James Pinsky: Spread the word about fertilizers

Spring is here. No, really. It’s true.

Don’t believe me? You will when your better half reminds you it’s time to mow your lawn. Or weed your garden. Or, fertilize …

Ah, yes, our old friend, fertilizer – the magical spread we toss across our lawns to make our neighbors green with envy. You know that whole “the grass is always greener on the other side” thing. Well friends, there’s a lot more to having green grass than using fertilizer. In fact, if and when you do use fertilizer, there are a few things you ought to know so that your quest for a lush, beautiful lawn doesn’t hurt our environment.

How can making my lawn gorgeous hurt the environment? My goodness, I’m not spray painting it.

That’s a great question. Here’s an answer: Fertilizer in and of itself isn’t a problem if it’s used properly.

Fertilizer is essentially food or “nutrient” for your lawn, so if you need to, think about how you eat to better understand how and when to use what is essentially grass nutritional supplement. For example, if someone offers you food and you’re not hungry, or offers you more food than you can eat, then it just goes to waste.

Fertilizer isn’t much different in the sense that if you apply too much of it or try to feed your lawn at the wrong time, the excess fertilizer becomes waste. One of the problems with fertilizer waste is it can get washed away into storm drains, roads, hillsides, etc., in runoff and eventually flow untreated into our local rivers, lakes or streams. OK, so what. I love a green forest and my fertilizer will help make our trees and flowers healthier. Uh – no. Here’s what happens: you are correct to think that just like your lawn, fertilizer in lakes and streams makes plants grow. But, here’s the bad news: in our rivers, lakes and streams extra fertilizer leads to extra algae and aquatic plant growth. Too much algae hurt water quality and to make matters worse, when algae decay, they burn up the oxygen in the water that fish and other wildlife need.

Oh… I didn’t know that. Don’t worry. A lot of people don’t. But, you do now so if you are going to use fertilizer learn what kind to use, how to use it and when to use it. The first step to making the right fertilizer choice, if you even need any kind of fertilizer, is to do a soil sample test of your land. And, just how do I do that mister environmental writer dude? Well, one way is to contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office and submit a soil sample to the soil laboratory at Virginia Tech University.

According to the Virginia Tech University soil laboratory website, a routine soil test package includes analysis for soil pH, P, K, Ca, Mg, Zn, Mn, Cu, Fe and B, along with fertilizer and lime recommendations for the specified crop. They can also test for soluble salts and organic matter and said local Virginia Cooperative Extension offices can provide soil sample boxes and information sheets. The website stated soil samples are analyzed and computer recommendations are generated usually within three working days of receipt, and the completed soil test reports, along with one or more soil test notes containing additional information on fertilization and liming, are either mailed or emailed directly to you with a copy of the report made available to your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. You can visit their website at www.soiltest.vt.edu for more information. Yes, it costs money, but chances are it will be less than whatever money you might waste using the wrong fertilizer.

Once you have your soil test back you’ll be better educated about what kind of fertilizers you may need to help your soil support whatever you want to grow. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, fertilizers fall into three basic categories. The best, environmentally, is the natural organic kind like composted leaves or chicken manure. This fertilizer works slowly to feed your lawn, won’t burn your plants and enriches the soil with organic matter. The second class of fertilizer is a slow-release or controlled-release type. These fertilizers are petroleum-based and coated in sulfur or some other kind of resin to break down slowly and provide nitrogen to plants. The third type of fertilizer is known as synthetic quick-release, and like many quick-fix type solutions these kinds of fertilizers come with some environmental baggage like being water-soluble, which means most of its materials can be washed away in runoff, not adding any organic matter to support healthy soil advocates like earthworms, fungi and bacteria, and lastly many of these kinds of fertilizers include some sort of weed killer, pesticide or other toxic ingredient which may not be necessary.

Regardless of what kind of soil you choose for your lawn, how you apply your fertilizer is important.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, here are some common mistakes people make when using fertilizers:

• Applying without first getting a soil test

• Applying too much fertilizer (at higher than recommended rates)

• Applying to a lawn that is not actively growing

• Applying at the wrong time of year

• Applying just before heavy rain is forecast

• Applying to hard surfaces like sidewalks, driveways and streets

• Applying with a rotary spreader (a drop spreader offers better control)

Yes, spring is finally here. So, put your snow shovels away (I think) and go take a soil sample before you serve your lawn a buffet of unwanted or unnecessary nutrient help. If you want to know more about how to have good soil and water health for your lawn or farm, visit Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District at www.lfswcd.org.

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.

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