Lawn Feeding Simplified

Keep your lawn nourished for its long-term health and beauty.

Sensible Lawn Feeding

Okay, let’s start with the premise that there are two opposing schools of thought on feeding the lawn. One is the scientific approach in which feeding is called fertilization, and follows a strict set of rules and timelines; the other is just doing nothing but mowing what grows, nothing more.

Assuming you mow regularly at the right height for your type of turfgrass (or weeds, whatever the case may be), both work okay, but each has drawbacks. Somewhere in between is probably best for both you and your lawn.

High End Approach

For absolute healthiest, thickets, weed- and pest-resistant, best-looking lawns, applying nutrients in the correct amounts at the right times is crucial, but only if you are doing the other things right, including mowing at the right height and watering every week or two or as needed. Ignore those two, and fertilizers will be largely an exercise in seeing which grows best – lawn or weeds. 

Assuming you are doing all that correctly, you need to apply small amounts of the important nutrients once or twice a season. Northern, cool-season grasses (rye, fescue) are best fertilized in the early fall and again in late spring; southern warm-season grasses (St. Augustine, centipede, zoysia, Bermuda) are best fertilized in mid spring to late summer. Your county Extension Service office will have free brochures on on-line sources of the best times for your specific area and grass type; a soil test can determine if you have excessive or deficient nutrients, and can pinpoint exactly what you may need to do.

In particular, to help your grass get the most out of fertilizers, it is important to know if your soil is too acidic or alkaline, and needs adjusting. Again, the Extension Service is your best bet for finding this out.

Low End

Many hundreds of thousands of people have simple “mow what grows” lawns that never get fertilized or watered. Except in the most arid regions of the country, where grass simply won’t survive without water, you can see pretty decent examples around most churches, school yards, cemeteries, and older neighborhoods. 

In most cases, they are more weeds than turf, which tend to grow taller faster, and need mowing more often. But hey – as long as you mow it regularly and don’t mind weed seed heads too much, this works. Really. Get the mowing done, then go fishing or whatever you would rather do than baby the lawn

Happy Medium for Fairly Decent Lawns

Very few lawn experts will admit to this, but I will – and I am a university-trained turf specialist with three decades of experience and observation to back it up: unless you are a driven personality, or are trying for Yard of the Month, you don’t have to have a perfect lawn. Moderate is just fine.

Fertilize lightly every two or three years, recycling the nutrients through clippings (a mulching blade helps on this), and water at least once or twice a month you go without rain, and you will have a fairly decent lawn. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t drive you crazy with all the extra attention, or require you to pay someone to do all the extra stuff for you. 

Those N-P-K Numbers

The nutrient ratio of fertilizers is indicated by numbers on the bag. Each number represents the percentage of that particular nutrient in the bag, with the rest being filler material. Though most fertilizer companies use the same basic ingredients, no two use the same amounts, which leads to a lot of confusion with consumers. 

As long as you choose one with a fairly high first number, low middle number, and moderate third number, your will be doing okay. Just don’t over fertilize by applying too much – in fact, I usually recommend using fertilizers at half strength (make the bag go twice as far as it says), and your lawn will be just as attractive and healthy as full strength. 

Lawns need more nitrogen (N) than anything, and it is represented by the first number on the fertilizer bag. Choose one with a long-lasting, slow-release type of nitrogen, which feeds slowly over many weeks. Apply it after the grass has started to green up in the spring, and before fall so it has time to get absorbed by the lawn without pushing it too hard going into winter. 

Lawns need little or no phosphorous (P), represented by the middle number on the bag. Avoid excessive phosphorous, which builds up and lasts a long time, and can interfere with the lawn’s ability to absorb nitrogen. 

The third number represents potassium (K), which helps grass grow stronger roots and resist winter damage (it actually lowers the freezing point of cells inside the grass plants). Look for a fertilizer with a moderate amount, and apply it any time of the year because it lasts long enough to get your lawn through, even if you apply it in the spring – there is no need to use special “winterizer” fertilizers if you apply potash earlier in the season.

Organic vs. Synthetic

While the occasional, sparing use of synthetic fertilizers poses little risk to the environment, they are easily overused, in which case they pose problems to beneficial soil organisms (worms in particular). Organic lawn fertilizers made from natural materials are now widely available by major fertilizer companies, and the not only feed the lawn with great, long-lasting results, but also "feed" the soil without harming soil organisms or polluting ground water or nearby creeks or rivers.

Note: Granular fertilizers last longer than water-soluble sprays. If you use a liquid lawn fertilizer, be consistent and regular to avoid putting your lawn through feast-or-famine cycles. 


Look for a lawn fertilizer with a fairly high first number, very low or zero middle number, and moderate third number. Use it in late spring and a second optional application in late summer, and your lawn will be just about as healthy and strong as one with a scientific horticulturist in charge. Really.

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