Wildlife Habitat Creation for a Healthier Watershed

This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.  

In the past thirty years, there has been a 90% increase in urban development in Ohio. This pattern is continuing – in the next thirty years, the Olentangy Watershed is expected to gain over 200,000 people. This rapid pace at which urban areas are growing is stressing environments and wildlife. One in four birds have been lost since 1970, Colony Collapse Disorder is taking down beehives at alarming rates, and the monarch butterfly is a candidate under the Endangered Species Act. Although the situation can look bleak, backyards and urban greenspaces act as oases to support wildlife. Cities and other urban areas can still support threatened species and migratory birds. Your very own backyard, however small, can make a big difference for wildlife. 

Not only does providing for wildlife bring joy and entertainment, it also strengthens local food webs and ecosystems. Wildlife needs four essential elements that you can provide in your very own landscape: water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young. 

Trees, shrubbery, and other plantlife are the backbone of a successful habitat. A good first step towards a thriving backyard is to remove exotic invasive plants and replace them with native species. Natives are adapted to the local environment, so generally require less maintenance and are heartier. Non-natives often do not provide good habitat or nutrition for local animals. For more information on plants indigenous to your area, consult a local nursery or this online list. Plantlife can provide food, shelter, and a place to raise young; so choosing and maintaining your plants is crucial. Try to cultivate a continuous season by choosing a variety of plants that bloom and bear fruit at different times throughout the year. Even dead plants and trees provide immense value. Dead logs or standing dead trees called “snags” can support more than 400 species. The cavities of dead plant stems provide habitat for nesting bee species. Take a look in your own backyard to see what plantlife already exists and how it might be enhanced. 

Four different types of bird feeders.

Photo by Tom Green/Creative Commons

Although natural sources of food, water, and cover can be successful on their own, supplemental feeders, shelters, and baths prove to be effective at attracting and supporting wildlife. Seeds and nuts are an important food source that you can provide for songbirds. A diversity of food and feeders helps to support birdlife. Sunflower seeds and suet are particularly popular, but for more information about feed choices, visit https://feederwatch.org/. Elevated feeders, bird tables, and ground feeders all provide for different types of birds and should be placed near shrubs and trees. Birdhouses and boxes also encourage wildlife to nest in your yard. Different birds have different preferences about the size of the box and its entrance, its height, and which direction it faces. To determine what box will attract which birds, you can consult the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s online materials. Finally, choosing to install a birdbath or other water feature will also bring wildlife to your yard. When choosing a birdbath, choose shallow ones with rough textures or add rocks or pebbles to your bath. 

Small backyard pollinator gaHummingbirds, bees, bats, and butterflies each bring their own exceptional type of beauty and all play an important role as pollinators. To protect and provide for these species, you can plant a pollinator garden specifically suited to them. Pollinator gardens do best in sunny locations to support nectar-providing plants which should be grouped in clumps. Hummingbirds specifically like red and yellow tubular plants. Milkweed is critical to supporting some butterfly species. Try to avoid planting hybrids because they have often lost their pollen, nectar, and fragrance. Also avoid using insecticides near or in your pollinator garden. For more details on planting a pollinator garden, check out the US Forest Service’s online instructions.

Large bee hotel Supplemental feeders and shelters can help out pollinators, too. Hummingbird feeders can be filled with a solution of one part sugar to four parts water. Try to wash the feeders with soap and water every three to four days. Bees and butterflies like salt licks which can be made by mixing sea salt into puddles or mud in your yard. Solitary bees with no hives to protect (and thus no reason to sting) nest in narrow tubes. You can make bee homes or even “bee hotels” for these bees by drilling 1/8-inch to 5/16-inch holes in diameter a few inches deep in scrap lumber. For more information, check out this source. Bat boxes are another way to provide shelter for pollinators; you can learn about them here

When we attract birds and butterflies, we also attract other types of unwanted wildlife such as mammals. To avoid conflict with animals, secure garbage cans, avoid leaving out food, and check your house for places that would allow access to rodents. Be aware that these species can carry disease and should not be handled. Consult a pest or wildlife management company for more information or assistance. 

We all have backyards, whether they are acres or a few flower pots, and we can all make a difference for our wildlife. For more information on creating wildlife habitat and backyard conservation, you can consult FLOW’s website, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, or Ohio State University’s online resources. There is magic in your backyard, you just have to look for it. 




