Fertilizing Naturally

By Geise, Rick | Landscape & Irrigation, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Fertilizing Naturally


Geise, Rick, Landscape & Irrigation


More turf professionals are getting back to basics with organic fertilizers. From high-end golf courses to homeowners around the country, organic fertilizers can help alleviate a multitude of problems for today's turf manager. From turf with increased density and color to improved stress tolerance and soil porosity, organics can create a nutrition foundation that makes other turf management practices more effective.

The question has shifted from "why organic fertilizers?" to "which organic fertilizer do I use?" To help answer that question, we need to look at the main component in each of the three types of organic fertilizers: sewage sludge, compost manure, and animal/plant proteins.

Sewage sludge is a dry product created during the biological and physical treatment of wastewater from homes and industry. The disposal of sludge material had previously been through landfills, incinerators and ocean dumping, but environmental factors have made many of these options impossible. Several major metropolitan areas across the U.S. have constructed facilities to process sludge into fertilizer. As waste management organizations continue to struggle with disposal, more metropolitan areas will likely produce sewage sludge-type fertilizers.

To process, the water is removed and the remaining sludge is sterilized at 800-900 degrees F., killing any harmful bacteria and minimizing offensive odors. Although sludge may contain nitrogen (5-7%) and phosphorus (1-3 %), it does have a number of drawbacks. The excess heat used in drying and sterilizing often bind the proteins so tight that the nitrogen is not readily available to the plant. Sludge may also contain undesirable elements such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead and nickel.

Milorganite is the leading sewage sludge product on the market with product being sold through retailers and distributors. Milorganite's success with a 6-2-0 formulation has created grand expectations for many of the metropolitan sewer districts that have recently entered the sewage sludge fertility market. They see the retail prices paid for the product and quickly deduct that they can turn their waste management cost center into a marketing-driven profit center. Sewage sludges can result in a fairly effective fertilizer as well as an organic soil amendment.

Like sewage sludge, compost manures increased interest in the environmental management of poultry, and other livestock waste has emphasized the need for alternative disposal systems. To understand how manure may work on your turf, it is important to understand how it is collected. In the case of poultry manure, waste can be collected from either broilers (used for human consumption) or layers (chickens used for egg production). The diets of each vary greatly. Cultural practices also influence the quality of manure. Farmers can use wood shavings, straw or other fibrous materials as bedding. They clean the bedding every 8-16 weeks. The bottom line is there is a large amount of variance in the nutrition content of the manure. Nitrogen (2-5%) and phosphate is (1-5%) are both derived from manures along with 1-3% potash. …

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