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 last one proves a bit more elusive.

How exactly do you feed plants the nutrients they require? 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 property to develop into the lush, green expanse you’re aiming for. 

So, you need to help. And to do so, you need one thing: fertilizer.

Fertilizer supplements your lawn’s nutritional needs to ensure it grows thick and green. It also ensures that the grass has a strong enough root system to withstand the stress from people and animals walking around on it. After all, part of the joy from having a healthy backyard comes from being able to play fetch with the dog or throw a baseball around with the kids.

Anyone who has ever visited a garden center knows that there are many different types available. How do you know which one to choose to give your plants all the nutrients it needs?

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

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

What Kind Should You Use

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

  • 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.

The percentage of each of these three elements will depend on what type of grass you are feeding or when you are feeding it.

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

There are five different types you should be aware of.

  • Granular fertilizers come in small pellets that you distribute with the help of a spreader.
  • Liquid fertilizer is generally spread using a garden hose attachment on the bottle.
  • The organic type can either be purchased or made at home and feeds the soil as organic materials break down. Grasscycling (allowing grass clippings to rest on the grass after mowing to break down) and composting (mixing manure, leaves, grass clippings, and any other source of nitrogen to spread onto your property) are two different methods of making an organic variety at home.
  • Synthetic fertilizer is water-soluble and fast-acting and quickly absorbs into the soil for rapid growth.
  • “Weed and Feed” varieties include herbicides designed to keep unwanted weeds from growing.

Base the type you use on your particular goals and the pH level of the soil. Regular maintenance of the lawn and irrigation can affect pH levels. When pH numbers are too high or too low, grass cannot effectively process nitrogen, which will impede its growth.Since fertilizer can lower pH levels, testing your soil before fertilization is a key step before moving forward.

A person wearing blue gloves is holding red and white granular fertilizer in his or her hands

When Should You Fertilize

When and how often to fertilize depends entirely on your geographic location, which dictates whether you have warm-season grass or cool-season grass growing on the property.

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

Cool-season grasses develop and prosper in the northern regions of the country and the transition zone. Because these varieties are heartier and do not require the same amount of maintenance, you only need to feed them twice a year. The best time is once in the spring before the peak growing season, and once in the fall before the grass goes dormant for the winter. You don’t need to fertilize over the summer.

With both warm- and cool-season grasses, you want to fertilize before the growing season begins in spring. This way, you ensure the soil can sustain the thick and robust root system needed for optimal growth.

The fall fertilization for both grass types is done to add nutrients to the soil before plants go dormant. In the spring, these nutrients will aid plants to grow quickly.  

A beautiful green lawn in front of a house

Some Considerations Before Using Fertilizer

Liquid Versus Granular

Both liquid and granular varieties work well in delivering nutrients. However, there are some distinct differences between the two.

The main difference is the method by which they are spread. Liquid fertilizer is applied with a hose attachment. The granular kind is distributed using either a hand broadcast spreader or a push-style broadcast spreader.  

There is a slight difference in spreading consistency between the two types. Each drop of liquid has about the same amount of nutrients. The pellets of the granular kind are not uniformly sized, so the ratio of nutrients per pellet is not always identical.

Some people feel that the liquid variety is less precise because the length of time spent spraying a specific area is entirely up to them. Others point out that granules provide a less uniform spread because they are not all the same size.

Ultimately, which type you use is entirely up to you.

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

Fertilizing Around Children and Pets

Synthetic fertilizers tend to be less expensive and act faster, but there are some safety precautions you need to consider if children or pets are frequently using your yard. The inorganic waste matter and synthetic minerals that are included can be harmful to them. If you want to keep them safe, it is better to go organic or find a pet-friendly brand that limits the number of harmful compounds.   

A toddler and a dog play on the lawn

Pros and Cons of “Weed and Feed” Combinations

The most obvious benefit of a “weed and feed” product is that you kill two birds with one stone. It nourishes your lawn and controls most broadleaf weed types.

The main drawback is that while it promotes top growth of the lawn, it often does very little for the overall health and vigor of the grass. This is due to its high nitrogen content. Because of this, yards treated with “weed and feed” are more susceptible to drought and disease because the root system is not receiving an adequate amount of all other nutrients that are essential for it to thrive.

The Process of Fertilizing Your Lawn

Different Kinds of Spreaders

The size of your property will determine what type of spreader you need for the task.

A broadcast, or rotary, spreader is best for larger yards.  Hand broadcast spreaders are ideal when different areas of your property need different amounts of coverage, for example, when you have a shady area that doesn’t need as much nourishment.  A push-style broadcast spreader can be used for the typical suburban lawn. For 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 a 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.

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

How to Spread Your Fertilizer

Once you have selected a spreader, use this step-by-step procedure to fertilize your lawn.

  • Test the soil’s pH level to ensure the lawn is stable enough to receive nourishment.
  • A day or two before fertilizing, give your grass a healthy watering, as moist soil aids in absorption.
  • Once the grass has dried, spread a tarp onto the ground and place the spreader on it before filling it. This way, you can easily collect anything that spills.
  • 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 grass again lightly to promote absorption into the soil and wash the excess fertilizer off the blades.

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

A push-style broadcast spreader is show spewing fertilizer on the lawn

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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.

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