My family and friends used to paddle down the Ipswich River. We’d load up canoes, pull in hands and feet, put paddles out, to follow watery bends and turns down the river. In May, high water carried us over river banks, through trees and out onto flooded fields by the Topsfield fairgrounds. We floated outside the river in hopes of seeing glossy ibis wading the shallow greens and peppering the sky.
Come summer, river water stayed within its bounds. Exposed dirt banks rose up with protruding woody roots that presented roosts for belted kingfishers. The river became a trickle where canoes had to be walked over gravel bottoms. And then there was no water at all in the Ipswich River. The shocking surprise of no water, a dry river, has become over the summers the new normal.
The weather was blamed for less rain and more hot days. Today, blame is hung on the rise of greenhouse gasses and Dave Keeling’s hockey stick graph from Hawaii of increasing carbon dioxide confirming global warming induced climate change. Once we blamed the gods for the weather. Now we blame the combustion of fossil fuels as the number one obstacle to surmount to solve our problems.
The Ipswich River running dry, however, indicated changes afoot in how we treat the land, not the air. Pastures and forests have been turned into house lots. Before heavy equipment is brought in to dig cellar and hoist posts and beams, the land is cleared. Soil is scraped away, put into a pile where the organic matter heats up and breaks down. It is mostly carbon that oxidizes to release carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane into the air. Soil once black with organic becomes lifeless dirt. Rain drops scattered dirt on impact setting up rivulets of erosion that washed away sediments.
At new house lots, the dirt is spread a few inches deep. The rest is sold. Homeowners are left with no choice, like their cars, for lawn care they must rely on regular maintenance with chemicals because the soil has been destroyed or removed.
Plantings are put in and grass seed is spread, or matts of turf are rolled out. Finally, fertilizer is spread on top. Much water is needed because the grass seed is on top, unable to nestle down into the once moist soil. Sometimes dried straw is spread. This has little value retaining water around the seed.
With fertilizer nutrients applied from above, the grass plants have no need to grow roots into the soil. Roots spread out laterally across the surface to take up the nitrogen. Spreading fertilizer is like feeding children sugar for breakfast, plants perk up quickly and soon expect more. The grass blades are thin, plants sparse. With less cellulose, pests can more easily shred and digest the grass. Fertilized lawns provide fast food for pests.
Much water is required because grassroots are on the surface and sparse, leaving patches of dirt exposed. Below the patches, soil dies and dirt compacts. These micro-deserts have been called “sunshine spills” because the areas baking in the sun are no better for your lawn than an oil spill. Only the toughest of advantageous weeds can grow in such micro-wastelands.
Lawn care services are prepared and have an additional service designed for what is wrong with your lawn. They “overseed”, apply more grass seeds over those bare spots to “reinvigorate” the lawn. Why a lawn already well fertilized needs to be reinvigorated is never explained.
A light breeze of more than two miles per hour picks up dust and dirt particles. The stronger the wind the more particulate matter is lifted to form haze. Water molecules are drawn to the haze particles. Once coupled, an ionic charge repels the joining of wet particles. This electric-charge action prevents the formation of rain clouds. With haze, moisture is kept in suspension and not returned to the ground. Water, trapped in the air, is carried away from the watershed. (While I write, haze consisting of fine dirt and particles from the Sahara Desert have been carried on trade winds across the Atlantic Ocean to obscure the sky in Havana, Cuba. Their gain in moisture, phosphorus, and minerals, is the Sahara’s lost.)
The solution for a new lawn is to rebuild and restore the soil to a depth of twelve inches, before spreading grass seed or rolling out turf. For an established lawn, stop spreading quick-release fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides and watch nature step in. The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture recommends one application in the fall of 100% slow-release nitrogen in the modest amount of one-half pound per thousand square feet of lawn. (Not one pound five times a year of quick-release.)
Slow-release fertilizer comes in a granular or small pellet form. A coating surrounds the bit of nitrogen. It takes moisture and time to release nutrients, six months to a year. 100% slow-release feeds the lawn only during suitable grass growing conditions, not released during droughts or winter. It can be stored for years because it is in tiny sealed packets, unlike quick-release fertilizer that can compost and combust.
The four most recommended slow-release fertilizers are Gro-sure All Purpose 6 months Feed, ChemPak Slow Release Feed+ Forget Garden Plant Year Long Fertilizer, Osmocote Controlled Release Plant Feed, and Miracle-Gro All Purpose Continuous Slow Release Plant Food.
