Less Fertilizer = Healthier Waters
Reducing fertilizers at home helps our waters

Written by Jed Thorp of Save The Bay
Fertilizing a lawn
The nutrients in fertilizer are major contributors to water pollution and algae blooms in Narragansett Bay and inland ponds and streams.
Most homeowners think about the land they own in terms of aesthetics and how they can best enjoy it. However, the land we own and manage is also part of a larger ecosystem and watershed, and the decisions we make about lawn and garden care have a real impact – positive or negative – on wildlife, habitat, and water quality. 

The biggest step homeowners can take is to be more thoughtful about how fertilizers are applied, or eliminate them entirely. 
The nutrients in fertilizer – nitrogen and phosphorus – are major contributors to water pollution and algae blooms in Narragansett Bay and inland ponds and streams. Just as fertilizer makes your grass green, it also makes our waters green, causing cyanobacteria – or blue-green algae – to form which can make waters unsafe for human or animal contact.
These simple steps will save time and money, and reduce your yard’s impact on water quality:

Select drought and disease-tolerant grass seed. Red fescue and chewing fescue are drought tolerant; tall and fine fescues require less nitrogen and need less fertilizer, if any.
Set your mower at three inches. Grass at a height of three inches creates a healthier root system and decreases the need for water and fertilizer.
Keep the clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings left on the lawn reduce water evaporation and keep the soil cooler during hot weather. Clippings are 85% water and 5% nitrogen. When left on the lawn, they return water and nutrients to the soil.
Water less often. Most lawns in New England will survive without watering. Healthy lawns that turn brown during hot dry periods are dormant, not dead, and will green up again during the wetter, cooler fall season.
If you must water, doing so in the early morning (before 9am) reduces evaporation and prevents sun scalding.  Or, water after the sun is starting to set.
Overwatering can cause any fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to flow into storm drains and into nearby waterbodies. Fertilizer on your lawn can leach into the groundwater perhaps endangering drinking water supplies.
Test your soil. Maintaining proper soil pH of 6.5 results in better retention of nutrients. Phosphorus should only be applied to new lawns or where a soil test indicates a phosphorus deficiency. Soil testing can be performed by URI’s Master Gardeners.
Fertilize in the fall for best results. Half an application in late April and a full application in September should be plenty for your lawn.
Be careful not to apply fertilizer to sidewalks, driveways or walkways. Sweep up any fertilizer on paved surfaces.
Use organic fertilizers such as animal manures, cottonseed, bone meal, fish emulsion or compost. If you use commercial fertilizers, use water insoluble fertilizers which release nitrogen slowly over extended periods of time so they are not as likely to leach into groundwater or cause water quality problems. These fertilizers are typically marketed as “slow release” products. Select fertilizers with more than 50% water insoluble fertilizer.
Soil Health Guide
Groundwork Rhode Island recently developed a Soil Health Guide with more detailed information about nutrients, composting and caring for cultivated soil. The guide includes a helpful chart comparing the nutrient ratios of various organic and commercially-sold fertilizers, information on where to obtain compost in Rhode Island, how to test your soil, and a list of plants that can deter pests.
View Soil Health Guide
A healthy lawn.
Municipalities Take Action
Unlike most states in the region, Rhode Island has very few statewide laws and rules regarding fertilizer application and several Rhode Island communities are taking action.
The City of Providence recently announced a campaign to reduce fertilizer use by property owners in the city. The initiative – Pesticide Free PVD – encourages residents, property owners, and businesses to commit to eliminating the use of harmful chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers in lawns and gardens, as well as other toxins in the home. Providence residents can take an online pledge to maintain their lawns and gardens without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and also view tips for maintaining a chemical-free lawn and garden.
Pesicide Free PVD

In November, the Town of Barrington became the first municipality to pass a local fertilizer ordinance. The Barrington ordinance prohibits applying fertilizers:
  • Between October 31 and April 1
  • On impervious surfaces and, if you do, clean it up immediately
  • Within 24 hours of a forecasted heavy rain event
  • Within 100 feet of a public waterbody
The Town of Charlestown has a voluntary Recommended Landscaper Program that has been in place since 2016 and aims to reward landscape companies that agree to follow a certain set of best management practices by allowing them to use their “recommended” status in their marketing materials. The Charlestown program also mirrors the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s voluntary Sustainable Turf Management Program.
The Portsmouth Town Council voted earlier this year to develop a draft fertilizer ordinance for the council’s consideration.
Just a few simple changes to how you care for your lawn and garden can help reduce the impact of fertilizer runoff on water quality, while still allowing you to have a green and healthy yard. While some of these changes may seem small, your actions – when combined with others – add up to go a long way in improving water quality and creating healthier landscapes throughout the state.
The Rhode Island Green Infrastructure Coalition provides communication resources, trainings on maintenance of green infrastructure installations, and shared knowledge on successful sites and green infrastructure installations around the state.
Nature At Work is a newsletter designed and distributed by the Rhode Island Green Infrastructure Coalition to bring more green space news to our cities and encourage the use of nature to clean, protect, and cool our neighborhoods.  Because of climate change, we are seeing increased heat impacts in our city, especially where there are fewer trees, as well as issues with flooding and polluted runoff in our neighborhoods.

The Green Infrastructure Coalition is a collaborative of more than 40 non-profit organizations, businesses, and government agencies focused on using nature to reduce stormwater pollution. We develop projects to demonstrate the powerful role nature can play to create healthier urban environments. We promote policies to create sustainable funding for stormwater management and green infrastructure solutions. And we connect a wide range of partners to share lessons learned in the Providence Metro area and Aquidneck Island.

Facebook Facebook
RI-GIC Website RI-GIC Website