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FAQ For Lawn Fertilizer

What does the law require?

  • Phosphorus fertilizer for lawns and non-agricultural turf:
    • The law prohibits the use of fertilizers that contain phosphorus on lawns except when a new lawn is being established or a soil test has indicated a need for additional phosphorus.
  • All fertilizer for lawns and non-agricultural turf:
    • No fertilizers may be applied within twenty feet of surface water except where:
      • A minimum ten foot wide vegetative buffer exists
      • The fertilizer is applied utilizing a spreader guard/deflector shield or drop spreader 3 ft from water
    • No fertilizers may be applied between December 1 and April 1.
    • No fertilizer may be applied onto impervious surfaces (e.g. pavement). If application or spill onto an impervious surface occurs it must be contained and cleaned up or used legally applied.
  • Retailers:
    • Retailers must display phosphorus fertilizer separately from non-phosphorus fertilizer and must post an educational sign near the phosphorus fertilizer.
  • Municipalities:
    • Local government may enact more stringent standards for the application of fertilizer for lawn and non-agricultural turf upon demonstration to the Department that more stringent standards are necessary to address local water quality conditions.
Nutrient enriched river with floating algae mats
Nutrient enriched river with floating algae mats

What is a phosphorus fertilizer?

Phosphorus fertilizer has a phosphate content of more than 0.67% phosphorus by weight.

When does the law go into effect?

  • The fertilizer law becomes effective on January 1, 2012; however, phosphorus fertilizer can be used after January 1, 2012 if purchased before January 1, 2012.

Who will be affected by the law?

  • Manufacturers of lawn fertilizer products
  • Retailers and distributors of lawn fertilizers
  • Pesticide applicators
  • Organic lawn care businesses and any other businesses managing lawns
  • Households, consumers, anyone managing lawns

Why is it important to address phosphorus in the waters of the State?

  • Phosphorus impacts our water. Phosphorus enters the environment in many ways. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), defective septic systems, agricultural runoff, fertilizer, manure, decomposing leaves, and urban/suburban runoff all contribute phosphorus to the environment. Phosphorus going into the State's water has been linked to: reductions in oxygen in waterbodies necessary for fish to breathe; algae that turn water bodies green; and algae and algae by-products that degrade drinking water.
  • Lawn fertilizer can have unnecessary phosphorus. Fertilizers contain phosphorus to help spur plant growth. However, in many areas of the State sufficient phosphorus to foster lawn growth is naturally occurring or exists due to many years of over fertilization. Phosphorus from lawn fertilizer has the potential to significantly affect New York State's water resources.

Why the current focus on fertilizer?

  • Most soils in NYS already contain sufficient phosphorus to support turf grass growth without additional phosphorus in fertilizers.
  • Phosphorus Lawn fertilizer can account for up to 50% of the soluble phosphorus in stormwater runoff from lawn areas.
  • Not using phosphorus-containing products in the first place saves local tax dollars that would otherwise be spent removing phosphorus from waterbodies and wastewater that will enter waterbodies.

What are the costs associated with phosphorus in the waters of the State?

Over 100 sub-watersheds in New York State contain waters impaired by phosphorus. Phosphorus is expensive for municipalities to remove from wastewater at the wastewater treatment plant; approximately $1 to $20 per pound.

How can I get soils tested to see if phosphorus is needed?

Soil testing can be done in one of two ways: by a laboratory or by a do-it-yourself test kit. Laboratories that routinely perform soil nutrient analysis testing tend to produce more accurate results. Most soil nutrient analysis testing labs will also provide fertilizer application recommendations. Laboratories can be found by a web search or through the local Cornell University Cooperative Extension office. See "Links Leaving DEC's Website, at right". The cost of such laboratory tests should be in the $10 to $20 range (in 2010). Soil test kits readily available at lawn, garden and hardware stores may be used as well. They offer the advantage of immediate results.

How can I tell from a soil test that additional phosphorus is needed for growth of lawn or non-agricultural turf and, therefore, allowed under the law?

