Thursday, January 16, 2014

Out & About with AOLCPs - Swimmable & Fishable by 2020

Out & About with AOLCPs

Swimmable & Fishable by 2020
Two AOLCPs Help Restore the River One Neighborhood at a Time
By Kathy Litchfield

PORTSMOUTH, VA – Reducing lawn fertilizers is one of seven specific things homeowners agree to do when they become a “River Star Home” through The Elizabeth River Project, and it’s one that’s close to the heart of NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (AOLCP) Terri Foss.

“I live on the river and have always been environmentally aware,” said Foss, who works hands-on with riverside dwelling homeowners, taking soil tests and educating them about choosing organic lawn care practices through the River Star Homes Program.

“I feel like I’m doing my part to contribute to the bigger picture of a cleaner, healthier river, that I live and work on. We’re having a lot of success and that makes me feel good,” said the former director of gardens and grounds for the Hermitage Foundation Museum in Norfolk, Va., an 11-acre site surrounded by the Lafayette River – a branch of the Elizabeth River.

For three years since the program was founded, Foss has worked with the Elizabeth River Project to educate homeowners about what they put on their lawns, why soil testing is important, what pH means, how an organic approach saves money in the long term and helps to restore and protect the precious resource outside their front doors – the Elizabeth River.

The Elizabeth River Project was founded in 1996 to help restore the river to the highest water quality possible by working directly with homeowners, businesses and institutions. It was one of the most polluted rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and is now returning to a state of health, with the goal to be swimmable and fishable by 2020.

While Foss manages homeowner visits and person-to-person education through the River Star Homes project, River Star Homes Program Manager and NOFA AOLCP Sara Felker is developing educational materials including fact sheets, PowerPoint presentations and website articles to make it as easy as possible for homeowners to see the benefits of transitioning to organic lawn care in both the beauty of their lawns and the fact that by doing so, they help to restore the Lafayette. 

“We encourage homeowners to get the biology of the soil correct and to choose the right turfgrass to plant. We help them create a healthier, denser turf, and teach them why it’s important to have a healthy lawn and how that contributes to higher river water quality,” said Felker, who holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in ecology from the University of Arizona. Previously she designed educational materials for science teachers, enjoying the process of interpreting complex scientific ideas into language teachers and students could more easily understand.

When a homeowner signs on to become a “River Star Home,” in addition to agreeing to reduce lawn fertilizers (which contribute to algal blooms in the Lafayette River, sometimes resulting in fish kills), they also agree to these additional six things: properly disposing of dog poop, not flushing medicines, keeping grass clippings, leaves and oil out of storm drains, no grease in the sink, helping geese migrate by not feeding them, and pumping out boat waste at proper facilities. After pledging to follow these steps, they receive an attractive lawn flag for their front yard identifying them as a River Star Home.

“Once one person flies a flag, neighbors want to follow suit,” said Foss.

“People ask ‘what is that flag for?’ and they want one. You’ll see streets with three houses in a row with flags. It’s a great marketing tool,” she said. As homeowners add additional river-friendly features, such as rain gardens, rain barrels, native plantings and when appropriate, riparian buffers, they receive special ribbons to hang from the flags designating each step.

Homeowners – so far, 150 have participated in this grant funded project - can then choose to apply for a “lawn makeover,” at which point Foss visits their home for a lawn assessment and to teach homeowners how to take accurate samples for soil tests. Homeowners can then apply for funding for aeration and compost topdressing (often provided by NOFA AOLCP Heather Driscoll of My Sister’s Garden), Felker explained.

The project, which just finished its third year, has received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation-Chesapeake Bay Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grant. 

With additional grants going forward, Foss and Felker plan to follow up with homeowners who’ve been involved since year one to do soil re-testing to evaluate where they’re at and continue to support homeowners who are now in the process of transitioning to “river friendly” organic lawn care.

“Since we started three years ago, we’re seeing a much denser turf, fewer weeds, fewer bare spots and better color in the lawn. The lawns have been fairly disease free and drought tolerant,” Felker said, pointing out that most of the homeowners involved in the program were previously applying chemical fertilizers, pre-emergent herbicides and pesticides, “following what was preached to them at the hardware store in spring,” she said.

Felker said it’s rewarding to see yards looking better and people feeling happy about their decisions. “I deal with the administrative side of the program. I get homeowners whose neighbors have done this, and heard great things about Terri helping them. Or people who’ve had lawn makeovers and talked with Terri about rain barrels that we can help them subsidize the cost of and install,” she said. “To me getting that homeowner participation is so important. It’s not a purity issue – it’s that they‘re making changes and are engaged in our program, and want to learn less toxic methods and help to restore the river.”

Their goal is to have the Lafayette River swimmable and fishable by 2014, with low enough bacteria levels that eating the fish will be safe. The overall goal of the Elizabeth River Project, of which the River Star Homes is one program, is to have the entire river swimmable and fishable by 2020.

“It really hits home for people that their kids can’t swim in the river in their backyard,” said Felker, who is aiming to help homeowners work together.

Most of the homeowners they work with have small lawns of one-eighth of an acre; to lower the cost of aeration and compost applications which incur delivery charges, heavy equipment and time, she is encouraging homeowners to coordinate compost deliveries for instance, get their neighbors to sign on as River Star Homes and transform whole neighborhoods.

“A lot of the people taking an active role in the program are people with young children who want a safe environment for them to play in and a healthy world to pass onto them. They don’t want just to see a difference in their lawn but they want to actively understand it and see the results in the reports coming back on the health of the river,” she said.

Both Felker and Foss said they appreciated the education they received during the Philadelphia, Penn. accreditation course they took in December 2013, including ways to better educate consumers, the importance of soil biology and specific recommendations for issues in lawns such as weeds and diseases.

Most rewarding is to see people getting involved in their local ecology and witnessing them making changes from the bottom up, said Felker. “The EPA’s not the one making these changes – these are voluntary changes from citizens, residents, companies, businesses, realizing that what they do can makes a difference.”

“The reports coming in are amazing,” added Foss. “The river was devoid of life and now the seahorses are coming back. We’ve been planting oyster reefs because they’re great water filterers, and at one time were plentiful here.”

For more information about The Elizabeth River Project, visit For more information about the River Star Homes Program, call Sara Felker at (757) 397-8377 or email