With the ‘going green’ movement gaining momentum, are the tables turning in the world of fertilizers?

In the beginning, soil nourishment came from the natural process of decomposing leaves, grass clippings, manure, etc. Early in the 19th century, man created the first phosphorous fertilizer by treating bones with sulfuric acid. Soon after, the bone material was replaced with phosphate rock and fossilized animal waste, and the age of chemical fertilizer was born.

For nearly 200 years, fertilizers enhanced with calcium, magnesium, nitrate, phosphate, sulphates and other chemicals were commonly used to maintain healthy turf and plants. Landscape professionals and their clients were quite satisfied with the use and quality of chemical fertilizers. However, as the current movement towards an eco-friendly environment picks up speed, more government agencies and businesses—as well as consumers—are looking for ways to both maintain a healthy landscape and protect the health of the planet.

Humans, animals and plants are living, breathing and growing organisms that need a safe, healthy supply of food and nutrients in order to thrive. Although humans consume plants and animals, and animals consume plants and smaller animals, plants only need to suck up a healthy dose of nutrients directly from the air and soil to keep them healthy, happy and strong.

Of the 14 or so nutrients plants require, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the most essential for proper growth and development. Nitrogen helps make plants green and is a key component of chlorophyll. Phosphorus is for seeding development, cell building, and root growth, while potassium assists in forming starches and proteins that helps plants resist disease and environmental stress.

The absence of any one nutrient in the soil can severely limit plant growth, even when all others are present in adequate amounts. Where Mother Nature is deficient in feeding her green progeny, man is more than willing and able to step in by providing hungry plants with a variety of delicious organic or inorganic (chemical) fertilizers.

Organic vs. inorganic fertilizer

The major benefits of organic fertilizers are that they work slowly, and none of the nutrients are wasted. Organic fertilizers improve the soil’s structure or its “workability.” Soil that’s been fertilized with organic matter is easier to work and allows more air to get to plant roots. The organic material also permits soil to hold water longer and the addition of organic substances increases the bacterial and fungal activity in the soil.

However, because organic fertilizer’s nutrients are slowly released into the soil, it takes a little time to get down to the root zone. One disadvantage of organic fertilizer is that, in general, they are more expensive than the more widely-used inorganic types.

Inorganic fertilizers, on the other hand, are immediately consumed into the soil. They work fast, which can be a boon or a bane, depending on your needs. One of the disadvantages of inorganic fertilizer is that over-watering or rain can push the chemicals beneath the root zone, where they won’t do any good. Also, inorganic fertilizers, if not applied properly, can easily “burn” roots or create a toxic concentration of salts.

Plants can’t taste the difference between organic or inorganic food. The blades of grass don’t care if the nitrogen it’s feeding on came from a cow or a test tube, as long as it’s getting fed. However, with the ever-growing concerns regarding carbon footprints and pollution runoff, your clients are going to care what type of chemicals you’re putting into their property.

“With all the push for ‘green’ products, many of my existing and new clients are asking for organic fertilizers,” says Mike Garcia, founder of Enviroscape, Chantilly, Virginia.

“The client of the future will want a landscape contractor who makes a difference in the environment.”

Recognizing the future trend in the landscape industry, fertilizer manufacturers are rising to the increasing demand for eco-friendly products.

“Historically, you didn’t see a lot of organic lawn care products, because straight manure or a chicken litter product doesn’t have the right balance of nutrients,” says Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship for Scotts, Marysville, Ohio. “We began to develop our organic fertilizers only a few years ago. In 2006, we introduced Organic Choice Lawn Food, a mixture of animal proteins, feather meal, blood meal and bone meal, blended together to get the correct nutrient ratio for turf.”

More and more municipalities are following the trends set by Minnesota, the Great Lakes and the Southeast regions in enacting legislative bans on fertilizers that contain phosphorus. Lawmakers feel that fetilizer runoff that flows into lakes and streams is a major source of phosphorus polution of their water systems.

Because of these new regulations, some manufactures are now offering fertilizers that are completely phosphorus free.

When The Andersons, Inc., Maumee, Ohio, began blending fertilizer in the 1950s, they probably didn’t think that in less than forty years, they would be manufacturing Fortify Lawn Food, a fertilizer that contains no phosphorus. “We began selling our Fortify No-P (without phosphorus) products in 2001,” says Debra A. Crow, corporate communications manager. “During the past few years, we have seen steady increases in the sales of these products. As more and more homeowners demand an eco-friendly landscape, we expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.”

