Home-Owner Strategies

Homeowners whose land is not next to a stream or lake may not realize the impact they have on water quality.  In suburban areas, housing developments generally removed most of the topsoil from properties as the site was prepared for building and installation of utilities.  Often, enough topsoil was retained to spread shallowly prior to placing rolls of turf grass.  Heavy equipment contoured the land to site the homes, create driveways, and meet village drainage requirements, compacting the soil.   Lastly, shallow-rooted turf grasses were placed over most of the area.   Through the network of gutters, curbs and storm drains, runoff from lawns end up in nearby waterbodies.  When one considers the excess use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides (homeowners use more per unit of land than farmers, per EPA data!), the risks of polluted runoff increases.  Lawns of compacted turf grasses can behave almost like impervious asphalt.  The EPA reports that sediment and nutrients from stormwater runoff comprises most of the pollution in many of our lakes and streams.

Individual homeowners can take some helpful actions to manage their lawns to soak up more rain and snow melt, and to slow down the runoff.  Capturing and filtering rainwater will reduce runoff and minimize erosion, reduce loss of nutrients, and lessen the amount of pesticides/herbicides that can contaminate nearby waterways.  A related opportunity is to monitor neighboring storm drains:  keeping them clear of leaves, pine needles and mulch reduces natural nutrient pollution (leaves are an especially rich source of phosphorus), reduces area flooding due to blocked drains, as well as helping your Village reduce their costs in monitoring problem drains.

As more areas face growing challenges ensuring a safe, reliable, long-term water supply, research from the Alliance for Water Efficiency proves that urban landscapes can be a source of water savings that can stretch existing resources and improve resiliency to shortages.  Further, a survey of more than 3,000 North Americans show that homeowners are ready to embrace a new landscape ideal – one that can achieve beauty, low-maintenance, and water-efficiency.

Does your home have a well and a septic field?  If your home is outside the village limits of Barrington, Tower Lakes,  Lake Zurich, Fox River Grove, or The Woods of South Barrington, you probably do.  You are responsible for testing your well water to ensure quality and no bacterial contamination.  You’re also responsible for the maintenance of your septic field, and they do require periodic maintenance.  There are resources that can help you manage these aspects of home ownership.  (See below)

Cool and Warm Grasses

     In our area of Illinois, regional water supply concerns and water conservation is increasingly important.  Projections are that we are pumping from our aquifers – layers of underground sand, gravel, and rock that contain groundwater – faster than they can recharge.  Lawn watering and other outdoor water uses can account for 30% of homeowner water usage throughout the summer.  In the U.S., there are now more acres in turfgrass than there are in corn, and some grasses require more water and fertilizers than others – Kentucky bluegrass (an Eurasian native) is one of the most demanding.
     Based on growing habits, turfgrasses are considered to be either warm or cool.  Cool grasses have a longer green period in our area, actively growing in the spring and fall.  Examples are Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and fine fescue.  Warm grasses grow only in the summer, and appear brown in the cooler months.  Examples are buffalo grass, bermuda and zoysia.
     Different types of grass have different water requirements.  Compared to Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue requires 30% less watering and buffalo grass requires 75% less.
     Kentucky bluegrass is also less drought tolerant and higher maintenance than tall fescue, the cool season alternative to bluegrass.  Ryegrass also has high water requirements and is neither cold nor heat tolerant.
     Due to the colder climate in northern Illinois, buffalograss is the best warm season species, followed by zoysia and lastly, bermuda.
     A note on watering:  Your lawn needs only an inch per week, including rain.  Irrigate in the early mornings or evenings to reduce evaporative waste.  Overwatering can promote thatch.
     For more information, check out the University of Illinois Extension.

