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Many homeowners care for lawns, gardens, shrubs, and trees by applying plant nutrients and sometimes pesticides. When these items are improperly stored or applied, the result may be that these products move through the soil into the groundwater or wash off into surface waters.
Fertilizers should be stored in a locked, dry cabinet. Keep fertilizers and pesticides on separate shelves. Load your fertilizer spreader on the driveway or other hard surface so you can easily sweep up any spills. If you are using liquid fertilizer on your grass, add fertilizer to the spray tank while it is on the lawn. This way, if you spill the fertilizer, it will be used by the plants and not run off into surface water.
The chemical in fertilizers that can most easily pollute groundwater is a form of nitrogen called nitrate. Nitrate moves readily in soil and it can move through the soil into the groundwater. The best way to prevent the movement of nitrate into the groundwater is to apply no more nitrogen than the grass, garden plants, shrubs, or trees can use during the time the plants are growing.
The fewer pesticides you buy, the fewer you will have to store. Purchase only the amount and kind of pesticide that you need. Pesticides should always be stored in sound, properly labeled, original containers. Keep fertilizers and pesticides on separate shelves. Store dry pesticides above liquids to prevent wetting from spills.
Spilled pesticides can move through the soil into groundwater or over the soil into streams, lakes, or estuaries. Pesticides that find their way into our water resources can pollute the water or even harm the wildlife living there. If possible, mix your pesticides on an impermeable surface, such as concrete, which will allow you to easily clean up spills. Make sure that you only apply the amount of pesticide needed and use them only when absolutely necessary.
Over-watering your plants can cause excess water to move through the soil and run off. This water can carry pesticides or nitrates that can pollute our groundwater or surface water.
The best way to avoid over-watering is simply to measure how much you are adding. You can measure water by placing shallow containers around your lawn or garden to collect the water from the sprinklers. Apply enough water to moisten the soil 4-6 inches deep for healthy root growth. This usually requires you to apply one-half inch of water on coarse, sandy soils and one inch on heavier clay soils.
One of the best ways to protect water quality is to use plants that are drought-tolerant and that are adapted to your area. Drought-tolerant or low-water-use plants can continue to survive once they are established, even during times of little rainfall. Because you do not have to water these plants, there is less chance that nitrate and pesticides will be carried with the water through the soil and into the groundwater or run off into streams. Check with the Cooperative Extension Service for information on drought-tolerant plants or medium-water-use plants.
Last but not least is how you plant your lawn. When you are establishing a lawn, minimize the exposure of bare soil by using straw to cover any ground that will be bare for more than 30 days before planting. Reapply straw after planting. Be sure to plant at the best time for the type of grass you are using. Warm-season grasses (Bermuda, zoysia, centipede, bahia and St. Augustine) should be planted in the late spring or early summer. Water lightly to prevent water and soil from running off the surface.
Remember every little thing that you, as an individual, do will aid the environment and protect our groundwater for us and future generations.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.