Do you dream of having a lawn that’s popping with curb appeal? A lawn that is lush, thick and a vibrant green? A lawn that’s the perfect setting for entertaining family and friends?
The good news is that you can have the lawn you’re always wanted. With time, a little sweat equity and the knowledge we’re about to provide, you’ll be on your way.
The path to a beautiful, strong and healthy lawn starts with lawn fertilization. In this piece we’re going to help you learn all about lawn fertilization: choosing the right type of fertilizer for your soil and your grass, when and how often to apply lawn fertilizer, safety considerations when working with fertilizer, pitfalls to avoid and more.
What does lawn fertilizer do?
Let’s start with the basics. Fertilizers nourish your lawn. They nurture your lawn’s root system, providing essential nutrients the blades of grass need to grow. At the same time, fertilizer also consumes the unhealthy nutrients in your soil to bring balance to the lawn bed.
A healthy, well-fed root system is better equipped to withstand the elements – heat, cold, drought, excessive rain – and other stresses like foot traffic, pest damage and mowing. A fertilized lawn leads to a thicker carpet of grass, which means less room for pesky weeds to grow.
Choosing the right fertilizer for your lawn
It can be easy to get overwhelmed when figuring out where to start, so let’s focus on the types of fertilizers and their nutrient content.
We’ll start with the two main types of fertilizers: organic and synthetic.
Organic fertilizers are made from natural materials like microbes, organic waste, compost, manure, bone meal and other similar plant or animal sources.
These fertilizers have lower levels of NPK when compared to synthetic fertilizers but they do provide vital micronutrients that are not present in synthetic fertilizers.
- Organic fertilizers are more slowly released, feeding plants over a longer period of time.
- Positive impact on the soil. The microbes in the fertilizer improve the texture of the soil which leads to increased water retention. This can make all the difference in areas experiencing drought conditions.
- They have minimal environmental impact and are safe for use around children, pets, and wildlife.
- The nutrient content in organic fertilizers can vary, making it challenging to determine the exact nutrient ratios that are right for your lawn.
- Their slow-release can seem to be a detriment since organic fertilizers take time to break down and release nutrients and the effects might not be visible as quickly as you might anticipate.
The term “synthetic” may lead you to think this type of fertilizer is full of man-made materials. In reality, synthetic fertilizers are manufactured from natural components like minerals and gasses from the air as well as inorganic waste materials like plastic bottles and bags, glass, aluminum cans, and other plastics such as yogurt cups, plastic cutlery, and cellophane.
Synthetic fertilizers are processed through the soil quickly, meaning you may have to do multiple applications throughout the season. At the same time, they are more highly concentrated and soluble so you must take care not to apply too much at once and damage your lawn.
- Synthetic fertilizers offer precise control over nutrient ratios, allowing you to more easily meet the specific needs of your lawn.
- Synthetic fertilizers are fast-acting so you’ll see a difference in your lawn quickly.
- If not used properly, use of synthetic fertilizers can contribute to water pollution because their high solubility increases the risk of nutrient runoff.
- Over-fertilization can burn your grass and damage your lawn.
Fertilizer Building Blocks
Both organic and synthetic fertilizer include a balance of these main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK).
- Nitrogen promotes green leaf growth
- Phosphorus enhances root growth
- Potassium promotes overall plant health
All these numbers. What do they mean?
20-20-20. 6-4-0. 30-0-4. Are these football plays? What do all these numbers mean?
Fertilizers are labeled with a three-number code. Each number represents the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer.
Each type of grass requires a different combination of NPK to thrive. So before you get started you need to consider the type of grass you have and the weather conditions where you live to choose the right fertilizer for your lawn.
Factors to consider when choosing a fertilizer
- Nutrient Content: Look for a fertilizer that provides the right nutrients for your lawn.
- Slow-release vs. Quick-release: Do you want the gradual and sustained release of nutrients over an extended period that slow-release fertilizers provide? Or would you rather see the rapid progress of a quick-release fertilizer, even if that means you might need to make more frequent applications?
- Formulation: Fertilizers are granular, liquid or soluble. Choose a formulation that suits your comfort as well as the needs of your lawn.
Knowing what nutrients your soil is lacking, combined with the type of grass in your lawn, will lead you to the right fertilizer.
The next step is to identify your grass type, since that will also determine what kind of fertilizer you need.
There are two main types of grasses in the United States: warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Transitional zone grasses are those regions with more moderate temperatures and can include both warm-season and cold-season grasses.
Cool-season grasses: These grasses are found in the northern United States, preferring lower temperatures.
- Peak growing periods: early spring (right after winter dormancy) and early fall.
- Extreme summer heat and lack of water may cause these grasses to go dormant until lower temperatures return.
- Types: Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescue, tall fescue
Warm-season grasses: No surprise here, but warm-season grasses flourish in the southern United States.
- Peak growing periods: late spring and early summer
- These grasses have an extensive and deep root system.
- Types: Bermuda, bahia, centipede, St. Augustine and zoysia
Transitional zone: If you don’t know what type of grass you have, observe your lawn throughout the year. As the temperatures go down, warm-season grasses will turn brown, usually after the first frost. Cool-season grasses will turn brown in the extreme summer heat.
