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Florida Today: New lawn legislation fuels a growing debate

Monday, August 12, 2013

To fertilize or not to fertilize, that is the question Space Coast residents face this rainy season.

If they live in unincorporated Brevard County, for the first time they must heed an ordinance this summer that discourages fertilizing when rain is in the forecast.

Rockledge goes further. Its new ordinance more specifically bans fertilizing from June 1 to Sept. 30. Other local cities are considering their own ordinances, which could make for a hodgepodge of approaches to prevent excess fertilizer from running off into the Indian River Lagoon, where it can fuel algae blooms toxic to wildlife and even humans.

Debate rages on about how to make the best policies match the best science. State legislators have talked recently of revamping Florida’s fertilizer rules to make them more uniform. Environmentalists fear changes that could thwart local governments from adopting stricter ordinances that include rainy season fertilizer application bans, yearly application rate limits and that require a high percentage of controlled-release nitrogen.

So as the debate simmers, what’s an environmentally conscious homeowner to do this summer?

University of Florida and industry experts say we can have healthy lawns and a healthy Indian River lagoon, too.

Right time, right materials

Industry experts point to science that shows rainy months are when turf grass needs fertilizer most to uptake nutrients and grow deep roots. Environmentalists doubt those findings. They cite other research that says grass holds up just fine without summertime fertilization.

Both agree local soils are already rich in phosphorus. So Brevard’s new fertilizer ordinance and other municipalities in the county encourage homeowners to have their soil tested before they fertilize and to opt for brands with little or no phosphorous and with slow-release nitrogen.

They can get the low-cost soil tests at local extension offices.

The University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences recommends using fertilizer containing at least 30 percent slow-release nitrogen.

How much depends on the size of the yard and the fertilizer’s nitrogen content. Specifics are available at the institute’s “Florida-Friendly Landscaping” website at

Bahia grass only requires fertilizer twice a year, and centipede grass only needs it once or twice a year.

St. Augustine grass or zoysia grass require fertilizer two or three times a year.

Well-fed, healthy turf grass creates deep roots that prevent soil erosion into waters such as the lagoon.

But too much fertilizer can create a heavy layer of thatch, making grass susceptible to disease, insects and weather stress.

Significant fertilizer runoff can occur during the heaviest rains, experts say. So watch local forecasts. Otherwise, rainy season fertilizinghelps to grow heartier grasses when they are most able to absorb nutrients, industry experts say.

Read those labels, heed the message

Fertilizer industry officials say just heeding their product labels are enough to protect waters such as the Indian River Lagoon, making local ordinances unnecessary.

The same goes for pesticides.

To reduce health risks and environmental effects even more, agricultural researchers recommend Integrated Pest Management, which limits chemical use.

The method involves choosing pest-resistant plants for your yard.

If pests attack anyway, remove damaged leaves or plant parts, or pick the insects off by hand.

Know what insects you’re looking at before eradicating them. Some may be beneficial in controlling other pests that damage plants.

If you must treat, spot treat. Avoid blanket spraying and use selective rather than broad-spectrum insecticides, IFAS says.

Mow high and leave clippings on grass

“Longer grass is stronger grass,” according to tips by Scotts Miracle-Gro.

Homeowners should mow grass to three or four inches. Clippings can break down quickly, returning nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter back into soil.

Keep clippings, fertilizers and leaves off driveways, roads, sidewalks and other impermeable surfaces.

Experts say the most important steps to protect any water body is maintaining a 10-foot “maintenance-free zone” around it.

Also keep clippings and other cut plant material out of the 10-foot buffer zone.

Don’t water too much or too often

Watering goes hand-in-hand with fertilizing, horticulturists say.

As with mowing too short, watering too much can prevent deep roots from developing: a recipe for excess nitrogen and phosphorus polluting groundwater and the lagoon.

Watering fertilized lawns with more than a half-inch of water can cause some nitrogen to seep past the roots without being absorbed, says Sally Scalera, a horticulture agent with the Brevard County Extension Office. The University of Florida recommends ¼-inch of watering right after fertilizer is applied, she said.

“If heavy rain is in the forecast, the best thing to do is postpone fertilizing until drier weather is expected,” Scalera said.

Florida gets three-quarters of its rain May through October, so little additional watering is needed during those months.

An inch of rain is enough to water the trees and the shrubs thoroughly.

When possible, water plants by hand rather than via an irrigationsystem.Watch the weather and don’t sprinkle if it’s going to rain. Rain barrels are a great way to gather water for gardening.

Point downspouts into the garden, not toward a sidewalk or driveway.

If you do use an irrigation system, group plants with similar water needs and zone irrigation system appropriately.

Check for and repair any leaks, clogs or breaks in the irrigation system. Sprinklers should water plants, not sidewalks or roads.

Where possible, go native with plants

For a vibrant, low-maintenance landscape, plants must match the soil, water, light and climate conditions.

Try for a diverse mix of trees, shrubs and flowers that attract wildlife.

Once these plants are established, they’ll need little, if any water beyond natural rain, or fertilizer and pesticides, saving you money and time.

Host plants with seeds, fruit, foliage, flowers, or berries provide fodder for birds, butterflies, bats and other wildlife.

Consider ground cover other than turf grass.

Native sunshine mimosa is a great turf grass alternative that can save water, and it thrives in sunny locations.

Patricia Tierney replaced most of the St. Augustine grass at her waterfront Merritt Island home with that and other kinds of native plants and trees that require much less water and no fertilizer or pesticides.

“We weren’t really concerned about having this green, landscaped, turf grass kind of yard, we wanted to attract wildlife,” Tierney said.

“It really wasn’t very burdensome to do, because I was really interested in having the good water quality more than the good landscaping. I was real happy to do it, but my landscaping looks pretty after all.”

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