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Johnston Nursery Uses Plants to Keep Nitrogen Out of the Neuse

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SMITHFIELD — One of the biggest polluters in our state's rivers is all around us. Nitrogen comes from fertilizers on farms, golf courses and even your front lawn, but there is a new idea that puts nature to work.

It does not look like much is happening, but the plants at Lee and Son's Nursery are protecting the Neuse River.

"With 23 acres of plants, we put out a lot of fertilizer, and it's a way of finding out if we could really reduce the nitrogen going into the water into the Neuse River," said Sandy Lee.

Nitrogen is bad news for waterways, and there is a lot of it in fertilizer. A state-designed test project uses plants to soak up nitrogen at Lee and Son's Nursery near Smithfield.

It is a simple idea. Irrigation water not soaked up at the nursery flows to a ditch. Then, it is piped into a holding area. That is where the plants do the dirty work.

After about an hour of flowing though the wetlands, the water flows down to a small pond about a hundred yards away.

Once the water comes out, it has only half the nitrogen it had when it went in at the beginning.

"There are plants in the wetland that take up nitrogen. In the Neuse, we're all about reducing nitrogen, and this is another practice that we think is going to be really good," said Craven Hudson, N.C. Neuse Education Agent.

Lee said the plants in the constructed wetland work better than he expected them to, and he may expand the project to 10 times its current size.

He hopes it is part of a permanent solution to the ongoing problem of nutrient-choked rivers.

The constructed wetlands cost about $2,000 with the state paying half the bill. Lee hopes he can eventually sell his plants to landowners who put their own wetlands in place.