New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos today announced the launch of the annual “Look for the Zero” public awareness campaign to encourage homeowners to go phosphorus-free when using lawn fertilizer. DEC is encouraging consumers to review bag labels for phosphorus content when shopping for fertilizer. Fertilizer labels have three numbers and the number in the middle is the percentage of phosphorus in the product, such as 22-0-15. More than 100 water bodies in New York State cannot be used or enjoyed because of phosphorus overuse.

“Despite some recent winter-like weather, spring is here and property owners are outside working to make sure their lawns look good,” said Commissioner Seggos. “But there’s more to it than just green grass. We want New Yorkers to look for the zero on the fertilizer bag before bringing it home. Excess phosphorus is a threat to many New York waterbodies, triggering algae blooms and sometimes rendering waters un-swimmable and un-fishable. If New Yorkers implement sustainable lawn care methods, we can help dramatically reduce phosphorus and pesticide use on lawns, which will protect water quality and public health while maintaining healthy backyards.”

DEC introduced the Look for the Zero campaign in 2017, with a public service announcement that shows the effects of fertilizer runoff on New York’s waterbodies.

New York’s nutrient runoff law prohibits the use of phosphorus lawn fertilizers unless a new lawn is being established or a soil test shows the lawn does not have enough phosphorus. Generally, only newly established lawns or those with poor soil need phosphorus. Regardless of the location, excess phosphorus from lawns can wash off and pollute lakes and streams, harming fish, pets, or people that use these waters for recreating and a source of revenue for towns that must close beaches or boating areas. New York State law requires retailers to post signs notifying customers of the terms of the law and to display phosphorus fertilizer separately from phosphorus-free fertilizer.

DEC is encouraging homeowners to practice more sustainable lawn care and choose native plants and grasses, which are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions. These plant species provide nectar, pollen, and seeds that serve as food for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. Organic lawn care can easily be implemented on any lawn, and safe and effective alternatives exist for most chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic lawn care treatments promote deep root systems, natural photosynthesis, and longer grass growth. Visit DEC’s Sustainable Landscaping webpage to learn more.

Additional recommendations for sustainable lawn care include spreading a quarter-inch of compost on the lawn to improve moisture retention and soil texture and add beneficial microorganisms and nutrients. Another suggestion is to allow grass to grow to three inches and then cut no more than one inch off the top. The “one-third” rule helps develop a deeper root system, which is a natural defense against weeds, disease, and drought. Visit DEC’s Lawn Care webpage for more information.

DEC also encourages homeowners to leave lawn clippings after mowing to improve the health of the lawn. Grass clippings are 80 percent water and contain two to four percent nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients. Leaving clippings saves homeowners time after mowing and reduces the amount of garbage. Grass clippings can account for as much as 10 percent of garbage.

For more information, visit DEC’s Lawn Fertilizer webpage. New York’s nutrient runoff law does not affect agricultural fertilizer or fertilizer for gardens.