Reducing Pollution for a Healthier Watershed

This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.  

When you imagine water pollution, what do you see? Factories pumping out sludge into rivers? A plastic island? Giant fishing boats throwing their nets overboard? When we think about pollution, we often think about point source pollution, that is, pollution from a single source like a pipe or smokestack from a single mill or factory. We can try to combat this pollution with our consumer choices, how we vote, and by supporting organizations that take polluters head-on. However, the type of pollution we often forget about is non-point source pollution, which can be reduced simply by our everyday actions. Non-point pollution is more discrete: it is the accumulation of everyday people’s little bits of excess fertilizer or leaks in their cars picked up by stormwater runoff and taken to our waterways. Still, it adds up to be a lot. 

Imagine pollution again, but this time picture pollution in your community, in your backyard, and what you can do to make a difference. By reducing the quantity of pollutants used in your home, yard, and garage, you can improve the quality of our waterways. 

Safer Choice Eco Label

See epa.gov

To start, hazards and toxins make their way from your home to your rivers and tributaries. To avoid such pollutants altogether, you can look for non-toxic labels in the store or the EPA’s safer choice eco-label. To prevent pollutants from being picked up by runoff, store paints, pesticides, and other chemicals in waterproof containers and on a shelf off the ground. To dispose of hazardous wastes, be sure to do so properly and safely. For paints, they can be combined with kitty litter, sawdust, or another hardener and thrown out in the garbage if latex-based. Oil-based paints need to be taken to a disposal center. Knowing what to do with each item can be difficult. To find drop-off sites for waste and more information in central Ohio, check the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio or SWACO’s website. There are also less obvious pollutants in your home. For instance, salt-based water softeners can release chloride that pollutes our water. By keeping a watchful and discerning eye around the house, you can identify and reduce pollutants in your home. 


See swaco.org

Rose Royce’s 1976 song “Car Wash” has many things going for it: a funky groove, peak spots on the Billboard Top 100, and even some good eco-friendly advice. Cars and car care doesn’t just create air pollution, they also have an effect on our waterways. Just as Royce sings about the possibility and magic of car washes, washing your car at a commercial car wash rather than at home is often safer for the environment and can save water. The phosphates in soaps runoff from our driveways. Plus, commercial car washes use up to 60% less water. To safely wash your car at home, do it on gravel or in your yard, empty the dirty water into sinks or toilets, and use biodegradable, phosphate-free, water-based cleaners only. Beyond washing your car, clean up or stop leaks and have a drip pan handy if you notice a leak. Don’t spill gasoline when filling up your tank or other yard machines. Finally, to manage your driveway and walks, sweep rather than spray and try to limit the use of salts. Taking good care of your car can also take care of the environment. 

Leaves in storm drain. On average, each person produces nearly 200 pounds of yard waste annually. How we manage that waste has a big environmental impact. Grass clippings, leaves, twigs, trimmings, and the like can end up in our waterways where they release nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that cause harmful algal blooms and oxygen shortages. Simply put, yard waste in our storm sewers is bad news. To properly manage yard waste, try your hand at composting or try out some other tips. Rather than disposing of grass clippings, consider “grasscycling,” leaving clippings on your yard and thus fertilizing your grass. Leaflitter provides habitat for lightning bugs and other helpful insects, so maybe limit your raking and leave your leaves alone. Be sure to sweep clippings off paved surfaces like sidewalks back onto your lawn. If not using or composting your yard waste, be sure to check with your local officials to learn about waste collection in our community. In Columbus, consult the city’s website or call (614) 645-3111.   

Based on your specific lifestyle, there are other practices you can adopt to be a better steward of your waterways. If you have pets, be sure to bury, wrap and throw away, or flush their waste as it contains bacteria that is harmful to waterways. If you have a swimming pool, try to drain it to a sanitary sewer system and research best practices. 

Pollution doesn’t just result from mismanagement by big companies, it also results from all of our choices. For more information on how to reduce your pollution and on backyard conservation, you can consult FLOW’s website, online information from the EPA, or guides from the USDA. Your watershed thanks you! 


Reducing Stormwater Runoff for a Healthier Watershed

This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.  

