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The hidden costs of fertilizer

Fertilizer is the secret sauce of every avid gardener. With key nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, most common fertilizers can be a great way to provide your plants with the extra nudge they need to really pop.

But like Peter Parker's Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility." The very things that makes fertilizer such a useful gardening tool are also creating a raft of hidden social and ecological problems.

Too much of a good thing.

The most pervasive problem caused by fertilizers is their overuse. Lawn care companies in particular have a habit of laying the fertilizer on thick, and while this practice does make lawns lush and green, all the excess fertilizer winds up in streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes, contributing to ecosystem destruction. The reason is because al those superpowered nutrients that make plants grow, also make algae blooms, which can choke out other plant life and kill fish and amphibians.

HOT TIP: Consider cutting out the fertilizer for your lawn, or reducing the amount you use.

Climate costs of fertilizer.

In addition to the ecological costs of using fertilizers, there are also additional climate costs too. While the US produces around 90% of the nitrogen and phosphorous needed for fertilizer ourselves, we import almost 93% of the potassium needed to keep industrial agriculture moving. Shipping all those ingredients around the world means more carbon in the atmosphere, not to mention the carbon cost of manufacturing finished fertilizer and shipping the finished product around the world. In addition, some of the fertilizer unused by plants becomes nitrogen oxide (a potent greenhouse gas) and floats into the atmosphere.

HOT TIP: Consider nutrient rich locally-produced compost instead of industrial fertilizer.

Fertilizer-addicted plants.

One of the most insidious long-term effects of regularly using fertilizer is that your plants will start to rely on it. In a diverse ecosystem, most plants get all they need from their environment. They can get phosphorous and potassium from animal droppings and carcasses, and nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing plants like beans. But in many modern landscapes, consisting of non-native plants and grass monocultures, there aren't enough nutrients in the environment to feed the plants. That's where fertilizer comes in, but much like an athlete who requires steroid injections to get through the game, plants too can start to rely on fertilizers to succeed. Once your yard is fertilizer-reliant it can be very difficult to wean the plants off the "super-juice".

HOT TIP: Consider companion planting to help your plants get what they need from their environment.

All of these hidden problems are some of the reasons why we promote Productive Urban Landscapes. Borrowing concepts from regenerative agriculture and permaculture, Productive Urban Landscapes use native plant tendencies to grow diverse and resilient ecosystems that are beautiful and useful to people, plants, and animals.


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