Gardening: There’s more to the fertilizer story

Eileen Ward
It is shocking how many people involved in the fertilizer ordinance have no idea this license requirement even exists.

The city of Marco Island has a fertilizer ordinance that was discussed for many years before being adopted. This idea was brought forth back in 2008 and again in 2011 eventually being adopted against my repeated protests.

I should begin by telling you that the State of Florida implemented a new license certification requirement called the “Limited Urban Commercial Fertilizer Applicator Certification.” This is in the Florida Statutes under Chapter 482.1562.

All for-hire individuals who apply fertilizers to landscapes in residential, governmental or commercial structures must have this license. Unlike a commercial pest license this one states that person applying must have this license in his or her pocket. There is no supervision of a non-certified applicator allowed. This means that any person applying fertilizer any place in the state had to take a test and get this license and then go through continuing education to renew it. 

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It is shocking how many people involved in the fertilizer ordinance have no idea this license requirement even exists. I personally in my final years in the business stopped fertilizing my landscapes since it meant I would have had to personally do the work or try to license my employees. This was a serious disadvantage since I seemed to be one of the few people following the law on the island.

Watching the local news lately, I am hearing more and more reference to sewage as the cause of the algae blooms after Hurricane Irma rather than the fertilizer use of residents. I suppose as they begin more testing the tests are showing sewage traces.

In fact, the dirty legal secret that no one wants to talk about is that 88 million gallons of wastewater spilled into state waters, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. More on this later.

Nitrogen can be lethal to life in our waterways. The ever growing “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River is a fine example. Most of this overload comes from agriculture, sewage treatment plants and electric power plants. But it also comes from areas around our homes. Some of the sources may surprise you. While fertilizer is among them this list also includes household cleaners, pet and human waste, automobiles, lawn tools and on-lot septic systems which our city wisely replaced with city wide sewers.

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Household cleaners that contain ammonia are on the list because it is a form of nitrogen. This list includes glass and oven cleaners or vinyl siding cleaners. Just rinsing buckets and rags can send nitrogen into the sewage treatment plant and most of these do not treat toxic waste like household cleaners. Someone cleaning their boat could put a lot of waste into a canal as the sprays become airborne.

Pet waste is another problem becoming bigger as more people move to Marco Island and have pets. As a lawn care worker this is a major problem that we must deal with every day. It is so bad I have contemplated writing about the problem in a column. Leaving cat or dog waste in the yard or on the swale or field means leaving it to decay and be washed into storm sewers or drains and directly into our waterways. It not only contains ammonia but nutrients that fuel weed and algae growth and disease making our water unsafe for drinking or swimming. Human waste is another type of waste which is showing up in our gardens and natural areas around Marco Island.

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Automobiles and lawn equipment are probably surprising sources. Airborne nitrogen is a real problem being blamed for 30 to 40 percent of nitrogen pollution in some areas. When fossil fuels like gasoline are burned nitrogen, oxides are emitted and then transformed into nitric acid in the atmosphere which then falls to the earth and water bodies. Add to that the runoff from our roads and parking lots taking the fuel and oil with it into the canals.

And what about the live aboard boats around Marco Island. Do we have an ordinance in place to see that they are properly dumping their sewage?

Regulating fertilizing in our yards will not solve the problem. In fact, some aspects of the ordinance proposed will do more harm than good. The county and state guidelines are just that, guidelines. The City of Marco Island wants to tell horticulturalists how to do their job when the science does not add up. They are harming our root systems which are our filters. I wrote about this last week.

One of the things they regulate is no fertilizer within 10 feet of a waterbody. The county says use a deflector shield when within 3 feet of a waterbody. This makes more sense than the 10 feet our city is saying no fertilizer can be applied at all. Ten feet would mean most of the canal front homes on Marco Island could not fertilize their lawns, shrubs and trees in their back yards. Why is that a bad thing? Esthetics aside roots are the first and best defense against pollutants getting into the ground water or waterways. If you don’t fertilize these plants they will begin to decline and die along with their precious roots. Then the chemicals people will have applied to their yards trying desperately to have an attractive landscape will go into the water. And chemicals, which are as bad as or worse than fertilizer in our water, are not regulated at all.

I could go on but I think the point has been made. Our Fertilizer Ordinance is a “feel good” ordinance without the science to back it up. Leave the horticultural decisions to the horticulturalists and continue to educate the public on ways to keep all harmful chemicals out of the water. There are many other more egregious habits putting nitrogen into our waterways and it is not helpful to go after one industry, especially when the ordinance does not follow the science. The county ordinance is backed by science and Marco Island should adopt it.

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Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at or 239-394-1413. Read past columns at