How Can I Reduce or Eliminate Lawn Fertilizer?

Second Lawn Fertilizer Billboard


April 1-8, 2017

Click here to view our “Reduce Your Use” VIDEO.

We invite conservation groups and other organizations to join us in our Lawn Fertilizer Awareness Campaign. Click here for the TOOL KIT.

Lawn fertilizer is much like farm fertilizer, rich in nitrogen, which is a major source of river pollution. Nitrogen is a natural element that all living things need to grow– however excess nitrogen in our rivers is harmful. There are over 1,300,000 acres of lawns in the state of Maryland, compared to approximately to 1,500,000 acres of planted cropland. Just like farmers, many homeowners apply fertilizers that contain nitrogen. In October 2013, Maryland’s first law regulating the use of lawn fertilizer went into effect.  The law is the beginning of the conversation, of a new way to think about lawn fertilizer use. Let’s all become more aware about its effects. Let’s reduce or even eliminate lawn fertilizer use!

The Problem In Our Rivers

Nitrogen is a major source of pollution in our rivers; when it rains fertilizer can wash off the land and into the rivers, causing algae blooms that block sunlight and deplete oxygen. The image below shows our Report Card grades for total Nitrogen concentrations found in the Miles, Wye, and Choptank Rivers in 2014.

Nitrogen Score - 2014 MRC Report Card

The farther upstream you travel, away from the tidal flushing of the Bay, the worse our nitrogen scores become. The headwaters of the Miles, Wye, and Choptank Rivers all have failing Nitrogen scores. This image shows that what we are doing on land directly impacts the health of our rivers. Just like a farmer, homeowners need to do their part to reduce their impact on our rivers. Reducing pollution from your lawn is easy and looks beautiful too!

Step 1: Educate Yourself

Did you know?? In 2011 Maryland passed the Lawn Fertilizer Act that regulates how we apply fertilizer. Some highlights from this law that you should know include:

  • Do not fertilizer within 15 feet of waterways.
  • Lawn fertilizer may not be applied between November 15 and March 1.
  • A single fertilizer application may not exceed 0.9 pound total nitrogen per 1,000 square feet and 0.7 pound of soluble nitrogen per 1,000 square feet except when using enhanced efficiency fertilizer.
  • Phosphorus may only be applied to lawns when a soil test indicates that it is needed or when a lawn is being established or renovated.

Professional lawn care companies are also held responsible under the new law. Click here to learn more about the Lawn Fertilizer Act and professional lawn care companies.

Step 2: Know Your Soil

Soil is the foundation to a healthy lawn and it’s more complicated than just “dirt”. A soil test will tell you about the pH and nutrient levels in your soil.  Getting a soil test is easy and will allow you to make the right decisions when fertilizing or choosing plants. The University of Maryland Extension Service is a great resource that provides soil tests and has an “Ask the Expert” phone and email line. The University’s Master Gardeners are trained volunteers who have completed an education program through the Extension and are available to visit your home and make recommendations for your lawn.

Step 3: If You Must Fertilize, Do It Right

MRC is challenging homeowners to reduce their fertilizer use by AT LEAST half. If you fertilize 4 times a year, cut back to once a year. If your lawn is already healthy and established you do not need to fertilize at all. Following these simple suggestions to maintaining your lawn will help reduce the amount of nitrogen you need to put on your lawn:

  • Mow high – tall grass shades out weeds eliminating the need for chemical weed killers.
  • Leave grass clippings on your lawn – it is a free source of natural nitrogen, eliminating your need for fertilizer.
  • Let your lawn go dormant in the summer – dormant lawns need less watering and don’t require fertilizer. Dormancy allows grass to focus on deeper root growth.

Don't Want My Lawn Brown by Matt Davies (c) Newsday 6.5.2015

Step 4: More Natives Means Less Fertilizer

Replacing turf grass with native plants reduces the need to fertilize, creates native habitat, and reduces run off because of native grasses’ large root systems.