Will more red tape make our lawns less green?

Across the country, various city and state governments are passing rules, regulations and laws to govern who can apply fertilizer and what types of fertilizer can be used in specific situations. This is prompting green industry groups to work with lawmakers to be sure that the regulations have science backing them up, and that they don’t pose extreme hardships on the lawn and landscape companies applying fertilizer.

As one example, in the last three years, three separate fertilizer-related pieces of legislation have passed the general assembly in the state of Virginia. The first was a law that will require those applying fertilizer to be certified by the state. “It is going to happen,” explains Tom Tracy, executive director of the Virginia Turfgrass Council (VTC). “It will require that every company that puts down fertilizer have somebody on staff who is a certified fertilizer applicator.” Tracy says the specifics of how that program will work are still being worked out, and he predicts it may be 2012 or 2013 before it takes effect; even then companies will have 12 months to come into compliance, he notes.

How big a change will this be for lawn and landscape companies in that state? “We at VTC worked very closely with the regulatory agencies to be sure the regulation, as written, is friendly to both the environment and the companies. It’s very doable, and companies that already are doing the right things are looking at this as one more way they can set themselves apart from those who are not doing things properly. So, the industry isn’t necessarily looking at this as a bad thing.”

This past year, Virginia passed two additional fertilizer-related bills. The was a simple housekeeping measure charging the Department of Agriculture with updating the actual language relating to fertilizer regulations and “bringing the regulatory wording up to speed,” explains Tracy.

The other measure pertains to phosphorus and will have a greater impact. “This one is getting people’s attention,” he says. It makes a distinction between a lawn “maintenance” fertilizer and a lawn “starter” or “repair” fertilizer. “If you are putting down a lawn maintenance fertilizer, you need to show that you’re applying phosphorus only [due to] a soil test. And, if you’re a retailer, you also have to be careful what you’re selling, because lawn maintenance fertilizers will not be allowed to contain phosphorus.” For those repairing damaged turf or establishing a new lawn, the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizer would be permitted. And, the regulations do not prohibit phosphorus in the fertilization of vegetable gardens or perennials or shrubs, etc., says Tracy.

It could be a year or more before this regulation takes effect, says Tracy. “Again, we worked closely with those in the general assembly, builders, retailers, manufacturers and even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to work out something that was best for everyone involved, and the environment. There was a true sense of collaboration.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In the state of Washington, fertilizer regulations are being pushed by politicians with little sense of cooperation, says Jeanne McNeil, executive director of the Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association. “There are a number of issues that the industry finds baffling, and not well founded in science,” she explains. “First of all, in Washington state, there is no scientific verification whatsoever to support the initial statement that phosphorus on turfgrass causes problems with algae blooms.” Even proponents of the legislation have been unable to offer any science to back up that contention, she points out.

Another confounding issue is that fact that all “organic” fertilizers have been specifically exempted from the regulation. “Anyone who has a good grounding in science knows that the organics are relatively high in phosphorus, because of the decaying organic matter.” Finally, McNeill says that those in the green industry find it insulting to have this type of legislation brought forward without their involvement as professionals. She’s also frustrated that news reports on the legislation often fail to accurately explain and cover the issue.

The exact outcome is uncertain at press time, as McNeil says there have been numerous amendments put forth by supporters of the legislation, as well as others backed by industry. At least at press time, there was hope that the new law wouldn’t unduly limit lawn care professionals in their work. “There are numerous exemptions for the repair and establishment of lawns; for commercial turf areas; for landscape plants; and so on,” she notes. “It ultimately ends up being a relatively limited prohibition.”

The industry’s objection to the legislation is focused more on the confusion it is likely to create to solve a problem that may not exist, says McNeil. “What I’ve heard from the professional applicators, especially those using soluble maintenance fertilizers, is that they pretty much aren’t using phosphorus now, often based on their own cost-benefit calculations. And, representatives from [national fertilizer manufacturer] Scotts testified that they are eliminating phosphorus from their regular turfgrass fertilizer. They have bagged fertilizer specifically for repair and establishment that includes phosphorus.”

While some lawn care professionals don’t seem too concerned about the impact of the law, others are worried about the resulting confusion. “Anytime more red tape is added, it is troublesome to businesses,” says McNeil. “It just makes getting the job done more difficult, especially in what is hopefully a recovering economy.” She also says that the new law will apply statewide, when it was introduced to help improve water quality in just one part of Washington.