For environmentally-conscious consumers, how a fertilizer is made can be just as important as what it contains and how it’s applied. Recycling waste from water, food and animals is becoming a new and exciting trend in fertilizer manufacturing.

Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, developed new technology that removes phosphorus and other nutrients from wastewater, and recycles them into environmentally-safe commercial fertilizer. The fertilizer byproduct from the process, called Crystal Green, is a crystalline slow-release fertilizer with a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and magnesium. At wastewater treatment facilities, more than 90% of the phosphorus and 20% of the ammonia is recovered from wastewater that would normally be recycled back to the plant.

Jim Zablocki, vice president of nutrient operations, says, “Crystal Green fertilizer is made without the energy-intensive process of drilling phosphorus out of the ground. The process integrates directly into the treatment system, which processes the sludge liquids and then converts them into a high quality phosphorus fertilizer in granular form. These crystals aren’t affected by excessive moisture, bacteria or temperature changes. The nutrients are released slowly, over the course of eight to nine months, reducing leaching into adjacent waterways.”

Converted Organics, based in Boston, Massachusetts, produces all natural, organic fertilizer products through food waste recycling.

The company’s manufacturing facilities receive more than fifty tons of food waste each week from regional restaurants and markets. The food waste is then put through a process that converts the solid waste into dried pellets and liquidconcentrated organic fertilizers.

“This process results in a solid organic fertilizer that rapidly stimulates soil microbial activities to quickly release mineral nutrients, as well as biologically active compounds, that enhance plant growth and development,” said William A. Torello, Ph.D., director of product research and development for Converted Organics.

Nutrientsplus of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a division of Daylay Egg Farms in Mansfield, Ohio, manufactures Nature PLUS Organic Products. Nutrientsplus recycles organic poultry manure collected from more than four million hens, which is then composted into fertilizer.

Fertilizer regulations

Like other manufactured goods, fertilizers are regulated for quality and protection of the consumer as well as the environment. Every state has its own fertilizer regulatory program, usually administered by the state department of agriculture. Fertilizers are regulated at the state level because soil conditions vary dramatically from state to state across the country. A different level of fertilizer nutrients in the soil and different weather patterns require state-specific regulation.

A number of communities are enacting phosphorus-free fertilizer regulations. The reason for these regulations is that the community leaders feel that the fertilizing of homeowners’ properties is a major source of phosphorous pollution of their water systems. Too much phosphorous in the water results in an over-abundance of algae growth, which lowers the oxygen levels, introduces poisonous toxins and results in fish kill.

Scotts started offering phosphorous-free TurfBuilder fertilizers in 2005, soon after Minnesota passed legislation to ban phosphorous. “There are exemptions—if the soil is low in phosphorus, or when you’re establishing a new lawn,”

Wible said. “Organic products are also usually exempt from regulations, because you can’t take phosphorous out of an organic product.

So by banning phosphorous, you’re also banning the entire organic market.”

Richard LaNore, technical director at MRW Lawns, LaPlata, Maryland, says, “Phosphorus is an important primary plant nutrient. It acts as a regulator for plant physiological processes, but most importantly, it is essential for building strong structure in the seedling. When applied properly, it will give desired results without adverse effects on the environment.”

“Banning phosphorus in lawn fertilizers will, in time, thin the turfgrass and reduce its ability to hold the soil in place,” said Wayne Kussow, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the department of soil science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Elected officials and government employees are choosing to ignore the fact that phosphorus losses from properly managed turfgrass are minor compared to those from other types of land use, and the fact that there is no meaningful relationship between the levels of phosphorus in lawn soils and the amounts of phosphorus in runoff.”

Scientific evidence aside, if your state or county has a ban on phosphorus, there are a number of P-free fertilizers available, which will provide the proper nutrients that may be lacking in the natural soil.

Every landscape is unique.

Whether you choose to use an organic, phosphorus-free or chemical fertilizer, the perfect choice for your client’s lawn depends on its soil condition and your professional expertise. With this winning combination, the result will be a happy client, a healthy lawn and a successful business.