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Getting rid of problem algae and grass clippings

May 29, 2009|By JEFF RUGG / Creators Syndicate

Q: I collect water from my roof in a rain barrel. Is it OK to use this water to top off my 450-gallon small pond?

A: There are only a few things I would question. Water temperature is important to cold-blooded animals, so if there is a large difference in water temperature and a large amount of water used, it could be a shock, but as long as it is small amounts of water to top off the pond, I don't see a problem there.

If the barrel has any leaves or debris settled into it, bacteria could consume all the oxygen in the water in the barrel. Adding lots of water with a low-oxygen content to the pond could be a problem, but if it is added so the water splashes into the pond, that problem will be overcome.

Lastly, if the roof has any particular problems, such as areas of exposed tar, roofing asphalt or other chemicals that the water crosses, then bad chemicals could be washed into the barrel, but a regular shingled roof shouldn't be a problem.

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Q: I have a terra cotta fountain that I love, as do the birds and squirrels in my backyard. I do my best to keep it clean, as my backyard has huge trees that constantly drop leaves. But my biggest problem is getting rid of the algae.

Since taking the fountain apart every time I clean it is quite a production (and I have to be careful not to knock it over and break something), I would like to start with as much of an advantage as possible. I was wondering if you would advise using bleach as a preliminary step. I have seen this recommended by some as I was checking out possibilities on the Internet, but with the terra cotta being so porous, I am concerned about long-term residue.

Thanks for any advice you can give me.

A: You are right to say that the algae problem is your problem. It is not a problem for the birds and mammals. Your water, even with the algae, is cleaner than the pond or river water available to them.

Mixing a solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water will work to clean the whole thing but should not be used as the birdbath water. The concentration is too high and could hurt them if they swallow any of it. I think it could also bleach some of their colors, too. Once you have washed the pottery clean, rinse it with water and then refill it.

Low concentrations of bleach used in the birdbath water won't stop algae growth. Just look at swimming pools with much higher concentrations and how algae keep coming back. The chlorine in the bleach evaporates out of the water in a day or two, so it would need to be added regularly.

Once the fountain is clean, there are algae-killing chemicals that are fish and bird safe and won't harm the beneficial plants and bacteria that can be used on a continuous basis. AlgaeFix from Aquarium Pharmaceuticals is one product that I know will work.

Bacterial products are also available, if you want a natural approach. Some of these products have live bacteria and others just have enzymes produced by bacteria. Either way, they can keep out the algae in the birdbath.

Q: I am tired of paying for the removal of my grass clippings. My husband thinks that the lawn is better off without the clippings. Is he right?

A: There are several myths about grass clippings on home lawns and he couldn't be more wrong. If mowing is done correctly, grass clippings are beneficial to the lawn, not harmful. The mower blade must be sharp. The grass should be mowed often enough that only one-third of the grass height is removed at each mowing to reduce it down to the correct height for the type of grass in the lawn. The lawn should be dry when cut to reduce the spread of diseases. If a lawn is mowed when the clippings are too long, it is better to wait a day and to re-mow the lawn to cut up the dry clippings - not remove them.

Grass clippings contain the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that are in lawn fertilizer. In fact, leaving clippings on the lawn is equivalent to one fertilization that you don't need to pay for. Over 40 pounds of nitrogen are thrown away as grass clippings each summer from the average American lawn where clippings are removed.

In some cases, bagging the clippings and taking the bags out doubles the time required to mow a lawn. Grass clippings conserve water (saving money) by shading the soil from the hot sun and reducing moisture loss from evaporation. Clippings decompose quickly, thanks to soil microorganisms, worms and other animals, and the nutrients go back into the grass.

Grass clippings do not contribute to thatch accumulation. Dead grass blades from over the winter or from mowing are not thatch and not related to thatch in any way.

Paying for the removal of clippings is a complete waste of money, even if they are going to a composting center and not a landfill. It is an even bigger waste of money if you have to buy compost for your landscape needs. You pay to remove it and then you buy it back.

A mulching style of mower has blades that cut the clippings into fine pieces that break down faster and are less unsightly. If a mower has a bag on it that can't be removed safely, then bagging with that mower may have to continue. When a bag is removed, a new mower piece must be installed to keep the clippings and debris form escaping and injuring the operator.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, Kendall County unit educator, University of Illinois Extension at jrugg@uiuc.edu.

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