STATE WE’RE IN: New fertilizer law goes ‘greener’

New state regulations on lawn fertilizers just kicked in. This means a winter blackout for applying nutrients to lawns.

by Michele Byers
Lawns don’t usually green up this time of year. But there’s hope yet.
   The new rules aim to reduce the level of nutrients that end up in our rivers, streams, lakes and bays.
   The fertilizer law, said to be the toughest in the nation, was signed by Gov. Christie in January 2011 as part of a comprehensive plan to reverse the decline of water quality in Barnegat Bay. But the new regulations help every waterway in this state we’re in.
   Most lawns have heavily compacted soil with few pores able to let in applied chemicals and water. Rainwater picks up herbicides, fungicides and excessive nutrients from lawns, then flows into storm sewers and streams, eventually ending up in rivers, lakes and bays.
   Plants need nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to grow, but in limited amounts. Too many nutrients mask more serious lawn health issues and ruin the health of aquatic systems.
   Problems include algae growth and reduced dissolved oxygen levels, which kill many aquatic animals and smother beneficial aquatic plants that provide habitat. Only a few weeds that tolerate pollution can survive.
   A 2012 study by Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences found the waters of Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor Estuary, in particular, are in serious ecological decline from the use of excessive fertilizer.
   Here’s what the new law does:
   • Institutes best management practices to reduce impacts on waterways and educate the public.
   • Creates a certification program for landscapers.
   • Requires manufacturers to reformulate fertilizers with reduced, slow-release nitrogen and zero phosphorous for typical situations.
   • Establishes a winter blackout period for nitrogen and phosphorus use. The winter blackout runs from Nov. 15 to March 1 for homeowners and Dec. 1 to March 1 for commercial landscapers.
   These new fertilizer regulations are a good first step toward reducing nutrient contamination in our waterways.
   But why apply chemicals to lawns at all? You can save money, protect water quality and have healthier soil and grass by going organic.
   A Rodale Institute study compared lawns treated with traditional fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides to those treated with organic compost “tea.” The study found the organic method produced healthier grass.
   Organic fertilizers ensure a living soil with healthy microorganisms, which create better root growth and resistance to drought and disease.
   To learn more about New Jersey’s fertilizer law, including an explanation of exceptions and acceptable application rates, visit www.nj.gov/dep/healthylawnshealthywater.
   For more about the Rodale study, go to http://rodaleinstitute.org.
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. For more information, contact her at info@njconservation.org or visit NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org.