Healthier Lawn Maintenance

     While many homeowners may not quite be ready to explore raingardens, butterfly gardens, bioswales with native plants or native borders along lake or stream banks or near storm drains, there are other ways to help soak up rain waters, reduce runoff, and keep our streams and lakes cleaner.
    Raise the Blade! The easiest and most effective way – and it also promotes a healthy, natural lawn –  is to keep your grass to 3 or 4 inches tall.  Mow, using a sharp mower blade (a dull blade frays the grass, so that it loses more water and is more susceptible to disease), leave clippings on the lawn as a natural source of nitrogen for the soil (clippings do not promote thatch), and remember not to remove more than one-third of the grass leaf in any one cutting.  Lawns mowed at higher heights tend to have deeper roots, fewer weed problems (save on herbicides!) and look better!  Mowing too close invites weed invasions!
     Keeping your lawn longer helps your grass develop better root structures, slows down the rain, and increases the chances that more rain will soak into your lawn.  Capturing and filtering rainwater on your property reduces runoff and lessens erosion and nutrient loading in nearby waterways.  It also eases the load on stormwater systems.  If your lawn is fescue, this grass has allelopathic capabilities, meaning it produces biochemicals that reduce competition from other plants, including some weeds.
     A note on thatch:  heavy nitrogen fertilizer applications and/or frequent overwatering contribute to thatch by causing lawns to grow excessively fast.  The primary component is turfgrass stems and roots, and accumulates as these plant parts build up faster than they break down.  Lawn clippings are NOT the cause.  Clippings are very high in water content and break down rapidly, assuming lawns are regularly mowed.  See also Lawn to Lakes.

Explore Native Plantings

     No one is asking anyone to turn their lawn into a prairie, only to think about how one wants to use their yard. (The picture above is of the new Tower Lakes raingarden, designed to help solve a flooding problem in a major park.)
     Plan out the play areas,  entertaining, dog use, vegetable or flower gardens, and so on.  Consider where there is sun and shade, where screening plants are needed, and pathways.  A recent survey by the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) found people want “landscapes that are beautiful, low-maintenance, and water-efficient, indicating a growing interest in sustainable landscapes. Low water use was one of the top three selected landscape attributes (42 percent) – just behind beauty (55 percent) and easy care (48 percent). The survey also showed that North Americans believe a beautiful outdoor space contains a variety of features. More selected trees and shrubs (87%), flowers (79%), and an entertaining space (73%) than lawn (69%) for their ideal landscape.
     Here is where local non-profit organizations can help landowners begin learning about alternatives, especially native alternatives.  Citizens for Conservation’s (CFC) Habitat Corridors program, Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT), and Open Lands offer free home visits to area residents.   Our area also has many native plant nurseries, some of which are associated with native landscape designers.
     There are many options for incorporating natives, which help provide food and shelter for native pollinators and birds, from butterfly gardens to raingardens, which can also mitigate local flooding or wet weather ponding areas and provide screening.  Once established, natives are low maintenance and water wise!   

Resources for Well and Septic

     Most of  the Flint Creek/Spring Creek Watersheds residents source their drinking water from aquifers.  This can be from the deep sandstone aquifers, like municipal Lake Zurich wells or the wells that supply The Woods in South Barrington, or the shallow aquifer network, which supplies both municipal wells, as in Barrington, Tower Lakes and Fox River Grove, and private wells for residents outside of those locations. While municipal wells have rigorous testing requirements, private well owners are responsible for their own water quality monitoring.
     For many homeowners moving from areas with municipal water supplies, living in many of our area communities is their first experience with having their own well.  Help is available, however.  Private well-owners can access The Private Well Class, a on-line (free) education program, a collaboration between the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the University of Illinois, through the Illinois State Water Survey at the Prairie Research Institute, and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The Private Well Class also offers free webinars on well management, and has a resource library, which includes information on grants and loans for private well owners.
   For private well residents in the Barrington Area Council of Governments (BACOG) communities, a reduced price Level 1 (bacteria and nitrates) testing event in collaboration with the Lake County Department of Health will be held on Tuesday, November 5th from 1 PM to 7 PM at The Garlands of Barrington. Level 2 testing information (more parameters tested) is available.

