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Fertilizer 101


Fertilizer, natural or artificial substance containing the chemical elements that improve growth and productiveness of plants. Fertilizers enhance the natural fertility of the soil or replace the chemical elements taken from the soil by previous crops.

The use of manure and composts as fertilizers is as old as agriculture. Modern chemical fertilizers include one or more of the three elements that are most important in plant nutrition: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Of secondary importance are the elements sulfur, magnesium, and calcium.

Most nitrogen fertilizers are obtained from synthetic ammonia; this chemical compound (NH3) is used either as a gas or in a water solution, or it is converted into salts such as ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, and ammonium phosphate, but packinghouse wastes, treated garbage, sewage, and manure are also common sources of it.

Turfgrass favors stability. In Iowa, nature creates instability (mostly due to climate) so we need to double up on anything we can control. The singular best thing we can do is to offer the best fertilizers possible. While others look for savings in products of lesser quality, we appreciate the importance of high-grade fertilizer as a major factor securing our success. Buying in volume allows us to custom blend our fertilizers to exact specifications with attention quality control.

Fertilizer is categorized into two main groups, organic fertilizer, and synthetic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer is derived from bio-solids while synthetic fertilizers are produced with chemical compounds to create synthetic ammonia, converted into salts as ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate and ammonium phosphate.

Organic fertilizer can be thought of as more of a soil amendment rather than a fertilizer because the amount of nitrogen available in a certified organic fertilizer is about 5% as compared to 25% to 32% as commonly found in synthetic fertilizers. Although most soils are poor and require additional organic material, these organic fertilizers fall short when needed to stimulate growth.

Organic material is a binder and allows the plant to better utilize all available nutrients. Unfortunately, the use of organic fertilizer alone does not offer enough nitrogen to promote plant growth when starting out in depleted, inorganic soil commonly found in new construction.

Synthetic fertilizers offer plenty of nitrogen, but they fail to benefit the soil. Positive effects on the soil happen much slower with synthetic fertilizers because there is no immediate increase of organic material in the soil. When synthetic fertilizers are used alone, the only way that organic material will accumulate in the soil is by decomposition of the crop. In terms of turfgrass, the best way to build organic material is by core aeration and proper cutting techniques where clippings are mulched and not bagged and removed. Grass clippings are food and building blocks for better soil.

Most Organic programs fail because they cannot offer enough food to maintain good vigor and the crop suffers. Weed infiltration is the biggest issue when vigor is lost. Most organic programs begin with good intention only to require additional chemical remedy because of the declining turf. Although made up of natural elements, if a synthetic program is not managed correctly these elements can have a negative effect on our environment. Without organic material present in the soil, water and nutrients will leach through and can pose a threat to our water sources. Although more of an issue with cheap, soluble fertilizer in poorly managed properties, we should all be mindful.

Our process is to marry the best of both types of fertilizer. By blending our fertilizers with both slow-release synthetic ammonia fertilizer and an insoluble organic fertilizer, we can offer a product that has less impact on the environment while at the same time building better soil. This process is exciting because we already know what each type of fertilizer can do and how they benefit turfgrass individually. We also know that one does not work without the other. The best thing is that both types work better together while at the same time offering a safer, more responsible choice that works!

FERTILIZER – Cheap will cost all of us. Slow release, granular fertilizers are recommended to provide nutrients in measured amounts, consistently available to the turfgrass. Turfgrass requires balanced fertility, slow and steady wins the race. Low grade fertilizers are soluble and break down quickly offering too much too soon. Less expensive fertilizers leach through soil faster than the turfgrass can utilize the nutrients. These fertilizers, widely used by homeowners, are a leading cause of pollution. These fertilizers move through the soil too fast. Initially, turfgrass will peak then quickly regress requiring yet another application creating the same problems that repeat time and again.

FERTILIZER – Organic Material is what’s missing. In soil, organic material is what holds everything together. Soil quality depends largely on the amount of organic material present. Poor soil is low in organic matter and requires additional fertilizer while fertile soil is rich in organic material and requires less fertilizer. Organic material is like a sponge, holding water and nutrients in place longer so they are more thoroughly utilized by the plant. Optimum results are achieved when using a slow-release, granular fertilizer consisting of 25% – 50% organic material. This will build better soil and provide steady fertility while reducing the possibility of loss through leaching. Buyer Beware. A widely used material, fertilizers are one variable that can be manipulated by the service provider. Money can be saved by selecting low-grade fertilizer and money can also be saved by reducing the amount of fertilizer applied to a given location. Company X is forced to slash prices to gain new business and when prices are cut, so is the fertilizer. This leads to a product that fails and company X is forced to repeat this process, looking for another contract to sell, maybe even cheaper than the one before. Beware of company X selling a contract.

Weed Control

The best method for controlling weeds is to keep thick, healthy turfgrass. When vigor slows and turfgrass weakens weeds are allowed room to grow. Once established, weeds quickly spread and require chemical weed control to remedy the infestation. Many companies are happy to repeatedly charge its customers for a weed control application, routinely applying pesticides to kill the pesky weeds that keep returning. This is not an example of best management practice.  The correct way to manage the problem is to first understand the cause. The second step is to change the variable that allowed the weeds in the first place. If weeds are the result of failing turfgrass, one cannot expect a different outcome unless the turfgrass is improved. Maintain fertility, alleviate compacted soil with annual aeration and do well mowing. Emphasis on cultural practices and fertilizing will offer better results without the environmental impact of continual pesticide use.

Insect Control

Insecticides used in residential and commercial turf management are commonly for the control of annual white grubs. We have all heard stories of that guy at the office who had to replace his lawn because of grub damage. An urban legend rivaling the man with a hook hand, this hot button item is thought by many to be required or else face the risk of major expense in repairs. The result is that companies and homeowners alike feel compelled to make this part of their program and in many cases, it isn’t warranted.  Like everything else, insecticides vary in price. Some offer a broad spectrum of control and others are specific to certain pests. Some need to be applied at specific times and others offer more flexibility. Some insecticides are safe to non-target pest while others pose a threat to many beneficial insects, pollinators. The cost of insecticides is relative to the spectrum of control but most importantly the toxicity to non-target pests. We advocate for the protection of pollinators and the insecticides we use, while the most expensive option, it is the safest we can provide. Bees are responsible for pollinating nearly 85% of crops directly for human consumption. Dozens of species of solitary bees have evolved to pollinate a single type of plant and coexist in unison with the lifespan of that plant. Without that specific species' devotion to that plant, the plant would cease to reproduce and become extinct. Although we could all stand to lose a few pounds, running out of food will probably not bode well for us in the end.  Honeybee populations have been in decline worldwide. Large percentages of bee species die each year resulting from a variety of factors including disease, parasites, pesticides and destruction of natural habitats and food sources. As more bee species die, we will lose more crops and eventually certain species of plants will become extinct. While it is understood that the actions of one person or one company will not singularly make a huge impact on a global problem, it does not sway my efforts to educate and adopt practice that will make a difference here, in my house. One of these changes, widespread throughout our service program, will be the use of an insecticide that has been specifically developed to reduce its impact on bees and their role as pollinators.

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Tompkins Lawn Care, Inc 
3956 – 120th St NE
Solon, IA 52333 

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OFFICE: (319) 331-9357

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