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A Must Read Before You Fertilize Your Lawn This Season

A Must Read Before You Fertilize Your Lawn This Season

March 27, 2019 | By: Christianne Marguerite

Fertilizer Spreader_Shutterstock_Standard License

© iStock

Do you want to maintain a healthy, green lawn while saving money on fertilizer applications? With fertilizer season upon us, we talk about how nutrient pollution harms both your lawn and Long Island Sound. We also debunk 3 common myths about fertilizing and provide 5 easy tips for better lawn care practices.

Although it may not feel like it quite yet, spring is here and will soon be in full effect. You know what that means… ‘Tis the season for many things like going on spring hikes with the kids, not having an excuse to not take your dog to the park, pulling out the fishing gear, catching a cold, remembering you can’t wear flip flops to work, planning your summer family trips to the beach, and of course applying copious amounts of fertilizer to your lawn in hopes that your grass will be greener than that of your neighbor. You rush to be first one in your neighborhood with a bright green lawn, ensuring that the grass is freshly mowed before each BBQ you are hosting this year and anticipating how long your lawn will stay green as the months go on, all while adding more fertilizer the second it starts to fade. You may even secretly have your lawn care company on speed dial at this point. Maintaining the “picture perfect” lawn is like a game. Plus, with climate change shifting seasonal patterns and causing erratic weather, the first spring flowers, such as crocuses and daffodils, are blooming earlier. You may feel the need to start fertilizing early once you witness these flowers pushing through the melting snow. Before you get out those gardening gloves, though, we hope you will consider making this an extra-green spring by caring for your lawn with the environment in mind.

Applying fertilizer before May is too early because your lawn needs time to digest the nutrients you gave it last fall. In fact, adding too much nitrogen and phosphorus to your lawn can cause more harm than good. “Applying excess organic or commercial fertilizer to turfgrass can cause reduced soil quality and an increase in plant diseases” says Tom Morris, professor of plant science at the University of Connecticut. “The nutrients plants don’t use are lost from the soil, eventually polluting coastal waters, lakes and ponds. Many people are surprised to learn that heavy applications of compost can lead to phosphorus levels that inhibit plant growth and reduce diversity of healthy microorganisms in soil.” If you fertilize your lawn, the best time to apply in southern New England is around Memorial Day in May or around Labor Day in September. According to Professor Morris, spring and fall are when “the soil supply of nitrogen is typically diminished.” Cutting applications to two times per year will save you money, keep your lawn happy, and keep our environment healthy – it’s a win-win for all.

Nitrogen from lawn fertilizers is one of the leading causes of pollution in Long Island Sound. When nitrogen pollution enters our streams, bays and harbors it can trigger algae blooms which decrease water clarity, reduce oxygen in the water and threaten  marine life. Since applying lawn fertilizer has such a significant impact on coastal waters and our quality of life, it is crucial to learn about changes we can make.

With the help of Professor Morris, we debunked 3 common myths about lawn fertilizer:

  1. MYTH– The higher the nitrogen content, the more nutrients for the plants and the healthier they will be.
  • FACT– Nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for all of life but too much of it can dehydrate plants and stunt the growth of roots.
  1. MYTH– If I use an organic fertilizer with less nitrogen, then I can apply it more frequently throughout the year.
  • FACT– Organic fertilizers, including compost, are an excellent source of slow-release nutrients. However, the rates often recommended for compost can result in excessive phosphorous in soils and pollute nearby waters. It is important to remember that less is better, even with organic fertilizer.
  1. MYTH– I shouldn’t ask my lawn care service to change the way they fertilize my lawn because they are the experts.
  • FACT– Obtaining a second opinion about the practices used on your lawn by your current lawn care service provider is always a good idea, just like it is a good idea to obtain a second opinion or quote for all services. Don’t be afraid to request changes.

Now that we’ve debunked those myths, it’s time to change the way we fertilize. Our friends at Clean Up Sound and Harbors (CUSH) talk about Sound-Friendly Yards and they say it well:  “…there is only one definition of a healthy lawn, and that is one that is green in both color and character.  A healthy lawn thrives in harmony with its surrounding environment…”  Let’s encourage our friends and neighbors to fight for cleaner, healthier waters for generations to come. Together, we can create positive change, starting with halting, or at least reducing, our use of harmful fertilizers.

