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.


Organic, Natural and Synthetic Fertilizers Revealed, part 1

Are you environmentally conscious? Are you “Green?”

More and more, homeowners are making choices they believe to be the best for their lawn, as well as for the world around them. But what if I was to tell you you’re being duped by slick marketers who play on your emotions? Furthermore, what if I told you that extreme environmentalists exaggerate facts or even lie in order to sway your thoughts to their side? What if I let you in on the secret of “buzz word” marketing that both sides of the issue use to sway your opinions? Is there a middle ground? Can you achieve a beautiful lawn without destroying the environment?

The answer is “yes.” However, the savvy homeowner must first be armed with basic information. (stay with me folks, this one ain’t gonna be funny or bombastic…just down and dirty info)

This topic will have to be broken into several postings as I want to explore every side of the issue. In Part 1, we must first define some terms. Also, keep in mind that this post is about FERTILIZER and not pesticides or insecticides. We will get to them later. For now, think FERTILIZER.

Definition or Fertilizer: Any of a large number of natural and synthetic materials, including manure and nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds, spread on or worked into soil to increase its capacity to support plant growth. source

It is important to keep in mind that fertilizer IS NOT plant food! Plants create their own food through the process of photosynthesis. Fertilizers (nutrients such as Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus) only serve to support this process. And, just in case you are wondering, grass is a plant!

There are 3 loosely classified “types or sources” of fertilizer: Natural, Organic and Synthetic.

(1) What is Natural fertilizer? The term “Natural” refers to “Existing in or formed by Nature” or “based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature” Source: dictionary.com

So let me ask you folks, is everything in nature safe to put on your lawn? Crude oil is found naturally in Texas, but I don’t think any of us would spread it in our front yard. In addition, do you see a difference in elements that are found naturally or made synthetically if they are chemically exact matches? Phosphorus for example, is a basic element in lawn fertilizer. There are plenty of places where phosphorus is mined from a natural deposit, yet, phosphorus is also manipulated in the lab and used in your daily vitamins. Which one do you want in your stomach?

Phosphorus in it’s natural state is not always concentrated enough to be effective for your lawn anyway. In other words, you might have to spread 20 pounds of naturally found phosphorus on your front lawn in order to get the same results that 1 half-pound of synthetic will get for you. Which is better for the environment in your opinion?

The point here is that just because something is “natural” does not mean it is automatically good for your lawn or the environment. Sometimes science improves on nature. The other thing to keep in mind is the advertising you see on TV and websites. If someone is touting their products are “all natural” or “naturally derived” they are playing on your sense of emotion. Most folks think the terms “natural” and “organic” are interchangeable… they are NOT!

(2) What is Organic fertilizer? The term Organic means: “Of, relating to, or derived from living organismssource You can see that organic could be classified as “a step closer” to being environmentally aware in this regard. To further confuse you, some things that are organic are also natural, but not everything natural is organic! Got it? Furthermore, just because something is organic, does not give you license poop.jpgto place mass quantities of it in your lawn. Too much of a good thing ain’t always good. Rotten bananas are organic, but if you eat 500 of them in 1 hour, you’ll plug up your toilet and then die.

Organics for lawns can come in many forms such as blood meal, poultry waste(chicken parts and chicken poopy), manure(cow poopy), compost and fish emulsion, just to name a few.

The main issue with organics, in my opinion are: they STINK, they are very EXPENSIVE and they require a lot of product be put down in order to achieve results. In other words, they contain low concentrates of the nutrients needed to effect plant production. You gotta spread a lot of stinky poop on your lawn to turn it green! Hello neighbor!!!!! :) Another problem with organics is the Nitrogen will only be released with higher temperatures. Organics are NOT water activated.

(3) What is Synthetic fertilizer? Synthetic just means “man made.” The elements (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) are still there, but have been bonded with other other compounds or carriers (such as salts) in order to make them more readily available for the plant. Because of science, the release of nutrients can be controlled, thus the term “slow release” or “quick release” fertilizer. The salts that bond the elements dissolve with water and the elements are trickled into the soil. In addition, the amount of each element can be controlled. If you want more Nitrogen in your mix, you purchase a synthetic fertilizer with higher concentrations of that element. Thank you scientists! This also allows less total product to be put down in one treatment…back to our example under natural fert where you might have to put down 20 lbs of natural, vs a half-pound of synthetic.

There are also some disadvantages to synthetic fertilizers. Those being cheaply “made” brands that contain high concentrations of salts that can over time, damage grass plants and adversely effect the composition of the soil. The solution here is to by brand name, higher priced offerings, and apply the stuff at the suggested rate on the packaging. You gotta read the instructions, or in this case, product labeling. Either way, even the very best of synthetic fertilizers are on average 30% cheaper than natural and 80% cheaper than organics.

It boils down to this: Elements are elements no matter how they are mined, made, found, bonded or released.

So what’s the real environmental concern then? You’ll have to wait for part 2 for the answer to that one! In part 2, we’ll talk about cultural practices, as well as explore some of the hybrid forms of fertilizers.