seed mixes.
  • Efficient irrigation. Install water-efficient drip or trickle irrigation systems.
  • Effective use of mulches. Use a 3-inch deep layer of mulch, such as pine needles, shredded leaves, or bark. Mulch keeps soil moist, prevents erosion, and smothers weeds.
  • Appropriate maintenance. Properly timed fertilizing, weeding, pest control, and pruning preserve a landscape's beauty and water efficiency.

Naturescaping returns native plants and wildlife habitat to your yard or community. Naturescaping conserves water and energy, reduces water and soil pollution, and creates wildlife habitat. The practice is founded on the use of native plants that are naturally resistant to local pests and diseases. Once established, native plants can often survive on rainwater alone. Naturescaping areas can be created by replanting a section of lawn with a wildflower meadow, a hummingbird and butterfly garden, or plants and trees selected for seeds, fruit, and nectar, and nesting boxes.

When creating a naturescape, it is important to include four elements: food, water, shelter, and adequate space. Keep the following steps in mind when creating a naturescape in your yard or community:

  • Visit "wild" places and naturescaped sites and imagine how these landscapes would fit in your yard or community.
  • Educate yourself and your community. Learn about native plants and basic design and care concepts. Attend workshops, and read plant and design books.
  • When you are ready to develop a site plan, choose a small, viewable site. When planning, consider maintenance, water, gardening, and feeder access. Know the existing conditions of the area shade/sun, wet/dry, wind patterns, drainage, existing plants and animals. Once you develop a plan and you have obtained any necessary permits, you are ready to gather your material and begin.

Local governments can meet with local neighborhood and stream groups to promote community naturescaping, host naturescaping workshops, and establish naturescaping demonstration sites in neighborhoods. They can also offer naturescaping assistance to residential, business, and public projects.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management. It relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, helps manage pest damage by the most economical means, with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

The IPM approach can be applied to both agricultural and nonagricultural settings, such as the home, garden, and workplace. IPM takes advantage of all appropriate pest management options, including but not limited to the judicious use of pesticides. In contrast, organic food production applies many of the same concepts as IPM but limits the use of pesticides to those that are produced from natural sources.

IPM is not a single pest control method. Rather, it is a series of pest management evaluations, decisions, and controls. Integrated pest management is a sustainable approach to managing pests, combining biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools. Municipalities can encourage homeowners to practice IPM and train/encourage municipal maintenance crews to use these techniques for managing public green areas. There are many methods and types of integrated pest management, including the following:

  • Mulching helps prevent weeds where turf is absent. Fencing helps keep out rodents. Netting helps keep out birds and insects away from fruit and leaves.
  • Insects can be removed by hand (using gloves or tweezers) and placed in soapy water or vegetable oil. Alternatively, insects can be sprayed off the plant with water or in some cases vacuumed off of larger plants.
  • Store-bought traps can be used, such as species-specific, pheromone-based traps or colored sticky cards.
  • Sprinkling the ground with abrasive diatomaceous earth can prevent infestations of soft-bodied insects and slugs. Slugs also can be trapped in small cups filled with beer set in the ground.
  • In cases where bacteria, fungi or other microscopic organisms are damaging plants, the affected plant material can be removed and disposed of. (Pruning equipment should be disinfected with bleach to prevent spreading disease organisms.)
  • Small mammals and birds can be excluded using fences, netting, tree trunk guards.
  • Beneficial organisms like bats, birds, green lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantis, ground beetles, parasitic nematodes, trichogramma wasps, seedhead weevils, and spiders can be promoted.

Limitations

The public's desire for green lawns is probably the biggest impediment to limiting pollution from this source. Asked their opinion in a Michigan survey about lawns, residents responded most favorably to the statement "a green, attractive lawn is an important asset in a neighborhood" (De Young, 1997). In 2004, America's homeowners spent $36.8 billion on lawn and garden maintenance (Aveni, 1994, De Young, 1997). Convincing residents that a green lawn can be obtained without large amounts of chemicals and fertilizers is difficult when conventional lawn care methods are seen as quicker, more effective and more convenient.

Effectiveness

To date, the effectiveness of pollution prevention programs designed to educate residents on lawn care and landscaping practices has not been well documented. However, the need for such programs is evident. Source-area monitoring in Marquette, Michigan, found that nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in residential lawn runoff were 5 to 10 times higher than from any other source-area (CWP, 1999). This report confirms earlier Wisconsin research findings that residential lawns yielded the highest phosphorus concentrations of 12 urban pollutant sources examined (Bannerman et al, 1993).

Selecting the right outreach techniques critically affects the crafting of a lawn care education program. In market surveys, two outreach techniques have shown promise in changing behavior - media campaigns and intensive training. Media campaigns typically use a mix of radio, TV, direct mail, and signs to broadcast watershed messages to large audiences. Intensive training uses workshops, consultation, and guidebooks to send a more complex message to smaller, more interested audiences. Intensive training requires a more substantial time commitment, ranging from several hours to a few days. The Chesapeake Club in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area has launched an advertising campaign utilizing television, print, and billboards. See the Chesapeake Club Exit EPA Site website to view these examples.

