This page contains definitions for commonly used environmental terms.

General Terms

River Friendly Practices – Practices that prevent or reduce pollutants from point or nonpoint sources, in order to protect water quality.

Erosion – The process where wind, water, ice, and other mechanical and chemical forces wear away rocks and soil, breaking up particles and moving them from one place to another.

Fertilizer – Natural and synthetic materials including manure, nitrogen, phosphorus and treated sludge that are worked into the soil to provide nutrients and increase its fertility.

Impervious – Describes materials that do not allow water to pass through. This includes pavements (roads, sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots), buildings, and other material that water runs off of instead of being allowed to soak into the ground.

Native Plant – Plants that naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. They are adapted to local soil, rainfall, and temperature conditions, and have developed natural defenses to many insects and diseases. They will grow with minimal use of water and fertilizers, and support native wildlife species that have evolved with the plants.

Nitrogen – An essential nutrient for plant and animal development. Too much of this nutrient can cause accelerated plant growth, algae blooms, and increase the amount of material available for decomposition (which lowers dissolved oxygen).

Nutrients – Compounds, minerals, or elements needed by living organisms to carry on their functions. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other elements are examples of nutrients required for plant growth.

Pervious – Describes materials that allow water to pass through. This includes vegetated space like lawn, gardens, and forests, as well as pervious pavements like gravel, specialty pavers, and pervious concrete and asphalt.

Phosphorus – An element considered the key nutrient in controlling eutrophication in lakes and ponds. Too much of this nutrient can cause accelerated plant growth, algae blooms, and increase the amount of material available for decomposition (which lowers dissolved oxygen).  Phosphorus is commonly found in fertilizers and detergents/soaps.

Pollution – The addition of unwanted substance to or the alteration of the environment in a way that adversely affects human health or living systems. Pollutants may be biodegradable, non-biodegradable, or slowly degradable.

Riparian Buffer – A zone of vegetation along a river or stream corridor that offers wildlife habitat and helps absorb runoff from the land during storm events.

Runoff – The amount of water (from precipitation, snowmelt, or irrigation water) that flows along the land surface.

Sediment – Usually applied to material (soil, clay, etc.) in suspension in water or recently deposited from suspension. In the plural the word is applied to all kinds of deposits from the waters of streams, lakes, or seas.

Watershed – The land area that collects and channels water to a particular stream, river, or lake. The entire area of land whose runoff of water, sediments, and dissolved materials (e.g., nutrients, contaminants) drain into a river, lake, estuary, or ocean. It is a land feature that can be identified by tracing a line along the highest elevations between two areas on a map, often a ridge. Large watersheds, like the Chesapeake Bay basin, contain thousands of smaller watersheds. Also called a “drainage basin.”

Washing Your Car – The best option is to go to a carwash because they typically use less water and many of them recycle the water. If you wash your own car, make sure to do it on a pervious surface such as your lawn, so that the water can infiltrate into the ground as opposed to washing down the storm drain. It usually takes gallons of water to wash a car, so to reduce the number, use the water from a rain barrel if you have one. Be mindful of the products that you use as well. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an expansive list that can help you determine what to use.

Vegetated Buffer – This is a simple planted area that would be located parallel to the street along the edge of your yard. These buffers are great at slowing down the runoff coming off your lawn and help to remove some of the fertilizer and pollutants before the water reaches the street and the storm drains.

Scoop the Poop

Proper Waste Disposal – The average dog creates 274 pounds of poop per year!  This waste is riddled with harmful bacteria.  When not picked up, pet waste washes into stormdrains and bodies of water where it decomposes, using up dissolved oxygen and releasing ammonia which can be harmful to fish and other aquatic organisms.  Pet waste is not the same as manure and should not be used as fertilizer.  You should bag your pet’s waste and dispose of it in the trash.

Smart Yard/Lawn/Garden Maintenance

Proper Fertilization – Not all fertilizer is the same and not all yards need the same fertilizer.  Before fertilizing, have your soil tested to determine what nutrients your lawn needs.  Soil testing is inexpensive and widely available.  Many Cooperative Extensions, Master Gardener programs and lawn management companies offer soil testing for a nominal fee.  You can also purchase a test kit at many lawn and garden centers or send your own samples to a lab such as A&L Eastern laboratories for analysis.  It is also important to fertilize at the right time of year.  In Virginia, the best time to fertilize is the fall.

