Goodbye phosphorus-loaded lawns

Hello cleaner lakes and happy fish

It's time to dust off the lawn mowers, shovels and hoes. But before you head to the hardware store for this year's supplies, know this: lawn and garden season has changed.

Last year, state and local legislation made fertilizer containing any amount of phosphorus illegal. But don't worry, local hardware and garden centers have plenty of phosphorus-free plant food in stock.

Phosphorus garden products were banned because the plant nutrient can't tell the difference between your lawn and algae. When it rains, runoff from local lawns runs into storm drains that lead directly into neighboring lakes and rivers. Phosphorus stimulates algae growth in the lake, giving the water a green tinge and awful smell. The algae also crowd out other water plants and reduce the oxygen available for fish.

Marian Andersen has been co-owner of Lynnhurst's Guse Hardware with her husband Gene for the past 25 years. She and her husband fully support the zero-phosphorus legislation and have been conscious of the issue for years.

"We've always been concerned with lawn care. For the past 20 years, we've helped look for solutions with less chemicals. As soon as we started carrying phosphorus-free stuff, it wasn't a hard sell. People around here really care about the environment," said Andersen.

She's so passionate about this issue that even before the legislation was passed, she recommended the phosphorus-free fertilizer over the others to her customers. "I've lost sales. I could tell people that they need four bags, but why? One bag is enough."

Guse, like other hardware stores and garden shops, now have their store stocked full of the stuff. "Now it's the only kind we sell -- it's the law," said Anderson.

There are a few exceptions to the new law. Phosphorus fertilizers can be used on new seed or sod lawn areas during the first growing season. Also, if you get a soil test that says your lawn is phosphorus deficient, you are allowed to use phosphoric products.

Minneapolis environmental inspector Alison Fong recommends the test for anyone concerned about going phosphorus-free. "The University of Minnesota is doing it for only $12.50 this year," she said.

Fong also noted that people shouldn't panic about their yards becoming a sea of brown -- nitrogen is the plant nutrient in fertilizer that greens up plants, not phosphorus.

This year, the environmental inspector's top priority is to inform people about the law. "If we find a serious problem [with people using phosphorus fertilizer], we have some options, but our main goal is to get use down to the appropriate amounts," said Fong.

If you do have a couple of phosphoric bags left from last year, Fong said to go ahead and use them, but be careful. "Just make sure to sweep up well to prevent runoff."

For more information, contact Minnesota Environmental Management at 673-5885. For soil tests, call the Garden Line at 624-4471 or go to www.extension.umn.edu.