Fertilizer education creates behavior change and protects local waterways

UF/IFAS Extension Seminole County Fertilizing Effectively in Sandy Florida Soils workshops bring a change in behavior to homeowners, protecting the Wekiva River Basin and other local waterways.

The workshops are hosted several times a month throughout Seminole County and were inspired by the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ program and the county fertilizer ordinance passed in 2017 to prevent excessive nutrient loads into local waterways.

Tina McIntyre, Florida-Friendly Landscaping Agent for UF/IFAS Extension Seminole County teaches a group about low maintenance plants and turf alternatives.

Excessive amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous can cause negative impacts to the aquatic freshwater environment. These excessive nutrients often enter waterways through stormwater runoff, faulty septic systems or leaching from the surface into nearby groundwater.

Nitrate loading data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) on the Wekiva Basin, a National Wild and Scenic River in Seminole County, shows that urban turfgrass fertilizer contributed to 26 percent of the total basin input. That is only one river, but the Wekiva Basin feeds into the St. Johns river, a high-profile recreational river, as well.

“As we rapidly urbanize, teaching people about fertilizer use is really important,” Tina McIntyre, UF/IFAS Extension Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ agent said. “To see changes in water quality data, it takes a village and that is why we offer Fertilizing Effectively in Sandy Florida Soils workshops for homeowners and landscapers alike.”

Working in partnership with the Seminole County Watershed Management Division, FDEP and the Environmental Protection Agency, these courses educate citizens about the right way to irrigate, the time of year to fertilize, and the best types and correct amount of fertilizer to apply.

The incentive for citizens to attend the workshops is a free bag of fertilizer, but they leave with much more than that. To date, the program has reached thousands of people and has shown behavior change among participants in hopes of decreasing nutrient loads to local waterways.

“These workshops educate participants on what they can do to make a positive impact on our water quality while benefitting their yard and protecting their investment in the plants, turf or trees,” she said.

Survey data from workshop attendees show an 85 to 90 percent change in behavior among participants. Adopting Best Management Practices (BMPs), over 90 percent of attendees now avoid phosphorous fertilizers without a soil test, 98 percent properly manage grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn and 85 percent are using at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen fertilizers. In class, UF/IFAS Extension measures knowledge gained and intent to change. After class, actual changes in behavior are measured. These metrics indicate that we are moving in the right direction.

“Florida has a large amount of surface water,” McIntyre said. “Most people can name their local water body and they care to protect it by making small changes to their landscape practices.”

To find an upcoming workshop, visit fertilizingeffectivelyinflorida.eventbrite.com. To learn more about the Florida-Friendly Landscape™ program in Seminole County, visit SeminoleCountyFL.gov/ffl. To offer a workshop to your homeowners association, group or business, contact Tina McIntyre at k.mcintyre@ufl.edu.

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