Perhaps one of the most restrictive new state turfgrass fertilizer regulations was signed into law in January in New Jersey. With a stated goal of reducing algae blooms in the Barnegat Bay, Garden State lawmakers opted to target not only phosphorus, but also nitrogen with the regulation. “Basically what they’ve done is to limit the timing of fertilizer applications on the calendar from March 1 to December 1. There are also limits on the pounds of nitrogen you can put down per application [1 pound], and also a seasonal cap of 4.25 pounds of N,” says Keith Kubik, president of the New Jersey Turfgrass Association.

There are also soil testing requirements to prove that phosphorus in needed before it can be applied, setbacks that prohibit applying fertilizer near water and many other components in what Kubik calls a “very detailed” law. “Not all of the restrictions go into effect in year one; there’s some development that has to occur before year two’s restrictions come into play,” he notes.

In some cases, the dates and other restrictions on fertilizer use are slightly more stringent for homeowners than they are for professional applicators. Kubik credits Nancy Sadlon (executive director) and the New Jersey Green Industry Council for working with legislators to make the new law as workable as possible for lawn and landscape professionals.

Doing More with Less

With states and municipalities moving to restrict the use of fertilizer, or at least control its makeup, some in the green industry may be worried about continuing to maintain healthy turfgrass. One company in Texas thinks it has a way to help applicators decrease the amount of fertilizer they’re using while actually seeing improved results. It’s all about increasing the effectiveness of the fertilizer, says Dr. Robert Ames, senior staff scientist with Advanced Microbial Solutions (www.superbio.com).

Using a microbial-based fermentation process, the company can produce a product, NutriLife, with living microorganisms and the byproducts of those organisms. “Those byproducts are equivalent to the tools of a surgeon or a plumber or mechanic, that’s how those organisms live and survive in their environment,” explains Ames. “Once those are combined with, or applied in conjunction with, a fertilizer, the net result is that they, both directly and indirectly, through the organisms already in the soil, affect the fertilizer so that less nitrate is leached out of the system. Basically, it enhances fertilizer use efficiency so that more of the applied nutrients are actually able to be taken up by the plants.”

Advanced Microbial Solutions reports that studies also show enhanced root development in plants when the product is applied as part of a fertilizer application. “This enhancement of root development also enables the plant to take up more nutrients,” says Ames. “So [it helps with] the form of nutrients that are available in the soil and the ability of root system to take up those nutrients.” Again, that leads to fewer nutrients, including nitrates and phosphorus, leaching out of the rootzone. This is not only good for the environment, but also helps reduce fertilizer costs by ensuring that the plants can do more with less.

While the liquid product is often tank-mixed by large agricultural users, it generally is preincorporated with lawn fertilizer by fertilizer companies during the manufacturing process. Ames says some brands promote that fact on the fertilizer package, but end-users may have to ask their supplier if the fertilizer has the added microbial benefits.

A fertilizer applicator certification program will also be required by the new law, and Rutgers University has been charged with creating the framework for this program. Rutgers turf professionals also are currently working on recommendations to help lawn and landscape professionals work within the law, says Kubik. He works as a distributor, and says from what he knows of his customers’ practices, many won’t be facing any significant changes. “For some of them, it’s as simple as switching the timing of their treatments. If they put their dormant feed down in October instead of December, and their lime down in December instead of October, they’re in compliance,” Kubik explains. In addition, most of the industry has already gone to no-phosphorus fertilizer for turfgrass maintenance. Others may have to make more significant changes in their fertilization practices, but everyone will benefit from having one clear set of rules, he adds.

“In New Jersey, what we had been seeing was each municipality coming up with its own rules and restrictions for fertilizer,” Kubik explains. “We would have guys applying something on one side of a street, and then they would go over to the other side and they were told they couldn’t do that.” The confusion that was created by a multitude of conflicting regulations helped industry get behind a uniform, statewide approach. “The industry actually did try to go out and try get a pre-emptive bill done that would cover the whole state. While the industry didn’t get everything it wanted, all in all, in the end they felt it was a fair and workable law,” says Kubik of the process in New Jersey.

Vermont, New York and Maryland are just some of the other states where lawmakers have either enacted regulations to restrict levels of nitrogen/or and phosphorus in turfgrass fertilizers, or are considering such a move. And, in many other states, including Florida, numerous municipalities have enacted their own local fertilizer restrictions. In Florida, some state lawmakers are currently working to replace these city rules with a uniform set of statewide regulations. It’s likely that other cities and states will also take up fertilizer bills in the near future, making this an issue of importance for lawn care professionals, as well as fertilizer manufacturers, distributors and retailers around the country.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.