An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

September 4, 2011

Red Tide Green Lawns

(This post is a bit wordier than I usually like to be, but bear with me, it is an interesting series of events, at least I think so.)

For Christmas last year, my parents gave my son and me a pair of kayaks. This summer I have been going out several times a week, mostly on the Lafayette River which is just a couple of blocks from the house.  The Layfayette is a slow moving tidal river with numerous branches and arms and is more of an extension of the bay, different than an inland river merely bent on reaching the sea.  In one place or another, I have lived within sight of this river for the past 20 years, and sad to say, I have never actually been on it until this year.  The kayak has enabled me to see a very familiar part of my world from an entirely different perspective, as only a view from the water can. 

Friday, August 5th:
Our friend David was in town for a visit.  He now lives in Amsterdam, but grew up on the Lafayette, and it has been a very long time since he was on the river of his youth.  So I thought he would enjoy seeing his old house and neighborhood from the vantage of the water, so we took to the kayaks.  He had a great time and remarked at how much cleaner it was and how healthy the marshes seemed to be.  I too have been surprised at all the life I have seen in, on and around the river, despite being completely surrounded by the city.  Osprey, several species of herons and egrets, numerous ducks and geese all call the river home. I am not sure what they are, but whenever I have gone the fish are constantly jumping.  It is easy to see why people also like to live on its shores; in most places it is quite beautiful. However, things are not always as they appear.

Saturday, August 6th:
I went out on the river by myself for an extended trip and explored some of its coves and creeks.  On this day's trip I noticed a gardener tending a well-manicured lawn that ran right down to the river's edge, just lawn then river, no buffer.  He was apparently applying some fertilizer, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of that was going to stay in the lawn and how much would end up in the river.  Nearing my own neighborhood I noticed something else.  In patches the water lost its normal khaki green color and took on a reddish brown tint.  Gone also was its typical smell, a little salty, slightly funky, but an aroma I like.  In its place was the odor of seafood going bad, and this combined with the color change lead me to think that red tide was back again.

Monday, August 8th:
The Virginian Pilot, our local newspaper, runs a story about patches of red tide in the Lafayette and Elizabeth Rivers.  Red tides are the result of  algae blooms, and according to the Pilot are a modern phenomenon in this area.  Several conditions need to be present for the blooms to occur - warm water, some fresh water influx and excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen.  We certainly have had the warm temperatures, and August has been rainier than normal.  The nitrogen comes from several sources including the atmosphere, street pollution, dog and geese feces, leaks from an aged sewer system, washed-in leaves and grass.  However, the number one source of nitrogen is from fertilizer applied to lawns and gardens.  Being a plant, the algae responds to nitrogen, and when it grows especially thick it can clog the gills of fish.  When it dies oxygen is depleted from the water creating dead zones where life struggles.  Another thing the pilot mentioned was that the Lafayette appears to be the incubator for red tide and spreads it to other local rivers.  Immediately after reading the article, I wrote a letter to the editor.

Friday, August 12th:
After thinking the paper was not going to publish my letter, it shows up in this morning's edition.  They titled it Red Tide, Green Lawns, which I borrowed for this post.  In it I mentioned my observations of the river and the man I saw fertilizing his lawn.  I played my horticulturist card and urged people to reduce the amount of turf in their yards and replace it with native trees, shrubs and perennials.  I also urged them to switch from resource intensive and maintenance-heavy fescue to St. Augustine or Bermuda, and to only apply fertilizer at the right time of year (slow-release organic at that).  

Because of the letter I get a call that afternoon from someone at the Elizabeth River Project praising my letter and inviting me on a group kayak trip the next day.  The trip was open to the public, and I was planning to go anyway, but I was flattered just the same.  The Elizabeth River Project is a local organization that is trying to change the Elizabeth (and its tributary the Lafayette) from being one of the most toxic rivers on the east coast, to one you wouldn't mind swimming in or eating the fish from.  They have a program for local businesses, schools and homeowners that encourages  practices that will lead to a healthier river and the bay beyond.  The program is called River Star, and I sign up that afternoon.

Saturday, August 13th:
There is a great turnout for the kayak tour, perhaps 50-60 people, and the city of Norfolk provides kayaks for those that don't have their own.  Our armada paddles out of Haven Creek where Joe Rieger, staff biologist for Elizabeth River Now, speaks about my neighborhood's under-construction living shoreline and the nature of red tide, plus he takes us to the site of the river's next oyster refuge.  While we were out on the river, I was also asked to speak impromptu about fertilizer, lawns and the river.  Again I was flattered.  Back on shore, I met with some of the staff of Elizabeth River Now and agreed to possibly helping them, schedule permitting.

