SYLACAUGA, Ala.-Professional lawn care operators have traditionally focused on economics and results, i.e. green, weed-free lawns.

While economics and green (the color) are still very important, a new variable is entering their world big time-the environment. The topics of economics and environment (and yes they are related) dominated discussion here in early December during the Green Industry Grad School sponsored by Agrium Advanced Technologies (AAT).

More than 30 landscape and lawn care pros gathered at the beautiful Farmlinks site, located just outside of this sleepy little Alabama town, to soak up powerful business-building suggestions from Marty Grunder, Ohio landscape company owner and speaker, and also to learn about cutting-edge fertilizer technology. Sylacauga is the site of one of two manufacturing facilities that produce fertilizers for AAT.

The 2-day event featured almost a dozen presenters, including Dr. Eric Miltner, Agronomist and Turf Specialist, who spent more than 17 years as a researcher and educator, 13 at Washington State University. Miltner, in sharing results of some of the newest research being done on fertilizer use by turfgrass, didn’t mince words in describing the new environmental challenges facing fertilizer users. They most directly impact people that make their living keeping turfgrass green and healthy.

Starting with the State of Minnesota’s decision in 2003 to restrict the use of phosphorus in turfgrass fertilizers in an effort to protect their rivers and lakes, more and more attention, and legislation, is being directed at keeping fertilizers from entering our waterways. Since 2003, there have been similar restrictions placed on phosphorus fertilizers in 12 other states. Often (in fact, usually) the regulations are not based on science but rather on emotion-driven politics.

"I think the same thing will happen to nitrogen, but I think it will happen faster," said Miltner. In fact, it’s happening.

In 2010 the State of New Jersey passed the strictest regulations yet enacted on nitrogen fertilizers on home lawns, not dissimilar to the regulations that have gone into effect Maryland and Virginia, these aimed at protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Several towns and counties on Florida’s Gulf Coast have also gotten into the act.

These restrictions restrict when, how much and, in cases, what types of fertilizers can and cannot be applied, sometimes disregarding recommendations by turfgrass educators and researchers.

Miltner told the gathering of landscape and lawn pros that new fertilizer technology will help them keep their clients’ properties green and healthy even, in some cases, in the face of these new restrictions. 

He said that fertilizer suppliers as well as end users will have to work with policy makers and educate them to the latest developments in fertilizer technology, and particularly about the new generation of controlled-release products ("enhanced efficiency fertilizers") that make nutrients available to plants when they need them and greatly reduce the possibility of nitrogen leaching or runoff. Because these products release nutrients over a longer, extended time period fewer applications are required each season to achieve acceptable turf quality, he said. In support of this statement Miltner provided data from an ongoing research project at WSU. That research is confirming that these products are releasing nutrients and plants are taking them up and using as they require them.

"Fertilizer technology is going to become more of an issue in the future," predicted Miltner. — Ron Hall, Editor-in-Chief