To stop lawn fertilizer from polluting, do we have to kill off the organic fertilizer industry?


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And put guys like this out of business? 

From Paul Tukey at we hear about some unintended consequences that somebody needs to look into.  First, New York banned
pesticides around school playing fields and playgrounds.  So far, so good. Then, in mid-July the legislators also banned phosphorus from lawn fertilizers, in a way that could force us all to buy synthetic fertilizers from now on. Here's Tukey's thorough report on the situation.

Or here's the gist of the problem: the ban treats all fertilizers the same – synethetic or organic – and bans any fertilizer containing more than 0.67 percent phosphorus.

“Manufacturers of synthetic chemical fertilizers can simply pull the
phosphorus out of their products in the laboratory,” says one organics manufacturer. “With organic fertilizers, we
cannot do that, whether the product comes from manure or composted food waste or
sewage sludge. We worked and were successful in bringing language into the Wisconsin phosphorus ban
to exempt organic fertilizers made with manure or sewage sludge from the
lawn fertilizer application law.”

"This New York ban is silly as it is written,” said a rep of one
organic company who asked not to be identified just yet. “If this
holds, then New York has essentially legislated the organic industry
out of the lawn fertilizer business.”

Then Tukey reveals a juicy side note to the story:

The cynics suggest that the chemical fertilizer industry in New York may be lobbying for the harsh ban, knowing how severely that it would restrict organic
products. A company like Scotts Miracle Gro has a product offering 25-0-12 for
lawns, meaning no phosphorus.

I say: Never understatement the ability of Scotts Miracle-Gro to succeed at business.

Tukey interviewed several organics providers for his piece but missed Mark Highland at Organic Mechanics Soil, so here's what Mark (pictured above) has to say about all this:

I am all for healthy watersheds, reducing
runoff, and healthy landscapes. Having a threshold limit isnt necessarily a bad
thing, but I don't think outright banning of particular elements in fertilizers
is the best solution. Since it is impossible to remove the phosphorus naturally
present in animal byproducts, banning phosphorus from lawn fertilizers will
result in most organic lawn fertilizers being pulled from garden center shelves.
Politicians must recognize the difference between chemical and
organic fertilizer sources, and either exempt fertilizers made from organic
sources or allow a threshold limit of at least 3%. 

Other naturally occurring sources of
phosphorus include soil erosion from housing developments and runoff
from impervious surfaces and poor agricultural practices…why are these issues
not addressed in the phosphorus ban?

So, we see what happens when well-intentioned legislators get it wrong – maybe because they don't ask for input from, you know, the little guy.  Like Mark here, who'd I'd prefer be allowed to stay in business, along with Bradford Organics and all the other good suppliers of organics that we depend on. 

Photo of Mark from a Patti Moreno video about Mark's products.


  1. Okay, I don’t think this is well crafted legislation, but it IS worth mentioning that too much of ANY fertilizer is incredibly harmful to the environment, whether it is organic or synthetic.

  2. It’s terrible when it comes down to this : “Lobbyists.”
    Who are the lobbyists for the organic fert. industry ?
    They need to step up and educate the law makers.
    It is a sure thing that Scotts will out spend the organic fert industry, but you have to try.
    It’s all politics and money at this point.

  3. I think the underlying issue here is that lawns are stupid.

    I don’t know the law, but could their be a municipal composting loophole? As in, if the city mandated non-sewage compost and distributed it itself? I know compost- at least in most areas- is legally defined as a soil amendment and NOT a fertilizer; and it contains low NPK…so it DOES, in fact, fertilize a little bit w/minimal excess or overflow.

  4. Vermont here, out in the country, and reading about lawn issues is kind of funny to me. Fertilize? Water? Herbicides and pesticides? It’s just grass (and clover, and wild strawberries, and who knows what else). We mow, no fancy mulching mower or anything, but we just leave the clippings where they fall (or clump). Looks ok. may go abit yellow at times. Who cares? We add compost to the garden and water the veggies when needed (been a dry summer) but even the roses, unless newly planted, make do with what nature provides for water.

    So as far as organic vs chemical – – why bother???

  5. Organic Mechanics is simply the BEST container garden/potting soil on the East Coast. It’s also great for topdressing lightly on lawns being reseeded; those rice hulls and coir are better than straw, which blows away. (Thank you Mark, for helping Gentle Gardener client container gardens do so well.)

    And, the checkered local/state phosphorus bans are just DUMB. If you want to garden sustainably, you need good root development, particularly as plants are being established in low organic matter % soils (pretty much everywhere in VA except for the forest floor). Phosphorus from organic sources gives you that to get started; healthy soil life keeps it going. Demonizing one element just confuses the public.

    The point is: do what farmers MUST do: have a soil conservation/management plan: pretest, measure, (ignore what the land grant universities tell you to do, which is almost always to apply 10-10-10 no matter what their own lab test show), get a professional garden coach or sustainable landscape designer/organic horticulturalist help you interpret and apply the correct amounts of organics, preferably locally made.

    Organic Mechanics has a huge location advantage, being within 400-500 miles (and thus ‘local’ per USDA and LEED USGBC) of much of the East Coast megaplex population.

    Soil test, test microbial action via the soilfoodweb guys out West, apply the organics (including worm compost, mulches on top, green manures, cover crops and nitrogen fixing plants like leguminous trees and, ahem, clover), don’t overdo ANYTHING, water, and heck, be patient, observant and not a picky perfectionist.

    Do NOT let the “Perfect” be the Enemy of the Good……or the organic…….or the local……or the sustainable.

