Judd McLaughlin spends about 90 minutes every week during the warmer months fertilizing and tending to his Linwood lawn.

But a new law goes into effect today regulating what kind of fertilizer consumers can buy in New Jersey and how much of the material they can use per year. The law also regulates how much fertilizer professionals can apply.

The law, considered the strictest in the nation, was developed as part of a plan to improve water quality in Barnegat Bay and throughout the state. Parts of the law, which Gov. Chris Christie signed in 2011, already have gone into effect, including requirements that landscapers and professionals who apply fertilizer undergo a complicated certification process.

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Consumers such as McLaughlin no longer can buy general lawn fertilizer that contains phosphorus. The law also regulates other materials used in the fertilizers and application methods.

While the new rules were news to McLaughlin, he understood the importance of making sure fewer nutrients wash into waterways.

“I’ve been reading about stuff for years, about how bad problems are with runoff. We’re surrounded by water, so we better all be aware of it and take whatever steps we need to,” he said. “I’m not for over-regulation by any means, but we are supposed to be stewards of the planet.”

Nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, are critical for plant growth. But if too much of the nutrients enter waterways, the ecosystem can become unbalanced. Phosphorus causes excessive algae growth in freshwater lakes, rivers and streams, while nitrogen does the same in saltwater.

And the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering waterways is the primary reason why Barnegat Bay’s water quality has degraded so severely, said Tim Dillingham, director of the American Littoral Society.

“Science tells us that urban land uses, which include suburban lawns, are the primary source of nitrogen input into Barnegat Bay and the coastal waters,” Dillingham said. “The source of that may be inappropriate application (of fertilizer), over-application, or the applicator not doing it properly, doing it too close to the water or simply using too much.”

Plants need phosphorus when starting to grow in order to establish strong roots, and that is why the law allows consumers to use fertilizer containing phosphorus on lawns if the turf has just been planted or a soil test within the past three years shows the soil to be low in the chemical, said James Murphy, turf management extension specialist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

Mark Mason, owner of Lawn Doctor of Atlantic County, said he has not used phosphorus in his fertilizer mixes for years because the region’s soil already has a significant amount of naturally occurring phosphorus.

Plants, including grasses, are in a dormant state for the winter and are not taking up the nutrients. That’s why the law bans consumers from using fertilizer on grass between Nov. 15 and March 1. Professionals are not allowed to apply fertilizer between Dec. 1 and March 1.

The Dec. 1 deadline, which went into effect a year ago, was problematic for Mason because it meant his crews did not have time to apply fertilizer to all of the properties they have under contract this year due to Hurricane Sandy. Business was stopped for at least eight days, Mason said.

Mason said he paid $75 for the certification and all of his workers had to pay $25 for their approval.

Additionally, Mason said, the cost of fertilizer used by most consumers will rise between 10 percent and 20 percent due to the higher cost of slow-release nitrogen now required. The cost of a contract with his company — about $300 a year for the average lawn — won’t rise that high, he said, because labor is included in the price.

Despite attending many of the meetings while the law was crafted, Mason still has his doubts about how much lawn fertilizer contributes to pollution.

“It’s not a lot of runoff from a grass lawn” because the vegetation slows the amount of water leaving the property, he said. “We were sort of an easy target.”

John Palumbo, lawn and garden supervisor at Shore True Value Hardware in Somers Point, said fertilizer suppliers already have switched the store’s old stock with new bags that meet state regulations.

“We heard about (the law) last year, that it was coming, but it was just recently that Scotts informed us that the state of New Jersey is doing away with (phosphorus),” he said.

He has not had customers ask about the new fertilizers, typically because those consulting with him when buying fertilizer are just learning what to do. But, he said, “I don’t think anyone knows about (the new law) yet.”

Dillingham, one of the key players in developing and lobbying for the law, said he thinks it is being implemented well and there is a fairly high level of compliance.

“Word is generally out about the need for a new approach for using and managing fertilizer to protect Barnegat Bay and other waters of the state,” Dillingham said.

McLaughlin’s stewardship mindset is becoming more common throughout South Jersey, and that is one of the reasons why such a bill could be enacted, said Fred Akers, director of the Great Egg Harbor River Watershed Association.

“I think things like this bill and all of the work that people have been doing to promote other cool landscape alternatives, like backyard habitats, have caught the cultural change,” he said.

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