How To Fertilize Your Lawn

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Your lawn is a living and breathing thing.  It requires water, air, sunlight, and nutrients.  The first three are self-explanatory, but the latter proves a bit more elusive.

How exactly do you feed your lawn the nutrients it requires?  The simple answer is that it gets most of its nutrients from the soil in which it is rooted.  However, the soil alone does not provide enough of these elements for your lawn to develop into the lush, green expanse you’re aiming towards

A luscious green lawn is in the foreground with a small ranch-style house blurred out in the background

The more complicated answer to that question lies in a single word.  Fertilizer. 

Fertilizer supplements your lawn’s nutritional needs to ensure your lawn grows thick and green. It also ensures that it has a strong enough root system to withstand the traffic from playing fetch with the dog or throwing a baseball around with the kids. 

Below you will find everything you need to know about how you can go about fertilizing your lawn.

What Kind of Fertilizer Should I Use

Fertilizer has three primary nutrients that each serve different functions in the development of healthy plant life:

  • Nitrogen – promotes healthy growth.
  • Phosphorus – aids in the development of a strong root system.
  • Potassium – serves as a supplement to the overall health of the plant.

Different fertilizers are made up of different percentages of each of these three elements depending on the function you need the fertilizer to serve.

A man is holding a sprayer and spraying fertilizer on his lawn

Base the type of fertilizer you use on your lawn for your particular goals and on the pH numbers from the soil.  Regular maintenance of the lawn and irrigation can cause the pH levels to drop over time.  When pH numbers are too high or too low, the lawn cannot effectively process nitrogen, which will impede the lawn’s growth.  Since fertilizer is also known to lower your lawn’s pH level, testing your soil before fertilization is a key step before moving forward.

There are five different types of fertilizers that you should be aware of.

  • Granular fertilizers come in small pellets that you spread on your lawn frequently with the help of a spreader.
  • Liquid fertilizer is generally spread using a garden hose attachment on the bottle.
  • Organic fertilizer can either be purchased or made at home and feeds the lawn as organic materials break down into the soil.  Grasscycling (allowing grass clippings to rest on the grass after mowing to break down into the soil) and composting (compilation of manure, leaves, grass clippings or any other source of nitrogen that is later spread onto the grass) are two different methods of manufacturing organic fertilizer at home.
  • Synthetic fertilizer is water-soluble and fast-acting and quickly absorbs into the soil for rapid growth.
  • “Weed and Feed” fertilizers are combinations of herbicides and fertilizers designed to keep unwanted weeds from competing with the grass in your lawn. 
A person wearing blue gloves is holding red and white granular fertilizer in his or her hands

In the end, the type of fertilizer you use should be based on the nutrient content you derive from the soil sample from your lawn.

When Should I Fertilize My Lawn

The timing and frequency of fertilizing your lawn are entirely dependent on your geographic location, which dictates whether you have warm-season grass or cool-season grass growing on the property.

Warm-season grasses thrive in the southern part of the country.  They also can flourish in the transition zone, which is the horizontal mid-section of the nation.  These grasses should be fertilized every 90 to 120 days, three times a year, at the beginning of the spring, summer, and fall seasons.  The third and final application should be made before the colder weather coming in begins to discolor the lawn.

Cool-season grasses develop and prosper in the northern regions of the country and the transition zone.  Because these grasses are heartier, you only need to fertilize these types of grasses twice a year.  The best time to fertilize these grasses is once in the spring before the peak growing season begins, and once in the fall before the grass goes dormant for the winter.  These grasses do not require the summer fertilization.

A beautiful green lawn in front of a house

With both cool and warm-season kinds of grass, you will want to time the spring fertilization to be completed before the growing season beginning.  By doing this, you make sure the soil is rich and can sustain a thick and robust root system as the season peaks for optimal growth in your lawn.

The fall fertilization for both grass types is done to prepare the soil for the coming of spring and aids in quick and healthy growth of the grasses.  Through the winter, the final fertilization provides nutrients for the soil before the lawn goes dormant. 