Seemingly inconspicuous, stormwater runoff is one of the biggest threats facing waterways. Accounting for an estimated 70% of all water pollution, stormwater runoff is rain or snow that, rather than soaking into the ground, runs off paved areas and bare soil into our waterways, picking up pollutants on its way and never being treated. As our world continues to develop and as we continue to replace nature with concrete (with our own watershed gaining over 200,000 people in the next thirty years), this problem will only become more daunting. Moreover, extreme weather and a wetter midwest are in our future due to climate change. By altering your backyard practices, you can help combat stormwater runoff and maybe even save on your water bill. 

depave.org logo

See depave.org

Impervious surfaces such as roofs, driveways, parking lots, and sidewalks exacerbate the problem of stormwater runoff by not allowing water to soak into the soil at all. This facilitates the collection of pollutants and quickens the pace that waterways are flooded. To reach only 12% impervious surface coverage, as recommended for good water quality by the Center for Watershed Protection, the Olentangy Watershed needs to disconnect 10,068 acres of pavement according to Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District. One way to do this is by transforming over-paved places by simply removing the pavement. For more information, visit depave.org. Impervious surfaces can be replaced with gravel, wood chips, or other surfaces that allow water to penetrate the earth. 

You don’t have to dig up your driveway to reduce the effects of pavement. Simpler measures can make a big impact, too. 

 Rain Barrel attached to gutters

Photo Credit: 2008 FLOW Backyard Conservation Booklet

Working from the top down, we first must deal with our roofs. Municipal and residential roofs are another source of stormwater runoff. This runoff can be managed to prevent overflowing sewers and backups in our basements. Keeping clear gutters and installing gutter shields prevent debris from blocking water flow and can keep your gutters in better shape. Directing your downspouts to your lawn or garden at least 6’ away from the foundation of your house gives the water a better chance of being absorbed and you a better chance of not wading through a flooded basement. A splash block at the end of the downspout can help distribute the water even more. Rather than letting water flow out a downspout, it can be collected in a rain barrel. Rain barrels are an easy way to conserve and recycle water. The barrel is placed under a downspout and collects water to be used in your lawn or garden. Check the instructions that come with your barrel for more specific information and tips. 

Rain garden near parking lot.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Impervious surfaces are not the only cause of stormwater runoff. Soil becomes saturated quickly without strong root systems, causing water to runoff. By planting native plants and trees adapted to the local water conditions, more water is soaked up or less water is needed and thus added to your bill. To increase the absorption potential of your yard even more, consider adding a rain garden. Rain gardens are not a water garden or wetland, but rather a garden in a shallow bed to hold and soak up runoff. Rain gardens can remove up to 90% of nutrients and chemicals from runoff and are more effective than typical gardens at soaking up water. You can plant a rain garden in a depression where rain normally pools, or call 811 before digging a new bed. Rain gardens differ from typical gardens by using soil that increases water infiltration and water-loving plants. For more details on planting a rain garden, check out http://www.centralohioraingardens.org/. Just as depressions can be transformed into rain gardens, sloped areas and hills can be terraced. Sloped areas allow water to pick up erosion and flow quickly, causing sediment to end up in our waterways, where they block sunlight and worsen water quality. Terraces prevent erosion by creating level steps where you can plant mini-gardens. For more details on making terraces, check out the USDA’s online instructions

Terrace with planting at the side of a house.

Photo Credit: istockphoto.com

However you alter your backyard, whether that means planting a meadow or just a few more native plants, your choices can make a big positive impact on the issue of stormwater runoff. For more information on stormwater management and backyard conservation, you can consult FLOW’s website, tips from the EPA and the National Wildlife Federation, or you can hire a local landscaping agency. 


Composting for a Healthier Watershed

This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.

A handful of humus.The farm-to-table food stream often ends up flowing to a landfill. 40% of food in the United States is never eaten. In 2010, $161 billion worth of food was wasted either by consumers or at the retail level. However, there are ways to mitigate this problem. To reduce your waste stream by up to 35% and thus reduce methane emissions from landfills, all you need to do is compost. With a reputation of being smelly and gross, composting actually can be rather simple, clean, and great for your garden when done right. Composting yard waste also prevents it from ending up in landfills or in our waterways where it reduces the oxygen in our water. Composting has huge impacts on the environment and is a secret weapon in growing beautiful gardens. 

