What kind of lawn fertilizer should I buy?

By Robert Russell, Trout Unlimited and Teton Conservation District Intern

Robert with a “Trout Friendly Certified” lawn sign.  Click here to certify your lawn and learn about your eligibility for a sign.

Robert with a “Trout Friendly Certified” lawn sign. Click here to certify your lawn and learn about your eligibility for a sign.

Had you asked me to name a single brand of fertilizer last week, I may have responded with a tentative, “Miracle-Gro?” However, I can now additionally name Scotts, Alaska, Espoma, Dr. Earth, Down to Earth, Jobe’s, and Whitney Farms. The only major change between last week and this week was becoming an intern at Teton Conservation District. Through this fantastic opportunity, I have been able to learn about, participate in, and help expand the Jackson Hole Clean Water Coalition’s (an entity consisting of various local conservation groups) Trout Friendly Lawns program, which urges local lawn-owners to become mindful of their ecological impact, particularly on local watersheds. A major component of this project is reducing over-fertilization, as excessive amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) in waterways can damage the ecosystem, wildlife, and humans by encouraging an overgrowth of algae, biologically contaminating the water. 

In an effort to aid the community, Teton Conservation District needed to be able to understand where organic, low nitrate, slow release, and other forms of fertilizer are sold in Jackson Hole… a perfect job for the intern. So, spreadsheet at the ready, I was whisked off to Ace Hardware to begin data collection. Two and a half hours later, Phoebe Coburn (the conservation district’s Communications Specialist and my supervisor) came to collect me in fears that I had been lost, arrested, or completely fried my brain. However, the only tragedy I had experienced was that there were far more types of fertilizer than I could have ever anticipated. So, after an evening of mental preparation, I was ready to finish the undertaking. My next day composed of the same tasks of registering name, price, weight, and N-P-K ratio of all available fertilizers; however, the task had now expanded to four stores in both Wilson and Jackson. Personally, through this difficult yet engaging project, I learned far more about fertilizer and other plant supplements through this project. For example, I learned that there are many fertilization options that have low N-P-K ratios, and that the valley has ready access to many of these options. When you are looking for an environmentally friendly fertilizer, look towards the bottom of the bag for a series of three numbers (for example: 20-27-5  or 5-4-5 ). These numbers indicate the N-P-K ratio. To comply with Trout Friendly Lawn practices, find a bag with low numbers, or a bag that says organic or slow release.  Also follow the application instructions carefully and don’t apply more than two pounds of nitrogen for every 1000 sq. feet of lawn per year. Note that two pounds of nitrogen is not the same as two pounds of fertilizer (you might have to do a little mental math). Also, don’t fertilize within 20 feet of water. To learn more about Trout Friendly Lawns practices, and to certify your lawn as “Trout Friendly” click here.

During my fertilizer research endeavor,  I also learned that many people are unaware of this issue, and thus organic or slow release fertilizer options are more frequently sidelined for other cheaper and quick-acting options. Yet, the kind and determined faces at both the JH Clean Water Coalition and Teton Conservation District will continue to publicize the issue, and urge our town to support its waterways, and thus ourselves.