The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut recommends some practices for cleaner water. Here are 5 easy tips to keep both your lawn and our environment healthy:

  1. Mow high and leave grass clippings on your lawn. Set your mower to cut the grass about 3-4 inches high and leave clippings where they are. This keeps roots strong, slowly releases nitrogen into the soil for a lush lawn and reduces the need for fertilizer.
  2. Try using no fertilizer. We found that about 40% of homeowners in Connecticut don’t use fertilizer on their lawns at all. If you use fertilizer, try cutting the amount you apply in half. If you like the way your lawn looks, make that your new amount or add a bit more until you’re happy. You can also pick grasses and plants that require less water and nutrients to survive.
  3. Apply at the right time, around Memorial Day and/or Labor Day. Only use fertilizer when your lawn needs it. Most lawns don’t require more than two fertilizer applications per year. When in doubt, soil test. Also avoid applying before heavy rains to keep nutrients out of waterways and the Sound.
  4. Check the bag label or ask your lawn care provider. All it takes is a bag check or a quick internet search to learn the details of your fertilizer. Oftentimes, people may not know what is being applied to the lawn because a landlord or lawn care company takes care of it. We suggest learning how often and how much fertilizer is applied to your lawn. Try slow release formulas with less nitrogen and avoid combination products with pesticides and herbicides. They are healthier for children, pets and our water.
  5. Choose plants that reduce runoff. Instead of only grasses, add a variety of flowers, shrubs, and trees to your lawn. The roots will keep your soil intact, absorb nutrients, slow down runoff and buffer pollution near bodies of water, like Long Island Sound. Learn more about managing your lawn here.

What changes will you and your neighbors make this season? Let us know in the comments below.

A Must Read Before You Fertilize Your Lawn This Season2019-03-27T16:26:43+00:00

How Nitrogen Pollution Threatens What People Value Most about Long Island Sound: Quality of Life

How Nitrogen Pollution Threatens What People Value Most about Long Island Sound: Quality of Life

February 26, 2019 | By: Christianne Marguerite

© Hearst Connecticut Media (Erik Trautmann)

A recent communications study conducted by The Nature Conservancy and Save the Sound found that people in western Long Island Sound communities strongly value their unique coastal quality of life. Concerned about nitrogen pollution harming recreational activities, the seafood industry, and a prosperous economy, residents support various solutions and quick local actions to improve water quality and maintain healthy communities.

A mother of two young boys, resident Nicole B. of Rye, New York, is concerned about the environmental health of Long Island Sound and how it affects her family. She chose to live here more than a decade ago due to its proximity to both the Sound and the attractions of New York City. “Rye is like the best of both worlds combined” she exclaims about her community. During the summer, Nicole spends time paddle boarding and swimming at the beach with her family, but she is concerned about the water quality. She is worried that swimming in and consuming seafood from polluted waters, may have long-term effects on the health and wellbeing of her kids. This is a valid concern for many communities around Long Island Sound.

Although progress has been made over the past twenty years to clean up the open waters of the Sound, nitrogen pollution from wastewater and fertilizers, and bacterial contamination from untreated sewage, pose serious risks to coastal waters. Too much nitrogen in streams, harbors and bays triggers the rampant growth of algae, setting off a cascade of problems. When algae decay, they are consumed by bacteria that deplete oxygen in our waters and suffocate marine life. Some algal blooms can be also harmful, producing neurotoxins that poison shellfish we rely on as a well-loved aspect of our seafood and recreational economies. Add to that the pollution that comes from untreated sewage from heavy rains that cause overflows into the Sound, and you have waters that are no longer safe for swimming and beaches that must be closed. Clearly, this pollution puts the health of our wildlife and our communities at risk, degrading our unique quality of life along the Connecticut and New York coastlines.

