Aerial view of The Stugas senior townhome development.

Water stewardship prompts the Stugas to switch to organic lawn care practices

The Stugas, a senior townhome development nestled along Highway 95, just north of the village of Marine on St. Croix, sits on just a bit less than an acre of land. While that’s a small property by rural standards, the 20 families who live there wanted to be good stewards so they decided to make a change in how they managed their land. 

For many years the homeowners’ association contracted with a lawn care service that did what most lawn care services do—they treated the lawn with synthetic herbicides. Individual residents could opt-out of lawn treatment, but then they had to take care of any weeds or crabgrass by themselves. 

Over time, more and more residents opted out because they were concerned about the safety of lawn chemicals. Last year the homeowners’ association decided to go organic. 

“One of the driving [reasons] for me,” said Jon Fogelberg, vice president of the homeowners’ association, “was when we have a rain we get a lot of water coming down this hill (behind the townhomes). It goes through the Stugas and drains down on the other side of the highway right down to the river.”

The Stugas homeowners’ association decided to work with Drew Hempel, a Stuga resident with extensive experience in restoration ecology and farm work. He operates EcoEcho Agroecology, growing shiitake mushrooms in northern Minnesota. 

 Hempel believes that a healthy, regenerative lawn is based on properly feeding essential soil microorganisms using organic, natural fertilizers that release slowly. 

Hempel starts the greening season with an application of corn gluten meal as a fertilizing treatment that doubles as a pre-emergent treatment for annual weeds. Corn protein works as a natural hormone growth inhibitor so the roots of annual weeds don’t develop. 

Then he takes advantage of a locally produced resource—compost from the Marine compost site—as well as MinneGrow, a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer with high organic content, produced in southern Minnesota. 

“Now we have peace of mind,” said Fogelberg, “that the materials used on our lawns are safe and if it goes into the river we aren’t doing any harm. We feel we are making a contribution, as small as it is, to make our environment a bit better.”

Along with regular mowing, and overseeding with more grass seed (mixed in with city compost), he also does some mechanical weed remover with a favorite step-and-twist tool, the “weedpopper,” which doubles as a soil aerator. A garden knife is useful for prescription clearing of unwanted plants. 

Hempel’s final step to complete the cycle of a healthy lawn care is using an electric-powered dethatcher. “Too much thatch will prevent the water and nutrients from reaching the roots of the grass, and will prevent the grass seed from getting established in the soil.”

In the fall, he vacuums up leaves and shreds them with a Toro electric leaf vacuum-shredder.

In addition to shunning synthetic lawn chemicals and herbicides, Hempel also helped the Stugas kick their gas habit by making the switch to Greenworks electric lawn care equipment—a mower, trimmer, leaf blower and dethatcher. He says that the electric lawn mower is much lighter and easier to navigate. All of the products use 40-volt batteries so the batteries can be used interchangeably.

According to the California Air Resources Board, one hour of gas-powered lawn mowing generates the same amount of pollution as driving 300 miles. With the electric model, there are no more toxic fumes and much less noise to ruin a beautiful summer day. 

“The main focus of landscaping should be to preserve the living world,” Hempel said. The Stugas have initiated a Minnesota Bee Lawn seed planting and they are working on replacing invasive buckthorn trees with native trees while also planting new trees nearby.” 

This is the first in an occasional series of stories highlighting the actions people in Marine on St. Croix have taken to improve the environment, protect water and pollinators, save energy, and more. 

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