All matter decomposes; composting just speeds up the process. The final result is a dense, dark, earthy soil called humus that can be used as a fertilizer to improve the soil quality in your garden. To quicken the journey from kitchen scraps and leaves to humus, compost needs four elements: nitrogen, carbon, moisture, and oxygen. Nitrogen comes from green materials like grass clippings and food scraps. However, if your compost lacks nitrogen, you can simply add a handful of general lawn fertilizer. Carbon is added to compost through brown materials like leaves and twigs. Rain or, if need be, sprinkling your compost with water adds moisture. Finally, oxygen comes from turning your compost or adding holes or gaps to the side of your compost bin. How these four elements come together can vary in different forms of composting. 

Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like it to be depending on how much of a hurry you are in to use your compost. The simplest but slowest form is cold composting – simply collecting your yard waste and kitchen scraps in a pile or a bin. Cold composting requires less effort and time, but it takes longer to decompose and form usable humus. To prevent attracting pests or a pungent smell, bury your kitchen scraps in your compost pile. Diseased plants and weeds should not be composted if using this method because the temperatures are not high enough to kill them. In general, meat, pet waste, dairy products, oils, or yard trimmings that have been treated with pesticides should NOT be composted. 

Three compost bins of different styles

Photo by Kristen Malec

Hot composting demands more time and effort, but has faster results and can create usable humus in under a month. For the foundation of your compost, you can build a bin as simple as a trash can with holes for aeration or an enclosure made of wire mesh. Alternatively, you can buy a compost bin or not have a bin at all but rather a foundational layer of brick or prunings for air circulation. With your foundation in place, you can layer 2” to 4” of equal parts carbon and nitrogen materials or mix them together. Some composters like to add a few shovel-fulls of soil to get their compost started. With a minimum of a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ cube, your compost will begin to heat up, reaching temperatures of 110℉ to 160℉. When the compost begins to cool, you can begin to turn your compost, moving the compost from the center to the outside of the pile. If turned near-daily, your compost should be ready in under four weeks. If turned every other week, you should have compost in one to three months. 

These are the two main methods, but composting comes in all shapes and sizes. To compost without a backyard or in smaller spaces, vermicomposting is the solution. Vermicomposting uses worms to compost. For more information on vermicomposting, check out the EPA’s online instructions. 

The Compost Exchange Logo

See www.thecompostexchange.com

Composting can take place beyond the backyard. Nearly 100 cities have made the switch to collect resident’s compost along with recycling and trash. There are also organizations that pickup residents’ compost, such as the Compost Exchange in Columbus. While it is still rare for cities to collect residents’ compost, many cities compost yard waste and bio-solids from waste treatment facilities. Columbus has been producing this type of compost called Com-Til for over twenty-five years. 

However your compost came to be, it is a sure way to make your own backyard more eco-friendly. And as a bonus, you can use your fertilizer in your garden and lawn. Be sure to check your local regulations on composting before getting started. For more information on composting, you can consult the Ohio EPA, the USDA’s Tip Sheet, or even FLOW’s very own backyard conservation booklet. Happy composting! 


Lawn Care for a Healthier Watershed

This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.

Example backyard with native plants and gardens rather than lawn.

Photo by Smadar Sonya Strauss

Lawn is pervasive in the American landscape. There are an estimated 40 million acres of lawns across the country, making “lawn” the largest irrigated crop in America. Our lawns use 7 billion gallons of water daily and we dole out 80 million pounds of pesticides and 90 million pounds of chemical fertilizers annually just for our grass. This dilemma extends to the Lower Olentangy Watershed, 40% of which is dedicated to lawn by land area. 

So why do we do it? Why do we spend so much time, energy, money, and space on our lawns when they provide so little ecological value? One acre of tree canopy absorbs seven times the water of lawn rather than allowing that water to runoff. Grass isn’t indigenous to the Americas, while shrubbery and wildflowers – that support native food webs and provide beauty – are. Converting more lawn into gardens, planting native trees and shrubbery, or even transforming your backyard into a prairie or wetland is easier than you might think and better for the watershed than you might know. 

