We had a challenge when we first moved into our house, which was built on a slope and landscaped in the 1960s with large lawns, both front and back. Fortunately, the water from the road above us is blocked by a curb. All rain falling in our front yard used to run across the lawn quickly and passed under our house, along with rainwater flowing from the roof. Needless to say, our crawl space below our house was often damp and musty, and the soil was eroding in the backyard from rainwater pouring off the roof during storms.
This water passed through our back-neighbor’s property, moved across the next road, and into what used to be Tallahassee Creek, but is now a major drainage ditch running along Trescott Drive into Laguna Pond. It then passed under Centerville Road in a creek that passes along Native Nurseries’ property. Here it can overflow into a large woodland swamp. Eventually this water makes its way to Lake Lafayette and then to the headwaters of the St. Marks River, until it finally reaches Apalachee Bay. In addition, water in Lake Lafayette also finds its way through sinkholes that connect to the Floridan aquifer and Wakulla Springs. This is our watershed. Every property in Tallahassee is part of a watershed that eventually carries water to the Gulf or to our aquifer.
Meanwhile, this fast-moving water is picking up all sorts of pollutants such as fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides, as well as pollutants from roads. This has a negative effect on invertebrates that live downstream, and eventually fish, birds, and other wildlife.
When we purchased our house over 25 years ago, we started to solve our drainage problems by slowing the flow of rainwater so that a good percentage would be soaked into the soil rather than running off. We reduced the size of our lawn, establishing large mulched and planted beds. The roots of the many trees and shrubs absorb much of the water that seeps into the ground.
We terraced parts of yard. We built hardly noticeable berms of soil covered by lawn that now channel the front yard water away from our house. We added gutters with downspouts and piping to divert water from the roof to appropriate spots. One downspout empties into a rain garden filled with blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, swamp mallow, cinnamon fern, Senecio, and Virginia sweetspire – all plants that can take periodic inundation. Rain gardens increase the amount of water that filters into the ground, recharging groundwater into our aquifer that supplies our drinking water.
We now have a very small lawn in the backyard, just enough to provide a surface for ‘getting about’ leading to a small woodland of native trees, shrubs, ferns, and wildflowers, all underlain by lots of leaf mulch and a pine straw path that winds through the woodland.
It’s all about slowing the flow of water and protecting our very valuable soil. Slowing the flow of runoff helps prevent pollutants such as silt, fertilizers, and pesticides from washing off your yard into storm drains and eventually into local water resources.
It is also about not using pesticides and fertilizer too often or inappropriately. Our lawn is satisfactory and blends in with the neighborhood. If you were to look closely, you would notice that it is actually a ‘meadow lawn’ – a combination of St. Augustine sod and many tiny weeds and wildflowers that are kept mowed so it looks green and serves as a healthy surface for walking upon or playing on for our children (in days bygone). I occasionally use a small amount of organic fertilizer on weak spots to encourage the sod and even use an occasional shot of herbicide to target non-native and very invasive plants such as Glechoma (creeping charlie) and running dwarf bamboo. The native, but pesky, rattlesnake weed is just mowed down with the rest of the weeds when we mow the lawn.
Although we have had very little precipitation recently, summer storms are on their way. Remember that every chemical you use on your lawn and garden can find its way into downstream bodies of water and into our aquifer. Slow the flow, limit fertilizer use, and be very careful with pesticides.
For a more in-depth explanation, read the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation publication from the Fall 2017 issue of Wings Magazine, How our Gardening Choices Affect the Health of our Waterways by Aimee Code (https://xerces.org/2018/02/22/how-our-gardening-choices-affect-the-health-of-our-waterways/).