In a natural lawn, without quick-release fertilizer, grass plants put roots down into the ground. Roots opens compacted dirt to fungi and bacteria. Fungi protect grass roots and bacteria from losing moisture and drying out. Bacteria fix nitrogen into a form usable by plants.
Grass plants photosynthesize; that is, they take solar energy and water to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into complex carbon molecules, sugars, carbohydrates, and cellulose. Roots grow long. A single rye grass plant was found by an enterprising graduate student to have root and root hairs more than 3,600 miles long. From out the tips of roots, grass plants actively pump liquid carbon to feed the soil. In a teaspoon of soil have been found six billion microbes living off of root exudate and each other.
The fungi below the lawn are mycorrhizae composed of microscopic threads called hyphae. Hyphae are incredibly fine; it would take thousands packed together to reach the strand diameter of a piece of thread. A single strand, a hypha, can fit between plant cells to reach inside the plant and be in contact at the cellular level. When a woody plant dies, the mycorrhizae proceed to reproduce sexually and send out mushrooms with remarkable speed.
Bundles of mycorrhizae form mycelium. Mycelium stretches out through soils for miles forming massive networks. These are the largest lifeform on Earth. Liquid carbon from plants is widely spread by mycelium. Nitrogen fixed by bacteria, as well as nutrients and minerals, are transported back across mycelium to plants. More than grass, your lawn is a symbiosis of plants, fungi, bacteria and microbes, all working in concert together.
Walking on grass, playing with another, or cutting it, stimulates the plant to photosynthesize more and push more liquid carbon into the soil. A damaged plant cell, or a cell in need of a specific nutrient, gives a chemical signal to a hypha. The signal goes out across the microbial bridge of mycelium to be picked up by the bacteria that specializes in what is needed, and that is sent back to the plant cell.
Higher in the grass soil food pyramid are many other insects and arthropods such as mites, springtails, millipedes, centipedes, grubs, termites and ants. In an acre of soil was found 72 million insects.
Warning, one application of Roundup will kill about a quarter of the mycorrhizae in your lawn. Excess fertilizer (nitrogen) will kill nematodes and release the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. Better to kill weeds with a gallon of white vinegar, cup of salt, and tablespoon of dish soap. Put in a squirt bottle and apply to leaf surfaces of only the lawn plants you wish gone.
Pesticides used to kill one “pest,” kills many organisms of the soil below. Integrated pest management (IPM) takes a multifaceted holistic approach to optimize conditions for healthy plant, soil growth and diversity of critters living in the soil.
Good airflow through soils is crucial. Without it, soil carbon is lost to oxidation. Anaerobic bacteria take over releasing their pickled and fermented by-products with rotten egg (sulphur) and ammonia smells (nitrogen) along with carbon dioxide and methane.
Earthworms are masters of aeration. They eat their way through soils. Dirt is swallowed and is ground with small rocks in a pouch much like a bird’s gizzard. Here minerals are added to the mash that is passed on down the gut to be worked by bacteria. Minerals are combined with enzymes and metabolites. Out the other end comes a rich, plant-available food called vermicast. Worm poop is considered the best stuff for optimal soil and plant health. It has sticky glue properties that increase nutrient retention and availability, soil texture, and water holding capacities.
A synthetic fertilized lawn has much water runoff due to poor soils that are compacted. When grassroots open the soil and organic matter increases, earthworms may go to work. Worms have been found to increase water absorption 35 times greater than in adjacent fields without worms. With a hundred worms per square meter two inches of water was absorbed in twelve minutes. Without worms the two inches of water took twelve hours to percolate into the ground.
A natural lawn with worms will hold six inches of rainwater. With three feet of carbon-rich organic black soil, the lawn will hold nine inches of rainwater, thanks in part to worms. A natural lawn absorbs water to be released slowly to better protect homes from extreme weather events.
Lawns are remarkably quick at building soils. Scientists watching lichens etch rocks on top of barren dirt believe that it takes five hundred years to build an inch of soil. If instead, they had taken a peak beneath lawn turf, they would discover rich-black soil thickening one inch in a year.
Grass will draw 3.64 tons of carbon out the air to photosynthesize one ton of black carbon into the soil. One ton of carbon would cover an acre of lawn about the thickness of a piece of paper. My paperback books of 300 pages are just under an inch thick. To make an inch of organic soil, that is three hundred tons of carbon in an acre of lawn soil, grass must pull with photosynthesis 1,092 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.
