Mowing less, protecting more

In this case, less really is more.

In some areas in River Hill and other villages, Columbia Association is mowing less in an effort to provide greater protection for our watershed. The idea is to create a buffer near wetlands and storm-management ponds. The policy is part of a local and statewide effort to slow the flow of stormwater as it rushes off pavement and into our waterways. “No mow” and “low mow” zones are also cropping up on college campuses (SUNY at Cortland and Middlebury in Vermont) and in cities (Houston), allowing acreage to revert to meadows, saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

CA will be mowing its “low mow” areas three times a year instead of monthly. The CA policy reflects a balancing act, in part because of concern over community complaints. Residents have grown accustomed to the shorn look and don’t realize the many benefits of taller vegetation:

  • Deeper vegetation, particularly on steep slopes, prevents erosion and helps keep sediment out of stormwater ponds and streams. Too much soil washing into waterways suffocates fish eggs and aquatic plants and insects. Eventually, sediment will clog a stormwater pond enough that it can no longer serve its purpose. Similarly, sediment will eventually fill in and destroy wetlands.
  • The buffer keeps trash out of stormwater ponds and streams. The vegetation traps at least some of our plastic bottles and bags, fast-food wrappers and cans, which are picked up by CA groundskeepers weekly (and by students and the watershed committee during community cleanups).
  • The soil also gets a break from reduced mowing. Heavy equipment compacts the soil, leaving less space for water, air and roots and making it less able to absorb stormwater runoff.
  • Vegetation also provides a habitat for birds and rabbits, frogs and toads, snakes and other beneficial creatures. By the way, those snakes, such as the harmless water snake, eat the mice that carry ticks that harbor Lyme disease.

To help improve stream quality in our area (the Patuxent River got a D+, according to the latest report card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science), homeowners also can mow less – by replacing some yard with native and pollinator-friendly groundcovers, perennial flowers, shrubs and trees. Large expanses of grass require watering, polluting mowers, lots of time and an array of chemicals to maintain. Yet that monoculture lawn offers a sterile landscape for wildlife and scarce benefit to our watershed, in some cases slowing water scarcely more than pavement.

At the least, keeping the grass at least three to four inches tall will promote deeper roots, require less maintenance and chemicals, and make the lawn more resilient during droughts.

Watershed Moments

  • Many thanks and huge congratulations to RHHS graduate Paul Lin, who has been our student member this school year. Paul was never shy about offering ideas, was quick to volunteer for activities, and could always round up energetic students for watershed projects. Paul will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, and we wish him all the best.
  • On Friday, May 19, 36 River Hill High students spent hours under the hot sun transforming their school’s rain garden from overgrown to beautiful and functional. To view photos, go to the River Hill Watershed Committee Facebook page.
  • We’ll be walking in the July 4 parade again this year, passing out packets of black-eyed Susan seeds.
  • Save the date: Saturday, Sept. 16, the watershed committee is planning a Water-Palooza with activities for children such as face-paintings, painting rocks for gardens, composting demonstration, native plants giveaways, planting of seedlings, making butterfly boxes. Details to come.
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