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Florida Today: Matt Reed: Follow label, save our lagoon

Monday, October 21, 2013

For years, my lawn and I killed silently — seagrass, sea trout and bigger creatures that feed on them.

Two times a year, maybe three, I bought the biggest bag of weed-and-feed fertilizer I could hoist into the cart at the nearby Lowes. Then I spread its entirety across my sprawling front yard, a St. Augustine lawn big enough to host a five-court badminton tournament.

If the package called for a spreader setting of 4, I dialed it up to 7 and rolled. Greener grass, fewer weeds, I thought as I strode past a storm drain to a canal that flows to the Banana River. I did this … whenever.

Then came the headlines in FLORIDA TODAY about algae blooms, diseased dolphins and dead zones throughout the Indian River Lagoon.

It was time for the lawn and me to shed our dark past. So, at the store this past spring, I paused to read a simple chart on the back of my bag of Scott’s Bonus S that showed when and how to fertilize, and with what.

Turns out, those directions match the guidelines in a state “model ordinance” for lawn fertilizer, a rule people have been arguing over in Brevard for more than a year.

Following them, I learned we could do the lagoon a world of good if Brevard County and all local cities simply adopted the model ordinance as is and spread the word.

Following directions, I bought just one small bag of slow-release weed-and-feed this year. I applied it in May, using the stingier spreader setting, just as the rainy season began and the grass started growing. In June, I cut watering in half and treated for grubs instead of fertilizing. This weekend, I will sprinkle a small bag of a different fertilizer with iron but no herbicide.

I’ve saved $60. My grass is thicker and greener than ever. I’ve applied one-third of the nitrogen that can run off and feed algae blooms that kill the food chain in the lagoon.

Forgive me, fish.

Start here

Is lawn fertilizer the main problem plaguing the lagoon? No. There is no “main” problem, according to experts who spoke Thursday night at a packed forum on our sick estuary.

Pollution is the problem. We must attack six or seven sources.

As a start, all Brevard governments should pass the Florida model ordinance based on “best practices” agreed upon by biologists, farmers, environmentalists and state politicians. So far, Brevard County, Melbourne, Rockledge and four small cities have done so.

County commissioners did so but plan to reconsider to add a summer “blackout” period, a controversial step that has hung up passage elsewhere.

The local Marine Resources Council insists on one. The environmental group says heavy summer rains wash more lawn food from yards into storm drains. The council also favors a rule requiring that 50 percent of any fertilizer be “slow release.”

The Florida Turfgrass Association says those extra rules backfire and supports the model ordinance. Fertilizer is costly overhead to sod farms, golf courses and lawn services, and they’d like to cut it. But summer blackout periods force them to pile it on in dry months when grass is not yet active — so much of it washes or leaches away. The slow-release rule forces lawn services to use twice the fertilizer in the fall in order to deliver enough quick-release stuff to grass before it goes dormant. Where does the rest go?

Let’s not wait to settle this argument before codifying agreed-upon best practices.

And don’t worry about enforcement. Most people will follow the rules, just as they do with watering restrictions by the St. Johns River Water Management District. They just need to know them.

Unintended effects

Still, what does the research say?

Experiments and a review of 100 other scientific studies by the University of Florida found that the least runoff and leaching occurs when we feed our lawns modestly during warm, rainy months. Grass consumes a much higher percentage of fertilizer while it is photosynthesizing aggressively.

And because turf grows thicker and hardier when fed during warm months, it naturally filters more pollution from waterways than grass fed in accordance with a blackout period, UF says.

“Sometimes well-intentioned guidelines, rules and ordinances may lead to unintended consequences,” says the report by eight UF agricultural scientists.

I say, forget the blackout periods.

The lagoon will recover faster if more of us just read the directions.

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