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Connecticut Organic Lawn Fertilizers in Jeopardy

At this golf course, where grass is fertilized and grown to the pond's edge, the water is eutrified by excess phosphorus load.

WHEN IT COMES TO LAWNS, FEW STATES RIVAL CONNECTICUT for the amount of passion folks can muster. It’s the richest state in the nation per capita and all those folks with nice properties want to surround them with nice, green patches of paradise.

Behind the lawn care scenes, however, Connecticut has entered a phosphorus fray that extends from Maine to California. In an effort to keep the state’s lakes and streams free of algae blooms, legislators in the House and Senate have passed a bill that — if it is signed into law by the governor — will make many organic lawn fertilizers illegal to apply in most situations.

“We’re deeply concerned,” said Dave Blanchette, the purchasing agent for six Agway stores. “We’ve spent a great deal of time building up the category and educating our customers about the value of organic lawn care. This legislation can effectively kill all that.”

SafeLawns has covered this issue for years and generally supported phosphorus bans in lawn fertilizer as sound use of lawmakers’ power. Most states among the 15 or so that have enacted such bans, however, have exempted organic fertilizers — including compost and biosolids like Milorganite, as well as those fertilizers made from fish, chicken, cornmeal and alfalfa among others — from their bans. It’s difficult if not outright impossible to remove the phosphorus from naturally occurring products, whereas it’s easy to eliminate them from synthetic chemical products.

Legislators tend to acquiesce to the argument that all phosphorus is created equally and therefore all bad when it gets into fresh water. Science tells us a different story, though. In natural products the phosphorus is more tightly bound by iron, calcium and aluminum, among other elements, and is far less likely to leach into water than synthetic nitrogen.

Research has also show that when soils are improved by the addition of compost and other organic materials they are less likely to leach in general and water-holding capacity is improved.

“It’s such a complicated issue with no easy answers,” said John T. Spargo, an agronomist and researcher from the University of Massachusetts, located in a state that also has phosphorus legislation pending. “On one hand, it’s a shame to think that we’re going to lose some excellent products as a result of this; on the other hand the phosphorus can build up over time even in an organically tended situation and, eventually, that phosphorus will start to leak out into the water. We all want clean water; that’s what this is all about.”

A LOGICAL CONCLUSION, OR ILLOGICAL LEGISLATION?

While everyone can agree that applying lawn fertilizer — any fertilizer — prior to rainfall is a bad idea, not even the scientists currently agree on whether or not lawn fertilizer products are really the reason for phosphorus overloads in our fresh water bodies. Professor John Lehman’s research seems to indicate that phosphorus bans in lawn fertilizer are having a positive impact in Michigan. Dr. George Synder from the University of Florida is less than convinced, however.

“If we try to keep phosphorus down to the limits set by some of this legislation, then our plants won’t make it,” he said today. “Lawns need phosphorus to thrive and if you take all the supplemental phosphorus out of the equation, then the lawns will thin out and even more leaching of nutrients will occur.”

THE LOOPHOLES & THE LAWN SEED

While we believe someone should talk sense into Gov. Dan Malloy and help him decide to send the bill back to the legislature to put the organic exemption in place, the garden centers and homeowners should take a hard look at two loopholes within the law and see them as an educational, sales and lawn care opportunity.

First off, anyone with a soil test in hand showing that the soil is deficient in phosphorus can legally buy and apply fertilizers containing the element. Rule No. 1 in organic lawn care is to start with a soil test so you know exactly what you ought to be applying. It’s just common sense . . . Don’t spend money on products that you don’t need.

Secondly, anyone who is starting a lawn — or repairing an existing lawn — can also apply fertilizers containing phosphorus, even if this new law goes into effect. That means if you’re applying grass seed to obtain a thicker, more lush lawn, then the P is PERFECTLY legal.

Overseeding the lawn every fall is another essential part of the SafeLawns annual program. So is overseeding at any time of year when the grass is thin or bare.

I suggested to Dave Blanchette that the state’s impending phosphorus ban could be seen as an opportunity to sell a lot more grass seed at Agway. He laughed rather nervously.

It’s true, though. If organic lawn care proponents stress the importance of overseeding as a means to keep a lawn healthy and mostly grass, then they can continue to promote and sell organic lawn fertilizer products that contain phosphorus.

MEANWHILE . . .

Everyone should ultimately be in favor of doing the right thing for the environment at large and not just their own lawn or product. To that end, Spargo let us know about a relatively new initiative in the Northeast Voluntary Turf Fertilizer Initiative, which appears to be a collaborate effort to engage manufacturers, academics and others in a conversation that will result in the best possible solution. Check it out: http://www.neiwpcc.org/turffertilizer.asp.

Keeping everyone talking is a better alternative than sitting back and hoping the legislators will get it right.

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 : 1024
  • Tom Morris

    The Connecticut law entitled ” An Act Concerning Phosphorus Reduction in State Waters” does not “make many organic fertilizers illegal in most situations”.  The bill simply requires the application of phosphorus from any source be done based on the results of a soil test.  There was an exemption inserted in the bill at the last minute that exempts any fertilizer, soil amendment or compost that contains 0.67% or less phosphate. This is not supported by the latest science, and should be removed, but politics does not always get the science correct the first time.  I am confused why the author of this blog would state that “Rule No.1 in organic lawn care is to start with a soil test so you know exactly what you ought to be applying” in the last half of the article and rail againast a bill that simply requires application of phosphorus based on a soil test in the first part of the article?  Tom Morris, Extension Soil Fertility Specialist, UConn.  thomas.morris@uconn.edu 

  • http://twitter.com/GrassStitcher Dr Blade

    Stores like Agway should make the soil tests more accessible at there store, having a station where they can accept soil samples and then have the report mailed to the homeowner.  Its a win win for everyone.

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