Local Towns Explore Natural Turf Management

By Michael Souza
The Mystic River Press • 4/21/2015

STONINGTON — It’s time for a new way of thinking when it comes to taking care of turf.

For years, amateurs and professionals alike have relied on chemical fertilizers and herbicides to get that thick green grass that makes them the pride of the neighborhood. However, it has been proven these supplements degrade water quality, thus it might be time to rethink those methods.

It’s something Clean Up Sound and Harbors, a local water quality nonprofit focusing on the Fishers Island Sound region has known for years. That’s why the group took action last month by sponsoring a one-day seminar on how to improve soil health and safety.

Lawn and turf management along the Connecticut shoreline is a growing concern. According to 2013 data collected by National Geographic, 60 percent of fertilizer-nitrogen applied to residential lawns was found to percolate into the groundwater. This flows into the nearest stream and eventually makes its way into local marches, inlets and coves, where it acts as fertilizer, naturally. This quickens algae growth and in turn, steals oxygen from the water which wildlife needs to survive.

Being proactive, the nonprofit sponsored a workshop on natural lawn and turf management for municipal personnel responsible for parks and playgrounds in Stonington, North Stonington, Groton and Westerly. “Natural Turf Management: A Systems Approach,” was designed to improve the health of communities and waterways through the adoption of organic turf care practices.

The premise of the course was that a healthy, organically maintained turf is more resilient, drought-tolerant and resistant to pest infestations than traditional chemically maintained turf.

“Turf fields are worked very hard so granted they are difficult to maintain,” said Frances Hoffman, a past president of CUSH and one of the people behind promoting the new approach, “but there are alternatives to the traditional treatments.”

“Synthetic fertilizers have been used for decades but they can kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil. They can also increase groundwater and surface water toxicity,” she said.

Rather than use traditional materials such as synthetic fertilizers, the workshop focused on new methods such as proper soil pH, organic fertilizers such as compost and turf fertility. It also highlighted microorganisms and their role, as well as the proper height to cut turf and correct irrigation practices.

“There is no harmful stormwater runoff or groundwater contamination with pesticides and herbicides because they are not used and there is no quick release of nitrogen wash-off,” Hoffman said. “Within a few years the turf will stabilize.”

In one sense it was a lesson in getting back to the basics. And it has already reaped success.

Cape Cod is a sole-source aquifer, its only supply of drinking water comes from the ground. Organizations such as GreenCAPE and the Pleasant Bay Alliance have promoted similar workshops to protect well water sources from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. Most municipalities have already adopted the methods as standard operating procedure.

The Stonington school system agrees with the philosophy. “We have been practicing a no pesticide, no herbicide program for some time,” said School Superintendent Van Riley. “Fran Hoffman and others have sponsored these events and we are following up on the latest information.”

In addition to underwriting the workshop, CUSH has worked with several organizations in Stonington including the town, Ocean Community YMCA, and the Denison-Pequotsepos Nature Center to evaluate and address landscape and water-quality issues.

As part of its advocacy to protect Fishers Island Sound, and its coves and rivers, CUSH recently submitted recommendations to Stonington’s Plan of Conservation and Development committee.

“We can reduce nitrogen pollution and stormwater runoff carrying chemicals, waste and oil into our waterways,” said Hoffman.

In January the organization received a report on the water quality in the Sound. The report, “Water Quality of Four Estuaries in Coastal Stonington and Mystic Connecticut, 2008-2013,” showed that summer algae levels were generally too high, except for the well-flushed Stonington Harbor. Inland, water quality was rated “poor” in Pequotsepos and Wequetequock coves. This has a direct impact on the quality of nearby waters, from the Pawcatuck to the Mystic rivers.

In 2010, Grassroots Environmental Education, a Long Island-based environmental health group released a report for the New York Legislature. It concluded the annual cost of maintaining a field using natural products and techniques can be as much as 25 percent less than the cost of conventional programs.