A soil lab will interpret the test results and will provide this information to you. Home tests typically indicate, with colorometric test kits, phosphorus levels in soil. The test kits should be matched to a color guide to determine if there is "surplus, sufficient, adequate or deficient" phosphorus in the soil sample. Additionally, a local Cornell University Cooperative Extension office can be contacted to understand soil test results. See "Links Leaving DEC's Website", at right.

Has the Department identified a minimum required phosphorus level in soil for healthy lawn growth? If so, can phosphorus fertilizer be applied to lawns that test below this threshold?

No, a minimum threshold has not been established at this time. The Department recommends that soil samples be taken to a nutrient testing lab for analysis. However, Cornell University Soil Laboratory has conducted research to determine what phosphorus soil levels would result in improved turfgrass performance. Using the Morgan soil test procedure the analysis found no benefit to phosphorus levels above 4 parts per million.

What is the applicability of this law to hydro-seeding?

Improper fertilizer application near water body. Workman spraying fertilizer near edge of lake letting it fall into water.
Improper fertilizer application near water body

The law applies to the application of fertilizer rather than the method of application, so hydroseeding is not restricted per se. However, hydroseeding lawns or non-agricultural turf using phosphorus hydroseeding fertilizer is prohibited. The exceptions to this prohibition are:

  • If an area is hydroseeded to establish a new lawn, then the application of phosphorus fertilizer is not restricted.
  • If a soil test conducted in the area to be hydroseeded indicates a phosphorus deficiency, the application of phosphorus fertilizer is not restricted.

What is a "natural vegetative buffer"?

A natural vegetative buffer is composed of planted or naturally occurring vegetation, such as trees, shrubs, legumes, or grasses.

What are the definitions of "lawn" and "non-agricultural turf"?

The Nutrient Runoff Law restricts the application of fertilizer on lawns and non-agricultural turf, where those terms are defined as follows:

"Lawn" or "non-agricultural turf" means any non-crop land area that is covered by any grass species. Lawn or non-agricultural turf does not mean flower or vegetable gardens, pasture, hayland, trees, shrubs, turf grown on turf farms, or any form of agricultural production.

Can liquid fertilizer be applied with a sprayer less than 20 feet from a waterbody?

Phosphorus fertilizer may not be applied within 20 feet of any waterbody. Sprayers are not exempted from this restriction. The exception to the 20-foot restriction on the use of fertilizer applies when using drop spreaders, spreader guards or deflector shields. These applications may be used within three (3) feet of a waterbody.

How do I know I have a sufficient vegetative buffer, between the property and the surface water, to use a fertilizer? How long does the vegetative buffer have to be?

The buffer must be located between the lawn that is receiving fertilizer and the waterbody that is being buffered. The buffer must be continuous and a minimum of ten (10) feet wide.

Can I use fertilizer without a buffer, if I apply with any type of spreader guard, deflector shield or drop spreader?

Yes, these applicators may be used within three (3) feet of a waterbody but no closer.

Would ornamental grasses be treated as turf?

If Ornamental Grasses are closely mowed, they would be subject to the law. Unmowed grasses would not be considered lawn turf.

Is phosphorus fertilizer application allowed for bare spots without soil testing?

Given the myriad of other reasons that bare spots can form, soil testing is recommended to determine the soil nutrient needs for the bare spots. However, the law allows phosphorus fertilizer to be applied to the bare spots to establish turf without soil testing. Such applications would be in accordance with the law if the area had not already been treated with phosphorus fertilizer and provided the phosphorus fertilizer is not applied to areas where turf has already been established.

The law also allows the homeowner to use compost to repair bare spots without first testing the soils.

Is the commercial application of phosphorus-containing fertilizer permitted if the products are purchased outside of NY State or on the internet?

No. Only lawn fertilizer with less than 0.67% by weight phosphate content may be applied, regardless of where it was purchased.

Can commercial lawn care applicators still use fertilizer/pesticide combination products (sometimes called "weed and feeds")?

The law applies to fertilizer application and would restrict the use of "weed and feeds" where these products contain phosphorus in amounts over 0.67% phosphorus content, unless a soil test showed that the lawn needed phosphorus, or a new lawn is being established.

