Fall Yard & Garden Maintenance for Clean Water

Adapted from Friends of the Mississippi River and Mississippi Watershed Management Organization

Fall yard cleanup is an important annual chore, but not just for the tidiness of your lawn or vibrancy of your garden. It’s an opportunity for people to help protect water quality by making a few simple, river-friendly choices.

  1. Gather (most) fallen leaves. Leaves are full of nitrogen and phosphorus. When they wash into streets and storm drains, those nutrients can enter our waters where they spur algae growth, reduce dissolved oxygen, and harm fish and wildlife habitat. To prevent this, rake up and dispose of large amounts of fallen leaves (keeping in mind local yard waste laws).
    That said: You don’t have to gather every leaf. If the leaf pile is so big it’s making your yard look like nature’s ball pit, collect what you can. If there’s just a small scattering of leaves on the lawn, you can mulch or mow them and let the diced slivers decompose between blades of grass, acting as natural fertilizer. Leaves in a natural area such as a garden bed that aren’t at risk of being blown away can generally be left alone entirely. In fact, these leaves serve as important overwintering habitat for many insects and pollinators.
  2. Keep everything (except rain) out of storm drains. Do you see leaves or grass clippings on the street or piling up in the gutters? Sweep them away and pick them up! This ensures they don’t get washed into the storm drain and enter the river — helping to reduce pollution in the water, as described above. Better yet, you can Adopt a Drain and invite your neighbors to do the same, so you can track your impact.
  3. Use lawn care products and fertilizer with discretion. Many groups suggest fertilizing your lawn in the fall to help encourage spring growth. If you want to do this, take a couple of precautions. First, don’t spread the fertilizer before expected rain. It takes a couple of days for grass to absorb the fertilizer, and any precipitation during that time will wash the fertilizer away and into nearby water bodies or storm drains. Mississippi Watershed Management Organization also suggests sweeping up any fertilizer that lands on a hard surface (such as a sidewalk or patio) and recommends using only phosphorus products.
  4. Add native plants to your yard and/or garden. Native plants are a boon for wildlife, including pollinators and birds. Thanks to deep, absorbent roots that are in the ground year-round, many native plants can help improve soil health and water quality. The National Environmental Education Foundation says a rain garden can absorb 30% more rain water than an equal size area of lawn. Converting even a small patch of grass or non-native plants to low-maintenance perennials can help reduce stormwater runoff from your property.
    While we typically thing of spring months as the kick-off party for planting, fall is also a great time — the send-off party before winter. Rooting is the main goal of fall planting. In spring and early summer plantings, plants devote their energy to branching, leafing-out, and flowering. Late summer and fall planting helps new plants devote their energy to establishing roots. In fact, fall is actually the best time to plant shrubs and trees. Cool weather keeps soil temperatures lower and can help keep the soil moist for longer — perfect conditions for developing new roots. In general, it is best to give fall plantings about 4-6 weeks to establish before temperatures are below freezing for long periods of time, so keep that in mind.
  5. Use a rain barrel. Rain barrels are a great way to conserve water and divert precipitation away from storm drains. Keep using it until winter hits and it’s at risk of freezing. At that point, empty the stored water into your garden (or use it to water thirsty trees, including on your street) and store the barrel somewhere safe until the spring.