Care less for your lawn and more for clean water by managing fall leaves and reducing your use of fertilizers and pesticides! 

A beautiful, well maintained lawn enhances your property value and provides a place for recreation and relaxation. But you may be making more work of your yard than is necessary. A few simple changes in your lawn care practices can save you time and money, while improving the quality of your lawn! You’ll also be protecting water resources.

Get our lawn care tip sheet

Learn How To . . .

Manage fall leaves to protect water quality and reduce neighborhood flooding!

Fall brings colorful views. As trees shed their leaves, you can do your part to keep them from washing into waterways or from clogging storm drains.

Storm drains and roadside ditches carry rainwater that flows off of hard surfaces like rooftops and roads away from neighborhoods. They send runoff and fall leaves directly to the nearest waterbody—no filters, no treatment.

When lots of decaying leaves get in, they use up the water’s oxygen, harming aquatic wildlife. Storm drains that get blocked by leaves can contribute to street flooding in your neighborhood.

Clean up and recycle fall leaves for healthy waterways and safe streets

Mow and mulch. The easiest way to get rid of the leaves in your yard is to mow them into your lawn. Frequent mowing with a regular mower will work fine, especially if the leaves are dry, but a mower fitted with a mulching blade works even better. By shredding them into a fine, thin layer, you will provide your grass with valuable nutrients and end up with a lawn that looks like it was just raked. Learn how from Leave Leaves Alone.

Rake and compost. Create a compost pile of your own, and add the leaves from your yard, for a nutrient-rich fertilizer to use on your garden next spring. Learn how from Washtenaw County.

Rake and bag. Put your leaves in large, craft paper bags or place them in their own labeled reusable can for pickup by your community’s curbside program. Check for and follow your community’s guidelines!

Avoid open burning—bad for your health and illegal in many communities. Open burning of leaves pollutes the air and poses a forest fire hazard. The air pollution created by open burning can irritate eyes and lungs, obscure visibility, soil nearby surfaces, create annoying odors or pose other nuisance or health threats. Learn more about open burning rules from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Adopt a storm drain. During the fall season, check your storm drain weekly, and clean up leaves, sticks, recyclables, and garbage. DO NOT REMOVE: the grate from the drain opening; dead animals (instead call animal control; hazardous materials like syringes (instead call 911). HRWC helps individuals and groups adopt neighborhood storm drains.

And, store your rain barrel for the winter. Prevent your rain barrel from buckling or cracking in cold winter weather by storing it in a garage or basement. Make sure to empty the rain barrel of all water. If you can’t store it in your garage or basement, remove it from under the downspout and turn the barrel upside-down so water cannot get in. Reattach the downspout and the downspout elbow (the pieces you removed during installation) to direct water away from your home’s foundation.

Fresh-water-friendly tips for turf grass

Mow high. Make your lawn cheaper and easier to maintain by mowing high—three inches is the rule! The roots of your lawn grow as deep as the grass grows tall, so taller grass has deeper, healthier roots. Keep your lawn three inches or higher, and never cut off more than 1/3 of the blade each time you mow. Leave the clippings right on your lawn for a natural fertilizer rich in nutrients and organic matter.

Water sparingly. Over-watering can damage plants, stimulate fungus, and leach nutrients out of the soil.

Create a smaller lawn area. Use trees, shrubs and flowers to landscape the rest of your yard.

Landscape with deep-rooted native plants. They are naturally suited to our weather and soil conditions, which means less work for you!  See our page on Native Plants for more information.

Put rainwater to work. Border your lawn with deep-rooted flowers and shrubs to prevent water runoff. Direct down spouts into these garden areas, or install rain barrels to collect water for use during dry weather.

Mulch grass clippings and leaves back into the lawn. Clippings that are mulched and returned to the lawn all season can contribute up to 25 percent of a lawn’s seasonal fertilizer needs. The additional organic matter in the soil will also help it retain moisture. Mulching is also a terrific option for fall leaves. Faculty at the Turf Research Institute at Michigan State University successfully tested mulching over 18 inches of dry leaves into lawns with healthy results year after year.