Long Island Sound is an estuary with great cultural, historical, economical, and ecological significance. It has historically been used for fishing by Native American communities and fishing, whaling, and trading by post-colonial settlers. The waters are now used for recreational activities such as fishing, boating, swimming and kayaking, as well as for a large-scale seafood industry that it supports. It is home to an abundance of wildlife from striped bass and oysters to sea turtles and harbor seals. Since post-colonial settlement in the 1600s, industry has grown rapidly as both coastlines have seen the growth of major cities with New York City in the center of it all. Today, the Long Island Sound region is one of the most densely populated areas in the U.S., with 23.3 million people living within 50 miles of the Sound, as estimated from the 2010 U.S. Census.

Acknowledging the importance of environmental action at the local level, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Save the Sound (STS) embarked on a joint communication project in 2018 to better understand how communities think about water quality issues in western Long Island Sound. The two organizations collaborated to conduct in-person and online surveys, and carry out focus groups in Fairfield County, CT, and Westchester County, NY. As a result, TNC and STS were able to learn about why people care about the Sound, what motivates them to reduce water pollution and which solutions they favor.

Our research shows that just like Nicole B., residents in western Long Island Sound value their unique way of life. From swimming, fishing and boating to peaceful walks along the beach and bird watching, people in the region overwhelmingly depend on the Sound and support actions to protect water quality for future generations. Recognizing that clean rivers, bays and beaches contribute billions of dollars annually from tourism, restaurants and boating activities to the local economy, our study participants indicated high levels of support for policies that prohibit and restrict the use of lawn pesticides and fertilizers, setting watershed-based pollution reduction targets, and establishing a public-private partnership for municipal sewage management.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the focus group participants were so aware of water pollution issues and had even investigated local problems. It was clear from the stories they shared that residents want to be part of the solution and that was really heartening” says Tracy Brown, Director of Save the Sound. Through our ongoing collaboration, TNC and STS will continue working with local leaders in western Long Island Sound and through social media to help expand awareness of water quality challenges and solutions. Learn more about actions you can take for cleaner coastal waters here.

How Nitrogen Pollution Threatens What People Value Most about Long Island Sound: Quality of Life2019-03-26T19:53:14+00:00

Young Environmentalist Is Inspired By Growing Up On Long Island Sound

Young Environmentalist Is Inspired By Growing Up On Long Island Sound

January 23, 2019 | By: Christianne Marguerite

Zanagee Artis at Hammonasset Beach State Park © The Nature Conservancy (Christianne Marguerite)

While home on winter break from Brown University, 18-year old Zanagee Artis, Co-Founder of Zero Hour, talks about his love for Long Island Sound. He discusses how growing up on the Connecticut coastline has influenced his interest in environmental work. With the issue of nitrogen pollution harming our coastal waters, The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Sound Program is excited to see a younger generation taking action to improve water quality.

Zanagee Artis remembers catching crabs along the shoreline with his brothers while in elementary school. They would wait quietly around the tiny holes that surrounded the rocky pier, eagerly anticipating the small crabs peeking out to see the sun. They would giggle as they tried to hurriedly close their hands around the crab before it scurried back inside the hole, making a game out of who could collect the most of these creatures. He says, “We got the crabs in buckets, but we didn’t keep them- we put them back.”

Although he didn’t know it back then, he now realizes that it was childhood experiences like these that inspired his current environmental work. Growing up just a short walk away from Hammonasset Beach State Park in Clinton, Conn., Zanagee spent most of his childhood at the beach. His family often went hiking along the park trails simply to spend time in nature, and sometimes went fishing and kayaking in Long Island Sound. Zanagee’s exploration and understanding of the coastal ecosystem and wildlife as a kid quickly turned into a passion for marine life conservation and climate justice.

“Living by the shore is something that made me more connected to the environment and gives me something that I’m fighting for.”

-Zanagee Artis, Co-Founder of Zero Hour

During high school, Zanagee was part of the National Honors Society and started a Sustainability Committee, which later grew into his school’s Green Team. In the summer between his junior and senior years, he and his friends started a youth-led movement known as Zero Hour. Zanagee is one of many young environmental leaders who are part of this call for climate action. Their mission is to center the voices of diverse youth in the conversation around climate and environmental justice. Zero Hour has partnered with many global environmental organizations and made international headlines with their Youth Climate Lobby Day, Art Festival, and Youth Climate March in July 2018. They are currently gearing up for their next large-scale climate action in Florida this July 2019.

