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Liz White describes the landscaping surrounding her year-old waterfront home on Masons Island as "a work in progress," from the wooded edge to the rock garden, from the native grasses and shrubs buffering the shoreline to the organically treated lawn and pesticide-free ornamental trees.
Specifically, the task she's undertaken is to set off her geothermal-powered home with a border that is green both in color and in character.
"We're trying to use native species like shadbush, we're pulling up the invasives by hand and we're working with an organic lawn care company on the lawn," she said, looking from her front yard onto Mystic Harbor. "We're using organic sprays on the trees, and we worked with the landscapers to try to prevent runoff and pollution" from escaping freely into the harbor.
"People may not believe organic practices work, but they do, they just may not work as quickly," White said. "The chemicals kill the good with the bad. Organic practices allow you to keep the good microbes in your soil."
The Stonington homeowner is providing one example of the kind of yard Frances Hoffman and the grassroots organization she heads, CUSH, or Clean Up Sound & Harbors, would like to see more of. Its Sound Friendly Yards program, begun this month, is employing the powers of persuasion and education to convince property owners to turn away from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and to plant native species and sediment-filtering swales along waterways, and to tolerate a few dandelions and some clover on lawns that may not be a golf-course-perfect, two-inch tall green carpet.
Hoffman said the project grew out of CUSH's water testing of the Wequetequock and Pequotsepos coves, Stonington Harbor and the Mystic and Pawcatuck rivers. Specifically, excess nitrogen and phosphorus entering the waterways were creating conditions unhealthy for aquatic life, and that in turn affects humans' recreation and aesthetic enjoyment.
"We found we were dealing with some pretty serious algae growth and other problems," she said. "The more we got up into the coves and inlets, the more we realized the importance of the land-water interface."
Water quality suffers, she added, "when people hammer their lawns with nitrogen and phosphorus."
As part of Sound Friendly Lawns, CUSH earlier this month hosted a workshop on organic landscaping. It was one of several efforts taking place locally and statewide to convince homeowners to voluntarily switch to practices that will reduce the pollutants entering the state's rivers and streams and the estuary they all feed into, Long Island Sound, said Eric Thomas, watershed manager for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
"It is growing," he said. "At first it can be difficult for people to understand, because they don't see the direct connection between their lawn and a water body. But when they are brought into a program where they can see their location within the watershed, and realize the aggregate impacts, a little light bulb does go off. Almost every area of the state has some sort of outreach program. People are looking for information they can understand."
Taking the pledge
The projects range from research and coastal property owner training by turf grass experts at the University of Connecticut to towns hosting demonstration organic and native plant plots on town greens, to local watershed groups doing one-on-one and small group meetings with homeowners, Thomas said. In southeastern Connecticut, at least two groups in addition to CUSH - the Niantic River Watershed Committee and the Eightmile River Coordinating Committee - have launched initiatives.
The Niantic River committee is reaching out to homeowners in East Lyme, Waterford, Montville and Salem with its Landscaping for Water Quality program, said Judy Rondeau, committee coordinator. Through information on a web site and other outlets, homeowners can learn how to reduce the pollutants and runoff from their properties that are the major cause of impairment of the river for eelgrass, fish and shellfish, Rondeau said. Fertilizer runoff has been causing excess growth of algae that cuts off sunlight for eelgrass and causes oxygen depletion, she said.
In the Eightmile watershed, which encompasses Lyme, East Haddam and Salem, the RiverSmart program asks homeowners to take an online pledge not to use chemicals on their lawns, to plant native species and buffer streambanks with plantings, said Pat Young, watershed program director. About 60 homeowners have taken the pledge.
The committee has recently focused on homeowners around Lake Hayward in East Haddam. It is the watershed's most heavily developed area and also the area with the most significant water quality problems, she said. Working with the UConn Extension Service, the committee recently offered Lake Hayward homeowners a buffer package of 20 low-growing native plants for $40 that they could plant along the lakeshore. The packages sold out quickly, Young said.
Overall, she and others are trying to encourage homeowners to consider reducing the size of their lawns, having a greater diversity of plants in their yards and appreciating the connection between how they care for their property and the health of the watershed they're in.
"We need to retrain our brains about what is a beautiful lawn," she said. "A perfectly green lawn is a monoculture that is not offering any significant habitat."
During the CUSH educational program, Hoffman and Frank Crandall of Horticulture Solutions in Wakefield, R.I., delivered the same message.
"How we live impacts the water," Hoffman said as the program began. "This is something we can all do something about."
The event drew about 60 people to learn from Crandall about the benefits of soil testing, building soil health with the use of compost and compost teas and avoiding inorganic products that can pollute groundwater and waterways, pose safety hazards to children and pets and harm wildlife.
"The key principle is to work on improving soil health," Crandall said. "Once you have healthy soil, your plants are going to be healthier and better able to fend off diseases. Soil that's had years and years of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is not healthy."
Picking off the bugs
As part of Sound Friendly Yards, Hoffman has also been contacting boatyards and other businesses about their landscaping practices. At Mystic Seaport, Hoffman was pleased to find a kindred spirit in Gretchen Oat, supervisor of the Seaport's gardens. The Seaport is located along the Mystic River.
"It starts with the soils," said Oat, as she stirred compost - some from an organic farm in Rhode Island and some provided by Zina, one of the Seaport's horses, and her stablemates - with peat and vermiculite to make the mixture that would be added to vegetable and ornamental beds. "If you have healthy soil, you'll have healthier plants that are less susceptible to pests. That's been my approach since I started gardening."
Harmful bugs, she said, are picked off by hand by the Seaport's gardening volunteers. That avoids exposing the many visitors, including young children, to pesticides. She also advocates patience.
"There's that initial panic moment, but sometimes if you wait a bit, the birds will come and take care of the pests," she said, recalling an infestation of tomato hornworms that ultimately turned into a flock's feast.
A few miles to the east, Meg Raftis, a member of the CUSH board, is keeping up her own Sound Friendly property on the water's edge at Stonington harbor. Raftis lives in a four-unit homeowners' association with common lawn and landscaped beds. The association has agreed to follow organic and environmentally friendly practices, and Raftis is helping carry them out and save money at the same time by voluntarily doing much of the work herself.
"You'll notice we have buffers all around, so the water is filtered before it goes into the harbor," she said, standing beside beds of holly bushes and evergreens.
Pointing to a bright yellow dandelion on one of the lawn areas, she added: "You can tell we don't put pesticides on the lawns."
"Earlier this spring I got some corn gluten and put that in my spreader, and I'll put down some organic fertilizer in June," she said. "I'm going to talk to the guy who cuts the grass about letting it grow to three inches and leaving the cuttings on the grass."
• DEEP Organic Lawn Care: http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2708&q=382644&depNav_GID=1763
• CUSH: http://www.cushinc.org/id141.htm
• Niantic River Watershed Committee: http://www.nianticriverwatershed.org/our-programs/landscaping-for-water-quality/
• Eightmile River Watershed: http://www.eightmileriver.org/RiverSmart/index.html
• Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA): http://www.organiclandcare.net/