There’s nothing so quintessentially American as a lush, green lawn and while the white picket fence might be optional, healthy, weed-free grass certainly isn’t! Lawn maintenance is part art, part science, and today we’re breaking down everything you need to know about fertilizing.
We can’t have a conversation about fertilizing without talking about nitrogen. That’s because nitrogen is a vital component to any healthy plant. While nutrients like carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are present and important, nitrogen exists in a higher ration in the parts of the plants that are above ground.
Free Gardening Glove Gift!
We're giving Two Pairs of Gardening Gloves away for FREE to our subscribers!
Nitrogen’s primary purpose in plants is to help them break down sunlight into usable energy. It’s the process you probably learned about in elementary school, photosynthesis, and it won’t happen with this amazing building block.
The other vital biological process nitrogen is crucial for? Growth. Nitrogen helps to build DNA, the genetic material responsible for growing plants (and everything else that’s living). In other words, no nitrogen, no life.
Scientists and lawn experts have taken advantage of nitrogen’s properties to learn to build healthy, lush lawns. The main way its used is in fertilizer. If you look at any fertilizer label, you’ll see three numbers with dashes between them.
These numbers indicate the amount of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (in percentages) present in the fertilizer and give you clues to how and when you should use it. A 20-5-10 bag, for example, is an often recommended choice for spring use, and it contains twenty percent nitrogen, five percent phosphate, and ten percent potassium.
Using fertilizer is something of an art. Too much requires extra watering (take note: it’s a common misconception that fertilizing means you don’t need to water) and causes the grass to grow so fast that it requires extra mowing.
The right amount, however, causes your lawn to be beautifully green. Experts recommend using approximately 2-3lbs of nitrogen on your lawn from spring to fall.
We recommend using time release granules when you fertilize your lawn for two reasons. First, the time release component enables you to fertilize less often, as they’ll release slowly over the course of weeks or even months. Second, granules are much easier to apply.
Fertilizer sprays look convenient and are tempting, but it’s difficult to get correct applications with them due to the wind’s unpredictable blowing patterns. Leave those to the professionals; instead, use granules to get the job down.
There are a variety of different tools you can use to apply fertilizer to your yard. While you can do it the old-fashioned way (with a scoop), we don’t recommend this method as it’s very difficult to get an evenly-distributed layer this way (unless you’re an expert farmer!).
Instead, use a broadcast or rotary spreader, a drop spreader, or a handheld spreader. You can find models that range from the inexpensive to the expensive but look for something that suits your lawn and your budget.
If you have a large lawn, something larger will help you cover more area faster without refilling. A smaller lawn, however, might be a perfect match for a handheld spreader.
Broadcast spreaders tend to be more affordable than drop spreaders and are especially well suited for large lawns. Here’s an important tip to make sure you don’t waste valuable fertilizer or burn your lawn in one spot: put a tarp underneath the spreader and make sure you close the hopper!
The tarp will enable you to sweep up any lost fertilizer, but if you don’t have a tarp, you can simply fill it up in your garage. When you apply, walk the perimeter first, then fertilize back and forth across the center of your lawn. Overlap the edges of application slightly.
Using a drop spreader? Work in the same pattern.
Overall, you should plan on using less fertilizer than your bag recommends; too much will simply cause too much growth or cause excessive runoff. This is one scenario in which less is more!
Depending on your lawn, how much fertilizer you’re using, and how much you water, you should plan on fertilizing every six to eight weeks throughout the growing season. This starts when the soil hits 55 degrees (your county’s Master Gardener can tell you when this happens), which is when flowers start to bloom, and grass starts to grow.
Don’t forget to keep going into the fall! Final fertilization is extremely important for your lawn’s health, especially if it’s heading towards a harsh winter.
Water is your best friend when it comes to lawn maintenance and fertilization. For the best application of fertilizer, make sure you water and then allow the grass to dry before you fertilize. Then, water well and often afterward to help the nitrogen get down to the roots.
Be careful, however, to double check your fertilizer’s instructions before water before or after. A few require your lawn to be wet, and some suggest waiting to water.
You’ll also want to sweep up any stray fertilizer from your driveway and sidewalks before watering, as the water will cause the chemicals to run off.
In addition to using nitrogen-based fertilizer correctly, we have a few more tips that will have you on your way to a beautiful lawn!
Clover grows naturally in some places, and it was popular years ago, before modern herbicides were invented, because of how great it is for lawns. Clover is one of the few plants that can grab nitrogen from the air. It works its magic to turn it into nitrogen that other grassroots can use, making it a great friend to your lawn.
Because it blends in nicely, it also looks great and offers beautiful foliage even during drought and cold conditions. It’s also pest resistant, making it a win for many homeowners.
Grasscycling is just a funny word for something you may already be doing: leaving your grass cuttings on the lawn after you’ve cut your grass. The reason? Grass contains nitrogen, and as it breaks down, it will release more nitrogen back into your lawn!
You might still need to fertilize, but experts believe grasscycling can meet up to a quarter of your lawn’s nitrogen needs. For best results, use a mulching blade on your lawn mower, as it will cut grass into smaller pieces to allow better decomposition.
Soil aeration is a process that creates holes through your turf to allow the soil to “breathe.” This means the root zone is exposed to oxygen-rich air. It also means water and fertilizer can easily get to where they’re needed–the roots! You can use one of several methods to aerate your lawn.
First, you can use a core aerator. A core aerator “cores” your lawn by digging up cores at regular intervals. This machine is so heavy to operate that you might need two people, but it is effective, especially for large grassy areas.
Another option is checking to see if your riding lawn mower has an aerator attachment. Finally, there’s good old-fashioned aeration: using a digging fork or pitchfork to loosen up the thatch. It might require more elbow grease, but it’s quite effective, especially for small areas.
Compost is a terrific, organic way to get vital nutrients to your lawn. You can use it anytime, but we often recommend using it in place of one of your normal summer fertilization applications. Simply spread a thin layer of compost over your lawn but remember you should still be able to see the grass when you’re finished!
Water thoroughly (this is why you don’t want a thick layer–the water will run off excess compost), though if you time things right before a big rain, you won’t even have to do that!
In some cities and municipalities, compost might, in fact, be your only option, since chemical fertilizers have been outlawed. This isn’t a reason to be alarmed, as compost is rich in micro nutrients and microorganisms that nourish and replenish your lawn.
You should also consider using manure any time you reseed your lawn; simply apply a thin layer before you seed and water for optimal seed performance. To help your compost reach down into the roots, you can use a stiff broom to “brush” it into the thatch.
We can’t wait to see how you take these fertilizing tips to create a beautiful, green lawn. Make sure to send us a photo!
My name is Emily Taylor, gardening is my passion and I’m looking forward to sharing it with everyone. I know that there are millions of people out there want their backyard and garden be attractive just like their front yard, so I am here to help you create your own backyard paradise.