Displaying items by tag: lawn
It is iconic. The American lawn: green, neatly cut and free of any plant but grass. No violets. No clover. Definitely no dandelions!
It ranks right up there with motherhood, baseball and apple pie as a symbol of America. Think of those lush, green golf courses in the deserts out west, or the photos of Phoenix transplants from the Midwest with lawns. The American lawn is more than a stereotype – it is an expensive addiction.
If you visit the Google home page today (August 1), you will notice an illustration of a woman looking through a telescope at a comet. That’s Maria Mitchell, the first person to identify a comet using a telescope. Prior to that, the only known comets were those that could be seen with the naked eye. The comet was referred to as Miss Mitchell’s Comet at the time.
Maria was born on August 1, 1818 in Massachusetts to a Quaker family. Her father had an interest in astronomy, and Maria grew to share his passion – and ultimately to make it her career.
My friend, Crystal Lake resident Patrick Murfin, wrote a story about her that he posted on his blog today – that’s how I learned about Maria and her accomplishments.
Among other achievements, ahe was the first woman on the faculty at Vassar College where she taught until retiring at age 69. Her appointment to the faculty was controversial because she was female, and while there, she fought to receive pay equal to her male colleagues. This struck me as particularly funny since Vassar was founded as a school for women to ensure that they had access to a quality college education!
You are now thinking: what does this blog have to do with land, conservation, nature or the environment?
Well, Maria said that her inspiration came from Nature rather than God (which was heresey at the time and got her kicked out of the Quaker Church), and her love of the cosmos was a part of her wanting to understand how the Universe worked.
Mostly, I wanted to share her story here because like many of us who love nature and work for its benefit, Maria didn't let social conventions keep her from pursuing her passions. She was born in a time when women did not attend college, did not have careers (let alone careers in science), and certainly did not teach at the college level! So, this young woman learned as much as she could on her own and applied her intelligence to studying the cosmos, ultimately securing a College faculty position teaching Astronomy!
Today, those of us in the conservation field replace the conventional lawn with prairie, install rainbarrels and raingardens to capture and harvest rainwater instead of sending it to the storm sewer, and take other steps to reduce our "footprints" on the Earth even if our neighbors look at us strangely.
These actions may not earn any of us the honor of being featured on the Google home page, but they certainly make a difference for future generations, just as Maria's efforts made a difference for all women since her time!
In McHenry County, water is all around us: Groundwater. Wetlands. Watersheds. Stormwater. Even so, all of the water people use locally comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up for human use.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock). The water in the aquifers starts out on the surface and slowly works its way down to the porous material where wells can access it for pumping back to the surface.
Sand and gravel aquifers are found 10 to 400 feet below the surface in deposits left by the glaciers 12,000 or more years ago. It can take water up to 50 years to reach these aquifers depending on how close the sand and gravel is to the surface.
Sandstone aquifers are up to 1,300 feet (one-quarter mile) below the surface. Sandstone formations are the remnants of ancient sea beds that were compressed into stone over millenia. Water from the surface may take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the sandstone. Note: the water moving into sandstone aquifers under McHenry County is believed to come primarily from Boone County.
Here are some important things to know about the water under McHenry County:
- Most of the available water is in the shallow sand and gravel aquifers. But, that water is more susceptible to contamination because pollutants from the surface will reach it sooner or later. Note: The communities of Fox River Grove and Crystal Lake had to issue advisories to residents in recent years because of elevated levels of chemicals in their shallow wells. And more than 10 years ago, the City of Harvard had to close a shallow well because of chemical contamination.
- Water in the sandstone aquifers is less likely to become polluted, but there is also much less of it. Also, McHenry County municipalities are already withdrawing more water from deep wells each year than is filtering back into them. So, they will run dry one day.
The good news is that McHenry County has enough water to meet current and future water needs with the water resources that are available to us right beneath our feet – if we plan for it. Planning includes protecting the water quality in our shallow sand and gravel aquifers to be sure that this resource is available for future generations too. Preserving the ability of the land to allow water to soak in so the aquifers can be recharged is critical as well.
There are some simple things that residents can do to help ensure there are ample water resources for the future:
- Stop treating stormwater as a waste product that is sent “away” as quickly as possible. Slow it down. Let it soak into the ground to recharge aquifers instead.
- Use native plants for landscaping. Water use peaks in the summer when residents water their lawns and gardens to keep them lush. Many native plants are drought tolerant once established. They also have the added benefits of reducing stormwater runoff and increasing infiltration.
- Let lawns go dormant during the hot, dry days of summer.
- Preserve open land and farmland that allows water to soak into the ground.
Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.
And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.
Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.
One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.
The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.
Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.
Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.
Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County: sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!
So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.
Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.
A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet.
Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!
There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition.
Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.
Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.
I heard them before I saw them, hundreds of Canada geese. A raucous honking as the birds circled a pond, vying for a spot to spend the night. The sun was near the horizon, and as I drove home, I noticed ribbons of the birds flying as far as my eyes could see – some in the classic V-formation, others in long lines. All, presumably, in search of open water where they would spend the night.
Branta canadensis, as it is known to scientists, has proved to be a highly adaptable species that benefitted greatly from the rapid suburbanization of metro areas like Chicago since 1980. In fact, the geese like the suburbs so much, that many have stopped migrating – they are now considered a year-round resident species. Geese like the suburbs for several reasons: habitat, food and safety from predators.
Canada geese like open water, especially when it is free of places where predators can hide. People call these areas stormwater detention ponds, and have a tendency to keep the lawn mowed right up to the edge of the water. To a flock of geese, these neatly manicured detention areas are perfect.
Geese are herbivores, meaning that they eat mostly plants. They like grass and corn (which is a type of grass). And if there is one thing the suburbs have in abundance, it is grass. Plus, as development marched steadily westward into agricultural areas, the suburbs also put detention ponds and farm fields in close proximity. To the geese, we could not have planned it any better.
Finally, the suburbs tend to have fewer predators to bother geese. Many suburban communities have implemented programs to cull coyotes that might otherwise prey on geese. (Cull means to reduce a species’ population deliberately through hunting). Additionally, hunting, for sport or food, is not permitted in most suburban areas, providing geese with a large safe haven in the ‘burbs.
The birds are now found in such high numbers that many consider them pests. There exists a whole industry that offers to keep geese from golf courses, corporate campuses, public parks and airports. Some use border collies that harass the geese enough that they will not stay in an area. Others have machines that make noise to scare the geese and keep them away.
There is a simple way to keep geese away from some areas: plant tall vegetation. Seriously. Geese will not be comfortable in a pond that is ringed with tall grasses or shrubs – there are too many places where predators can hide. Similarly, by maintaining more tall vegetation in a golf course’s “rough,” geese will choose to spend their time elsewhere.
Personally, I like Canada geese – they mate for life and the parents work together to raise their young. And I appreciate their hardiness. About a Century ago, the Canada goose appeared headed for extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. After conservation efforts began in the 1960’s, they rebounded. Then, as more suburban development occurred, their population exploded, thanks in large part to open water detention ponds and mowed lawns.
It seems ironic that humans provide the ideal conditions for the geese to thrive, and then complain that there are too many of them.