What Is Slow Release Fertilizer?

I got an email from a reader the other day asking me if slow release fertilizers were what she should be buying. I thought this was a great question and decided to share the answer here with all of you.

What is Slow Release Fertilizer?

If you visit your local home and garden center, you will no doubt find all types of lawn fertilizers on the shelves. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, but slow releasing fertilizers tend to be what most people want and they don’t even know why.

A slow resease lawn fertilizer is one that distributes nutrients, usually nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus an sometime iron into the lawn over time. This time can vary from a few weeks to several months depending on the formulation and how much you apply. Slow release products offer the advantage of fewer yearly applications and less chance of lawn damage from over-application.

Organic Fertilizers Slow Release Naturally

Many synthetic or man-made fertilizers are slow release because of a sulfur coating that surround the nutrients. The more water that hits the pellets, the fast the nutrients are released. These work great, but the very best slow release fertilizers are organics.

Organic lawn fertilizers only release nutrients when heat is present. This means that the hotter it gets outside, the natural breakdown of the organic material releases the nutrients in to the turf. This is not only a very healthy process, but it is the way nature intended, and that is always good. Another very strong advantage to organic fertilizers is that there is almost no chance of buring the lawn, ever! This is huge, especially if you did not take the time to buy a good lawn fertilizer spreader!

Long story short, if you are looking for slow release lawn fertilizers, then go with organics, and do it naturally!

Organic, Natural and Synthetic Fertilizers Revealed, part 2

Are you still thinking green? Do you still want to do your part to save our world and care for our environment?

In Part 1 of this view of Natural, Organic and Synthetic lawn fertilizers, we learned that each segment has it’s positives and negatives, but I think we can all agree, the key is in the moderation. Over-using any kind of fertilizer, be it 100% organic or completely man-made, is not good for the the environment or your lawn. I want each of you to understand that “balance” is the key to this process. Extremes on either side will not help anyone, including the environment.

In Part 2, we will look at how fertilizers are classified, packaged and sold to the consumer. We will also explore what we term “cultural practices” in the lawn care industry.

Once again, this posting is meant to be 100% informative and may even be classified as boring, but I honestly feel that it’s a subject that must be addressed from a “middle-of-the-road” perspective. If you do not want to take the time to sort through it all, then you can search for the “Cliff Notes” that I have highlighted in GREEN and you’ll get the gist of the entire post. Sounds fair right?

Fertilizer Regulation 

The first thing to realize is that the United States Government is interested in regulating the fertilizer industry and has controls in place to monitor it’s packaging, distribution and use. However, the majority of the control is held by each state individually. The Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO) “strives to gain uniformity by consensus among each of these entities (states) without compromising the needs of the consumers, protection of the environment or fair competition among the industry.” source 

In other words, AAPFCO attempts to standardize regulations across the United States. Furthermore, they attempt to educate and effect sound legislation that protects both consumers and business owners, manufacturers and distributors. In doing so, AAPFCO adopts standards that allow consumers the information they need to make sound environmental decisions. One example of this is the standardized label that must appear on ALL bags of fertilizer sold (does not matter if they are synthetic, natural or organic). The label is similar in purpose to the “Nutrition Facts” labels you find on food in the grocery store.

Long story short, there is a body in place that looks out for, and keeps a balance on, the fertilizer industry. A further definition can be found here, from the Fertilizer Institute. So the next time you hear an extreme environmentalist spewing off about a particular fertilizer company or distributor, realize that the “spewer” is attacking the wrong entity. He/she should be attacking the organizations that regulate the industry and effect change there. On the flip side, if you find a lawn care operator who is abusing the environment, you now are armed with some information on just where to turn him in!

Professional Lawn Companies

It’s worth noting here that professional lawn fertilizing companies are regulated also. They are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture through State Extension Cooperatives and must meet rigorous standards in order to operate legally. Some of these standards include: fertilizer and pesticide storage and transport, usage and reporting, and licensing of individual spray technicians. Each state has different regulations regarding each of these areas, but every state does have some measure of control in place. In Illinois, for example, for a technician to treat a lawn with fertilizer and pesticide, he must pass a 100 question test covering the “general standards of the Illinois Pesticed Applicator.” In addition, the owner or head operator of the company must also pass a more specific exam. So next time you hire a lawn care provider, ask him or her if he is licensed with your state’s department of agriculture and ask for his license number. If he can’t or won’t provide it, move on! I can tell you from personal observation that most of the environmental abuse I have seen has been perpetrated by unlicensed lawn care operators who have no clue how, when or what to apply to a lawn. In my business, we say that those guys just “Spray and Pray.” :)

What to Look For When You Buy Fertilizer

Just because the label reads “natural” does not mean it is! Standards vary from state to state, but in Illinois, for example, a product that reads “naturally derived fertilizer” must be at least 50% derived from a natural source, and the rest can be synthetic. Is this the choice you really wanted to make? Were you looking, instead, for a 100% organic product? If you are confused by these statements, please go back and read Part 1 again to familiarize yourself with these definitions.

A product that reads “made with” organic products may not necessarily be 100% organic. In fact, according to the Organic Materials Review Institute, a product that is only 70% organic is permitted to use the terms “made with.”  There are also standards that organic distributors must follow during the processing of their products, however, if they market products that are less than 70% organic, they do not fall into this same standard.

Finally, some products that truly are 100% organic do not refer to themselves as such. One example of this is Ringer Lawn Restore. It is a first class 100% organic fertilizer, though it is marketed as an “all natural” fertilizer because consumers think of “cow poopy” when they think of “organic,” and Ringer does not want to be associated with cow poop. (Ringer, by the way, does not contain any manure at all)

What I am getting at here, is, that just because you see the word “Organic” or “Natural” on the label, does not mean that it is 100% along those lines. And truthfully, there is no way for you to know just EXACTLY what you are getting, no matter how carefully you read the label and do your research.

So How do we Make the Best Choice for the Environment?

It is pretty obvious that if you’ve made it this far into this extremely boring article, that you are very conscious about making the right choices. And I’m gonna tell you how to do that.

MODERATION: Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: dictionary.com

That’s right folks, whatever choice you make in fertilizer: Organic, Synthetic, Natural or some mix of two of these, the key is to be mindful of how much you are spreading, where you are spreading it, and how often. Let the labeling of the product guide you, and ALWAYS purchase your products from a reputable, regulated retailer or professional. If you do these things, then being “green” is simple.

Finally, you can greatly reduce the need for fertilizer in your lawn by exercising the proper cultural practices. That term refers to your basic maintenance practices such as cutting the lawn, watering it, and caring for the soil. Some great cultural practices that will reduce your lawn’s need for fertilizing are:

(1) Use a mulching lawn mower to return or recycle lawn clippings back into the turf…a great form of natural, organic fertilizer.

(2) Water your lawn regularly (2 times per week) and deeply, rather than daily and lightly or sporadically. Proper moisture levels promote healthy turf that needs less support from nutrients like potassium and phosphorus

(3) Core aerate your lawn 2 times per year to keep the soil from compacting. Aeration is a completely mechanical process that utilizes no chemicals at all. Be sure to actually pull cores of soil as those also help to stir up micro-nutrients and enzymes as well as promote microbial bacteria that occur naturally in healthy soil.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll get into some of the real meat of the environmental issue: PESTICIDES and INSECTICIDES and their uses in home lawn and landscape maintenance.

Your questions and comments are always welcome.