What the industry must do to address nutrient runoff

Lawn care pros should follow fertilization best practices as well as defend turf’s environmental benefits.
Photo courtesy of Perma Green.

Local, regional and, in some cases, state legislative bodies across the United States are attempting to protect valuable water resources by passing lawns to reduce the amount of fertilizers flowing into them.

Because lawmakers sometimes (and unfairly) view lawns as contributing mostly aesthetic rather than environmental benefits, they target the use of turf fertilizers. This, of course, impacts do-it-yourselfers and professional lawn care service providers alike … but mostly professional application companies.

A professional lawn applicator, to be regarded as a professional, realizes the importance of fertilizer to the management of healthy turfgrass. But the professional applicator should also know the few simple things to do to lessen the chance of runoff from lawns. In a phrase this means applying the right kinds of fertilizer at the right times of the year in the right amounts.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case even by professionals, as the demands of too many lawns to service in too short a time frame, the vagaries of weather an added complication, often cause lawn care pros to make applications when they shouldn’t. It’s not the norm – but it would be the na_ve company owner to say that it doesn’t happen.

Specific practices that greatly reduce the likelihood of nutrient runoff include:

  • Following the recommendations of soil tests so that the proper types and amounts of fertilizer are applied to properties.
  • Not applying fertilizer to frozen or bare ground.
  • Not applying fertilizer too close to streams, ponds or lakes.
  • Sweeping up and returning it to the turfgrass of any fertilizer that falls on impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks, driveways, patios or streets.
  • Using controlled-release (i.e. slow-release, extended-release) fertilizer depending on fertilizer restrictions, environmental conditions, etc.

Education the bigger challenge

The biggest issue for professional applicators may very well be the challenge of educating lawmakers that well-managed lawns are environmentally friendly. More than four decades of research by experienced and well-regarded turfgrass scientists back up industry claims that lawns with healthy turfgrass actually reduce the possibility of runoff as well as contributing other valuable environmental benefits to our neighborhoods and communities.

Even so, there’s a concerted and ongoing effort to license landscape companies in the application of fertilizers. New Jersey, Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Florida are just a few of the states establishing legislation limiting the dates and quantities in which fertilizers can be applied by commercial lawn care services.

Maryland has adopted laws that limit fertilizer use by the public as well as landscape companies and that require both to adhere to guidelines developed by the University of Maryland, which is acceptable to many applicators.

“In general, I believe the new regulations requiring certification and guidelines for applying fertilizer in Maryland and Virginia are a healthy step in the right direction for the green industry,” says Mark Tamn, president, Freedom Lawns, Inc., which has franchise locations in the U.S. Southeast. “Professional lawn and landscape companies must take the time and effort to train their technicians in proper application techniques and ensure they have a sound understanding and practical knowledge of safe and efficient use of fertilizer materials.”

Fertilizer legislation, usually in response to concerns over deteriorating conditions of some local or regional water resource, typically addresses the unique characteristics of each region’s ecology, climate and land uses, with the focus turning to lawn fertilization in heavily populated centers.

There is no one-size-fits-all national legislation, nor a single application rate recommended; each legislative body will eventually set their own restrictions. However, common limitations include: the amounts of NPK allowed in a 1,000-square-foot area, standards on applying amounts of liquid fertilizers, limitations as to when (dates) fertilizers may be applied and also distance limits from a waterway with recommendations of vegetative buffers around lakefront properties.

Many laws also include banning fertilizer use on and around impervious materials and requiring the contractor to sweep any residue off into a grassy area. Some of these amendments prohibit the use of fertilizers that contain phosphorus on all lawns, except when a new lawn is being established or a soil test has indicated a need for additional phosphorus.

To date, 11 states – Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin – have banned the use or sale of phosphorus for lawn maintenance.

Some states, such as Florida, have had varying regulations from city to city as to how and when fertilizers can be applied, however, a new state law has been proposed that will override local limitations and set a statewide standard.

“The entire green industry should be in favor of this important regulation, without it we will continue to see applications being provided by uneducated public violators as well as companies that are not licensed to do such services,” says Michael Drake, president of PSG Property Management, Longboat Key, Fla.

“It’s important that each county in Florida now have a fertilization ordinance in place and more importantly, have a proper enforcement of such ordinances. If fertilization is done properly, at proper times with good time-released prills, fertilizer shouldn’t leach into our water supplies.”

As for the laws that are already in place, Tamn concerns are directed toward the policing and enforcing of the guidelines for homeowners and “weekend landscapers.” He says that mandating training and licensing requirements will ultimately help to weed out unqualified individuals.”

The empirical evidence is strong that professional lawn care companies understand the biology of plant life, and – for financial as well as plant health reasons – use fertilizer more appropriately and often more sparingly than do-it-yourselfers.

The only one certainty is that environmental concerns will continue to grow as water resources are limited and more stress is placed on potable waters due to the impact of 330 million citizens consuming and polluting this most valuable resource. “Ultimately, I believe that more states will follow suit in the near term, and have some form of regulations that requires training for professionals who apply fertilizer for profit,” says Tamn.

“If done reasonably … it could be a positive step for improving the credibility of professional lawn and landscape companies, and sustaining our environmental resources,” he adds.

The author is an experienced researcher and writer who lives and works near Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at [email protected].