Lawn Tips for a Healthy Great Bay

Peter Wellenberger

We didn’t always have a love affair with our lawns. Until the late 18th century, most rural homeowners had a patch of packed dirt outside the front door or a small garden that contained a mix of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Up until then, lawns were not practical and were seen strictly as a luxury for wealthy landowners who could afford grounds keepers to maintain the grass with hand tools.

That all changed with the invention of the rotary mower and garden hose. Since then, green, weed-free lawns are common today and millions of Americans spend billions of dollars on landscaping companies to cut and maintain their grass. According to a 2000 Gallup survey, over 26 million US households hired a professional landscaping company. That little patch of green has become a big business.

Unfortunately, when homeowners over-fertilize or apply fertilizers incorrectly they are contributing to the nutrients pollution problem facing so many of our waters. The Great Bay estuary is no exception. The total nitrogen load to the estuary has increased significantly in recent years leading to declines in water quality, as evidenced by significant losses of the estuary’s cornerstone habitat – eelgrass. Preventing nitrogen pollution from lawn care is one of the steps needed to restore water quality and the health of the estuary.

Personally, I have never understood the allure of a green lawn. I don’t want to spend my weekends cutting grass or hire someone to do this work. However, if you prefer having a lawn it is important to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. First, consider downsizing your lawn by planting native shrubs and flowers. Most of my yard is a wild field or landscaped with native plants which provides excellent wildlife habitat. My family enjoys watching all the birds that are attracted to the diversity of plants living here.

Many people choose to have low-maintenance lawns which require no fertilizer. This is a great way to have an environmentally friendly lawn that does not impact water quality. For those who choose to use fertilizer, I encourage you to get your soil tested at the NH Cooperative Extension to learn what fertilizer best meets your needs and how best to apply it.

If fertilizer is required, the best strategy is to use an organic (not synthetic), slow-release nitrogen fertilizer. On the back of the bag, slow-release nitrogen is listed as “water insoluble nitrogen.” By using a slow-release type fertilizer, fewer applications are needed and some experts suggest only fertilizing once a year in the fall. Always remember to carefully follow the directions, as applying any kind of fertilizer can have an adverse impact on water quality. You should only use fertilizer with a content of at least 50% water insoluble nitrogen to protect against adding excess nitrogen to the groundwater that could eventually flow into the estuary.

Other tips for maintaining a healthy lawn with less environmental impact include:

Mow High – Taller grass has deeper, healthier roots; 3 inches or higher is recommended;

Leave Grass Clippings Behind – Grass clippings are a free source of nutrients;

Aerate Your Soil – Aeration allows water, air and nutrients to reach the soil more easily;

Fescue Seeds – Use seed mixtures with a high percentage of fescue grasses, which require less watering and mowing.

More free tips on low input lawn care are available from the UNH Cooperative Extension. The Extension also offers an excellent publication called Landscaping At the Water’s Edge, which provides excellent advice on how to create a natural buffer between your lawn and a waterway.

For more information about the Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper and my work to protect the Great Bay estuary, visit: You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter.


Focus Areas

Clean Air & Water


About the CLF Blog

The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Conservation Law Foundation, our boards, or our supporters.