Fertilizer? I hardly know her! (How fertilizer could be causing more harm than you think.)
Whether we notice it or not, most bodies of water contain algae, photosynthetic organisms that behave similarly to plants however they are missing the key markers such as roots, stems, or leaves. They are a diverse and multifaceted species which can impact an environment in both positive and negative ways. Given the right conditions and chemicals released into the water, this species can produce what is called an “algae bloom” which can have seriously harmful effects on the local plant and animal populations. Though it seems disconnected algae blooms can easily be triggered by the use of petrochemicals in modern fertilizer. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on the detrimental impacts of algae blooms as they relate to lawn maintenance and the use of toxic fertilizer.
What is an algae bloom?
A bloom will change the affected body of water by creating a foamy or scummy layer on the surface while the color will change depending on the species of algae, usually
resulting in a brown, red, blue, or green hue. Blooms tend to occur in warm, still, nutrient-filled environments, when this happens the algae and cyanobacteria in the water will grow and reproduce at rapid rates. This causes the water to become uninhabitable for other species, such as fish or amphibians, and can even harm humans by producing toxic
(An algae bloom. Used with creative commons licensing from Unsplash)
gasses by consuming all the oxygen in the water. Unfortunately, general lawn maintenance can be a significant culprit in causing a bloom. Fertilizer and lawn treatments are contributing factors to the pollution that subsequently causes the algae blooms. Nonorganic mixes contain the major food sources of phosphorus and nitrogen for the algae which generates blooms when deposited by runoff. Through a combination of unnecessary treatment and fertilizer applications and homogenous lawn design we have created a
perfect storm for wrecking our local aquatic systems.
What are some solutions?
The solution is simple: plant more and stop using fertilizer. Step one is to begin by planting more and more diverse plants. As each species takes root it will begin the process of purifying the soil by increasing the uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus, less open and unplanted space means a quicker uptake. Planting more will also attract pollinators who will do more for your garden than any synthetic lawn treatment can. However the solution that will generate the most positive impact is to cease using traditional fertilizers and take a critical look at how we feed our plants. There are a seemingly infinite number of web resources that will guide you on how to compost kitchen scrap or source fertilizers that are completely organic; all of which will net a more positive impact by introducing the necessary nutrients without needing synthetics.
There are many ways in which we can care for and tend to our gardens and local environment without negatively impacting the surrounding ecosystem. The use of fertilizer in our gardens and green spaces has lasting effects and should be on a path of obsolescence. Decades of uncontrolled and uneducated use has lead to algae blooms that can spell doom for local animal populations and humans as a result. We need horticultural techniques with which we can replicate the nutrient cycles that we have come to synthesize with petrochemicals, and move towards a fertilizer free future.