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For eco groups, less lawn fertilizer is key to water crisis


By Dustin Luca | Staff Writer   Aug 12, 2022


Planning to cut your lawn short this weekend or fertilize it this fall? Think again... and your lawn (not to mention the devastated Ipswich River) may thank you.

The Ocean River Institute held two pop-up events in Beverly and Salem on Wednesday to encourage the neighboring cities to enter a friendly competition to, effectively, do the least amount of lawn maintenance in the future.

The events, held at Odd Meter Coffee in Salem and Delphine’s Kitchen in Beverly, promoted the Institute’s Natural Lawn Care for Healthy Soils Challenge, where towns pledge to support healthier lawns by forgoing the use of quick-release fertilizer and chemical pesticide and herbicide treatments. The campaign also calls for more conscientious maintenance to allow grass to grow deeper and contribute to a stronger lawn overall.

“When you fertilize the lawn, the roots stay at the surface,” said Rob Moir, president of Ocean River Institute. “They’re thirsty and push the plants apart, and the bare spots (that form) between the plants...that’s where the soil bakes and dries.”

The campaign is running as different ideas emerge for how to make residential properties more resilient and less water-reliant amid an ever-worsening drought, such as using native plants instead of those that are found outside of New England. It also comes as water tables across the country plummet to historic lows, leaving a highly visual impact on the landscape.

But it also isn’t a new idea. The concept of going light on fertilizer has been promoted by the regional Greenscapes coalition for more than a decade, according to Barbara Warren, executive director of Salem Sound Coastwatch, one of Greenscape’s founding partners.

“It initially started working, mainly, with residents and changing their behaviors in environmentally-friendly lawns,” Warren said. “We’ve been promoting this since 2007, and we’re still promoting it. We still have to educate people about the importance of a healthy lawn.”

That’s because there’s a lot more at stake with each lawn than just what goes on within that lawn, according to Moir.

“If you’re not putting fertilizer on, you’re adding soil — and it’s healthier soil that has worms in it and other animals that move up and down,” Moir said. “The Ipswich River runs dry because the soils around it and aquifers around it are low. They don’t recharge the water during the summertime. That’s the only source (of water) in the ground, so we need to retain water in the ground by having lots of soil.

“There’s plenty of water,” added Moir. “We just have to learn how to share and retain it, not shift it away.”

Rethink that mowing routine

To that end, the groups aren’t just suggesting residents go light on fertilizer. They’re pitching the same behavior on lawn mowing.

Moir referenced a recent study conducted by the University of New Hampshire, where 16 lawns in Springfield were targeted with different levels of fertilizing, watering and mowing — in the case of mowing, lawns were maintained either once every week, two weeks, or three weeks.

Generally speaking, mowing every two weeks became the sweet spot for grass to grow long enough to support more plant and insect life, but not so long as to become a deterrent. “They found these non-watered, non-fertilized lawns hosted 30 plant species between the blades,” Moir said.

“We need to get to these environmentalists going around saying ‘lawns are bad and trees are better,’ because we need both,” he said. “The lawn pushes carbohydrates into the soil, and that soil will go through a conversion to become humus, carbon-rich stuff that’s good in the ground. It’ll hold carbon for thousands of years.”

Cheryl Rafuse, owner of Plant Magic Gardens in Beverly, supports going fertilizer-light, adding that fertilizer runoff “is always a huge problem.” But one of the best things folks can do is rethink what they plant as well.

“When I tell people about their lawns, because they want to keep them green but don’t want to sacrifice the lawn vibe, I say there are all kinds of native plant alternatives that don’t need any fertilizer to be good, and they’re lower maintenance,” Rafuse said. “These are plants that are well-adjusted to our climate. ... A lot of our native plants are drought-tolerant, so they’re going to be heartier, take less water than exotic plants, and there are gorgeous native plants.”

The alternative to all of this is a common sight around the North Shore, according to Warren: Companies mowing lawns that kick dust up into the air, a symptom of a lawn’s health on the brink.

“I remember once that somebody said, ‘mow basically at a credit-card depth,’ which is your two inches. That’s how long you want to leave your lawn,” Warren said. “It kills me. We’re in the middle of a drought, and you see contract mowers out there mowing the dust.

“They’re inhaling it, scattering the dust, and they aren’t giving that lawn any chance of surviving,” she said. “There’s nothing there. They aren’t going to have roots if they don’t have grass blades.”

For more on Greenscapes and maintaining a more resilient lawn, visit For more on the Ocean River Institute and its Natural Lawn Care for Healthy Soils Challenge, visit

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or [email protected]. Follow him at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.