Picture this: A landscape crew makes a visit to a customer's lawn. One of the employees notices that the lawn is a little brown. He saunters over to the landscape truck, hauls a bag of fertilizer out of the back, tears it open, loads it into a spreader, and off he goes to fertilize the customer's lawn.
Ah, the good old days.
This may have been the scenario in years past, but with mounting pressures from local ordinances, and even the EPA, such a simple act as fertilizing a customer's lawn is no longer an easy task. In many parts of the country today, there are many more complex considerations than just that the lawn looks like it needs it that affect the decision to fertilize. Or not to fertilize.
So contentious is the debate that, although we called four different landscape professionals located in states with fertilizer restrictions to get their take on the situation, all four declined comment or ignored our calls altogether. Every single one. What does that tell you?
From Michigan to Florida, local counties and municipalities are taking a hard look at nitrogen fertilizer and slamming the breaks on standard fertilizing practices. Why?
According to a 2008 report published in the Sea Grant Law Journal, the push for implementation of fertilizer ordinances that restrict the use of nitrogen and phosphorus stems from concerns over nutrient loading and its impact on coastal rivers, bays and waterways. A correlation is drawn between fertilizers and algae blooms that negatively impact the health of those waterways. The report notes that the epicenter of local fertilizer ordinances is Florida, where in 2002 and 2003, individual counties and municipalities began a push to restrict the use of fertilizers thought to have negative impacts on waterways.
In 2002, the Florida Green Industries Manual, which used the Professional Lawn Care Association of American's BMP's, was published requiring 50 percent of all nitrogen fertilizer be slow release. The document was produced by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Department of Community Affairs, water management districts, the University of Florida, and many private industry partners.
Extended release or slow-release fertilizers are defined as fertilizers that "contain coating materials or are otherwise formulated to release the nutrients over a period of time as water, heat and/or microorganisms break down the material," according to an article published by the Colorado State University Extension's Master Gardener program.
Florida leads the way
In 2003, St. Johns County, on Florida's northeast coast, implemented an ordinance requiring 50 percent slow-release nitrogen. A flurry of similar ordinances followed with the cities of Sanibel, Sarasota, North Port, Tavares and Jacksonville, as well as the counties of Charlotte, Lee, Pinellas, Orange and Marion, and others, all adopting programs that had some type of restriction on the amount of nitrogen that could be used on turf in the landscape. Some required a limitation on pounds per 1,000 square feet; others required a percentage of slow-release fertilizer, some as high as 50 percent slow release nitrogen.
What does this mean to landscape firms located outside of Florida? Expert opinion seems to lean toward a proliferation of ordinances. That's right, these restrictions may be coming to a city or county near you.
Barbara Miedema sits on the advisory board of the Water Resource Advisory Commission of the South Florida Water Management District and the American Nutrient Task Force in Florida. Although Miedema's focus is not on turf but rather on agriculture, (she's vice president of public affairs & communications for the Sugar Cane Grower's Cooperative of Florida), Miedema has first-hand knowledge of how the fertilizer restrictions are created and what the implications are for anyone who applies fertilizer.
"Traditional agriculture is at the tip of the iceburg," Miedema says. "We are seeing regulations put in place for home lawns and golf courses. Landscapers now have BMPs required of them. In some counties, there are fertilizer ordinances that say you cannot put out, or limit the amount of various different turf nutrition products. That is the coming wave."
The wave appears to be hitting the shoreline.
Slow-release ferts mandated
In New Jersey, a law instituted in 2011 requires that nitrogen fertilizer must contain at least 20 percent slow-release nitrogen.
Bloomfield Township in Oakland County, Mich., now requires that "manufactured fertilizers should be applied only at the lowest rate necessary." The requirement states that nitrogen should be applied with a slow-release formula at a maximum of 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet of turf area, and that phosphorus should not be applied without first performing a soil test.
Click photo to enlarge.
Controlled-release fertilizers release nutrients over a longer period of time than fast-release products. Their use is mandated in some communities.
PHOTO COURTESY CRYSTAL GREEN.
So, what is a landscape professional to do? First, know the local laws, ordinances and restrictions. Second, seek out products that conform to those laws, ordinances and restrictions.
There are a number of products on the market that offer some form of slow release, although not all meet the strictest 50 percent nitrogen restriction required under some ordinances.
Vibrant Green from Performance Nutrition, a division of LidoChem, offers 10 percent slow- release nitrogen.
Jake Straub is sales manager for Performance Nutrition. "The nice thing about the Vibrant line is you have quick release for a color response right away, and you see that color hang on for longer because of that extended release as well," he says.
Green-T 12-0-12 from Plant Food Company Inc., is an example of a liquid fertilizer with 50 percent SRN (slow release nitrogen) and no phosphorus.
Crystal Green from Ostara is also a 50 percent slow-release nitrogen. What's unusual about this product is the source of the nitrogen, which is harvested from wastewater.
For landscapers looking for a nutrient source that provides an alternative to slow-release fertilizers that fit within some of the new ordinances and restrictions, Performance Nutrition offers a product called NutriSmart.
NutriSmart is made with "six different strains of yeast to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and unlock phosphorus and potassium from the soil. It has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air for up to five months," says Don Pucillo, president of Performance Nutrition. "We use it in general to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers that are used on turf, ornamentals and agricultural land."
In effect, NutriSmart fertilizes turf without fertilizer. Instead, it releases what's already there, in the soil and from the air.
"The technology senses the amount of nitrogen in the rootzone and when those levels are attained, it slows down production. When it needs it, it will once again start fixing nitrogen," Pucillo says. The atmosphere contains 78 percent nitrogen.
The goal of all of this, Miedema says, is to fertilize turf in a way that nourishes the plant while protecting the extended environment from nutrient leaching.
"Make sure you're applying the proper amount of nutrients right where the plant needs it," Miedema says.
Slow or extended-release fertilizer, Straub adds, "gives you better control. There are a lot of things that can happen that you have no control over such as the amount of rainfall, or an irrigation system sticks on. Slow-release gives you more control if something were to happen in Mother Nature, the nitrogen won't leach out and go somewhere it shouldn't be going."
Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What's Your Avocado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash. Reach her at Stacie@whatsyouravocado.com.