As a certified applicator, what if a fertilizer or pesticide/fertilizer combination product is already listed in the lawn care contracts I have with customers - do I have to revise and reissue all such contracts?

satellite photo of large plume of nutrient runoff in the Gulf of Mexico
Nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico

The fertilizer law reads in part: "No person shall apply or authorize any person by way of service contract or other arrangement to apply in this state any phosphorus fertilizer on lawn or non-agricultural turf." This means that, even if such a product is listed in a contract, its application is prohibited under the fertilizer law (ECL 17-2103). Also, under DEC Regulations Relating to the Application of Pesticides (6 NYCRR Part 325.40(a)(7)), a lawn care contract must be amended if certain elements of the contract change, including the list of pesticides to be applied. If a fertilizer/pesticide combination product is listed and would no longer be used or would be replaced with a pesticide product with a different name or active ingredients, then the contract must be amended to reflect that change in service.

As a business providing organic land care services, does this law apply to organic fertilizers or compost?

The law applies to phosphorus lawn fertilizer including organic phosphorus fertilizer, but the law does not apply to compost.

What if a product with more than 0.67% phosphate content is allowed by the National Organic Program - can I use it then?

A product with more than 0.67% phosphate content may only be used when establishing a new lawn or when a soil test indicates a need for additional phosphorus.

Do the restrictions on fertilizer applications regarding dates of applications, impervious surfaces, and surface water pertain to all lawn fertilizers or just phosphorus lawn fertilizers?

These restrictions apply to all lawn fertilizer application.

Is the use of phosphite-containing fungicides restricted by the Nutrient Law?

The law in question specifically targets phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Phosphites (PO3) in fungicides are not restricted under the Nutrient Law, but some may be restricted use pesticides which can only be used by certified pesticide applicators (check the product label and the NYS Product, Ingredient, and Manufacturer system at the University of Cornell University Cooperative Extension. See "Links Leaving DEC's Website", at right.

How can I tell the difference between a fertilizer and a phosphorus fertilizer? Where on the product label does it show how much phosphorus is in the product - to see if it has 0.67% or less phosphorus?

Fertilizer labels have three bold numbers. The first number is the amount of nitrogen (N), the second number is the amount of phosphorus oxide (P2O5) and the third number is the amount of potassium oxide (K2O). A bag of 10-5-10 fertilizer contains 10 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorus oxide and 10 percent potassium oxide. The law limits the amount of P2O5 to less than 0.67%. Therefore the phosphorus (middle number) should be less than 0.67 for the product to meet the phosphorus lawn fertilizer restriction.

Are fertilizers with labels for trees, shrubs and other plantings OK to use? Are only fertilizers used on lawns restricted?

The law does not restrict the use of phosphorus fertilizer that is intended to treat trees, shrubs or gardens.

Are compost and compost tea OK to use?

Compost and compost tea are not restricted under the new fertilizer restrictions. Products which meet the exemption for compost in the Nutrient Runoff Law are those that are composed of "biologically stable humus-like material derived from composting or the aerobic, thermophilic decomposition of organic matter." Products that contain chemically/mechanically or otherwise manipulated animal or plant manure are not eligible. Products that contain only compost as defined in the law, resulting from the aerobic, thermopilic decomposition process are eligible for the exemption. (Note that compost tea cannot be used as a pesticide in New York State; it is not a registered product.)

Do oven-dried, pelletized manure products meet the definition of compost, and the compost exemption from the law?

Any manure product that is pelletized does not meet the definition of compost, as it is "chemically/mechanically or otherwise manipulated ". Oven-dried manure has been "otherwise manipulated" as well and does not meet the definition of compost. Manure products that are oven-dried or pelletized are therefore not considered to be compost, and are not exempt from this law.

What should I do with products I already have that contain more than 0.67% phosphorus? Can I dump the product in the trash and recycle the container, or are there special disposal requirements?

There are no specific disposal requirements in the new law for phosphorus lawn fertilizer. The product may be used if it was purchased before January 1, 2012; however, should it need to be disposed, any disposal statements on the product label must be followed. In addition, businesses or other entities with larger quantities of waste fertilizer should check with the disposal facility and/or DEC regional staff to determine if the facility has applicable disposal restrictions, either in permit or imposed by the facility.

