Extension Master Gardener Photo of the Month for August showcases protecting water quality

Patty Cotter’s photo highlights one of MSU Extension Master Gardener’s missions: Teaching others how to garden to protect water quality.

Photo of plants by the lakeshore.
Extension Master Gardener (EMG) Patty Cotter’s photo was voted fan favorite in the category “Tough as Nails” at the 2021 MSU Extension Master Gardener College Photo Exhibition. Patty is an Advanced MSU EMG who lives in Ingham County. Her photo highlights native beach grasses on a Great Lake and is a great example of what gardeners can do to help protect water quality. Photo by Patty Cotter.

Michigan gardeners are connected to Michigan’s water resources in one way or another due to Michigan’s extensive watershed network. Those watersheds connect our Great Lakes, inland lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater across large geographical areas. The actions of gardeners working on local lawns and gardens may not only affect nearby water but other parts of that valuable watershed, hence the need to protect it at all levels.

One of the core missions of the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener (EMG) Program is to teach and work alongside other gardeners to share gardening practices that protect water quality. Michigan State University (MSU) EMGs are first trained on this important topic during their initial training but also through continuing education opportunities as certified EMG volunteers with MSU Extension. Their effort to teach others about the connection gardening has with water quality is part of a larger MSU Extension mission of teaching others about environmental stewardshipEnvironmental stewardship includes all ecosystem parts (water, land, air) and helps citizens recognize ways to conserve, enhance and sustain ecosystems for the diverse people and organisms that live in them. MSU EMGs often focus on the water aspect of stewardship due to the variety of gardening practices that impact water as well as the methods that can be used to improve it. 

How do MSU EMGs do this? 

MSU EMGs work alongside the MSU Extension consumer horticulture team to share science-based knowledge that can help gardeners protect water resource in the following ways: 

  • Teaching others how to reduce runoff of fertilizers and pesticides by using less, following instructions for their proper use, and building barriers that can block and process run-off such as rain gardens and natural shorelines. 
  • Teaching others how to reduce water outputs by mulching gardens, watering plants at their bases, watering during low evaporation times of the day, and putting the right plants in the right place so they need less care. 

Why rain gardens? 

Runoff from stormwater is a constant threat to Michigan’s water resources. Stormwater is naturally absorbed and filtered by vegetation and soil to eventually recharge groundwater. Impermeable surfaces such as pavement have and continue to replace vegetated areas. When the water cannot soak in, it flows directly into lakes and rivers, picking up and depositing contaminants from road surfaces along the way. These contaminants may include fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, road salt and sediment.  

MSU EMGs have been working with Michigan residents to help them install rain gardens to help with runoff issues. These gardens are designed to capture and treat stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways, and other impervious surfaces. They often include native plants that have a strong ability to withstand periodic flooding and stabilize soil. 

Why shoreline restoration? 

Restoring shoreline habitat is another important way to protect water quality. This involves shifting from shorelines that consist of lawns, sand or seawalls to more natural landscaping that consist of native plants, bushes and trees, and natural structures (e.g., large stones) that prevent erosion.  

There are many benefits to replacing shorelines with natural designs besides their beauty. Plantings create a buffer zone that reduces the likelihood lawn clippings and chemicals will wash into the water and degrade water quality. They hold soil in place with their extensive root systems, thereby slowing runoff of water into the lake. They can also provide critical habitat for the fish and wildlife that are important components of healthy and sustainable ecosystems. 

Why “right plant, right place?” 

MSU EMGs also spread the word to communities about the value ofright plant, right place. Putting plants in the right place (and using native plants when possible) can lead to less inputs and more ecosystem resilience and help protect our water resources. Choosing plants already well-suited for your existing conditions creates less maintenance, less inputs, and a healthier garden. This can be especially important for gardens near shorelines and beaches because of the distinctive conditions those plants need to tolerate. 

Check out these other great shoreline resources available to both MSU EMGs and the public

Why follow instructions? 

Learning more about your garden and what you are applying to it can help protect water quality. That knowledge helps a gardener reduce inputs that do not get used and which can easily leach into water systems. 

There are many ways gardeners can reduce inputs to protect water quality, such as following recommendations for lawn care, doing soil tests to add appropriate amounts of fertilizers, and monitoring what types of chemicals you apply to your garden in an effort to protect vulnerable wildlife such as amphibians.  

The MSU EMG Photo of the Month for August, taken by EMG Patty Cotter, highlights native beach grasses on a Great Lake and is a great example of what gardeners can do to help protect water quality: 

  • Build buffers to prevent run-off (natural shoreline restoration). 
  • Put the right plants in the right place (native beach plants). 
  • Reduce inputs (less fertilizers, pesticides, water). 

Thank you, Patty Cotter, for sharing this photo and to all the MSU EMGs who are spreading the word about the importance of protecting water quality by using proper gardening techniques.  

Watch for next month’s EMG Photo of the Month to see what else MSU EMGs are doing in communities to make them great places to live. 

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