Ask ten people on the street what fertigation is and you’ll probably get a couple of blank stares, and a few different guesses. Simply put, fertigation is the ability to use an irrigation system to deliver nutrients and supplements to a landscape effectively and efficiently.
The technology was developed for use primarily in agriculture, allowing farmers to apply nutrients to increase production of their farms. Since the early stages of development, many companies have entered this market, continually improving systems and technology to the point where it is now a feasible option for even small residential landscapes.
In reality, with its growth, fertigation now means much more than just fertilization. Manufacturers and suppliers offer a broad assortment of products available to address most landscape problems. Although fertilization is still the primary use, these systems can also be used to control rodents, repel pests, control pH, add organic microbes, as well as inhibit rust. Often these products can be applied all at one time, making it one of the most versatile application tools available—and it’s entirely automatic.
Labor savings is one of the obvious benefits of fertigation. With the installation of a single system, a residential property or commercial landscape can be treated in minutes versus hours or days, saving time remarkable, as proven with a year- and money. The results are simply long study conducted by a commercial landscape maintenance company in the southwestern United States.
The company was using traditional drench fertilization for the landscape areas with drip irrigation, because dry broadcast fertilization converted to fertigation, and after was not an option. These areas were one year the annual cost of fertilization dropped from $418,920 to $87,000—a 79 percent cost savings.
An area of turf, trees and shrubs was converted from dry broadcast fertilization to fertigation. Fertilizer costs were reduced by 48 percent and labor costs were reduced by 97 percent, for an overall cost savings of 53 percent.
Of course, your typical residential landscape does not have a six-figure fertilizer budget, but potential savings are still abundant in reduction of plant loss, water use, chemical bulk, and stress damage caused by surge growth.
Surge growth causes stress, which triggers insect and disease activity in the landscape and is a direct result of granular fertilizer application. By increasing the frequency of fertilization while simultaneously lowering the concentration of product (microfeeding), you eliminate the surge growth that generally is associated with granular fertilization, which can also reduce the amount of mowing and trimming required.
Remember, the product you deliver determines the results, so you can focus on health and color; or push growth, depending on what the property needs at that time. The irrigation system does not need to be changed to accomplish a new goal; just simply change the product used in your tank, or increase the feed setting on your fertigation system.
Water is no longer free; it is slowly becoming a precious and expensive commodity. In bottled form, water is typically more expensive than gasoline. Our industry has done a superb job in recognizing this fact and responding. Many technologies are now available that allow for water reduction, such as drip irrigation, low impact sprinklers, moisture sensors and ET controllers, to name a few.
Fertigation can be combined with these technologies to further enhance their capabilities. Mauricio Troche, director of marketing for Netafim USA, says, “Drip irrigation and fertigation go hand in hand. The combination of both makes it the most efficient way to water and fertilize at the same time.” When installed appropriately, all of these products allow for the lush green landscapes we enjoy while promoting a responsible use of our resources.
Fertigation is not commonly thought of by many as a water-saving tool, as it is associated with traditional fertilizer applications. However, this is far from the truth.
After the initial installation of a fertigation system, a reduction in watering time of 10 percent is recommended, followed by an additional 10 percent in three months. After one year of continual nutrient application, another 10 percent cut may be made, to produce a total of 30 percent less water required for the exact same landscape utilizing the same irrigation system. Field studies have shown that even more impressive results are available.
After implementing fertigation, one company cut the watering times on the test properties in half, and then reduced the watering days by 30 percent, resulting in a 60 percent reduction in total water usage.
The method behind the madness is correct nutrient application and addition of organic products. Plants and soils become healthier and stronger, allowing them to use water more efficiently. A healthy plant requires less water, less fertilizer and maintains a higher disease and insect resistance.
In addition, the use of recycled water is becoming more prevalent, to help reduce the use of potable water. Recycled water normally has a high pH and dissolved solids, which may be harmful to landscapes and soils if not properly remediated. Fertigation can be used to reduce pH levels, making recycled water more compatible with landscapes and soils, with many low-cost inputs. Organic materials are typically the best option, as they have proven effective and are readily available.
Fertigation’s benefits to the environment
Residential landscapes, on average, make up 50 percent of total household water usage. Combining the irrigation management tools of fertigation, drip irrigation, smart controllers and low-volume irrigation can reduce water requirements dramatically and preserve our water resources.
Traditional fertilizer applications in dry form show that as little as 10 percent of the nutrients are utilized by the plants, while fertilizers applied through fertigation show up to 90 percent or higher absorption rates. Because dry fertilizers are not efficiently absorbed by the plant material, they are left in the ground, creating salt buildup. This raises the soil pH level, which is harmful to plants, or washed away into storm sewers.
Additionally, these high doses of nitrogen can result in nutrients leaching into our groundwater. The water collected in storm sewers either empties directly into rivers and streams or is recycled into water for irrigation. In either case, the impact is harmful.
As water becomes a more valuable resource, and with the continued pressure to reduce our impact on the environment, some believe fertigation is the future of fertilization.
With each passing year, more and more contractors are taking advantage of this technology that integrates seamlessly with drip, rotors, spray heads and sub-surface irrigation. Become an environmental steward in your community, and spread the word about fertigation as the correct way to feed and protect your customer’s landscape investment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff Gilmore is director of operations at EZ-FLO Fertilizing Systems.