High Priority Stormwater Issues: Residential Lawn Care

Healthy lawns can reduce erosion, stream sedimentation, flooding, and runoff of pollutants to local waterways. By taking care of our lawns and gardens properly we can save money, time and help the environment. Building and maintaining a healthy lawn starts with healthy soil, choosing the right plants, practicing smart watering and adopting a holistic approach to pest and nutrition management.

Creating Healthy Soil
Soil tests can help you understand how much nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and lime your soil needs to grow healthy plants. Soil tests can be obtained by visiting the Stafford County office of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) located in the Rowser Building at 1739 Richmond Highway, Stafford, VA.

County residents can take soil samples of their yard, complete an information form and mail the completed test kit to Virginia Tech’s soil lab for analysis along with a check for the cost of the analysis. 

It is a great idea to record the results of your soil test on a seasonal or yearly basis. Yearly soil testing can give you an idea of what nutrients your yard consumes and can help you choose plants that are most appropriate for your yard.

Stafford County has large deposits of acidic soils. These highly acidic soils can reduce plant viability. If your yard is yellowing, has bare spots, weed or moss infestations and fertilizers don’t seem to help, it is likely that your yard’s soils are acidic and need lime. Effective liming can raise the PH of the soil and lower the acidity. A lawn with a neutral PH will thrive with fewer fertilizers. Yards with acidic soils typically require lime treatment every 3 years. Regular soil testing can help you keep track of when it is time to lime your yard.

Using compost and mulching can also help your yard. Leaves, chopped stalks, flowers, grass vegetable scraps and coffee grounds can be used to create compost. Topdressing your yard with compost can reintroduce nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other micronutrients into the soil. You will see the best results if compost topdressing is done at the same time as aerating or over seeding.

Backyard Composting 101
The R-Board offers backyard composting classes for homeowners. The classes will teach you how to compost your food scraps and yard waste, which compost bin might be right for your needs, and how to maximize your compost process. Composting 101 classes are open to everyone, but only residents of Stafford County and Fredericksburg City will be able to purchase a composting bin from the R-Board.
This photo shows someone's hands scooping up soil and in the background are food scraps that have been placed on top of the soil to show the method of composting

Choosing the Right Plants
Generally, when planning and cultivating your yard, you should select plants that grow well in our area. You should also consider the amount of sun, nutrients and water available for each plant. Planting in layers, ground-level, understory and canopy create landscapes that are similar to forest land and can provide habitat for birds and beneficial insects.

Everyday environmental stewardship can start in your yard by selecting and planting native plants and avoiding invasive species. Two distinct geographical regions encompass Stafford County, the piedmont region and the coastal plains region. These regions are generally divided by Interstate 95, with the piedmont region to the west and the coastal plain region to the east. Many plants are native to these regions and flourish because they have been adapting to these lands for a very long time. Development often uproots these plants to create improved living conditions for us humans, but as a land owner in Stafford County, you can help bring these plants back to their natural habitat. Planting native plants can reduce water and fertilizer usage, it can also provide much-needed habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Here are some helpful resources to help you plant native:

Native plants for the Central Rappahannock Region: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58e25c41e6f2e17ea4cb7766/t/58ef80352994ca3c1dd7636d/1492090938528/Native-Plants-for-Central+Rappahannock-Guide.pdf
Native plants to the Coastal Plain Region - https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/document/cp-nat-plants.pdf
Native Plants to the Piedmont Region - https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/document/pied-nat-plants.pdf
Native plants for Riparian Buffer Areas - https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/document/riparian-nat-plants.pdf
Native Plants for Grasslands- https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/document/grass-nat-plants.pdf

Practicing Smart Watering
Most plants do best if soil partially dries out between watering. When it comes to grass, a loss of shine or elasticity in the grass blades is a sign that it is time to water. Trees and shrubs usually don’t need water once their roots have fully established (2 to 5 years) unless there is an unusually dry period. There are a few simple steps that can be followed to lower water bills and keep your yard green.

  1. Build soil with compost and mulch to retain water and reduce evaporation.
  2. Choose low-water use plants.
  3. Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation in beds to reduce evaporation.
  4. Use a timer to water the right amount and at the right time of the day.
  5. Avoid watering pavement.
  6. Water early in the morning. Mid-day watering evaporates and evening watering molds.
  7. Plant dense strips of native tees and shrubs next to streams lakes and ditches to stabilize the soil and to slow and filter runoff.

If you choose to plant trees or shrubs near a ditch be sure to provide enough space for the plant to mature without growing into the drainage path, this will impede the flow of runoff during rainfall events and may cause erosion or flooding. 

Pesticide and Fertilizer Responsibility
Improper nutrient and pesticide application on residential lawns is a source of pollutant that contributes to Chesapeake Bay impairments, so it is important to apply pesticides and fertilizers to your yard responsibly. Not all bugs are pests and generally, on-going pest or nutrient problems can be a sign that your yard is not getting what it needs to stay healthy. To avoid the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides follow these helpful practices:

  • Maintain healthy soil with compost and mulch and regular testing.
  • Select pest-resistant plants and plant them in their preferred conditions.
  • Mow higher, most grasses should be mowed to a height of 2 to 3 inches.
  • Remove diseased plants to keep the disease from spreading.
  • Pull weeds including the root before they spread.
  • Remove dead plants to reduce hiding places for unwanted pests.
  • Always carefully read the package to ensure you are not improperly applying fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Never apply fertilizers or pesticides on a windy or rainy day.
  • Keep spill cleanup in mind when storing or changing containers for fertilizers and pesticides runoff into streams and lakes causing toxic algal blooms that are harmful to aquatic life and even people and their pets.

Here is a helpful video about fertilizer responsibility:

Additional lawn care information can be found here.
Top tips to reduce pollution and runoff can be found here.

VCE also implements the region’s Smart Green Lawns Program.  The Smart Green Lawns Program is offered annually between March 1 and October 31.  Upon enrollment and payment of the enrollment fee, a Master Gardener volunteer visits the residence, collects a soil sample and measures the managed lawn area.  After soil analysis, the County resident receives a Smart Green Lawns handbook and a customized lime and fertilizer plan for implementation using environmentally sound practices to protect downstream waters. 

Additional information regarding both programs is available from VCE either by visiting their website at www.offices.ext.vt.edu/stafford or calling them at (540) 658-8000.