Updated Oct 31, 2022
Updated Oct 31, 2022
Healthy lawns start from nutrient-rich soil. Your lawn draws nutrients from the soil up through its roots and uses those nutrients to grow into lush, dense grass. That’s where fertilizer comes in. Proper lawn fertilizer applications boost your lawn’s ability to grow beautiful, thick grass. Our guide to lawn fertilizer explains how to choose the right fertilizer for your lawn, read the label, and safely apply the fertilizer to your lawn.
Of course, finding the right combination of fertilizers and getting the timing exactly right can be a bit of a hassle. If you decide you don’t have the time to decode fertilizer labels and spend hours behind a fertilizer spreader, we recommend TruGreen as as the best lawn care service.
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You might wonder why you need to fertilize your lawn. After all, you’re already watering and mowing it regularly to promote healthy growth. However, an unfertilized lawn must rely solely on the nutrients currently present in your soil. This can vary greatly between lawns even in similar climates or soil types. Soil nutrients may have been lost when your home was built or due to improper lawn care from a previous owner.
Properly fertilizing your lawn not only helps your grass to grow more evenly and efficiently but also helps reduce the appearance of weeds in your grass. Developing a fertilizer application plan for your lawn leads to grass with rich, green coloring and dense coverage across your yard.
There are two main types of fertilizers: controlled-release and quick-release. Controlled-release fertilizer is granular beads of fertilizer that release nutrients over a longer period of time, while quick-release fertilizer is cheaper and is typically water-soluble beads or a liquid that releases nutrients faster. Both types of fertilizer can either be organic or synthetic (inorganic).
When you stop by your local lawn and garden store, you’ll notice an almost endless display of lawn fertilizers for sale. From “weed and feed” to lawn food, fertilizers aren’t lacking in variety. With all of these options, you’re probably wondering how you go about choosing the best lawn fertilizer available.
The reason you’ll see so many varieties of fertilizer reflects the numerous combinations of nutrients individual lawns need to maintain healthy growth.
Almost all lawn fertilizers contain one or more of the three major nutrients required for a lawn’s optimum growth. The nutrients Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) are most commonly found in grass fertilizer. Not only are they important to plant growth, but they are also usually the most deficient in natural soils. Each nutrient serves a different purpose for promoting ideal plant growth.
|Nutrient Name||Key Benefits|
|Nitrogen (N)||Is responsible for rapid growth|
Helps synthesize proteins
Increases leaf development for dense lawns
|Phosphorus (P)||Helps early root growth|
Promotes plant maturity
Aids in seed development
|Potassium (K)||Helps grass resist drought and disease|
There are two main factors that contribute to what nutrients your grass needs. One is the type of grass that is planted in your yard. The other is the existing nutrients available naturally in your lawn’s soil. Both of these factors play an integral role in determining which nutrients your fertilizer should contain.
Lawn fertilizer companies don’t always do a fantastic job of making their fertilizer labels understandable. When you buy almost any bag of fertilizer, you’ll see three numbers listed somewhere on the label, such as 20-20-20. These numbers represent the amount of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) in the fertilizer, in that order. Many brands of lawn fertilizer won’t list the nutrient names, so it’s important to remember that the amounts will always be listed in the order of N-P-K.
The numbers themselves represent the percentage of weight of each nutrient. For example, if a bag of fertilizer says 20-5-5 and the bag weighs 50 pounds, there are 10 pounds of Nitrogen in the bag and 2.5 pounds each of Phosphorus and Potassium.
20% (first number in N-P-K sequence) X 50 (pounds of fertilizer in bag) = 10 pounds of Nitrogen
5% (second number) X 50 pounds = 2.5 pounds of Phosphorus
5% (third number) X 50 pounds = 2.5 pounds of Potassium
Lawn fertilizer plans are generally developed on how many pounds of Nitrogen is required per 1000 square foot of lawn per year. If you don’t feel like calculating out the exact amount of nutrients needed by your lawn, there is a simple trick to finding a good grass fertilizer. Looking at the fertilize number sequence, you may notice some have a large amount of one nutrient and lower amounts of others. In the example above, there is a higher percentage of Nitrogen than Phosphorus or Potassium. This is the ratio you typically want for growing grass. Aim to purchase a fertilizer with a higher number for Nitrogen and then a lower number for Phosphorus and Potassium.
