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Fertilize Your Lawn

Fertilizing a Lawn

A lush, inviting lawn is the goal of many homeowners, but your lawn needs help from you to look its best. Like any living thing, turfgrass needs nutrients to thrive, and fertilizing is a way to help it get the nutrition it needs. Selection, preparation and proper application of the right fertilizer are keys to a healthy, green lawn.


Why Fertilize the Lawn?

Your soil supplies some of the nutrients that turfgrass needs but most soils are not able to provide all of them during the entire growing season. A healthy and actively growing lawn uses a great deal of energy. Fertilizer helps your lawn stay healthy by:

  • Promoting new leaf and root growth
  • Aiding in recovery from foot traffic and pest damage
  • Reducing and controlling weeds
  • Replacing nutrients lost to leaching, volatilization and grass clipping removal


Types of Lawn Fertilizer

Liquid and Granular

Fertilizer is available in two main types — liquid and granular. Choose the one that meets your lawn's needs in the form that is easiest for you to use.

  • Liquid fertilizers are fast-acting. Since they are quickly absorbed, they require application every 2-3 weeks. Most are mixed with water prior to application with a garden hose attachment.
  • Granular fertilizers are applied with a spreader and must be watered into the grass. Granular fertilizers are easier to control because you can actually see how much fertilizer you are using and where it is being dispersed.

Granular fertilizers are produced in two different formulations, quick-release and slow-release.



Quick-Release and Slow-Release Fertilizer

Quick-release fertilizer typically lasts for three to four weeks, depending upon the temperature and the amount of rainfall. For general use, these water-soluble nitrogen fertilizers are also known as commodity or field grade fertilizers.

Slow-release fertilizers, known as water-insoluble nitrogen, are coated to dissolve over period of weeks for more controlled feeding. 

The effectiveness of both types may vary depending upon the amount of water provided by irrigation or rainfall.



Weed and Feed

Weed and Feed is a common term which refers to fertilizer that contains weed killer for broadleaf weeds such as dandelions or grassy weeds like crabgrass. Check the label to see which weeds the product will treat.

  • Pre-emergents, such as those commonly used to prevent crabgrass, are weed killers which must be applied before the weeds germinate. They are ineffective if the weeds are already actively growing. Pre-emergent weed killers are often mixed with fertilizer and are designed to be spread in early spring. Crabgrass normally germinates when the ground temperature reaches 60° F — the ground temperature at which dogwood trees start to bud and forsythias begin blooming.
  • The weed killer in post-emergent types of weed and feed fertilizers are contact killers, and are effective only if the weeds are already actively growing. They will not kill weeds which have not yet germinated.

 

Timing of the application of pre- and post-emergents is critical for success. If sowing grass seed is also in your plan, make sure that there's a proper time interval between applying weed and feed and sowing. Read the package carefully before selecting to be sure which product fits your needs.


Organic Fertilizer

Organic fertilizer is an alternative to traditional types of fertilizer that is more environmentally friendly. Like traditional fertilizers, organic fertilizer is available in several forms, including granular fertilizer and liquid fertilizer. As with synthetic products, apply properly and with caution.

For the most ecofriendly option, choose an organic fertilizer that is made from ingredients that are both renewable and sustainable. This includes fertilizer made from feather meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal or corn gluten meal. Another organic alternative to fertilizer is compost or composted manure.



How to Read a Fertilizer Package Label

package label

The three numbers (often called NPK) on a fertilizer package tell you the percentage of the base elements and nutrient makeup by weight. These percentages in fertilizer compounds are formulated for everything from asparagus to zinnias. The three main components are:

  • Nitrogen (symbol N) for leaf development and vivid green color.
  • Phosphorous (symbol P) for root growth.
  • Potassium (symbol K) for root development and disease resistance.

For example, a bag marked "16-4-8" contains 16 percent nitrogen, 4 percent phosphorous and 8 percent potassium. In this case, the other 72 percent is usually inert filler material added to aid distribution by your spreader. There may also be secondary elements added such as calcium, magnesium, iron or others.



Preparing the Lawn for Fertilizing

Identify your Grass Type

Step #1 - Identify Your Grass Type

Identify your grass as a cool or warm season grass. A large section of the U.S. is considered transitional, which means that both warm and cool season grasses may grow in the area. If you live in this area, a clue to your grass type is the fact that warm season grasses will turn brown after the first frost. Cool season grasses will generally stay green all year long in the cool and transitional zones. They will not survive the summers in the warm season zone.

