Landscaping Tips for River-Friendly Backyard

by Diane Scherer et al

The success of our efforts to restore oysters and underwater grasses, and improve water quality in the Magothy begins in our backyards. Responsible land use and gardening help control the amount of nutrient and sediment run-off that would otherwise make its way into our river and the bay. Using environmentally-responsible gardening practices, we can all contribute to a cleaner and healthier river. The following landscaping tips are taken from materials provided by the Bay-Wise Committee, a local group of Master Gardener volunteers.

  • Create a landscape that is naturally healthy by selecting plants suited to the conditions existing in your yard. These include both native plants and others that thrive in our area. Avoid plants prone to constant disease problems and chose those that tend to be pest free. You can also select disease-resistant varieties of such long-time garden favorites as roses that do well without the use of chemicals.
  • Pests and diseases can be kept under control by learning how to work with nature rather than against it. Using “least toxic solutions” like plant selection, proper siting and biological controls reduces or eliminates the need to add toxic chemicals to our environment. The pros call this IPM (integrated pest management). By simply walking around your yard on a regular basis, you can identify and address problems before they threaten the health of your plants. (Be sure to stop and smell the roses.)
  • Should you need to use a commercial product, there are various horticultural oils and soaps available that provide less toxic alternatives to traditional products. Overuse of pesticides destroys other non-pest beneficials that would otherwise act as natural predators for unwanted pests. Residual pesticides also pose health issues for humans, pets and wildlife, and contaminate our waterways.
  • Minimize the use of paved surfaces. If your landscaping plans include installing walkways or a patio, consider using sand-set pavers or stepping stones that permit rainwater to be absorbed rather than running off onto the streets.
  • Another simple but effective way of reducing run-off from your yard is to avoid directing downspouts onto paved surfaces. Instead, direct the water into your garden beds or onto your lawn. You can also look to our conservation-minded forebears and install a rain barrel. Sometimes looking backward is also a way to move forward.
  • Along the river and other waterways, create vegetative buffers that include a mixture of native grasses, perennials, shrubs and trees to absorb run-off and filter pollutants. Run-off from storm water is especially problematic on steep slopes. Control erosion by installing ground covers and other plants that follow the contours of the slope. On especially steep slopes, you might need to create terraces, which can then be planted. Use mulch to cover bare spots while your plantings gradually fill in to stabilize the slope. If you live in the critical area, the county requires a buffer management plan describing your landscaping project.
  • For lawns, do not exceed recommended amounts of fertilizer. Twice as much isn’t twice as good. Recommended amounts are those that can be absorbed and used to promote healthy growth. Amounts in excess of this either wash off the surface (and into our storm drains) or are absorbed into our groundwater. In the river, this excess nitrogen creates algae blooms that block the sunlight and deplete the oxygen that our river’s grasses, oysters, crabs and fish need to thrive.
  • With this in mind, look for slow release fertilizers and apply no more than one pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn. For cool season grasses like tall fescue, the best time to do this is in the fall. Spring applications result in the need for more frequent mowing during the summer months. The current recommendation is to do two applications—one in September and another in October. Avoid applying fertilizer on frozen ground. There are also corn-based products available that can be used in lieu of traditional fertilizers.
  • Rethink the routine application of herbicides on your lawn. If you do decide to use them, do not exceed the recommended amounts. Avoid the use of traditional “weed and feed” formulations that are typically applied in spring. Remember, the best time to apply fertilizer is in the fall (hey—less mowing, more time to do some fishing).
  • Avoid getting fertilizers and herbicides on paved surfaces, where they are easily washed off via street storm drains into the river. Please protect our river by not applying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides within 25 feet of waterways.
  • You can significantly reduce the need to purchase and apply commercial fertilizers by practicing “grass cycling.” Mow cool season grasses high (2 ½-3 ½ inches) and leave the clippings in your lawn to naturally add nutrients to your soil. Mowing high also reduces water needs and shades out weeds. Most turf grasses dislike the acidic soils prevalent in the Magothy watershed and require periodic liming. Before liming, however, have your soil tested to determine both its liming and nutrient needs.
  • Think about what your actual lawn needs are (pets, kids, those summertime barbeques) and consider replacing unneeded grass areas with ground covers or planting beds. Stop struggling to grow grass in those areas where the sun don’t shine and replace it with low-maintenance ground covers or other plants. A landscape comprised of perennials, shrubs and trees is much more effective than lawn in filtering pollutants and controlling run-off.
  • When watering, direct it away from hard surfaces. To conserve water, overhead watering should be done in the morning, when there is less evaporation. Watering late in the day doesn’t give foliage a chance to dry out before nighttime and can lead to various plant diseases. The most efficient watering is achieved by using soaker hoses and drip or micro-irrigation, which eliminate possible run-off.
  • In your garden beds, group plants with similar growing needs (water and sunlight) together. This will minimize their maintenance needs and enable you to water efficiently. For healthy plants, regularly incorporate organic matter into your soil.
  • If you have plants plagued by constant problems, move them to an area in your yard that more closely meets their needs. For example, azaleas receiving too much sun are prone to lacebugs. Moving them to a more shaded area will usually eliminate the problem. That lackluster aster struggling in a shaded area will thrive in a sunnier, drier spot.
  • Avoid planting exotic invasives like Japanese honeysuckle. Instead, consider planting our native Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), whose coral blossoms attract hummingbirds and butterflies. If you have invasives in your yard, consider removing them or keep them under control. Don’t allow them to invade natural areas, where they choke out plants native to our area.
  • Incorporate native plants in your landscape. There are many lovely varieties available that have evolved with and are well-adapted to the watershed. If sited correctly, once established they require minimal maintenance. Try the beautiful turtlehead (Chelone glabra), a fall-blooming native that is host to the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. Berried plants like winterberry (Ilex verticillata), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and the lovely spring-blooming serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) provide habitat and food for birds and other critters. The seed heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), our state flower, provide a needed winter food source for birds.
  • Use mulches to reduce watering needs and control weeds. You can use compost, shredded leaves, pine needles, excess grass clippings or a variety of commercial products. In the fall, adding shredded leaves to your garden beds is a cost-free way to enrich your soil. You can speed this process (and aerate compacted soil) by simply digging them into your beds. In the spring, apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to conserve water and reduce weeds during the summer months.
  • For the health of your shrubs and trees, keep mulch away from the base. Avoid “mulch volcanos” around tree trunks. They deprive trees of needed water and oxygen, and can lead to mold and bark diseases.
  • Trees can also help reduce energy use and its attendant pollution. Planting evergreens on the northwest side of your house will protect it from winter winds and lower your heating bill. Deciduous trees planted on the south side will decrease your air conditioning costs during the summer and allow the sun to warm your home during the winter.

Spring is coming. One fine day, take a walk around your yard and consider some of the suggestions made above. It can be as simple as planting the lovely turtlehead (the butterflies will come) or as elaborate as creating a new garden bed to replace an area of spotty turf. Then walk down and say hello to the river.

For more information, visit You can see how your yard measures up on the Bay-Wise “yard” stick. You can also request a visit to your yard by local Master Gardener volunteers, who will provide advice on environmentally-friendly solutions to your gardening problems. This is a free community service. If you’re interested, 36 river-wise inches earns you a cool blue heron sign to display in your yard. The Bay-Wise program receives funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.