Lawn Maintenance Companies – Not all lawn maintenance companies are made equal!  If you’re paying someone to manage your lawn, make sure they are using environmentally friendly practices.  In addition to being bad for the health of our waterways, many of the products used on lawns can be harmful to children and pets.  There are companies that specialize in environmentally friendly lawn care using natural products or products that are less harmful to children, pets and waterways.  Make sure that your maintenance company is testing your soil before determining what products to put on your lawn.

Proper Mowing – Mowing properly stresses grass less and leads to less watering and fertilizing.  Generally speaking, what you see on top of the ground is an indication of how much is under the ground.  In other words, taller grass has a more developed root system that will more efficiently capture water and nutrients.  Make sure the blades on your mower are sharp and mow high so that you have 3-4 inches of grass.  The general rule of thumb for mowing is not to remove more than 1/3 of the height of the grass.  Finally, make sure that clippings aren’t on the sidewalk or street so they can’t wash into stormdrains, but don’t bag them!  Leave clippings on your lawn so that they can act as natural fertilizer.

Compost – One of the best ways to improve the structure of your soil is to top-dress your lawn and garden with 1/4” of fine compost at least once a year, preferably between September and November or in early spring. Compost is full of life and improves drainage, reduces pest and disease problems, attracts the good insects and worms, nourishes your soil with important nutrients, which reduces the need for fertilizer, and also helps your soil retain moisture. You can either buy compost or use homemade compost from your own pile. To learn more about how to use compost see “Using Compost in Your Landscape” and if you are looking to create your own compost pile see “Making Compost From Yard Waste.

Proper Watering – By watering slow and deep, the plants develop a deeper and more extensive root system and are better able to withstand drought conditions. Light watering promotes shallow roots that dry up easily in times of drought. Deep watering means approximately 1” a week, and this can be done in one watering. In order to water slowly, use a sprinkler or irrigation system to provide a uniform application. If you are using a sprinkler, use a rain gauge or tin can set in the turf or garden area to be watered and when there is 1” of water in the container then you are done for the week. Early morning is the best time to water because it allows the water to soak into the ground before the mid-day heat arrives. The next best time to water is early evening/late afternoon, but not too late because the foliage should have time to dry to avoid mildew and pest problems. Do not water your plants in the middle of the day because the water will be lost to evaporation before it can soak into the ground and it will stress your plants. Visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension or Down 2 Earth Gardens for more information on proper watering.

Smart Irrigation System – This is an accessory to your irrigation system that connects to the internet.  The control monitors the weather and adapts your watering schedule to current conditions. Smart irrigation systems are widely available on the internet and through lawn and garden professionals.

Lawn Aeration – This is something that you can do on your own or have a lawn care company come do this for you. Most lawns are compacted, which makes it difficult for oxygen, water, and nutrients to seep below the surface. By aerating your lawn you are creating spaces that allow the air, water, and nutrients to access the roots where they can do some good. Aerating also pulls some soil to the surface, which helps decompose thatch. It is even better if you apply compost right after you aerate. Most lawns in Virginia are cool-season grasses and the best time to aerate is between September and November. If you have warm-season grasses the best time is early April to late August. Information about aerating is available through the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Proper Septic System Care

Water Usage Guideline – Try not to do several tasks that involve a lot of water usage in a short period. For example, do not do all of your laundry in one day or wash your car and water your lawn on the same day. Install water saving fixtures and make sure that your faucets and fixtures are not leaking.

Drainfeld Care – Water loving plants such as sycamore, maple, and weeping willow should be planted at least 50’ from drainfields. Their roots can enter distribution lines, boxes and drainfield trenches, which can cause clogging and failure of the septic system. Do not place mulch on top of drain field. Mulch is designed to prevent evaporation, which is an integral part of the septic system and can lead to premature failure of your system.

Drains and Garbage Disposals – Things that should not go down the drain or be flushed include grease, coffee grounds, sanitary napkins or tampons, insecticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Septic systems are not designed to decompose these materials.

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