     Nationally, about 1 in 5 U.S. homes have septic systems.  If your septic system is not properly maintained, you may be risking your family’s health (properly maintaining septics is vital to protecting private drinking water wells), hurting the environment and wasting thousands of dollars.  The U.S. EPA offers a program called SepticSmart Homeowners that has helpful information:
Want to know about types of septic systems?
Do you know how your septic system works?
Why should you maintain your septic system?
How to care for your septic system?
Do you know what to do if your system fails? or if your home floods?

Shrub and Tree Care

     Mulching trees and shrubs can  benefit trees and shrubs by retaining moisture in the soil.  Organic mulch breaks down over time, and contributes to soil health.  Mulch can also reduce winter injury and help with weed control.
     Over-mulching can kill, however. 
Mulch should never touch the bark of trees or shrub stems.
  1.) Tree root suffocation is the most common cause of tree and shrub death from over-mulching.  Repeated applications can contribute to a waterlogged soil/root zone by excessively slowing soil water evaporation.  If water occupies most soil pore space, air content is minimal and the diffusion of oxygen roots need for respiration is essentially blocked.  When soil oxygen levels drop below 10%, root growth declines to the point of death of the plant.  Oxygen deprivation symptoms may take several years to appear, depending on the plant and soil type.  Unfortunately, by the time symptoms are noticed, it’s generally too late to save the plant.   
2) Root flare stems and trunk tissues are different from root tissues – they cannot survive a continually moist environment.  They must be able to breathe through lenticels – breathing pores allowing gas exchange.  When mulch is piled near trunks, gas exchange decreases, stressing and killing the inner bark tissue.  This can also happen when trees are planted too deep, burying the root flare.  It can also occur when sprinklers continually saturate any mulch that is placed against the plant’s trunk.   
3) Most fungal and bacterial diseases require moisture to spread and reproduce.  Trunk diseases gain a foothold into the moist, decaying bark tissue under the mulch when it’s too close to the trunk. Once established, the disease organisms can invade the inner bark, starving the plant, ultimately killing it.  See also Morton Arboretum.

Apply mulch under trees out to the drip line and a few inches away from the trunk.  Do not create fat donuts or volcanoes.  Broader is better.  Depth should not be more than 2 or 3 inches, depending on the soil.  More information can be found at Habitat Corridors, as well as instructions in Spanish.

Buckthorn Alternatives

     Buckthorn was brought from Europe in the early 1800s as an ornamental hedge.  It has become an aggressive invader of yards, open spaces and natural areas.  It’s extremely hardy and out-competes natives species with its fast growth, leafing out early in the spring and shading out competition.  Its shallow roots do not stabilize soil or absorb rainwater like natives plants do.  It changes soil chemistry to its advantage. Its berries are nutritionally poor,  making them poor choices for bird chicks or a pre-migration diet.  Buckthorn berries have a laxative effect, and are toxic in large quantities (NOT good for jams or jellies). Buckthorn leaves have a chemical – emodin – which in water, can be harmful to amphibians, causing malformations and even death.  Buckthorn is hard to eradicate.  Here is how to identify buckthorn, the two kinds:
common and glossy (see below).
     There are many wonderful native shrubs and understory trees that can replace buckthorn.  Morton Arboretum’s Tree Initiative has produced a pdf of recommended privacy replacements, following removal of European buckthorn.  It includes grass, ground and herbaceous plants, shrubs, understory or small trees, and canopy tree options.
     As noted by the Chicago Regional Tree Initiative, “by developing a network of critical landscapes, everyone can work together to safeguard the resources and places that benefit people, wildlife, and the economy.    “Buckthorn is the most common tree in the Chicago region, making up approximately 40 percent of our canopy, according to a 2010 tree census conducted by the U.S. Foest Service and The Morton Arboretum.
   “It will continue to be an issue until the whole community is involved from private landowners to homeowner associations, golf courses to garden clubs, businesses to school districts.
    “But momentum is building and will continue to build…..Together, public and private partners are working toward a buckthorn-free Chicago region.    “Let’s tell this invader: ‘The buckthorn stops here!'”

(Image from How to Identify.)  If one cuts buckthorn bark, it exposes yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, a real giveaway.