Focus on Florida
Many in the world of lawn care have their eyes on the state of Florida these days. The state has taken the nationwide lead on banning many types of lawn fertilizers in the past year. With products containing high levels of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus blamed for algae blooms in rivers, streams and ponds throughout Florida, the fertilizer bans have moved county by county. By 2010, the entire state will reportedly say no to TurfBuilder, Turfbuilder Plus-2 and similar products.
Laws like this are especially important in Florida due to a water table that is perilously close to the surface of the soil. That doesn’t mean other states shouldn’t have the same bans in place, however. Indeed, at least 10 other states are considering similar legislation. The issues are laid out well in an article by David Fleshler of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
SafeLawns.org is in favor of the bans, of course, because we know that lawns and landscapes can thrive without all those chemical products. Our web site is full of resources, including more than 20 videos, to show you how to make the transition.
South Florida lawns are polluting our waterways
A bill in the Legislature would ban fertilizers with phosphorous, which is feeding invasive plants that crowd out native vegetation
By David Fleshler
In the elaborately landscaped neighborhoods of Boca Raton, Pembroke Pines and other cities with big lawns, a group of polluters is compiling a record to match the oil, coal and chemical industries.
Homeowners dump thousands of pounds of fertilizer on their lawns and gardens every year, allowing massive amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen to wash into Florida’s rivers, lakes and canals. The chemicals fertilize the growth of cattails, hydrilla and other invasive plants in places like the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, crowding out native vegetation, eliminating food for fish, snakes and ducks. Carried by canals into the ocean, they help generate mats of coral-smothering algae. In north and central Florida, they produce algae blooms in many of the state’s 700 natural springs.
A bill in the state Legislature would ban fertilizers that contain phosphorous unless a soil test determined a need for it. Although the bill focuses on 700 natural springs of central and northern Florida through such measures as better treatment of residential sewage, the phosphorous ban would reduce a major source of pollution in South Florida.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lee Constantine, R- Altamonte Springs, has wide support among environmental groups but faces opposition from the fertilizer and home building industries. Supporters say the change would have no effect on Florida homeowners because few Florida soils need phosphorous.
Opponents say most lawns need phosphorous and that a testing requirement would greatly complicate the task of lawn care, forcing homeowners to _become amateur chemists and leaving many with thin, patchy lawns.
The proposal originated with John Hitchcock, a Palm Bay duck hunter. Taking his boat into the creeks and rivers of northeast Florida, he watched with dismay as prime duck habitat was overrun with cattails and other fast-growing plants, fertilized by phosphorous washed off the lawns of expanding suburban neighborhoods.
“In the early ’80s, you could pretty much take a jon boat into the open marsh and you could find just clouds of ducks,” he said. “Now it’s pretty much destroyed the Upper St. Johns. They’ve been infested with cattails and hydrilla.”
Phosphorous is included in many common brands such as Vigoro All Purpose Fertilizer, Schultz Plant Food Plus and Miracle-Gro Shake ‘n Feed. Excluding farms, Floridians used about 8,035 tons of it in fertilizer last year, mostly on lawns, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Although the total has been dropping steadily — possibly because of higher prices, better education and tighter rules — environmentalists say _Florida’s waterways continue to suffer from the excessive use of gardening chemicals.
“It’s cheap down at the local home store, and the customer dumps it on their grass when they have no idea how much phosphorous they need, which is zero,” said Eric Draper, a lobbyist for Audubon of Florida. “Fertilizer is just this huge, uncontrolled source of pollution.”
The home building industry, battered by the recession, is concerned that the legislation would raise the price of new homes by requiring costly sewage-treatment systems and force existing homeowners with springs to spend up to $15,000 to upgrade their systems.
“We are concerned about the enormous financial burden it would impose,” said Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association.
Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, said the issue had been addressed by a state rule that encourages use of low-phosphorous fertilizer and that the best approach would be to educate homeowners on the proper use of fertilizer, such as the need to keep it away from streets, driveways and waterways.
Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship for industry giant Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., said the company already sells low-phosphorous and_no-phosphorous fertilizers in Florida. Homeowners should be encouraged to use fertilizer properly and avoid cutting their lawns too short, to reduce runoff. But he said it would be unreasonable for the state to require a soil test before the use of fertilizers with phosphorous. The test could be done by a landscaper or by the homeowner with a kit from their county agricultural extension agency.
“It’s very cumbersome,” he said. “We don’t want the consumer to be an agronomist. The homeowner should be able to go into the garden center or Lowe’s and pick up a bag and know that it will work.”
Laurie Trenholm, associate professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, said most Florida lawns need some phosphorous. “Turf grass, once it’s planted, its need for phosphorous is relatively low,” she said.
Although excessive nitrogen is also a problem, environmentalists say the case for a ban would be more difficult to make because it is a necessary fertilizer component for Florida lawns.
Donna Torrey, owner of Garden Gate Garden Center in Pompano Beach, which emphasizes organic gardening, said few customers think about phosphorous in fertilizer and few will miss it.
“I don’t think the consumer is going to be affected,” she said. “The plants are going to be fine and the consumers are going to be fine. I’m not so sure about the chemical companies.”