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How to help keep Florida waters clean with natural yard, following fertilizer rules



A lawn full of crisp, green turf may be the traditional beauty standard for many Florida homeowners, but over-fertilized lawns could be coming at a big cost to the environment. No one likes the burning stench of red tide at the beach, the sight of algae-choked waterways or manatees dying by the dozen. Many Floridians are understandably upset about the continued degradation of Florida’s once pristine waters. And government officials around the Tampa Bay area have responded with promises to crack down on sources of pollution, including the misuse of fertilizer.

But there’s a lot that residents and homeowners can do right now to keep pollutants out of area waterways, according to scientists, landscape specialists and water quality experts. When it comes to fertilizer, it is imperative to use it responsibly, water quality experts say. Even better, a fertilizer-free landscaping approach means you don’t risk polluting at all. Here’s a look at the possibilities.


Rewind Florida to pre-settler times, and what would you see? Colorful and drought-tolerant plants that are naturally acclimatized to the state’s subtropical to tropical climes. Hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators frolic in the foliage. It’s a sight that doesn’t have to be limited to parks and nature preserves, advocates of the native plant say. The best choice homeowners can make for Florida’s waterways and environment is choosing a yard that doesn’t need any fertilizer at all. What does such a yard look like? There are a lot of options. A variety of plants and wildflowers can make for a colorful and dynamic view. “It doesn’t have to look like a desert-scape, and that’s certainly not what we’re aiming for,” said Susan Griffith, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS) Manatee County’s Florida Friendly Landscaping Coordinator. “It also should never look like an untamed jungle either. So there are some misconceptions.” In Southwest Florida, native plant nurseries are happy to advise on the best options for each homeowner. Decisions that might influence which plants you pick include soil type, whether your yard is sunny or shady and what type of insects and animals you want to attract or avoid.


For those who still aren’t sold on an all-native lawn, there are ways to make the typical grass lawn more environmentally friendly, too. Water quality experts stress that reducing fertilizer use to the absolute minimum is key in protecting area waterways. “Homeowners who take care of their own fertilization tend to use the wrong products, and too much fertilizer,” Griffith said. State law defines “Florida-friendly landscaping” as “quality landscapes that conserve water, protect the environment, are adaptable to local conditions and are drought tolerant.” Among the principles in the Florida Friendly Landscaping handbook is using “appropriate fertilization” to maintain the landscape. If you choose the right plants, that could mean little to no fertilizing at all, Griffith said. “Absolutely what people do in their individual yards has an effect on the overall ecosystem,” she said. The relationship is mutually beneficial. Trying to sustain a landscape that is at odds with the Florida’s environment is a constant battle that requires time and resources. Not so with the Florida Friendly approach. “If you’re in a position where you can replace your lawn, or even part of it, with Florida Friendly plants, consider it,” Griffith said. “If done correctly, it can take hours off of your lawn maintenance. And you can replace it with activities that are much more calm and relaxing, such as watching all the wildlife that comes into your yard.”

Hidden warning label: even if you’re following all the rules with fertilizer, it might ultimately still contribute to pollution. A 2021 University of Florida study found that even Florida Friendly landscaped lawns that had not been fertilized during the summer rainy season still had significant amounts of nutrient runoff from fertilizer. A potential explanation: nitrogen can become trapped in “soil organic matter pools” in your yard at the time of fertilizer application, UF research has shown. “It could potentially become mobilized at some future point, even in the absence of future fertilizer applications,” the university says. Residents who leave their lawn care to the professionals can also do a few easy things to make sure they aren’t adding pollution, Paul Panik with the Manatee County’s Environmental Protection Division says. Ask for proof of fertilizer applicator or landscaper training and certification and look for the blue and green “best management practices” decal on the lawn care provider’s vehicle. Homeowners that have more questions about the Florida-friendly landscaping approach can visit or contact their local extension office for advice and tips on how to get started.


Homeowner’s associations are a powerful force when it comes to making environmentally friendly landscape decisions. In Manatee County, the list of HOAs numbers over 950 and growing, each with its own sets of rules. “A lot of HOAs still kind of cling to that traditional, turfgrass-dominated front yard,” Griffith said. “I hear horror stories about it.” HOAs could set the tone for the community by allowing and even encouraging the use of native plants and less resource intense-yards, UF-IFAS researchers say. And it doesn’t have to come at the cost of a neat and tidy look. With Florida Friendly Landscaping practices, HOAs can maintain manicured, attractive lawns that don’t harm the environment, Griffith said. The extension offers resources for HOAs that are interested in incorporating Florida Friendly Landscaping. Grants can sometimes help cover the cost of converting suburban landscapes. UF-IFAS also recommends that HOAs obtain reclaimed water nutrient content reports from utility providers on a quarterly basis, which will allow homeowners and applicators to adjust amounts of fertilizer they are putting down based on how many nutrients are already in the water.


Better water quality is possible, scientists say. Though Florida’s waters have faced major setbacks in recent years, the past has proven that pollution cuts and restoration efforts can help undo the damage. In a recent presentation to Bradenton officials, David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, explained how an all-hands-on-deck approach could make a huge difference. “If you hate what Piney Point did to our systems, don’t be part of the problem,” Tomasko said. In addition to curbing fertilizer use, studies have shown that cutting back on the number of wastewater sewage spills, septic tank leaks and the use of reclaimed water in sprinkler systems could go a long way toward reducing nitrogen loads in local waterways.

Mary Lusk, a University of Florida researcher who studies nutrient pollution, says everyone needs to claim their piece of the pie. “I get upset at the finger pointing, because we all have a role to play. We all have a piece of pie,” Lusk said. “You imagine the pie chart with sources of nutrient pollution in urban environments, and there’s little slivers for all the sources. “And for urban homeowners, I think that’s do whatever you can do to keep water infiltrated on your lawns and your gardens. So keep those sprinklers hitting the grass. Keep your runoff infiltrating. Practice those Florida Friendly Landscaping principles. Pick up after your pet. Do those things that you can do in your own lawn, and don’t point fingers at somebody else.”


Follow the rules. Absolutely do not use nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizer between June 1 and Sept. 30. Additionally, the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers is only permitted when a State of Florida-certified laboratory test shows a deficiency in the soil.

- Check the weather. Don’t put down fertilizer if the weather forecast predicts rain.

- Use slow-release fertilizers that produce nutrients over time

- Reclaimed water already has nutrients baked into it. You may not need fertilizer if you have a sprinkler system.

- If you use a septic tank, have it inspected for leaks.

- Keep grass clippings out of the water and out of the storm drain. Try raking them up and using them to refertilize the lawn instead.

- Pick up behind your pets to remove another common source of nitrogen from your yard.

- Limit the amount of food that goes down your garbage disposal. If possible, throw it in the trash instead.

- Only used licensed fertilizer applicators and lawn care providers.

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