Although Phosphorus is an important nutrient that all plants need to survive, studies have shown that using Phosphorus in lawn fertilizers may contribute to unnecessary runoff into waterways. This can lead to increased algae blooms that lower the water’s recreational value and may harm wildlife such as fish by depleting oxygen levels in the water.
Phosphorus can still provide a lot of benefits to your lawn, but it is important to use it correctly. Avoiding applying fertilizer around ponds, drainage systems, or other water sources is the number one way to prevent Phosphorus runoff. Additionally, you can test your soil before applying fertilizer to determine the Phosphorus levels. If your lawn has plenty of Phosphorus already, there’s no need to add more, and you can choose a Phosphorus-free fertilizer.
Many companies have stopped adding Phosphorus to their commercial-available fertilizers. Local laws may restrict your use of Phosphorus as a lawn fertilizer. Be sure to check your local city, county, and state laws for Phosphorus restrictions.
Since lawns generally need Nitrogen more than the other major nutrient, lawn fertilizer companies have developed various fertilizer types to effectively get Nitrogen into your soil. Generally, Nitrogen can be applied in controlled-release (also known as slow-release) or quick-release applications. Our chart below looks at the advantages and disadvantages of each type.
|Controlled-release||Granular beads of fertilizer that release nutrients into the soil over a period of 6–8 weeks.||– Uniform application and growth|
– Less loss of nutrients through the soil or air
– Less likely to burn the lawn
– Less frequent applications
|– Less effective on cold soil|
– More expensive
– Nutrients aren’t readily available, so it will take longer to see a change in your lawn’s color
|Quick-release||Either a liquid concentrate or water-soluble beads that immediately release nutrients into the soil when watered.||– Fast response from grass; get a greener lawn faster|
– Less expensive
– Provides immediate nutrients, even when the soil is cold
|– More likely to burn grass|
– More likely to lose nutrients in air or water and deteriorate soil quality
– Need more frequent applications
In addition to controlled-release and quick-release lawn fertilizers, there is a distinction between organic fertilizers and inorganic fertilizers.
It’s important to look at the pros and cons of each type of fertilizer when choosing the right fertilizer for your lawn. We’ve put together a chart with the advantages and disadvantages of both organic and inorganic fertilizers. Often, the best choice for a lawn is a combination of fast-acting inorganic fertilizers and slow, steady nutrients from organic fertilizer.
|Organic||– Won’t burn lawns|
– Slow and steady nutrient release
– Contains a wide range of trace minerals and balanced nutrition for your grass
– Helps soil life by breaking down soil matter and encouraging aeration from earthworms
|– Less nutrient release in cooler temperatures|
– More expensive
– Dependent on microorganisms in the soil
– Animal manure or other homemade organic fertilizers may not be completely broken down, causing harmful runoff
|Inorganic||– Commonly available|
– Formulas varied for exact lawn needs
– Works quickly
– Inexpensive, even for higher quality brands
|– Shorter life span|
– Can affect soil fertility/deteriorate soil
– Potential to burn lawn
– May cause chemical runoff
Much like choosing the right fertilizer for your lawn, the best time to fertilize your lawn depends on a number of factors. In addition to factors like grass type or climate, your specific lawn may need more or fewer fertilizer applications than your neighbors. Testing your soil once or twice a year can help you determine if you need to do another fertilizer application. Additionally, if your grass is yellowing, a pale green color, or not growing, it may be time to apply some lawn fertilizer.