Market surveys suggest that media campaigns and intensive training can produce a 10 to 20 percent improvement in selected watershed behaviors in targeted populations. Because they are complimentary, both techniques can be used in most watersheds. For example, media campaigns cost just a few cents per watershed reached, while intensive training can cost several dollars per each resident actually influenced. Media campaigns are generally better at increasing awareness and sending messages about detrimental watershed behaviors. On the other hand, intensive training is better at changing individual practices in the home, lawn, and garden.

Cost Considerations

The cost of creating and maintaining a program that addresses lawn care, landscaping practices, and water quality varies with the intensity of the effort and the outreach techniques selected. Media campaigns are often expensive to create, but they reach the largest proportion of the community. Intensive training campaigns may be cheaper, but they often require more staff. Costs for flyers and brochures are often inexpensive ($0.10 to $0.50 per brochure), and soil kits and testing may be provided through a local university to reduce costs. Many cooperative extension offices have already produced materials on water quality-protecting lawn care and landscaping techniques, and program managers can save money by utilizing these resources.

The Water-Wise Gardener Program of the Prince William County, Virginia, Cooperative Extension Service educates residents on better lawn-care practices. Through the changes in behavior of more than 700 participants, an estimated aggregate reduction in fertilizer application of 20 tons has been realized in the county in 5 years. The program operates on an average annual budget of approximately $30,000 and requires the yearly time of 1.5 staff persons. Expense is deferred by the use of master gardener volunteers, who act as consultants for volunteer lawns where lawn care practices have been implemented. The program has recently been developed into a regional model that has been applied in several other Virginia counties.

References

Assing, J. 1994. Survey of public attitudes February and July, 1994. Russian Hill Associates. Alameda County Urban Runoff Clean Water Program. San Francisco CA. 84 pp.

Aveni, M. 1994. Homeowner survey reveals lawn management practices in Virginia. Technical Note 26. Watershed Protection Techniques 1(2):85-86.

Barth, C. 1995a. Nutrients: from the lawn to the stream. Watershed Protection Techniques 2(1): 239-246.

Barth, C. 1995b. Toward a low input lawn. Watershed Protection Techniques 2(1): 254-264.

Bowers, Keith J. 1994. A Call for the End of Landscaping, Watershed Protection Techniques, Vol. 1, No. 3. pp 112-113.

Center for Watershed Protection (CWP). 1999. Diazinon sources in runoff from the San Francisco Bay region. Technical Note 106. Watershed Protection Techniques 3(1): 613-616.

Center for Watershed Protection (CWP). 1999. On Watershed Behavior. [www.cwp.org Exit EPA Site]. Accessed 10/24/05.

Chesapeake Club. 2005. Advertising Chesapeake Media Campaign: The Chesapeake Club Spring Media Campaign.[www.cheseapeakeclub.org/media.htm Exit EPA Site]. Accessed October 24, 2005.

De Young, R. 1997. Healthy Lawn and Garden Survey: Data Analysis Report. Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project. Oakland County, MI. 40 pp.

Environmental Science and Technology. 2005. American lawns impact nutrient cycles. [http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es053200p Exit EPA Site]. Accessed October 24, 2005.

Israel, G., S. Pinheiro and G. Knox. 1995. Environmental Landscape Management Assessing Practices Among Commercial Groups. University of Florida. Cooperative Extension Service. Bulletin 307. Monticello, FL. 18 pp.

Minnesota Center for Survey Research (MCSR). 1997. Lawn Care Survey Results and Technical Report, Technical Report 97-9. University of Minnesota. Minneapolis, MN. 60 pp.

Morris, W. and D. Traxler. 1996. Dakota County Subwatersheds: Residential Survey on Lawn Care and Water Quality. Dakota County, MN, Decision Resources, Ltd.

National Gardening Association. 2005. National Gardening Survey Results: NGA Calls for Renewed People-Plant Connection. [http://assoc.garden.org/press/press.php?q=show&id=2317&pr=pr_nga Exit EPA Site]. Accessed October 24, 2005.

Natural Resources Defense Council. 1999. Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Runoff Pollution. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, New York, NY.

NYDEP. 1997. Seven Steps to a Water-Saving Garden. [http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/ways_to_save_water/xeris.shtml Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

PLANET (Professional LandCare Network). 1999. Profile of lawn care industry. [http://www.landcarenetwork.org/index.cfm Exit EPA Site]

Schueler, T. 1995a. Nutrient movement from the lawn to the stream. Watershed Protection Techniques 2(1): 239-246.

Schueler, T. 1995b. Urban Pesticides: from the lawn to the stream. Watershed Protection Techniques 2(1): 247-253.

Swann, C. 1999. A Survey of Residential Nutrient Behaviors in the Chesapeake Bay. Widener-Burrows, Inc. Chesapeake Research Consortium. Center for Watershed Protection. Ellicott City, MD. 112 pp.

Syferd, E. 1995. Water Quality Consortium. Research Summary Report. Seattle, WA.

Texas A&M University(TAMU), Texas Agricultural Extension Service. 1996. Xeriscaping. [http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/plantanswers/drought/drought1.html Exit EPA Site]. Accessed October 24, 2005.

Relf, D., and Day, S.D. 1994. The Virginia Gardener Easy Reference to Sustainable Landscape Management and Water Quality Protection. Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-612. Virginia Cooperative Extension, Blacksburg, VA.

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. 1999. Personal Communication. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Richmond, VA.

 

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