Cool season grasses require more nitrogen than warm season grasses.
Popular fertilizers – are they the best fit for my lawn?
Here are a few types of popular fertilizers to consider:
Weed and Feed: This is a popular type of fertilizer that feeds the lawn and controls weeds.
Milorganite: Milorganite is an organic fertilizer made from treated sewage sludge. It is rich in slow-release nutrients and promotes healthy root development, leading to a dense and green lawn.
Espoma Organic Lawn Food: Espoma Organic Lawn Food is an organic granular fertilizer that provides a balanced blend of nutrients for your lawn. It improves soil health, encourages deep root growth, and enhances drought tolerance.
We do not recommend using a Weed and Feed fertilizer because the most effective time to kill weeds is not a good time to fertilize grass. Use separate treatments for weed.
When and How to Fertilize Your Lawn
Fertilizing your lawn up to seven times a year will give your grass the foundation it needs. How often to fertilize depends on the type of grass you have. No matter which kind of grass, you want to fertilize your lawn while it’s actively growing. For cool-season grasses, that means in spring and/or fall. Warm-season grasses respond best when fertilized in late spring and/or early summer.
Ideally, you shouldn’t fertilize the lawn until the ground is consistently at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Early morning is a good choice so you can take advantage of the morning dew, which will help the fertilizer soak into the soil.
If you’ve just had a heavy rain or are expecting that type of stormy weather, we recommend waiting until the lawn has had a chance to dry out a little before applying the fertilizer. You also don’t want to fertilize the lawn during drought conditions, since they grass will not be ready for it to work.
When the conditions are right, it’s time for the fertilizer application. Make it easy on yourself by using a lawn spreader instead of your hands. To make sure you’re laying it down correctly, start around the perimeter of your lawn. Then, you can start filling in the middle. Similar to mowing your lawn, you should go back and forth in straight lines.
When applying fertilizer, it’s important to do so evenly. Too much fertilizer can burn your grass, while too little will not provide the necessary nutrients.
The next step is to water your lawn to wash the fertilizer off of the grass blades and soak it into the soil.
If you only fertilize your lawn once a year, choose the fall. This way, your grass can store much-needed nutrients during the winter months.
At the least, making one of these common mistakes can lead to weed growth or fertilization failure. At the worst, you could cause serious damage to your lawn.
Here’s what to avoid when fertilizing your lawn:
Fertilizing at the wrong time
Applying fertilizer to your lawn at the wrong time – in other words, not during spring or fall – will lead to failure because the conditions aren’t right. In addition to not achieving the desired outcome, you risk encouraging weed growth and burning the grass.
Fertilizing too early in the spring:
If you fertilize too early in the spring, you’re disrupting the root development of your grass. This is because upon fertilization, the blades of grass will prematurely focus energies on leaf development.
Over-fertilization: You can have too much of a good thing. Applying too much fertilizer can burn your grass, damage your lawn’s root system, cause poor drainage and nutrient runoff and even cause damage to nearby plants and trees.
Under-fertilization: Grass that doesn’t receive enough nutrients will appear thin and will be weakened, making it vulnerable to pests and disease.
Choosing the wrong fertilizer: Making the incorrect choice in fertilizer can lead to damaged or dead grass. It can also have adverse effects on nearby plants, shrubs and trees.
Fertilizers are beneficial for your lawn but it’s essential to use and store them safely to protect yourself, your family, pets, and the environment. We recommend:
- Following the manufacturer’s instructions for storage and disposal.
- That should include storing the fertilizer in the original container in a cool, dry and secure location, making sure to keep them away from children and pets.
- Keep fertilizers separate from other chemicals or flammable materials.
When you apply fertilizer, make sure to wear protective gear, like gloves and even sunglasses or goggles.
Fertilizer and the Environment
We touched on the impact fertilizer use has on the environment earlier when comparing organic and synthetic fertilizers.
Taking that one step further, it’s best to choose a fertilizer with the lowest environmental impact whenever possible.
Among the dangers of fertilizer runoff is the damage it does to our waterways. When excess fertilizer makes its way into streams and lakes, it can lead to algae blooms that are toxic to aquatic life, wildlife and people. The most dire result is an aquatic dead zone.
While fertilizers are safe to use when used properly, many consider alternatives to traditional fertilizers like composting.
A Fertilized Lawn is Good for Everyone
When done properly, lawn fertilization is highly beneficial – to you and the environment. You get a lush, healthy, green lawn with strong roots to prevent weed growth. And you’re contributing to the environment because a well-fertilized lawn reduces soil erosion and promotes biodiversity.
Ready to go?
Now that you know everything about fertilizing your lawn, are you ready to get started? There’s a lot to it but if you follow each step carefully it can be a satisfying experience.
If you’d rather just enjoy the results of a fertilized lawn, we can help. We have a saying around here, “You can always spot a Moyer lawn.” That’s because our team has the expertise to make your lawn the best on the block.
Call us at 215.799.2016 or visit our Lawn Care Services Department to get started.
Updated: May 19, 2023