Diggin' Florida dirt

Summer fertilizer bans mean it's time to kick the nitrogen habit

I'm a fertilizer junkie. I can't hide it. The evidence is all over my garage: one box and one bottle of Miracle-Gro Bloom Booster, three canisters of slow-release sprinkles, a gallon jug of fish emulsion, one sack each of orchid and azalea foods, a bag of Scotts Southern Turf Builder, and my newest love, Vigoro Rose Plant Food.

I don't use them all the time, but, aah, it's instant gratification when I do. Bloom Booster's a great pick-me-up for my hard-working perennials and a little sumpin sumpin to make the cat's whiskers purr.

The lawn food gets tossed around just once a year in the spring, and only if Fast Eddy, our weed-mowing guy, reminds me. The rose food? That's another story. I've come to rely on monthly doses to keep the antique roses and the angel's and devil's trumpets beaming.

This summer, for the first time, all three are banned for sale in Pinellas County; violators can be fined up to $10,000 a day. Next summer, prohibition comes to Tampa. Then, from October to May, it's a restricted diet of fertilizers with at least 50 percent of the nitrogen in slow-release form.

Can I go cold turkey by June 1, when Tampa's ban kicks in?

Technically, I don't have to; I live in unincorporated Hillsborough County. Here, I'm law-abiding as long as I keep my habit 10 feet from ponds, lakes and rivers. But I can see the way the wind's blowing and, as a Floridian, I have a healthy respect for wind.

So I asked Nanette O'Hara, public outreach coordinator for the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program, for some counseling. O'Hara has been rehabbing people like me since the estuary program came up with the ban plan in 2008 to protect Tampa Bay, "an estuary of national significance." (Estuary: where freshwater meets saltwater, creating a nursery for fish and shellfish and a playground for people.)

O'Hara was kind. She laughed with me. She sympathized with me. But in the end, she was all tough love.

"Plants don't need it (fertilizer in the summer) if they're managed properly throughout the year," she said. "Protecting our waterways is important; it's key to our very economy. Our whole way of life depends on healthy waterways. Doing without a product that is a major pollutant … is a worthwhile trade-off."

That said, there are some esteemed organizations that don't support all-out summer fertilizer bans, including the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. I'll leave the back-and-forth to the experts; for now, bans are in, so good-citizen gardeners should know the particulars:

• While news stories focus on lawn fertilizers, the Tampa and Pinellas bans apply to flowers, trees and shrubs as well. Vegetable gardens are exempt. From June 1 to Sept. 30 next year, Tampa garden centers may sell only fertilizers with no nitrogen or phosphorus.

• Phosphorus isn't the big problem here, O'Hara said. We have it naturally in abundance. The problem is nitrogen. It washes off our lawns and gardens during afternoon deluges, flows into stormwater drains and streams down waterways to Tampa Bay, where it creates algae blooms that can kill fish and seagrass.

• If you just want to green up your grass, apply perfectly legal iron, O'Hara said. But if your lawn is turning yellow, it could be another problem, like chinch bugs or a fungus, neither of which will be cured with fertilizer. Best to first figure out the source of the problem.

• Compost, fish emulsion, leaves and grass clippings all provide nutrients — legally.

• Slow-release fertilizers feed steadily for months; no rush, but no sanctions, either.

I have super sandy soil so, in addition to sprinkling slow-release two or three times a year, I dig in home-brewed compost, fallen leaves, peat and cow manure compost in hopes that someday, I'll have something like real dirt. That would knock the fertilizer monkey right off my back.

• Putting plants in the right places helps, too. O'Hara and her husband relandscaped their front and back yards — no turf and only native and Florida-friendly plants — more than a year ago. This summer, she says, her biggest chore is cutting back shrubs gone Goliath on all the rain (which, she notes, contains nitrogen.) She fertilized just once this year, applying slow-release in the spring.

So far, Pinellas County's first nitrogen-free summer has gone well, with no complaints and only a few questions from residents, says Kelli Levy, Pinellas' watershed management manager.

Home Depot was fined $9,073.82 for selling banned products, and 43 lawn and landscape companies got warnings for not getting required training. Another 60 warnings were being prepared last week.

Pinellas gardeners have benefited, Levy says. Store shelves are now stocked with lots of previously hard-to-find soil amendments, including the ever-popular composted chicken manure.

It sounds easy enough to pass on the nitrogen, but so does dieting. I'm betting I'll need support. Thank goodness there's lots available online: befloridian.org, also on Facebook, and bayfriendly.blogspot.com are both emceed by O'Hara; floridayards.org/fyplants/index.php, hosted by a coalition of organizations including the University of Florida, includes a database of Florida-friendly plants sorted by region; fyn.ifas.ufl.edu, another UF site, offers tips on establishing a low-maintenance landscape.

Find a list of approved-for-summer fertilizers at befloridian .org. Click on "Partners" in the upper right-hand corner, then click "Buy Stuff," and the link under "Bag Check."

With all that help, surely by this time next year, I'll have one fewer vice — and more money for plants.

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan@sptimes.com.

Summer fertilizer bans mean it's time to kick the nitrogen habit 09/01/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:56pm]

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