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Bay-Wise: Better Water Quality Through Smarter Gardening

The Maryland Bay-Wise Program is a homeowner education program conducted by Maryland Master Gardeners.

The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and a vital part of the state of Maryland. Yet, the Bay is in trouble due to population pressures from pollution and sediment runoff which affect its watershed. Most Maryland residents live within a half-mile of a drainage ditch, storm drain, stream or river. Most of those waterways eventually drain into the Chesapeake Bay. What we do to maintain our own landscapes can affect the health of our local waterways, the Chesapeake Bay and our environment.

The overuse and misuse of pesticides and fertilizers, soil erosion and poor plant selection have all damaged Maryland’s streams, rivers and the Bay. Environmentally sound gardens and yards combined with sustainable gardening practices can help improve water quality and conserve our natural resources for future generations.

The MD Bay-Wise Program focuses on water quality. It comprises a comprehensive set of environmental topics that affect the quality and quantity of water here in Maryland. Most of these topics relate to landscape management, however, a few, like hydrology, wells and septic systems, hazardous household products and water conservation, address household issues.

We all need to do our part to take care of our waterways and environment. By changing a few simple landscape practices, you and your family can help keep Maryland communities healthy.

Read How Your Yard CAN Help the Chesapeake Bay! 

Home Landscape Best Management Practices

Fertilize Wisely

Fertilizers can be harmful to the environment and your yard if not used properly. When applied at the wrong time or over applied, fertilizers can create salt problems in the soil. They can also affect winter hardiness, exaggerate pest problems and make plants grow excessively (which can mean more mowing too!). Excess nitrogen and phosphorus (two components of fertilizers) can leach out of the soil and pollute groundwater. These two nutrients can also wash off landscapes and pollute surface waters and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

Water Efficiently

Cool season grasses (fescues, bluegrasses, ryegrasses) naturally go into a semi-dormant state during summer's heat and drought. Many Bay-Wise Marylanders take steps to conserve water and mimic Mother Nature by not watering during summer. Others try to keep their lawns growing during this time by watering. If you choose to irrigate, do so only when your lawn and landscape need water. Efficient watering is an important key to reducing runoff and maintaining a healthy Maryland landscape.

Mow Properly

Cool season grasses grow rapidly during spring and fall. This is when temperatures are cooler and rainfall is more plentiful. Regular mowing at higher heights (2 ½" to 3 ½") encourages a deeper, more drought- and pest-tolerant root system. A higher cut also shades out weeds. Remove no more than a third of the grass blade when you mow.

Control Stormwater Runoff

Any rain and irrigation water that runs off carries soil, debris, fertilizer and pesticides from your yard into neighborhood storm drains. These storm drains lead to local streams, rivers, drinking water reservoirs and the Bay. These substances can harm living organisms, habitats and water quality. Reducing runoff from your property minimizes these problems.

Mulch Appropriately

Mulching retains soil moisture, moderates soil temperature and helps prevent erosion and weeds. By using mulch you'll use less water, have healthier plants and fewer weeds. Mulch should be three inches or less in depth. Deeper mulch can rob plant roots of water and encourage shallow rooting, which is harmful to plants during drought. Note: Never use freshly ground organic material, like brush or hardwood bark, as mulch. It robs nitrogen from the soil and can cause plant yellowing. Allow these materials to age for at least 6 months before using.

Recycle Yard Waste

In a Maryland landscape, grass clippings, leaves yard trimmings, and organic kitchen scraps, such as vegetable & fruit peelings, egg shells and tea & coffee grounds, should be recycled rather than thrown away. This recycling of nutrients completes a natural cycle to soil regenerate and renew soil. Recycling nutrients also reduces the amount of package fertilizer you need to maintain your landscape.

Manage Yard Pests with IPM

It is unrealistic to strive for an insect and disease-free landscape. Pesticides provide effective treatment of serious pest problems, but they should not be used routinely or indiscriminately. Improper use of pesticides can result in pest resistance and can harm humans, pets, beneficial organisms and the environment. Integrated Pest Management, IPM, is a comprehensive process used to manage pests. It involves an understanding of the life cycle of the pest, other organisms, (like beneficial organisms, our pets and ourselves) and the effects of a pesticide on all of these things. The result is, when confronted with a pest, you should consider all possible ways to control it before doing so.


1. regular monitoring for signs of plant problems and insect pests (use a hand lens for a closer look and don't forget the leaf undersides),

2. preventing pest problems before they occur,

3. once identified, considering cultural or mechanical means of control and as a last resort, consider using a pesticide, trying "bio-rational" materials like insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, and Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), for caterpillar pests,

4. follow-up monitoring and noting what worked and what didn't.

Plant Wisely

Plants suited to your site will require minimal amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticides; and may provide benefits to your home. A diversity of plants (shade trees, understory trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants) provides an interesting landscape for you, a range of host plants for native wildlife, and reduces the amount of stormwater running off your property. Native plants require less fertilizer, watering and maintenance plus they encourage our native wildlife. Judicial placement of shade trees and evergreen plantings can help keep our homes cooler during summer and warmer during winter. Avoid planting invasive plants, which can out-compete native plants in natural areas.

Encourage Wildlife

Maryland has a great diversity of wildlife. Provide adequate food, water and shelter to increase the number and variety of species, like birds, butterflies and beneficial insects, which visit your yard.

Protect the Waterfront

Waterfront property owners realize the special contribution our waterways and the Bay make to their quality of life. They should also understand how fragile these natural treasures can be. Waterfront property includes those properties that border even the smallest streams.

Youth participate in a project to save the Potomac River

How Do I Get My Home Landscape or Vegetable Garden Certified as Bay-Wise?

Bay-Wise Best Practices Information Sheet

Interested in making your landscape more environmentally sound? Follow these steps:

1. Download the appropriate MD Yardstick along with an application

2. If you live in Charles County, contact Rose Markham, Bay-Wise Chair, at, to sign up for a site visit for certification.  Do not submit your completed Yardstick and application before you contact your local Master Gardener program. If you live outside of Charles County, click HERE to find your Bay-Wise Coordinator.

Once a "Bay-Wise trained" Master Gardener certifies your home landscape, you will receive a small sign to display in your landscape and a certificate. Even if you do not have your landscape certified, you can still do plenty to reduce pollutants going into the Chesapeake Bay by following the suggestions in the MD Yardstick.

Backyard Buffers

Logo for Backyard Buffers


The Charles County Master Gardener Bay-Wise program teams up with our county forester to provide residents with free buffers in a bag. Each bag includes 12 bare-root seedlings, approximately 1-2 feet in height, which will be a mixture of various trees. All the bundles have been claimed for this year. Check back in February 24 for the next give-away!


Bay-Wise Starts with Everyone

  • Photo of the Melwood Recreation Center Pollinator Garden

    Melwood Bay-Wise Certification

    Watch our Charles County Master Gardeners do a Bay-Wise certification at Melwood Recreation Center.

  • Frederick County Bay-Wise Video

    Bay-Wise Maryland Landscape Certification

    Frederick County Master Gardeners explain the Maryland Bay-Wise program, which is absolutely free.

  • Who Polluted the Potomac Video

    Who Polluted the Potomac?

    Montgomery County Master Gardeners present “Who Polluted the Potomac” during Close Encounters with Agriculture 2018