However, most of us might not be willing to abandon our entire lawns for alternatives. Even still, there are ways to mitigate the effects of our lawns to better the health of our environment. Simple adjustments to how you mow, water, fertilize, and apply pesticides can make a big difference for our watershed. 

Rotary push mower with orange wheels cutting the grass and leaving clipping on lawn

Creator: BradWolf; Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mowing is a chore that emits greenhouse gasses – simply put, there is some room for improvement. Mowing higher (cutting your grass taller) produces healthier grass that requires less frequent mowing. The longer blades are able to absorb more sunlight to grow deeper roots and shade the ground, allowing it to hold more moisture. Longer grass directs its energy to health rather than growth, so it requires less frequent cutting. Thicker, longer grass also makes it more difficult for weeds to grow. You should cut your grass to be 2.5” to 3.5” or at your mower’s highest setting. A good rule of thumb is to never cut off more than one-third of the grasses’ height. You can also save time by leaving short grass clippings on your lawn or “grasscycling.” This way, clippings act as an organic fertilizer rather than taking up space in a landfill or ending up in our waterways where the excess nitrogen can cause algal blooms. 

Americans use more water for lawns than for farms. The everyday sprinkler system wastes water and isn’t best for grass. Watering deeply but not as often makes for better roots and more drought-resistant grass. You should apply about 1” of water to wet the top 6” to 8” of soil in the early morning to reduce evaporation. Watering at night can increase the chances of disease. To determine when to water, look for signs of wilting such as a dulled color or footprints that stay compressed for more than a few seconds. During extended dry spells or droughts, a lawn can go dormant and still survive with only about ½” of water every 2 to 3 weeks. 

Over-fertilizing in the midwest is one of the main reasons for the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Good lawn management can reduce the need for fertilizing and limited, careful fertilizing can mitigate some harmful effects. Organic fertilizers provide benefits that synthetic fertilizers lack by preserving the biotic quality of the soil. Manures, meals, compost, minerals, and processed sewer sludge are all synthetic fertilizer alternatives. If using organic fertilizer, apply them less frequently and in the fall because they release nutrients at a slower rate. Generally, only apply any fertilizer twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Do not apply fertilizers or pesticides within twenty-four hours of rainfall to prevent them from running into our water supplies. Similarly, keep fertilizers off impervious surfaces such as sidewalks or driveways by sweeping spills and using a side guard on drop or rotary spreaders. Generally, healthy soil has a loamy texture, is a dark color, and has a good balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. If the acidity of your soil is off, you can sprinkle lime or sulfur on your lawn. You can determine the needs of your soil by using a simple soil test and only apply the needed nutrients.

Thatch build up on grass sampleMeasures to improve water filtration, nutrient quantity, and health of grass can be hindered by an overly thick layer of thatch. Thatch is a layer of dead plant material that sits on the soil. Overuse of fertilizer or other factors can cause this layer to exceed ½”, making it too thick for healthy grass. Normally, thatch build-up is prevented by microorganisms and earthworms decomposing the dead matter. You can combat thatch buildup by raking your lawn or mechanically removing soil cores through core aeration. You can do core aeration yourself by renting the equipment from a local hardware store. The best time to aerate is spring or fall. Core aeration should be done in combination with sprinkling a thin layer of topsoil or “top dressing,” which is a surface application of compost. Make use of fallen leaves by chopping them up with your mower then spreading the product with a rake to your soil after aeration. 

Finally, using integrated pest management (IPM) techniques by combining chemical, biological, and mechanical pest control can lighten the impact of pesticides. With good soil quality, healthy thatch levels, and native plants adapted to the environment (or even some that attract pest predators), you should find your lawn to be more pest resistant. Rather than using reactive measures like sprays and chemicals, try preventing weeds by taking holistic good care of your yard. Weeds and pests cannot be completely eliminated, but luckily a lawn can look weed-free even with some straggling weeds. If you are to use a pesticide, first consider using more targeted pesticides with little or no residual effect such as insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils, or corn gluten. When using a synthetic pesticide, use them sparingly and spot treat, read the entire instruction label, wear protective gear, and store and dispose of the pesticide properly. 

For more information about lawn management and backyard conservation, you can consult FLOW’s website, information from the EPA, or hire a local professional lawn care service. You can make a meaningful difference in your community and environment simply by being deliberate and careful in how you do your yard work.