If you fertilize, protect water quality. Check out HRWC’s tips on getting your soil tested and using fertilizer at Fertilize Phosphorus Free.

Lawn Care Resources

Healthy Lawns and Gardens Program of the Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority has a website full of information and resources for homeowners on water-friendly fertilizing practices and lawn care. We especially like their 2-page Healthy Lawn Care Tips.

Prevent algal blooms in our waterways!

Phosphorus contributes to excessive aquatic plant growth, nuisance algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels in our freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Runoff from fertilized residential lawns is the primary source of phosphorus contaminants entering the Huron River. In urban settings, storm drains carry runoff to our waterways without filters or treatment. For waterfront properties, runoff can wash directly into the adjacent waterway.

Michigan Law restricts the application of fertilizers containing phosphorus to turf grass (with limited exceptions).

How to Identify Phosphorus-Free lawn fertilizer.

On the outside of product packaging you will see a sequence of three numbers. The first number indicates nitrogen content, which promotes top growth on plants. The middle number indicates phosphorus, for root growth. The last number indicates potassium, for producing strong stems and resistance to disease. If you are looking for a phosphorus-free fertilizer, the middle number must read “0”. As a general rule, look for turf grass fertilizers with zero phosphorus and avoid lawn and garden fertilizers, which are very high in phosphorus.

More Fertilizing Tips (and requirements)

Make a clean sweep. Keep fertilizer on the lawn and off hard pavement. Immediately sweep up any spills, especially on sidewalks and driveways, and clean those surfaces with a broom not a hose. Never apply fertilizer right before a rain storm. Fertilizer that washes away from your sidewalks, driveway, and lawn enters the storm drain system, which directly connects to local creeks and the Huron River.

Apply less fertilizer, less often. If you fertilize your lawn once each year, fall is the best time. In the fall, fertilizer can help your lawn repair itself from summer damage and prepare for optimal growth in the spring.

Do not apply fertilizer to frozen soil or soil saturated with water. In all cases, only apply fertilizer during warmer months when your lawn is no longer subject to freezing temperatures, generally April 1-November 15.

Create a “no fertilizer” zone. Avoid applying fertilizer within 25 feet of any lake, river, stream, wetland or stormwater pond. The law requires at least a 15-foot application buffer from a lake, river or stream.

Put your lawn to work. Maintain the lawn at a minimum height of three inches and, when you mow, cut no more than one-third of the height of the grass. Taller grass has a deeper, healthier root system, is more tolerant of drought, and resists weed infestation.

When you mow, mulch the clippings back into the lawn. This adds nitrogen and organic matter to the soil, and prevents compaction (thatch). Clippings that are mulched and returned to the lawn all season can contribute up to 25 percent of a lawn’s seasonal fertilizer needs. More tips at Grow a Healthy Lawn.

Get your soil tested. Learn what your lawn and garden need for optimum health and growth. Simply following the general directions listed by the manufacturer on a package of commercial fertilizer can lead to overapplication of the products. Soil testing also helps you determine exactly what nutrients are needed, which saves you time and money.

The Michigan State University Extension Bookstore has Mail-In Soil Test Kits available for purchase. Follow the directions provided with the kit, digging up soil samples from your yard and mailing them to the University Extension service where they are analyzed. You will receive an email directing you to the MSU Soil Test website when your results are available. You will learn the optimum nutrients needed in a fertilizer for your particular soil.

Lawn Fertilizing Resources

Healthy Lawns and Gardens Program of the Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority has a website full of information and resources for homeowners on water-friendly fertilizing practices.

This information is provided with support from the Middle Huron Partners and the Livingston Watershed Advisory Group, working together to reduce stormwater pollution in the Huron River watershed.