Frequently Asked Questions About the 2011 NJ Fertilizer Law: Answers for Homeowners

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I just want my lawn to be green. Why is there a new law for fertilizer?


Most lawns benefit from annual fertilizer treatments to encourage dense growth and increased resistance to pests and drought. Thick, healthy lawns absorb rainwater runoff and help keep soil and other pollutants from reaching storm drains, local streams and other pathways to NJ waters.

The Fertilizer Law is really about water quality. It still allows you to feed your lawn, but in a way that avoids adverse impact on NJ waters. Communities and scientists observed that Barnegat Bay was becoming more and more polluted – so much so that the life in the Bay was changing. Maybe you too noticed changes like the increase in jellyfish population in the Bay. There appears to be many factors contributing to this. One factor may be lawn fertilizer runoff into storm drains, streams, or leaching into groundwater, that eventually finds its way into waterways. Politicians listened to public discussions and proposed a package of bills attempting to stem further degradation of our water quality. This law addressing fertilizer runoff from lawns is one part of that package. If you have a lawn anywhere in NJ and fertilize it, this law affects you.


What if my municipality already has fertilizer laws? Which law do I follow?


This Fertilizer Law is statewide and supersedes all other municipal fertilizer laws.

Are the regulations for lawn care professionals and home owners the same?


No. Lawn care professionals will be required to go through training and become certified, or be supervised by a certified individual, in order to apply fertilizer to turf. Some other details, such as the dates professionals are allowed to apply fertilizer, the amounts they can apply, where they can apply fertilizer, and the formulations of fertilizer, are different from homeowner regulations.


What are Blackout Dates?


Fertilizer is best applied when turf needs plant food and is actively growing. Blackout dates are the days that fertilizer cannot be applied. The reason for this is because the risk of fertilizer runoff or leaching into ground water is more likely during this period. For homeowners, these dates are before March 1st or after November 15th in any calendar year.

Besides Blackout Dates, are there other times when I can’t apply fertilizer?


The law spells out what should be common sense: don’t apply fertilizer during or just before a heavy rain; don’t leave it on an impervious surface like pavement – sweep up any fertilizer that falls onto an impervious surface; don’t apply it to frozen ground. In all of these situations the risk of runoff greatly increases.


How much nitrogen can I apply in one application? How much during the whole year?
How do I keep track of all these details?


Once new fertilizer formulations required by the law come out, figuring this out should be simple – follow the directions on the package and you will be in compliance with the law. Fertilizer companies have until 2013 to comply with label and content requirements.

For completeness, let’s go through the actual numbers:

For a single application - Don’t apply more than 0.7 pounds of water-soluble nitrogen per 1,000 sq. feet of turf. Don’t apply more than 0.9 pounds of total nitrogen per 1,000 sq. feet of turf.

For the year’s total application - Don’t apply more than 3.2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. feet of turf per year.

Keeping track of fertilizer you’ve applied over the year might seem tedious, but once the new formulations are released this should be less of a burden. NJAES is looking into ways to make this task more convenient.


What is slow-release nitrogen?
Why does it matter what percent of slow-release nitrogen there is in a fertilizer?


There are 2 forms of nitrogen–an essential plant nutrient in fertilizers that plants use for growth. One form, water-soluble nitrogen, is immediately available to the plant for it to absorb. However, if too much is applied at any one time – i.e. more than the plant can absorb – it leaches down to ground water, or is washed away by heavy rain, eventually entering our waterways. The second type, referred to as slow-release nitrogen, dissolves slowly, releasing a controlled amount food for the plant over time. Slow-release nitrogen is less likely to leach into groundwater. The fertilizer law requires that homeowner fertilizer products have at least 20% of its nitrogen in slow-release form.


What is a soil test? Where can I get one done?


Soil tests measure the nutrients your soil can make available to plants (phosphorus, potassium, calcium, micronutrients) and soil acidity as pH - helping to determine your lawn’s need for fertilizer and lime. For lawns, late summer sampling is best in preparation of fall fertilization. Instructions on how you can get a Soil Testing Kit, how to properly pull soil samples from your lawn, and how to understand the soil test results and fertilizer recommendations can be found on the Rutgers NJAES Soil Testing Lab website.


Should I ever use fertilizer containing phosphorus?


High levels of phosphorus are detrimental to freshwater quality. The Fertilizer Law bans the use of phosphorus containing fertilizer except in certain situations:

• A soil test done within the past 3 years indicates phosphorus need

• During initial establishment, re-establishment, or repair of turf

• Application of liquid or granular fertilizer under the soil surface, directly to roots

• Using manipulated manures (animal/vegetable “organic” manures are allowed if applied as directed on the label and no more than 0.25 pounds of phosphorus per 1,000 sq. ft. is applied).


What is a buffer zone?
Are there any exceptions to the 25 foot buffer zone surrounding a body of water?


A buffer zone is an area adjacent to water where fertilizer cannot be applied. Depending on the type of fertilizer spreader, there is risk of fertilizer accidentally falling directly into the water or so close to the water edge that the fertilizer dissolves in the body of water. Fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus cannot be applied within 25 feet of a body of water unless application is via drop spreader, rotary spreader with a deflector, or as a targeted spray liquid. When these methods are used the buffer zone may be reduced to 10 feet.


Am I going to get fined if I don't follow the law?


That is a possibility. In its final form, the law states that non-professionals may be subject to penalty, as established by municipal ordinance. This is in contrast to the fines for lawn professionals who fail to comply with the law – those fines are set in the body of the law.

Whether or not your municipality has established fines, it makes sense to think about how your activities impact the water quality of our state. Do your best to safeguard precious water resources.


Are golf courses and other grounds subject to this law? What about farms?


Golf courses are not subject to this law, except this law requires anyone professionally applying fertilizer to golf course turf or grounds will now be required to undergo training and become certified. Commercial farms are not subject to the law, but already have education and conservation programs directed toward sound nutrient management, like River Friendly Farming, buffer strips, and Certified Nutrient Management Plans.


I have more questions. Where do I turn for help?