Raise the Blade research has begun

By Lake Champlain Sea Grant Staff
September 07, 2017

Burlington--Ten Burlington businesses are helping University of Vermont (UVM) researchers understand how lawn care practices might influence the cleanliness of water in local streams and Lake Champlain.

Researchers from the Lake Champlain Sea Grant program and UVM Extension are studying whether differences in soil and grass health exist between lawns cut to two or either three inches high when clippings are allowed to decompose on site. The study, which began in May, will be carried out over several years as some expected changes in soil and grass health may take extended time to develop.

"The current recommended practices are to cut grass no less than three inches in length, to cut no more than one-third of each grass blade during each mowing and to allow the clippings to decompose on the lawn," explains Dr. Kristine Stepenuck, Extension Leader for Lake Champlain Sea Grant. "Cutting grass shorter limits its root growth, thereby potentially decreasing stormwater infiltration since soil pores are smaller.

"This study is helping us to see how soils beneath lawns in the Lake Champlain Basin respond when grass is managed in different ways. We are grateful to the participating businesses for allowing us to use valuable space on their properties to assess if changes occur in infiltration rates, soil organic matter, grass health or soil compaction over time between the two management regimes."

Participants include Curtis Lumber; Dealer.com; ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain; Farrell Vending; Hulbert Supply; Lake Point Property Management (at Foam Brewers); Magic Hat Brewery; Main Street Landing; Queen City Printers Inc., and UVM.

This past summer Lily Myers, a UVM undergraduate student, collected data with funding support from the Simon Family Foundation. Myers visited each site weekly, mowing the lawn in marked plots to the two different heights and measuring a variety of soil and grass health parameters over time.

Management of the sites will be taken over by another UVM student, Rory Malone, this fall as Myers' fellowship ended in August. Myers will compile the results from this year's data and present the findings at UVM's undergraduate research symposium in spring 2018.

The research is part of the Lake Champlain Basin-wide Raise the Blade campaign to increase awareness and promote adoption of recommended lawn care practices by businesses and community members. The campaign is led by the Lake Champlain Basin Program in partnership with numerous Vermont and New York organizations including the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Composting Association of Vermont, the Lake Champlain Committee, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lake Champlain Sea Grant, UVM Extension and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

"With a large land area managed as lawn by homeowners in the basin, the volume of stormwater runoff that local residents have the ability to reduce by allowing their lawns to grow to longer lengths is significant," Stepenuck points out. "A fall 2016 survey of more than 1,000 homeowners from 56 towns in the Lake Champlain Basin revealed that, on average, 75 percent of homeowners cut their lawns shorter than three inches high. We also learned that almost 75 percent of homeowners allow clippings to decompose on their lawn, which should promote development of soil organic matter."

Soils rich in organic matter can hold more water than those with less. So the practice of allowing clippings to decompose should help reduce stormwater runoff, and, in turn, help reduce nutrient and sediment runoff to local waterways, thereby minimizing the number of harmful algal blooms in Lake Champlain.

While only 10 businesses currently are participating in the research aspect of the project, organizers are interested in recruiting more businesses, organizations and homeowners willing to adopt and/or promote the recommended practices or serve as a demonstration site for the campaign for which they will receive a lawn sign. To learn more about the research or outreach efforts, or to sign up to Raise the Blade, visit www.lawntolake.org.