Watershed Partners_grass clippings

Instead of letting lawn clippings blow or wash into the sidewalk or street, take a minute after mowing to sweep grass clippings back into the lawn where they can fertilize the soil. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Strauss)

There’s lots that people can do to help keep our rivers and lakes cleaner and clearer.

The green lawn industrial complex

The first thing we need to realize about the “weed-free” golf course-like (WFGC) lawns featured on fertilizer packages and television shows is that those lawns take a lot of work and a lot of fertilizers and herbicides. Those lawns are also more at risk from drought and disease than a more diverse lawn landscape.

We’re all told that we’re “supposed” to have a WFGC lawn. Some people in your neighborhood may grow these lawns. But no city ordinance requires you to have a WFGC lawn. The WFGC model for lawn care comes from fertilizer, herbicide and lawn care companies who stand to make money if more homeowners have such a fragile and time-intensive lawn system.

A more relaxed and river-friendly approach to lawn care

Currently the Cannon River is impaired (polluted) by excess fertilizers (nutrients) like phosphorus and nitrogen, and by sediment (dirt). Excess fertilizers are what turn our waterways green with algae in the summer. While lawns and golf courses aren’t the largest sources of these contaminants, they are a part of the problem. In order to help clean up our local rivers, we need to make sure that our property isn’t releasing fertilizers or dirt to run down the storm drain and out into our local waterways.

Important note: the storm drains on your street are a straight pipe to the nearest waterway. Anything that goes down a storm drain—grass clippings, fertilizer pellets, candy wrappers, dog droppings, goes right into our rivers and lakes.


• Sharpen your mower blade to reduce water loss and damage to plants after mowing. Also avoid mowing during the hottest part of the day.

• Leave the clippings on the lawn to recycle nutrients. Lawn clippings are full of nitrogen, so if you let your lawn clippings blow or wash onto the sidewalk or street, they will wash into the storm drains the next time it rains. Take a minute after mowing to sweep grass clippings back into your lawn where they can fertilize the soil.

• Mow high (3”or more) to encourage a strong root system. Grass with a stronger root system is more likely to keep the ground covered and prevent soil erosion.

• Manage weeds by mowing and planting, not herbicides. Weeds thrive in places that your grass either won’t grow, or won’t grow quickly enough. Spraying those areas with herbicide will kill the weeds for now, but unless you get your grass (or another plant) to grow there, you’ll have weeds there again next year. Two hardy plants you can add to your lawn in those “weedy” areas are white clover (Trifolium sp.) and heal-all (Prunella sp.). Both species grow well in grass- challenged parts of your lawn. They also provide flowers for our bee and butterfly pollinators.


• Don’t fertilize during summer. Lawns are under stress in the summer — especially if not irrigated — and grass can’t use fertilizer efficiently during the summer. Never apply fertilizer prior to storm events or it will all end up in the river or lake!

Low-mow, No-mow Lawns

• Minnesotans now have several options for low-maintenance lawns. Rather than just growing Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa sp.), you can interseed your lawn with Fescue grasses (Festuca sp.).

These hardy, drought-tolerant grasses grow more slowly than bluegrass (less mowing) and create a dense mat of greenery to block out weeds. Blue Thumb (a clean water nonprofit in Minnesota) gives tips on establishing this kind of lawn at bluethumb.org/turf-alternatives/low-maintenance-turf.

Illegal discharges into storm drains

While most people in Northfield do a good job following the rules about how to keep our stormwater and river clean, occasionally a person has other ideas. From time to time, you might notice something strange flowing into a storm drain. On occasion, residents have tried to dispose of liquids illegally in a city storm drain. According to Northfield Water Quality Technician Cole Johnson, rainwater is the only thing that should be going down a storm drain. So, if you see someone disposing of paint, oil, or any other non-rainwater liquid down a storm drain, please call the city to report the violation. To report an Illicit Discharge during normal working hours (7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday) call the City’s Water Quality Technician, Cole Johnson, at 507-645-3071. To report an illicit discharge after hours or on weekends, please call the Non-Emergency Northfield Police Number 507-645-4477.

We can all do our part to clean up our yards and our rivers and lakes this summer!

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