  6. Such a Socialist argument for allowing a fertilizer exemption (organics). Why is it that the “little guy” with an organic business should get preferential treatment over a large company? Organics cause THE SAME damage as synthetics. Period. I know, I am in the environmental business. Why should I or anyone believe the face in the above article is more trusting than a face from a corporate business? You won’t win these arguments with sensational discussions.

  7. A couple of you have stated that phosphorus from organic sources pollutes just the same as phosphorus from synthetic ones, and that’s true but here’s my understanding: Fast-acting synthetic fertilizers are much more likely to end up in the Chesapeake Bay or whatever the waterway. They cause more actual run-off and its consequent pollution.

    But I’m going to send the link to this interesting discussion to Jeff Gillman, who was cited as a source and let’s be sure we know his position.

  8. I read this post the other day and enjoyed it — and I’m more than happy to give my 2 cents. First, a well fertilized lawn is less likely to produce nutrient runoff than a poorly fertilized lawn, so fertilization is important (at least to some extent). Phosphorus is as important as any nutrient to a lawn — that said, most people have plenty of phosphorus in their soil so that they don’t need to add any extra (here in MN we’re not allowed to add any phosphorus without a soil test).

    In terms of the effect of organic P vs. synthetic P on the environment after application they’re as bad as each other. Distinctions have sometimes been drawn, but either type of P can run-off and create problems. If you have higher than a 5/1 ratio of N to P or so then you’re probably adding more P than you need for your lawn regardless of whether you’re using an organic or synthetic fertilizer.

  9. Too much organic fertilizer is bad? It is almost impossible to apply excess fertilizer in organic form. I am on board with the protest of the NY la here.

    The idiots in Albany have enough trouble balancing a budget let alone the NPK ration on a bag of poulrty poop

    The TROLL

  10. to jhprince:
    You are an Enviro Nazi. Organics do not cause the same damage as synthetics. “I know I’m in the environmental business”. Well FRA-DEE-LA to you pal! Such a blanket statement is so typical of sound bite theology. Forget the fact that organics stimulate soil activity to the point of reducing the need for pesticides and water applications beacuse the plant is stronger in the long run. With such an idiotic statement like yours does that mean composting should be regulated as a landfill?

    I am in the environmental business too….the one called gardening. May you itch from here to Hades the next time you hug s tree wrapped in poison ivy

    The TROLL

  11. So happy Susan forwarded this thread to Jeff Gilman to let him weigh back in on this important issue! As Jeff states, a little Phosphorus is good (less than 5-1 ratio of N to P). The issue is not whether or not its organic or synthetic fertilizer, science shows us the plants dont care what form…but getting bogged down in that debate ignores the real issue. If you go out and read some typical fertilizer labels, the synthetic products almost always have higher fertilizer numbers than organic products. This means when you apply them, you have the potential to leach greater quantities of nutrients. Those that write legislation should educate themselves about how fertilizers are made, to truly understand the similarities and differences between synthetic and organic fertilizers.

    Why should lawn fertilizers be targeted more than fertilizers used to produce crops? From my time at the Univ. of Florida in the late 90’s, I know extension agents recommend a tremendous amount of Phosphorus to produce peppers in sandy soil. Something similar to 45-35-35. Perhaps the recommendations today are different, but the point here is its not only lawn fertilizer that affects water quality.

    Lets take a hypothetical example. Neighborhood #1 all manages their lawns with synthetic fertilizer. They all use a product with 15% N, 3% P, and 10% K. Neighborhood #2 all manages their lawns with organic fertilzers. They all use a product with 5% N, 1% P, and 3% K. I ask you, which product has the potential to leach greater amounts of nutrients? This example does not even address the type or source of P (or N) used to make the fertilizer. Certain sources used to supply these nutrients are more water soluble than others…adding to the complexity of this issue.

    As to why one might trust the face of a small business vs. a giant mega-corporation, lets see, how many corporations have lied, cheated, stolen, polluted, caused massive environmental damage, ruined peoples lives, evaporated employee pension plans/401k etc, etc. Most small businesses I know cringe at the thought of doing anything that might hurt public perception of their business…because they are so small they NEED all the business they can get.

    I am all about healthy ecosystems and clean water, air, and soil. We need these things if we expect to continue living on this planet. I hope a sensible conclusion is reached in NY and NJ, using WI and similar states as examples of sensible legislation.

  12. well, Fra-de-la to you to Mr Nazi Pa-Troll! You have not seen the mess organics have caused in our waterways. I AM an organic user only, but this does make it better.
    I bet you scour this site and pa-Troll it thinking everyone will be afraid of your aggressiveness. Not me, pal! You couldn’t touch the mount of environmental work I’ve done!

  13. Organic Mechanic:

    Here’s the problem with your argument. If you’re applying 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet (pretty typical for grass in a yard) then you’re applying exactly the same amount of P regardless of whether you’re applying a 15-3-0 or a 5-1-0 or even a 45-15-0.

  14. Organic mechanic, your perception of corporations as being liars and cheats is flat wrong and you know it. The media portray them as this unfairly, so that the little guy can get ahead, sometimes then unfairly. Small business has no more integrity and honesty per se than a large corporation. Get this Socialist bent OUT of the discussion.

  15. Enron, BP, AGI, Lehman Bros, golden parachutes….this is the type of corporate scoundrels I was referring to…I know people are people and even a small business can operate corruptly. Its all about ethics…but youre right, its irrelevant to the importance of the issue…putting any business out of business in a down economy hurts the industry…and these fertilizer laws may do just that.

    Jeff, I appreciate your comment…I just think most homeowners dont actually get soil tests with recommendations and they just get a bag of fertilizer and overapply it…which would lead to more nutrients total being applied with the higher N-P-K ferts. I wish everyone knew the value of a soil test since it would likely cause them to fertilize less!

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