As a homeowner, is it OK if I contract with a professional applicator to use a fertilizer or pesticide/fertilizer combination product that contains phosphorus?

The law reads: No person shall apply or authorize any person by way of service contract or other arrangement to apply in this state any phosphorus fertilizer on lawn or non-agricultural turf, except when:

  1. A soil test indicates that additional phosphorus is needed for growth of that lawn or non-agricultural turf; or
  2. The phosphorus fertilizer is used for newly established lawn or non-agricultural turf during the first growing season.

I understand that lawn care companies cannot apply fertilizer between December 1st and April 1st. Can a customer legally spray a product containing Magnesium, Iron, Manganese and Zinc, or would this be considered a fertilizer and thus be restricted?

The prohibition on application of fertilizer between December 1st and April 1st applies to products that contain any of the primary macronutrients (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), or potassium (K)). If the product in question does not contain any of the three primary macronutrients, it could be applied during the winter months without violating this law.

"Deep root feeding" is the injection of liquid fertilizer mix into the ground about 1 to 3 feet deep around trees directly to the root zone. Is this subject to the Dec 1st to April 1st ban and subject to the .67 Phosphorous limitation ? No fertilizer is surface applied in this case. Or, can this be done at anytime of year with fertilizer higher in P than the .67 % by weight limit ??

Green, thick scum-like algal blooms floating on a pond.
Blue-green algae scum in channel catfish pond

Only fertilizer for application on Lawn or non-agricultural turf is regulated. Fertilizer for trees is not regulated. The text of the law includes this sentence from the definition for Lawn or non-agricultural turf: "Lawn or non-agricultural turf does not mean flower or vegetable gardens, pasture, hayland, trees, shrubs, turf grown on turf farms, or any form of agricultural production".

Therefore, any fertilizer applied to "flower or vegetable gardens, pasture, hayland, trees, shrubs, turf grown on turf farms, or any form of agricultural production", whether surface of sub-surface, is not restricted and the fertilizer may be applied at any time of the year.

What are the requirements for the retail sign?

The NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets has revised Article 10 to read as follows:
* § 146-g. Retail sale. Any retailer who sells or offers for sale to consumers specialty fertilizer in which the available phosphate (P205) content is greater than 0.67 percent, shall:

  1. display such phosphorus-containing specialty fertilizer separately from non-phosphorus specialty fertilizer; and
  2. post in the location where phosphorus-containing specialty fertilizer is displayed a clearly visible sign, which is at least eight and one-half inches by eleven inches in size, and states that "Phosphorus runoff poses a threat to water quality. Therefore, under New York law, phosphorus-containing fertilizer may only be applied to lawn or non-agricultural turf when:
    1. A soil test indicates that additional phosphorus is needed for growth of that lawn or non-agricultural turf; or
    2. The fertilizer is used for newly established lawn or non-agricultural turf during the first growing season."

NYS DEC has prepared signs in black and white and in color that retailers can laminate for in-store display and use to meet the requirements of the law. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets revised Article 10 is available in the right margin. See "Links Leaving DEC's Website, at right".

Do pesticide commercial permittees have to comply with the new retailer signage requirements regarding fertilizer restrictions?

The law applies to retailers who sell or offer for sale phosphorus lawn fertilizer. Any pesticide commercial permittee selling phosphorus fertilizers, including any pesticide/fertilizer combination with a phosphorus content exceeding .67, would be considered a retailer under the law and must comply with the signage requirements in Section 146-g in the State Agriculture and Markets Law.

Are these requirements part of the pesticide regulations?

No. These requirements are part of Article 17, Title 21 of New York State Environmental Conservation Law, "Nutrient Runoff", administered by the DEC Division of Water.

What will be the penalty if I use a phosphorus fertilizer or a fertilizer in a way not allowed by the law?

For an owner, owner's agent, or occupant of a household, the penalties are: issuance of a written warning with educational materials for a first violation; a fine of up to $100 for a second violation; and fines up to $250 for subsequent violations.

The penalties for all others are: a fine up to $500 for a first of violation; and fines up to $1000 for subsequent offenses.

Where can I get help on how to know which products are OK?

For further information, please call New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bureau of Water Resource Management at 518-402-8275.