|Ideal grass temperature||Examples of grass types||Location commonly grown||When to apply fertilizer|
|Cool-season||– Kentucky Bluegrass|
– Tall fescue
– Perennial Ryegrass
|– New York|
– Inland California
|Fall, though you can do a follow-up application in early spring if your lawn needs it.|
– Southern California
|Early summer—You can add a second application in August to promote healthy growth before these varieties go partially dormant in the winter months.|
How you fertilize your lawn greatly depends on the type of fertilizer you’re using and the size of your yard. There are several types of lawn fertilizer applicators that spread an even layer of fertilizer onto your lawn. You may also sprinkle fertilizer by hand on small areas or if using an organic fertilizer such as compost, which may get stuck in a fertilizer spreader. Although the size of your lawn will affect the time it takes to fertilize it, you should set aside several hours to fertilize your lawn completely. Choose between these types of fertilizer applicators:
Most lawn fertilizers are not concentrated enough to cause instant harm, but you still want to make sure you handle them safely and correctly. Be sure you read all directions on both your spreader and the fertilizer bag before beginning. This will ensure you know how to correctly operate the spreader and will let you know if your fertilizer needs to be mixed with anything. Once you’ve covered your lawn, sweep off fertilizer granules from hard surfaces like sidewalks or roadways to prevent runoff when watering.
Once you’ve determined which fertilizer is best for your lawn and properly applied it, you might have questions about watering, mowing, or safety after fertilizer applications.
After fertilizing, you should lightly water the entire lawn to help flush the nutrients into the soil. After the initial watering, water as you normally would for your grass type.
Your fertilizer label should give you an exact time frame of when it will be safe to allow pets into the yard. Fertilizers that have not been absorbed by the soil can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and other serious illness in pets. If you’re unsure if your fertilizer is safe, look for a variety that is kid- or pet-friendly.
If you use a granular bead fertilizer, you should be able to begin mowing again after the first watering or rainstorm. This allows the granules to sink into the soil.
With so much technical information and chemical involvement that goes into fertilizing your lawn, it’s a good idea to leave it to the professionals. A professional lawn care service like TruGreen will determine the best type of fertilizer for your lawn, as well as how much needs to be applied.
Fertilizing your lawn is just one part of a complete lawn care routine all year long. Investing in a professional lawn care company can help you not only build a beautiful lawn but maintain it. The best part is you won’t have to waste your time trying to figure out fertilizer labels and amounts for your lawn. Providers like TruGreen offer a range of lawn care service packages to take care of the fertilization or your yard, and much more.
|TruHealthSM Lawn Plan||TruCompleteSM Lawn Plan||TruSignatureSM Lawn Plan|
– Pre-emergent and targeted weed control
– Pre-emergent and targeted weed control
– Pre-emergent and targeted weed control
– Tree & Shrub Plan
All three packages include the Healthy Lawn Guarantee◆ and Healthy Lawn Analysis®✦.
At House Method, we suggest TruGreen as a professional lawn care provider to take care of fertilizing your lawn. As America’s #1 lawn care company, they have branches in many major cities—including Tampa, Austin, and Houston—across 47 states, so there’s likely one near you.*
Not only are their technician’s experts in the lawn care field, but they provide the localized service your lawn needs. They’ll be able to determine what types of fertilizers work best for your climate, soil type, and grass type. Other reasons we recommend TruGreen include:
If you’re interested in learning more about TruGreen’s lawn fertilizer and lawn care services, give them a call at 1-866-817-2172 or fill out the online form for a free quote.
To learn more: TruGreen Reviews.
There are many companies on the market that offer fertilization services or fertilizer products. Compare each service to decide which one is right for your lawn:
From our top recommended lawn care service, TruGreen
*America’s #1 lawn care company based on U.S. market share of professional lawn care companies. 2017 NorthStar Partners U.S. Share Tracker. ✦Purchase of full lawn plan required for Healthy Lawn Analysis, which is performed at the first visit. ◆Guarantee applies to full plan customers only.
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