Step #2 - Do a Soil Test

Determine the pH of your soil. The pH level is a measure of the alkalinity or acidity of a substance. The pH of your soil is important because it determines the ability of the grass to use the ingredients in the fertilizer. Your soil test will determine which fertilizer is best for you.

Bring your soil as close to neutral as possible to get the most benefit from the fertilizer you use. A pH range between 6.0 and 7.0 is accepted as being the best for growing quality grass.

Step #3 - Determine your Lawn Size

Fertilizers, weed-killers and other soil amendments are typically sold by the amount necessary to cover a certain square footage. The fertilizer package will tell you how many square feet of coverage it contains. Determine the square footage of lawn to be fertilized by multiplying the length of your lawn by its width. Then, subtract the square footage of the house, driveway and other areas not to be fertilized.

An example using rough measurements:

Lawn Measurement
250 by 150 ft.
37,500 sq. ft.
House Measurement
80 by 36 ft.
2,880 sq. ft.
Driveway Measurement
12 by 50 ft.
600 sq. ft.

Total
34,020 sq. ft.

The most common size fertilizer bags are 5000 and 15000 - there are others. in the example above, 34,020 divided by 5000 sq. ft. per bag equals 6.8 or roughly 7 bags of fertilizer. Or, 2 bags of 15000 and one bag of 5000 sq. foot coverage.



Easy Steps for Proper Fertilizer Application

Knowing when to feed your lawn is essential. Your feeding schedule depends on the type of grass you have. In general, feeding is done when your lawn is actively growing. It takes commitment - a regular fertilizing schedule is required if you want a great-looking lawn year after year.  

Fertilizing Cool-Season Grasses

Fertilize heavily in the fall and lightly in early spring.

The growing season for these grasses is mainly in the cool months of spring and fall. Cool season grasses grow best when the temperature is in the range of 60 to 70° Fahrenheit.

Fall is the favorite time of year for cool season grasses, so care for these types is most important at this time of year. Fertilize when the intense heat of the summer has subsided, but well before the onset of severe cold weather. You may choose to apply a special winterizer fertilizer for the fall application. These fertilizers are specially-formulated to help protect the grass during the winter months.

In the spring, begin fertilizing early. You may use either slow- or quick-release fertilizer, but time your fertilization regimen so the fertilizer will be used up before the onset of hot summer weather when cool-season grasses often go dormant.

Fertilizing Warm-Season Grasses

Fertilize when the grass starts to turn green in spring. The growing season for these grasses, depending upon the geographic area, is during late spring and summer. Warm season grasses grow best when the temperature is in the range of 80 to 95° Fahrenheit, although they will also grow outside of this range.

Use either slow- or quick-release fertilizer, but time your fertilization regimen so the fertilizer will be used up before the onset of severe hot summer weather. Begin fertilizing again after the intense heat of the summer has subsided.

Always follow the manufacturer's instructions when fertilizing, and ensure that you time the life of the fertilizer so it is not present at the onset of severe hot or cold temperatures. Failing to do so could damage your lawn. When fertilizing, too much is not a good thing.

Broadcasting Granules

  1. Make sure the spreader and fertilizer are dry.
  2. Set the rate-of-flow lever according to the setting listed on the fertilizer bag. If you have any doubts, apply too little rather than too much.
  3. Close the hopper vent. Place the spreader on a hard surface and fill the hopper slowly. Wear gloves and a dust mask and be sure to keep fertilizer away from eyes and skin.
  4. For complete coverage, cut the recommended application rate in half and apply evenly in a crisscross manner.
  5. Clean the spreader thoroughly after use.
  6. Clean up any excess fertilizer from driveways, patios, sidewalks, etc.

Spraying Liquid Fertilizer

  1. Fill the sprayer canister with liquid fertilizer. Carefully attach the canister unit to the end of your garden hose.
  2. Move at a steady pace to cover the entire lawn evenly. Walk slowly, spraying from side to side.

Do not apply other chemicals, such as herbicides or insecticides, at the same time as fertilizer. Leftover fertilizer does not store very well. Try to buy only enough for the season's needs.

As an added safety precaution, wear goggles, a dust mask, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and rubber boots when applying fertilizer. Be sure to keep people and pets off the grass for at least 24 hours after the application or until the lawn is dry. For maximum efficiency and safety, do not apply on windy days.


Fertilizer Spreaders

Broadcast spreaders (also called rotary spreaders) drop fertilizer from a hopper onto a spinning disc that disperses it over the lawn. Drop spreaders cover straight lines with little waste, but they must be used with care to avoid creating stripes. .

Check the label on the fertilizer bag for specific settings, they vary by product and spreader model.

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