Some Considerations Before Using Fertilizer

Liquid Versus Granular Fertilizer

Both of these types of fertilizers are work well to deliver nutrients to your lawn.  However, there are some distinct differences in these delivery systems.

A man in his mid-50's is spraying a liquid fertilizer on his lawn using a hose attachment

The main difference between these two is the method by which they are spread. Liquid fertilizer is spread over a lawn with a hose attachment. Granular fertilizer is distributed using either a hand broadcast spreader or a push-style broadcast spreader. It is purely preference that some people prefer one method over the other.

That being said, there is a small difference in spreading consistency between the two different fertilizer types. For liquids fertilizers, each drop of liquid fertilizer has more or less the same amount of nutrients.  However, for granular fertilizers, the pellets are not uniformly sized and therefore are not as consistent across the board with the ratio of nutrients.

Some people feel they are less exact with liquid fertilizer because they are relying on their own judgment regarding how long to spray a specific area. While others think that the differences in pellet sizes of granular fertilizer create a less uniform nutrient spread.

Fertilizing Around Children and Pets

A toddler and a dog play on the lawn

Synthetic fertilizers tend to be less expensive, but there are some safety precautions you need to take into consideration if your lawn is frequented by household pets or children.  Because it is not natural, there are byproducts found in this fertilizer in the form of inorganic waste matter and synthetic minerals.  A significant number of these are harmful to the loved ones playing on your lawn.  The best bet is to either go completely organic or find a kid or pet-friendly fertilizer brand that limits the amount of these harmful compounds.

Pros and Cons of “Weed and Feed” Fertilizer Combinations

The first and most obvious benefit of the “weed and feed” products is that you kill two birds with one stone.  They are effective at controlling most broadleaf weed types that will grow in your lawn.

The main drawback of these types of fertilizer and weed killer combinations is that while they promote top growth of the lawn, they often do very little for the overall health and vigor of the plant.  This is due to the high nitrogen content they possess.  Because of this, lawns treated with these products are more susceptible to drought and disease because the root system is not receiving an adequate amount of the other nutrients essential in keeping a healthy, vibrant lawn.

The Process of Fertilizing Your Lawn

Different Kinds of Fertilizer Spreaders

A small hand broadcaster is being used to spread granular fertilizer on the ground

The size of your lawn will determine what type of spreader you will need to complete the task.

A broadcast, or rotary, spreader can be used for larger lawns and other pieces of property.  Hand broadcast fertilizer spreaders are ideal when you need a different amount of fertilizer coverage for a smaller section of the yard, such as a shady area that will not need as much fertilizer.  A push-style broadcast spreader can be used for the typical suburban lawn.  Anything larger than that, a mechanical broadcast spreader attachment for your lawnmower or utility vehicle will be necessary.

A drop spreader is more expensive than the traditional broadcast spreader. As the name suggests, it drops fertilizer onto your lawn rather than broadcasting it out from the spreader itself. Often, this allows for a more uniform and controlled distribution of fertilizer.

How To Spread Your Fertilizer

Once a spreader is selected, proceed through the following steps to complete the fertilization of your lawn.

  • Test the soil’s pH level to ensure the lawn is stable enough for fertilization.
  • A day or two before fertilizing, give the lawn a healthy watering to moisten the soil to aid in absorption.
  • Once the grass is dry from the watering, spread a tarp onto the ground before filling the hopper of the spreader to collect anything spilled over its edge.
  • Fill the hopper.
  • Walk the edges of the property to apply fertilizer and ensure that all areas of the lawn receive equal amounts.
  • Make vertical passes back and forth over the lawn, slightly overlapping each pass to ensure proper distribution.
  • Repeat the same action horizontally
  • Water the lawn again lightly to promote absorption into the soil and wash the excess fertilizer off of the blades of grass.
A push-style broadcast spreader is show spewing fertilizer on the lawn

If you have any specific questions about the optimal growing season in your area or are unsure of what type of grass you have, you can always reach out to a reputable garden center in your area.

Happy Planting!

About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years. Read More

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