Monday, August 15th:
I get another call, this time from the executive director of Wetlands Watch, another local environmental advocacy group.  He also praised my letter and wanted to know if I would be interested in helping them in some way.  Already stretched thin, I declined.  By this time my head was swelling.

Now here comes the juicy part.  That afternoon I receive a large packet in the mail from the Executive Director of the Virginia Turfgrass Council.  Keep in mind my letter only appeared in the paper on Friday, so this packet was put together quickly.   In it were two university studies, which I did read, one promoting the benefits of turfgrass and the other detailing its role in nutrient management.  However, the best part was a letter he sent with it.  In it he states that as a horticulturist and as the Executive Director of the Virginia Turfgrass council he frequently encounters an "anti-turfgrass bias" among other horticulturist, and that my letter contained a phrase showing such a bias.  Well I stepped in a pile of something on that lawn, didn't I?

For the record, I want to state that I do not have an anti-turfgrass bias, per se. But I do have a bias against:
  • growing a plant that many people have been induced to treat chemically through the regular application of excessive amounts of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide, especially when there are alternatives better acclimated to the local environment 
  • maintaining plants with millions of small engines that pollute at a geometrically higher proportion than automobiles do, especially when there may be other, lower-impact methods
  • turning our yards into water-hungry monocultures, leave that for the farmers, or grow drought tolerant turf
  • and from a design perspective, having vast expanses of green sameness, especially when there are so very many other much more interesting plants that can offer color, texture, food, wildlife benefits and opportunities to introduce nature to our children
I realize that people, Americans in particular, are not ready to give up their lawns, nor am I advocating that they do so.  However, I would like to see less lawn in favor of more diverse plantings.  I would also like to see people make more environmentally sensible choices with what lawn they do have.  And this isn't just relative to the people who own waterfront property, or even people who live nearby.  No matter where you live, whatever you do in your garden or to your lawn has consequences "downstream".
But you know that.


  1. Good for you. I was just thinking today when I was out kayaking how very precious it all was and yet it is such a delicate balance, isn't it? Very cool that your letter got such prompt attention.

  2. I think it's wonderful that so many heard your message and wanted to take it further and involve you in the process!

  3. I've never quite understood the appeal of the expansive green lawn. Some have suggested that we are genetically hardwired with the desire to replicate the open grasslands where humans evolved, but the gene must be suppressed in me. I'm still working on a long term plan to reduce my "lawn" by 5 to 10 percent every year until there's nothing left to mow.

    So nice to see your thoughtful perspective getting such attention. I'm glad it has such an articulate and eloquent spokesman as you!

  4. Les, I am proud of my anti-turf grass bias and you should be too--great series of events you chronicled. In order to achieve what we want--the reduction (or elimination) of lawns--we need to be diplomatic. But honestly, is there any redeeming value to a non-native monoculture supported by toxic fertilizers and pesticides and displacing plants that would support our increasingly endangered native flora and fauna? As a nursery owner, I use that position to educate my customers about the problems with lawns, and I am glad there are other people in the trade who do the same. The turf grass person who wrote to you is motivated by money--turf grass as manager of nutrients indeed! Carolyn

  5. i'm pretty excited by all the lawn alternative talk going on these days. you've laid out some important points (yay, you!) and it's great to know that people are listening. what a big change we have an opportunity to make in the world by the simple decision to reduce the amount of grass we tend and plant a native something instead!

  6. The turf grass people must be working overtime. In a meeting of Master Gardeners we were told that a survey showed that we as a group had an anti-turf bias. The University which supports our program in the State receives a lot of funding from the turf grass group and we were being warned to speak of the positive attributes of turf.

  7. Excellent post all around! Great information for all homeowners in our area. I will pass this along. Thanks!

  8. I came over from one of Joan Perry's posts and am fascinated by not only your narrative and photos but also by the comments left here. How wonderful that you have taken time to share your knowledge on your blog as well as the newspaper. Kudos!!

  9. People, especially people who live near water sources, do need to be more conscious of the fact that how they treat their property effects the land around it. Especially downstream. From chemicals, to basic soil runoff, it doesn't take much to effect the habitat around you. More importantly, it doesn't take much to reduce your impact as well.

