Fertilizer FAQ

What is it, How it helps, and When and How to Apply It

You want your lawn and your plants to grow healthy and strong, but what’s the best way to do that? Whether you have a big yard of green grass, a prized tomato or rose garden, or just a potted succulent in your living room, fertilizer is an essential part of maintaining your plants for optimal growth and health.


What is Fertilizer?

Fertilizers are natural or synthetic substances that provide essential nutrients that plants need for growth and development. While plants get nutrients naturally from soil, water, light, and air, fertilizers help supply nutrients when plants are lacking or need an extra boost. Applying fertilizer to plants or a lawn helps to ensure that they have what they need to thrive.

Typically, fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the three macronutrients. These are the nutrients most commonly found in plant tissue, and promote strong plants, healthy growth, better water retention, and flower and fruit development. Most fertilizer packages list an NPK ratio that indicates the specific percentage by weight of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (or potash) that’s present in the fertilizer.

Secondary macronutrients and micronutrients are also added to fertilizer either to address specific concerns or enrich the mix. Calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, zinc, manganese, boron, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine all help plants grow strong and healthy, but are needed in smaller doses, under specific conditions, or for specific types of plants.

Fertilizers can be natural or synthetic. Natural or organic fertilizers are derived from plant and animal parts, and must be broken down by the soil microbes before they can feed plants. Synthetic or man-made fertilizers can be immediately processed by plants or lawns. They come in a variety of forms, including granules, liquids, water-soluble powders, spikes, or compressed tablets. You can even find fertilizers that are fast acting for immediate feeding or slow release to feed for several months.

What kind of fertilizer you need depends on your plants or lawn. While the number of options can be overwhelming, starting with the type of plant or grass and what it needs will help narrow down your selection quickly.


Plant Food vs Fertilizer

Plant food and fertilizer products are essentially the same and have similar benefits. Technically, plant “food” is produced by the plant itself while fertilizer is man-made. As long as plants or lawns have adequate light, air, and water, they will naturally produce their own food. When plants lack nutrients, fertilizers or plant food products help replenish the missing nutrients through the soil. Lawn food products even support lawns in making their own food.


When to Fertilize the Lawn

It’s best to fertilize when your lawn is in its active growth phase. This can vary depending on your geographic location and the type of grass in your lawn. Typically, warm-season grasses like St. Augustine grass and Bahiagrass should be fertilized from mid-late April to around mid-late September. Cooler season grasses such Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass have a broader timeframe, from mid-late March to early-mid June and again in early-mid September to early-mid November.


How Often to Fertilize the Lawn

When deciding how often to fertilize your lawn, always refer to the label instructions. Some fertilizers have restrictions on how often they can be applied. Most lawn fertilizers require 30 days or 6-8 weeks between applications.

Keep your lawn on track with a lawn fertilizer schedule. Two spring fertilizer applications help green up and strengthen lawns, particularly Northern lawns, between winter cold and summer heat. A fertilizer with weed control or preventer gives an added boost against pesky weeds before they grow. In the summer, fertilizers protect against drought and keep your lawn green. Applying fertilizer in fall helps your lawn recover from damage and prepare for winter. You can start a fertilizer program any time of year; just remember to find the correct kind of fertilizer for the current season.


How to Fertilize Lawns

First, choose the right Fertilizer. Select a lawn fertilizer that matches your grass type, soil type, and nutrient requirements. Be sure you’ve found a product that’s right for the current season. You may also want to investigate fertilizers that address additional concerns such as weeds.

Read the label of your fertilizer. Make sure you have all the necessary equipment, including a spreader. A broadcast, rotary, or drop spreader is the easiest way to apply most lawn fertilizers, and gives you an even application. The type of spreader you need will depend on your lawn size and layout. Also make sure you have the right amount of product for your lawn. The label will help you calculate how much fertilizer you need based on your lawn size and whether you’re building a new lawn or maintaining an established lawn. It’ll also tell you the recommended application rate for your spreader.


Once you’ve found your fertilizer and gotten the right equipment, you’re just a few steps away from a beautiful, green lawn:


  1. Prep your lawn: We recommend mowing your lawn to the desired height a few days before applying fertilizer. This ensures that the grass can efficiently absorb the nutrients and prevents potential damage to the grass blades.
  2. Apply your fertilizer: Start by dividing your lawn into manageable sections, typically 1,000 square feet each, and mark them with flags or stakes. Fill the spreader with the appropriate amount of fertilizer and make sure it’s set per label instructions. Walk at a steady pace while operating the spreader. Start by applying around the perimeter, then begin working your way along the middle in passes, slightly overlapping each pass to ensure even coverage.
  3. Clean up: Clean your spreader thoroughly to prevent any leftover product from affecting future applications. Make sure to sweep run-off product on sidewalks or driveways back onto the lawn as recommended by the fertilizer label.
  4. Follow watering directions: Read the label as watering instructions can vary by product. For many fertilizers, lightly watering your lawn after application helps the nutrients penetrate the soil and reach the root zone. It also reduces the risk of burning the grass. Some fertilizers have specific instructions around when and how much to water, so be sure to follow the product label carefully.


When to Fertilize Plants

One of the best times to fertilize plants is Springtime. Plants waking up from winter dormancy are ready to begin active growing, so this is a crucial time for supplying nutrients. New plantings including annuals also benefit from plant food when placed in gardens or flower beds. Depending on the type or form of fertilizer you apply, you can continue applying fertilizer to your gardens and landscapes all season long. Be sure to read product labels to follow any directions regarding the maximum number of applications or recommended duration between applications.

If you notice that your plants are looking sickly or aren’t growing, a fertilizer or a plant food product can help get them back on track. Plants may begin to look pale green, yellow, or purple, or lack flowers or vegetation. This is especially true for your container plants. Since in-ground plants utilize nutrients in the soil, they won’t show these symptoms as often.

Houseplants tend to need less fertilizer, but still watch out for signs of nutrient deficiency. Even indoor plants aren’t actively growing as much in winter, so apply fertilizer in the spring and summer months. There are fertilizers formulated for specific types of plants, so finding a product that’s right for your prized orchids or even drought-tolerant succulents is easy.


How to Fertilize Plants

First, determine the best type of plant fertilizer or plant food for your plants, whether they are indoor or outdoor, and whether they are in a pot, in-ground, or in a raised bed. Application directions vary depending on the form of fertilizer and your plant’s location.

Liquid or water-soluble fertilizers may require a more hands-on approach as they can be applied often, up to every week or two. Some liquid plant food products can be applied directly to the soil. Others are added to water and diluted. Apply the mixture using a watering can for indoor or container plants or a hose-end applicator for larger in-ground areas. Whatever product you choose, read the label for application instructions.

Granular fertilizers are a great option for in-ground plants, but can be used for container plants as well. Many have the added benefit of extended feeding, and some only require one application. For gardens, apply granular fertilizer by sprinkling over the garden area. Mix granules with potting soil when you re-pot or plant your container plants. Water in the fertilizer to ensure a quicker activation of the nutrients.


Get Out and Grow!

Fertilizing your lawn or your plants is a great way to help them grow healthy and strong. While it can seem overwhelming to get started, learning more about what your grass, garden, and container plants need will help determine the best tools and methods to keep them thriving. So get out there and start growing healthier, better, and greener today!