Zero Hour March On Capitol Hill. © thisiszerohour.org

Zanagee is now a first-year student at Brown University, planning to double-major in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Last semester, he had the opportunity to do research on plastics in Rhode Island for his undergraduate course titled “Humans, Nature, and The Environment: Addressing Environmental Change in the 21st Century.” Each student partners with a local community organization to complete a project for the class. Based on his interests, Zanagee was paired with a task force created by Governor Gina M. Raimondo (D-RI) to address reducing plastics in the area. His goal was to research different local, national, and international legislation about “plastic bags, plastic bottles, and plastic straws” to figure out what has been most effective and present his findings and recommendations to the task force for a future policy. The issue of single-use plastics is near and dear to his heart because he believes that not only is there “a ton of contamination in recycling,” but also that plastics are a major pollutant in our oceans and are causing great harm to our marine life and coastal ecosystems.

Cladophora Algae in Stonington, Conn. © The Nature Conservancy (Rachel Lowenthal)

His words are echoed by The Nature Conservancy’s own mission- to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy’s Long Island Sound Program focuses on restoring healthy conditions in coastal rivers, harbors and bays by speeding up efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution in this renowned estuary. Like plastics, nitrogen poses serious risks to marine ecosystems and to human health. Nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, and fertilizers eventually makes its way into the Sound and triggers the rampant growth of algae that can deplete oxygen in the water, kill fish and poison the shellfish that we eat.

Harmful algal blooms are occurring more frequently as water temperatures warm. This means we must reduce more nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers to maintain healthy conditions for swimming, boating and catching crabs in the Sounds coastal harbors and bays.

Together with partner organizations and local stakeholders, The Nature Conservancy is actively working to reduce nitrogen pollution in the Sound through projects that raise community awareness and build support for policies like setting pollution limits, restricting fertilizer use and investing in modern septic systems. The Nature Conservancy seeks local perspectives, including the voices of youth to help ensure that we take quick, sustainable action for cleaner water and safer beaches that young people can enjoy now and for generations to come.

“Environmentalists like Zanagee set a wonderful example of how young people can help safeguard the natural systems we rely on” director of outreach and watershed projects, Holly Drinkuth, said. “Long Island Sound inspires and sustains so many people who live here – and we can all do our part to keep it clean and healthy”.

Some of the Sound’s coastal harbors and bays have reached a tipping point – but there are solutions we can use to protect our unique way of life. Everyone can do their part to support conservation by encouraging local officials to support policies that protect our environment. Young leaders like Zanagee are stepping up and calling for greater global environmental action because they realize that we have run out of time. Together with his peers, Zanagee is empowered to dedicate his life to environmental work and inspire others to do the same. His generation has mobilized into a powerful intersectional movement for climate justice so future generations can see a better, cleaner world and we should all be following suit.

Young Environmentalist Is Inspired By Growing Up On Long Island Sound2019-02-26T15:29:10+00:00

Securing a Safe and Healthy Future for Shellfish in Long Island Sound

Securing a Safe and Healthy Future for Shellfish in Long Island Sound

As the 2018 summer season heats up, shellfish are already experiencing difficult conditions across Long Island Sound. Biotoxins produced by harmful algae have been detected in Long Island’s harbors and bays; a reminder that, to protect our delicious local shellfish, there is an urgent need to reduce nutrient pollution in streams, rivers and coastal water bodies.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to reopen and upgrade 5% (about 17,000 acres) of Long Island Sound’s restricted or closed shellfishing areas by 2035. Unfortunately, this target is behind schedule, with shellfish beds recently downgraded in New York due to water quality concerns, and certain areas closing in Connecticut because they are difficult to frequently test and monitor.

Shellfish across Long Island Sound are affected by two main issues, naturally occurring pathogens and harmful algal blooms (HABs). Pathogens—disease causing bacterial or viral microorganisms—are often delivered to coastal water bodies through stormwater drains and pipes. As a result, communities across the Sound regularly close shellfish beds following a heavy rain to protect people from harvesting potentially contaminated seafood.