  10. I agree people don't need to give up their lawns--only learn to maintain them responsibly. The lawn maintenance industry is a bad thing for the environment as it exists today, so dependent on overuse of chemical fertilizers and polluting machines. The industry actually promotes ignorance in order to sell more product. Your post is wonderful. Truth telling. People need to be educated and that's what you're doing. Great post!

  11. Kayaking on that river at dawn must be heavenly. The photos are so very beautiful and serene.

    Interesting how an industry lobbyist sought to shut you down that quickly. Looking at the VTGC website, BASF looks like a funder. Follow the money...

  12. Les, First of all kudos to you for taking the time to write the letter and kudos to those who read it AND took action by either calling you or sending you a package. It shows people care and are interested. That's step number one. As far as defending yourself I don't think you need to do that simply because the science that says nitrogen contributes to water pollution and algae growth is IRREFUTABLE. Nuff said. Obviously there are problems with people not understanding how the ecosystem works or of not caring enough to simply choose a different way of managing their properties. We'd like to think everyone is responsible but sometimes people just don't understand or don't care are are not aware of how their actions affect us all. I did not think you came off anti turf at all. A buffer zone would not only help to filter the fertilizers but would IMPROVE the value of the property while protecting the environment. I got that you care about the environment and not that you were anti turf at all. It's a good topic to get folks a talking as you can see. Good job.

  13. You celeb you. Congrats on tugging on chains. We all need to do it now and then.

  14. Love this! I just shouted to my husband, "Kayaks for Christmas!" Well done, Les.

  15. Great posting Les. Wonderful photos to go along with it. While living in Seaford I would go on the similar soapbox with neighbors. Proper turf management is key....and a buffer.

  16. Great post. People can make a difference. Love your pics.

  17. Hi Les,
    Good for you for writing that letter and for speaking up for healthy waterways. I have never been a party to the North American obsession with the green lawn, but I don't have a problem with them, if they are maintained responsibly.

  18. What a whirlwind of events that you never expected. Amen to all you support. Fertilizer misuse is rampant and those lawns eventually drain into waterways of some sort...rivers, lakes,streams or groundwater.

  19. Excellent post Les. I really hope that you can help persuade a few more people to swap lawn for more interesting plants that require less intensive and environmentally damaging management. There is so much money invested in the lawn management business, people are skilled at pulling out the research that supports their viewpoint, and ignoring the rest. Good luck educating the people who really matter, the lawn owners. Hopefully the more people who get out on the river and start to appreciate the beauty and vulnerability on their doorstep, the less lawn, and the less fertilizer use.

    The kayaks are a wonderful gift, I love to paddle too, though have never lived near enough a river to do so regularly. It is on my wishlist...

  20. Les a wonderful stance you took and the interest in your letter proved quite a bit on important what you had to say really was. Like another commenter, as a Master Gardener, I have been chided on discussing alternatives to grass, pesticides and herbicides. I was told to stop and only put forth information provided by Cornell. I was stunned considering their IPM position. And as a designer, have to do what client's want, but at home do what I wish. The red tide is a warning and be taken seriously. I did not realize that it gets in the fish gills. I did know that it depletes nutrients and oxygen, additionally rendering the waters dead when out of control. I am glad your letter made waves. And it is time those that matter listen.

  21. The response from the turf grass guy gives you an idea of what we are up against: power and money. Your letter likely caused an electronic alert so they could quickly try to spin you before you could do them real damage. Great post and worth every word!

  22. Les, you are my hero and an inspiration to all who read your blog.

  23. I'm a returning visitor to your wonderful blog; I live a little further to your north, on MD's Eastern Shore. I read this post today, a couple weeks after receiving a citation due to a neighbor complaint about my yard. Suffice it to say that people here are illogically obsessive about having a "perfect" neighbor's manicured lawn is bright green even in the dead of winter, in a sci-fi unnatural way...kinda disturbing, if you ask me. I have been working to reduce the square footage of grass in my yard since moving in to my home three years ago; you can imagine the kind of consternation this has caused. The citation I received really saddened me, as I think my yard looks beautiful, with its beds of bird- and bug-friendly perennials and shrubs. I live near the headwaters of the Wicomico River, and hope I can find an organization in my area akin to those you've been fortunate to work with...maybe a "River Star" flag in my yard would dissuade the lawn police from leaving another note on my door, at least. Anyway, I refuse to give in to them...the message you've articulated here is SO important...and I firmly believe that anyone living within the beleagured watershed of the Chesapeake Bay has a responsibility to treasure THAT natural resource over any excessively manicured artificial lawn.