Published on 09/18/01

Protect Water Quality as You Garden

Admit it. You really want the "Yard of the Month" award.

But you worry that all those chemicals to keep the bugs at bay may damage the environment. Well, now you can have the best of both worlds: a beautiful yard that protects natural resources and even costs less to maintain.

Photo: Susan Varlamoff

Georgia Master Gardener Coordinator Bob Westerfield gives some pruning tips to homeowners. It's important to know when and how much to prune.

"Best Management Practices for Georgia Gardeners," a new manual from the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture, teaches how to maintain your landscape and protect water quality.

BMPs are commonsense, economical practices UGA scientists have developed to help minimize fertilizer and pesticide use in the home landscape. They were designed to protect Georgia waterways from nonpoint source pollution, the technical term for contamination by runoff from uncountable sources.

Higher Pesticide Levels

Water quality studies show that urban watersheds contain higher pesticide levels than rural streams. Landscapers must have a license to apply chemicals. But not homeowners, who often apply the notion, "If a little is good, more must be better."

The National Academy of Sciences reports that homeowners use more chemicals per acre on their lawns than farmers use on their lands. And a 1999 survey found that 76 percent of Georgia homeowners maintain their own landscapes.

UGA Extension Service agents say half the diseased plants they see are the result of improper watering, poor soil and bad siting.

Theory Behind BMPs

So BMPs follow the theory that a healthy plant, like a healthy person, can resist diseases and pests. Among the healthy practices:

  • Place the right plant in the right place. Putting shade-loving plants such as azalea in full sun stresses them, making them targets for insect pests and diseases. And homeowners try fixing the problem with pesticides.
  • Some plants just tolerate pests better. If a plant in your landscape has become a five-star restaurant for insect pests, replace it, so you won't have to cope with perennial infestations.
  • Group plants by water needs. Called Xeriscape gardening, this can save you 50 percent on watering costs. It helps prevent overwatering some plants and underwatering others, too. And during watering restrictions, it can save a landscape.
  • Know your plants' and turf's fertilizer and water needs. Fertilizing a dormant grass is wasting time and money. Applying fertilizer before a storm will guarantee its entry into the local watershed. It's best to water before sunrise when it's cooler and less windy, and before the dew has dried. Extending the dew makes diseases more likely.
  • Learn when and how much to mow and prune. Mow grass so you remove no more than one-third of the height. Scalping grass stresses it, dries it out and promotes insect pests such as chinch bugs. And trying to prune a 10-foot shrub to fit under a 3-foot window may invite diseases.
  • Don't kill the good bugs. Before you grab the pesticide, learn the difference between beneficial insects and pests. In nature, only about 3 percent are pests. In a well-balanced ecosystem, like a classic movie, the good guys beat out the bad. Look around your yard often. Know what bugs are out there, and protect your helpers. Even if pests are feasting on your favorite rose, nontoxic alternatives may be effective.
  • Give nature a hand. Pitch those banana peels and yard trimmings into a wire bin and help nature recycle them. It's so simple. Just turn the pile and water it every few weeks, and presto: soil amendment and mulch at no cost in about six months. A 3- to 5-inch layer of mulch suppresses weeds and reduces soil erosion and the need for herbicides.
So go for it. Amaze your neighbors. Be a good steward of Georgia's environment by using BMPs in your garden. Learn about home-garden BMPs on the Web at Or get the manual by calling (770) 229-3367.

Susan Varlamoff is director of the Office of Environmental Sciences of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.