HAB’s, in contrast, are caused by nitrogen pollution in the coastal waters. Nitrogen from the atmosphere and from fertilizers and wastewater on the landscape makes its way into streams, groundwater, rivers and eventually the harbors and bays of Long Island Sound. Too much nitrogen in these coastal waters can fuel the growth of harmful, neurotoxin-producing algae that contaminates shellfish.  And data compiled by The Nature Conservancy and Stony Brook University show these harmful blooms have occurred across Long Island from 2013-2017.

According to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), the occurrence of toxic algae blooms is on the rise in the Northeast in both freshwater and marine environments. Algae blooms are fueled by nitrogen pollution entering water bodies, but they are also influenced by conditions enhanced by climate change. For example, the EPA suggests that warming temperatures, increased carbon dioxide and increased rainfall will create conditions to further fuel these blooms, which can seriously threaten public health.

Direct contact with toxic algae can cause skin rashes, gastrointestinal and respiratory disease, and liver damage. Consuming shellfish contaminated with biotoxins can result in paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), both potentially fatal conditions that can cause major damage to the brain. In early May 2018, 1,600 acres of shellfish beds of Shinnecock Bay were closed due to the emergence of red tide. This June, brown tide returned for a sixth year to the Great South Bay, and this algae continues to hinder the recovery of the region’s shellfish industry, having already caused a 90% decline in clam landings since 1985. Similarly, in late May Huntington Harbor tested positive for marine biotoxins, resulting in 400 acres of closures in harvest areas. The biotoxins lasted for almost a month, but conditions eventually improved and the harvest areas were reopened.

To secure safe and healthy shellfish resources for future generations we must reduce nitrogen pollution now. There are clear, proven solutions available and they include: addressing failing sewage infrastructure, upgrading outdated septic systems, eliminating or reducing fertilizer use and capturing stormwater during intense rain events. Together, these steps can help keep our waters clean and healthy for the recreational and commercial harvest of shellfish, and preserve this important part of our coastal economy and way of life.

To stay informed about water quality across Long Island Sound and what you can do to make a difference, subscribe to our mailing list. For more information about shellfish closures in New York, visit the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) Temporary Closures page. In Connecticut, the public should call their town Shellfish Commission or Health Department for more information. The contact information for shellfish harvesting in Connecticut towns are listed here.

Securing a Safe and Healthy Future for Shellfish in Long Island Sound2019-02-26T15:45:23+00:00

Take Care of Your Lawn and the Sound!

Take Care of Your Lawn and the Sound!

Coastal Connecticut voters know that fertilizers and pesticides impact water quality, but what steps can they take to protect clean water and care for their lawns?

This Memorial Day weekend, you might be making your way to the shore to swim, boat and fish. Chances are, lawn care isn’t the first thing on your mind, but the actions you take in your yard can make or break your fun in the water.

Studies show nitrogen-rich fertilizer from residential lawns can cause serious impacts in Connecticut’s coastal harbors and bays.  Using too much fertilizer or applying at the wrong time can cause this nutrient-rich pollution to end up in streams and rivers and eventually Long Island Sound. Here, this nutrient pollution fuels blooms of algae can reduce water clarity or cause rampant growth of seaweed that interrupts swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding. They can also be harmful to humans and animal health, resulting in beach and shellfish closures.

In 2017, The Nature Conservancy conducted public perception research in southeastern Connecticut to better understand coastal residents’ beliefs about the causes of water pollution and their willingness to take actions to address the problem.   More than half of respondents we interviewed identified fertilizers and pesticides as pollutants that threaten water quality. Also, only about one-third of homeowners reported using fertilizer on their lawns, and of those, 65% stated they apply fertilizer one or two times per year.

The great news is, over 75% of respondents in our study indicated they are willing to reduce the amount fertilizers and pesticides they use. So how can people do that? The Niantic River Watershed Committee, New England Interstate Water Pollution Control and the Conservancy teamed up with  turf scientists at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) to identify three actions homeowners can take for a healthy lawn and a healthy river.

