Spring daffodils. Image: Angela Shambaugh

Spring daffodils. Image: Angela Shambaugh

The crocus  are past, daffodils are fading, and the tulips are coloring up! My thoughts have turned away from snow shovels and towards my garden spade. As the weather warms up, I am itching to get outside for spring chores. For many of us, one of those chores is making sure that plants in the yard have what they need to grow well. Weeding, pruning, and fertilizing are the things we do to keep them happy. If you live on or near a lake, you should also be thinking about how these things might affect your local waters.

Fertilizers and Compost

Vermont regulates the production and use of fertilizers, manure, and compost to protect water quality across the state. Anything that helps garden plants, crops, or lawn to grow will also help algae and aquatic plants. These products need to be used carefully, especially around our lakes and ponds. Since 2011, Vermont has regulated the application of fertilizers to turf (aka lawns) through 10 V.S.A. § 1266b. Turf is defined as land planted in closely mowed, managed grasses, including residential and commercial property. Land for agricultural production, including sod production, and golf courses are not considered turf. Research has long shown that most lawns have more than enough nutrients to grow well and that routine applications of fertilizers is not necessary.

The Champlain Valley-based Lawn to Lake.org has lots of information about maintaining healthy, lake-friendly lawns. Image: Lawn to Lake.org.

Here’s what you need to know about this law.

  • Phosphorus fertilizer cannot be applied to turf unless
    • You have a soil test taken in the last 18 months showing phosphorus is needed; or
    • You are starting a new lawn by seed or sod. Fertilizer application can occur during the first growing season of a new lawn.
  • Retailers are required to post signs about the law, phosphorus run-off, and the required soil test.
  • Nitrogen fertilizer cannot be applied to turf at all.
  • Fertilizers falling on impervious surfaces (concrete, asphalt, packed dirt driveways etc.) need to be picked up immediately.
  • Fertilizers cannot be applied before April 1 or after October 15, or anytime the ground is frozen.
  • Fertilizers cannot be applied within 25 feet of water.

Weeding and Pruning

It’s hard to resist the urge to clean up the old plants, twigs, and pine needles, but these things are very important for healthy lake shores. As they decompose, they offer homes and food for the local wildlife and pollinators. They break down into duff, which slows the flow of water and holds some of it in place. That benefits plants and soil critters during later drier days.

The duff also provides in-situ potting soil for the seeds of future trees and shrubs that are the unsung heroes along the lakeshore. Woody plants are home for insects, songbirds, and other critters. Their roots help hold shoreline and upland soils in place. Their leaves protect soils from excessive sun and damage from heavy rains. By filtering sunlight, trees help keep the area cooler and shadier. Branches and trunks that have fallen into the water are important hiding places for young fish. Your lake shore can never have enough trees and woody shrubs!

Image: A. Shambaugh 2021.

Vermont also has laws related to managing shoreland and land close to lakes- the Shoreline Protection Act (SPA). If you own or manage property along a lake shore, you should be familiar with this law. FOVLAP has lots of resources on our website connected to the SPA – here are links:

Enjoy your spring gardening!