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Cornell Cooperative Exention of Onondaga County

As winter approaches in the Skaneateles Lake watershed, many residents are looking for turf-care solutions to build a thriving lawn for the following spring and summer.

Most fertilizers are advertised as containing ratios of N-P-K, which stands for Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium. Nitrogen is needed for vigorous growth and contributes to the characteristic green color of turf grass.

Phosphorus aids in root growth early in the growing season but can be very degrading to surface water quality. Potassium aids in the synthesis of plant components and helps the plant process nitrogen more efficiently.

Phosphorus should only be used on a lawn when a professional soil test shows a phosphorous deficiency. Phosphorus can be very damaging to surface water and drinking water supplies, and it is a leading culprit of water pollution.

Phosphorus from lawns in the Skaneateles Lake watershed can run off into the lake and produce large algae mats that deplete the water of oxygen needed for fish survival. Excessive algae growth can feed blooms of toxic algae, and in a pristine lake such as Skaneateles, excess algae can turn recreation into an unpleasant and potentially unhealthy experience.

To protect the water quality of Skaneateles Lake, use a zero-phosphorus fertilizer. In the vast majority of cases, phosphorus isn’t needed, so when looking for a fertilizer at a local store, it is best to find a “zero in the middle” fertilizer, indicated by the numeric N-P-K code on each bag.

Never spread lawn fertilizer within 20 feet of water bodies or between Dec. 1 and April 1. If you have questions on lawn fertilization, feel free to contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga Master Gardener Hotline at (315) 424-9485, ext. 236, or the Skaneateles Lake Water Quality Program at

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Roy Widrig is the water quality educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County.