The first action is to leave grass clippings on your lawn. Clippings decompose rapidly, returning nutrients to the grass, maintaining moisture and reducing yard waste. Turf scientists have found that after a few years of leaving clippings behind, you can reduce the amount of fertilizer you use!

The second action is to use less fertilizer – or none at all. Many people choose not to apply fertilizer but you can test your soil to see what nutrients your lawn needs. If you fertilize, try using one-half to one-third the amount recommended on the fertilizer bag.  After two weeks, if you like the way your lawn looks, use that amount. If it’s not quite right, try applying a little more until you like the results. Think of the recommendation on the bag as a “super-size” meal – not every lawn requires so much food.

The third action, is to fertilize at the right time. If you apply fertilizer once a year, turf scientists suggest the fall around Labor Day or the spring around Memorial Day. If your lawn needs fertilizer twice a year, try to stick to those dates when grass is most able to absorb nutrients for a healthy green lawn.  Applying fertilizer during the dormant and semi-dormant seasons – late fall through early spring and during the hot summer months – is a waste of money because grass can’t use the nutrients. Also, it’s important to avoid applying fertilizer before a heavy rain.  You can learn more about the Niantic River Watershed’s project by visiting healthylawnshealthyriver.net.

You can also check out the Long Island Sound Study’s “Sound Friendly” gardening practices and tips for a healthy yard, like finding ways to reduce the area of lawn you need to fertilize and irrigate. Finally, if you hire a landscaping service, be sure to request that they not use toxic chemicals on your property, and if fertilizer is necessary, ask them to use low nitrogen, slow-release fertilizers. Otherwise, fast-acting fertilizers are easily washed into streams and rivers and eventually wind up fueling algal growth in the bays and coastal waters of Long Island Sound.

By taking a few simple actions, you can help keep nitrogen rich fertilizers out of Long Island Sound and protect your family, pets and wildlife. And studies show, people who try one action are more likely to try another. Consider spreading the word about these lawn care practices and see if a friend or neighbor will join you in trying something new.

Most people don’t realize their lawn management practices can affect others and the environment, but it is possible to enjoy a healthy lawn and healthy, clean water.

Check out our “Make Changes at Home” page for more tips on lawn care and wastewater maintenance to reduce nitrogen pollution to Long Island Sound.  Also, please join our mailing list for the latest news about nutrient pollution and water quality impacts around the Sound!

Take Care of Your Lawn and the Sound!2019-02-26T15:45:55+00:00

How Can a Website Help Solve Nitrogen Pollution?

How Can a Website Help Solve Nitrogen Pollution?

The first step towards solving a problem is learning more about it. This project, supported by a Long Island Sound Futures Fund grant, represents three years of collaborative effort. The Nature Conservancy brought scientists and local leaders together in the Saugatuck River area to better understand the sources of nitrogen pollution and the threats they pose to coastal waterways.

Many people are surprised to learn residential septic systems represent the largest source of nitrogen pollution to the Saugatuck River. Although conventional septic systems do a good job treating bacteria in wastewater, they aren’t designed to reduce much nitrogen. When it rains, nitrogen from fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere and from fertilizers on land runs off into creeks and streams which flow into the river and Long Island Sound. Luckily, scientists and engineers have developed solutions to capture and treat nitrogen before it reaches waterways. Armed with this information and local knowledge, leaders in the Saugatuck River began to identify ways they could address nitrogen pollution and reduce the occurrence of water quality problems in their area.

This website not only describes nitrogen pollution and how it puts communities at risk, but also offers solutions that can help to alleviate the problem. Our solutions page offers information about the technologies and practices that reduce nitrogen, compares their cost and effectiveness, and helps determine whether they’re a good fit for your home or community.

We believe the Long Island Sound Clean Coastal Waters website will be a platform for citizens, community leaders and partners to access updates and information. We’ll highlight stories about nitrogen pollution problems and share examples of progress and success taking place around the Sound.  And sign up for our mailing list to stay informed and receive the latest water quality news and blog updates. Together, we can restore and protect clean coastal waters in Long Island Sound!

How Can a Website Help Solve Nitrogen Pollution?2019-02-26T15:46:19+00:00