Lawn by lawn, a green revolution
Bellport native Mary Butler can vividly recall her upbringing along the bay. “You could look down into five or six feet of water and see crabs walking by,” she said. In more recent years, summer months are marked with harmful algae blooms thanks to an influx of nitrogen into our waterways.
Friends of Bellport Bay, an organization founded in 2015, is seeking to change that. Though their efforts have been mainly focused on seeding shellfish into the bay, the group’s directors realized that their initiatives would be in vain if changes were not made on land first.
Nitrogen mainly enters the bay in two ways: through runoff tainted with synthetic fertilizers and by dated septic systems, which the county is at work amending.
Butler recently joined FoBB as a co-director, after a series of what she calls lawn-care “duh moments,” starting with a 2017 talk by Edwina von Gal, founder of the Perfect Earth Project. Last summer, the landscape designer and environmentalist spoke in Bellport about alternative methods towards a green lawn.
In honor of Earth Month, the nonprofit partnered with SOS For Your Soil to distribute eco-friendly lawn care products at the Center for Environmental Education & Discovery. Though the weather was originally predicted to be wintry last weekend, the sun shone and community members came out to learn about eco-friendly lawn care and stock up on green products for the spring. Over 200 bags of the compost were distributed.
Eric Powers, CEED director, was excited when FoBB approached him while location scouting. “This is exactly what CEED is all about,” he said, “a hub for learning about nature and living in harmony with the environment.” Noting that the bay is greatly impacted by chemicals used on lawns, Powers said he supports the efforts and awaits the use of organic lawn treatments to minimize the effects.
In addition to SOS compost, Karl Auwaerter of Bayport Flower House donated several bags of corn gluten that can be used for weed control. “You must embrace the fact that you do not need a PGA golf course lawn,” Auwaerter writes in his barefoot-ready lawn care guide. Though many people are obsessed with having a pristine, green lawn, FoBB hopes that making compost readily available to their neighbors can prove that it’s possible without the environmental damage.
Butler observed that while many people have made the switch to organic in their kitchens, not enough think about the harmful impacts their lawn products can have. “Most people don’t pay attention,” Butler said. “I didn’t.”
Butler, who in past years has hired a landscaping service to tend to her property and never reviewed the products used, said she’s going to be making more conscious decisions this season. Through her own research and reading the PRFCT Yard Handbook, Butler took away three main points: use compost, cut your grass a little bit higher and water less often, but for longer periods of time. She hopes that neighbors can walk away with those three lessons, too.
Leaving the grass a bit longer, she explained, acts as natural weed prevention since they won’t receive enough sunlight.
Shamma Murphy, who works with SOS For Your Soil, wants to destroy the notion that perfect lawns are healthy. Using eco-friendly products, she said, can have other beneficial impacts other than improving waterways. “The honeybees have nowhere to get their initial proteins from,” Murphy said of clover and dandelions, popular lawn casualties. “Anything we don’t like, we have to kill,” Butler observed of lawn care. (If weeds bother you, an alternative recipe to Roundup uses concentrated vinegar and orange oil.) “If communities could do that, we would not be having nitrogen and all these other chemicals on our lawns, entering our bodies and the bay,” Butler said.
Murphy added that leaving grass clippings in place can provide nutrients to your lawn, a direct source of nitrogen that breaks down. “The longer it is, the less you need to water, which is also great,” she said.
There are other complexities, like using compost “tea,” but Butler wants the community to start small.
The organization was able to purchase 400 bags of compost — enough for roughly 50 homes — with a generous anonymous donation of $15,000. The group hopes to sustain programs like this with the recent donation and funds brought in through the compost sale.
Murphy explained that the compost is sourced from one horse farm in St. James that’s home to 22 former show horses. “We didn’t want to truck off the horse manure,” Murphy explained, adding that air and water are forced in to break down raw materials, which include manure, pine shavings, hay that the horses haven’t eaten and grass clippings from their farm only.
Compost heaps are stored in concrete enclosures Murphy referred to as a “mafia-block system” that can hold over 90 yards of compost. “It takes about three weeks to fill and 45 days for the entire process,” she said.
That process includes forcing air in, and keeping the air moving with an industrial fan on top of the system and a scaled-up version of a grocery store mister inside. The compost is used on their farm and tested twice a year by Soil Food Web for E.coli and other analyses.
“We’re trying to let Mother Nature do her thing,” Murphy said. “No one spreads fertilizer in the forest, and it thrives.”
Though synthetic products can give plants a quick boost, they aren’t helpful in the long run. Too much can burn plants, which only use a small portion of the nutrients. The leftovers pollute, leaching into waterways, damaging the surrounding soil and killing earthworms. The result is weak, watery cell growth.
Compost gives back to the ground, bringing the soil back to life with microorganisms like fungi and bacteria and macroorganisms like earthworms, which trudge through the soil to help keep it aerated. “With compost, the plant takes what it needs. You’re not forcing any specific thing like nitrogen or phosphorus, you’re just giving it those microbes, which go into the soil,” Murphy said.
Butler and the rest of the FOBB cohort will again be distributing compost at the CEED this weekend, April 14 and 15, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. She hopes that slowly, neighbors can impact one another and envisions Bellport, East Patchogue or Brookhaven being home to the first street that goes entirely synthetic-free on their lawns. “As a community talks to each other, they start to support each other,” Butler said. “We’re getting together to say, ‘we’ve done enough damage,’ and let’s not do it anymore.”
Friends of Bellport Bay has partnered with CEED and SOS For Your Soil for a compost fundraiser. This Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or while supplies last, the nonprofit will be at the Washington Lodge distributing eco-friendly lawn materials. Two packages are available. For a suggested donation of $80, you can receive eight bags of compost, which the group says is sufficient for a quarter-acre property. A $140 donation includes compost and several bags of corn gluten, which can help deter weeds.
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