There is talk of charging for carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels at a cost of $35 per ton. What would it do for reducing the effects of climate change, for getting to net zero emissions by 2050, if landowners were paid $35 a ton for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and putting it into soil? What if farmers were compensated for putting carbon in the ground instead of tilling fields, compensated for growing more nutritious corn and soy from carbon-rich soils instead of from fossil-fuel-burning synthetic chemicals?
In Massachusetts there are more than 2,000 square miles of lawns, or more than 1.28 million acres. If all the owners of Massachusetts lawns stopped the use of synthetic chemicals (fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides), and let lawn soils increase organic matter by one inch a year that would result in plants taking out of the atmosphere 1.4 billion (1,397,760,000) tons of CO2.
To restore water and flow to New England rivers, we must do more than think globally because just doing that makes us locally stupid. A place to start is at home with your lawn without the synthetic chemicals that interfere with the absorption and retention of water.
Soil beneath a lawn holds a lot of water. A square yard of soil, or about a 1% increase in the level of soil carbon, has the capacity to store 4.4 gallons (16.8 liters/meter square) of water. A lush lawn with deep soil acts as a sponge absorbing water during extreme weather events. This protects your home from erosion and flooding. After the weather event, water is released slowly into groundwater and into rivers.
Expanding urban areas, the widening of highways, the paving of new roads, increases the coverage of impervious surfaces. Rain water is rushed off hard surfaces. It’s considered a nuisance that must be hurried away. Surface runoff is combined with wastewater and sewage to outflow pipes to the sea, some by way of wastewater treatment plants. By waterproofing our communities, we dry our soils and rivers. This results in more frequent flooding when it rains.
The loss of so much water only encourages more pumping of groundwater. With less groundwater to charge rivers, they will run dry. Research suggests that the pumping of groundwater and dumping of wastewater and stormwater overflow in to the ocean accounts for 25 percent of sea level rise. This dauntingly impressive amount of freshwater lost is all the more sobering when one recalls that about three quarters of the planet is ocean and only one quarter is land.
Perhaps your watershed is not that bad. Whatever, you can make a difference starting in your own yard and savior the benefits from the comfort of home.
All the more reason to work with nature instead of paying for technological fixes. Plants regulate the release of moisture with small pores, stomata, on the underside of leaves to control the temperature and humidity of their microclimates. When sunlight starts to heat up and air dries, pores open to release water that evaporates to cool the immediate area. Step away from a place with patches of exposed dirt to stand under a tree or beneath a grape trellis, and a soft coolness, a decrease in temperature, is immediately felt. Compare the shade of a tree with dense leaves standing by a sidewalk with the shade from an awning or building and the role of water moisture is most evident in what you feel.
After sunset the air cools, in these conditions when plants release water it condenses to fall as dew on the ground. Plant shade and the controlled release of water from stomata keep the soil moist. Plants actively maintain favorable moisture conditions for the symbiotic relationships of plants, mycorrhizae fungi, bacteria and microbes.
This water wheel of plants releasing water from their tops, cooling evaporation, warming condensation, to return water to tree roots, has been called the green water cycle. It operates nested within the hydrologic cycle. The larger blue water cycle revolves around it with the fall of rain, pool of puddles and lakes, flow of water, and evaporate to form clouds.
The vitally important effect of the green water cycle is often overlooked because it is much more difficult to measure than carbon in the air or temperature. Involved are many intimate microclimates of small clusters of plants, or a single large tree.
Water vapor traps a lot of thermal energy. When 15 grams of water vapor condenses into liquid, 34 kilojoules of energy are released, an energy density of 0.51 kilojoules per kilogram. Formation of morning dew or evening mist produces a partial vacuum. This sets up an air pressure gradient that pulls in moist air from the ocean. Sustaining rains move in from outside the watershed to prime the biotic pump of the green water cycle.
Every acre, every piece of greenspace that is left natural, not chemically treated, is its own volume of water in motion. Evaporation and condensation are regulated by plant stomata movement to engage a biotic pump that pulls in water to compensate for what is lost from cooling evaporation.
Restore natural healthy lawns with deepening soils by stopping the use of fertilizers and chemicals. Let plants modulate and prosper in the green water cycle. Every square yard of healthy soil gained is the equivalent of pouring fresh water from a watering can (4.4 gallons) into the watershed.
When rivers run dry in New England, we have only ourselves to blame. Beginning at home, we can restore life in lawns and soils by practicing better stewardship. Together, we can regenerate healthy ecosystems while remediating global warming induced climate change. By working with nature, we might even gain better weather with less hot air and more summer breezes across open river water.