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New Report: Homeowners Vastly Overapplying Lawn Fertilizer

“A uniform green lawn is a sign of social irresponsibility.” — Isabel Junkin

In a new report that reveals homeowners may be applying far more fertilizer than necessary, the author concludes that the nation’s thirst for green lawns is having a dramatically negative impact on oceans and other waterways.

“The best action to reduce the input of nutrients to the (Chesapeake) Bay from residential lawns would be to ban the use of all synthetic turf fertilizers in the state of Maryland,” concluded Isabel Junkin, a graduate student at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, who published a research paper on the significance of lawn fertilizer on the waterways of Maryland. The report can be found on the site of the Choptank River Eastern Bay Conservancy Web Site:

Junkin’s data showed that in 2009 more than 300 million pounds of fertilizer was sold in Maryland for non-agricultural use. The University of Maryland recommends 86,488,251 lbs of nitrogen be applied to the state’s estimated 992,847 acres of turf grass every year — suggesting a vast overload that is at least partially winding up in waterways. At 309,601,140 pounds, non-agricultural fertilizer is approaching the 429,565,160 pounds used on farms in Maryland.

“Suburban landscapes are replacing agriculture across the Eastern Seaboard,” wrote Junkin. “Trends in fertilizer sales in the state of Maryland over the past 20 years show a steady increase in fertilizers sold for non-farm use. Nitrogen inputs from non-farm fertilizers in the United States between 1987 and 1997 increased by 98 percent and phosphorous inputs increased by 49 percent. The data clearly show that lawn fertilizer use is increasing in the state of Maryland and therefore is becoming a significant contributor to nutrient loading in the Chesapeake Bay.”

Among her report’s recommendations:

• Ban the use of quick-release fertilizers.
• Ban the sale and application of lawn fertilizers between October 1st and March 31st.
• Establish in-stream numeric criteria for nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
• Require homeowners and turf management operations to follow nutrient application plans in which the application of fertilizer is dependent on weather patterns and seasonality.
• More fully and thoroughly monitor for compliance and extract higher penalties from those in noncompliance.

The report mentions timing of fertilizer applications as a significant problem. Rainfall events or heavy irrigation after a fertilizer application can cause much of the product to runoff into surface water.

Overall, said the report, dramatic steps are needed to protect waterways.

‘The data show that the maintenance of a green lawn negatively affects water, soil, and air quality; a uniform green lawn should no longer be an indicator of social status,” wrote Junkins. “In fact, a uniform green lawn is a sign of social irresponsibility for the waste of valuable resources and the degradation of public resources. As suburban landscapes continue to replace agricultural land across the Eastern Seaboard it will become increasingly important to understand and mitigate the negative environmental effects on the Chesapeake Bay of maintaining a uniform green lawn.”

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • susan harris

    Wait. When IS the right time to apply (organic, slow-release) fertilizer or compost to lawn?

  • Andrew Boshears

    Susan, with Organic Fertilizers, the majority of them are better defined as soil amendments, and they can be applied any time of the year, because they will be feeding the soil biology, who in return release nutrients for the plants. Just make sure that if in raw form, they are composted first, or if bought from retail, apply in accordance with the label. Good luck!

  • Paul Tukey

    In general, September is considered the best month of the year to fertilize in the Northern climate zones. As the soil gets colder, the soil organisms are not foraging as actively and, once the ground freezes, you run the risk of runoff during a heavy rain event. That’s not good, even with safer organic products.

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