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How Should I fertilize and With What?

by Dawn West, All About Lawns Columnist

Once you have decided what kind of fertilizer to use and when to use it, it's time to decide how you want to apply it to your lawn. As we discussed in the section on what kind of fertilizer to use, we know that the most common forms of fertilizer are granular, liquid, and organic. Based on these three forms, the following are the most common ways to apply fertilizer to your lawn:
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Broadcast Spreading:

Broadcast spreading has become one of the most popular ways to apply fertilizer to your lawn. It is typically done with either a hand-held broadcast spreader or the most commonly used walk-behind rotary spreader.
Rotary Spreader
Rotary Spreader
Thehand-held spreader is typically a small container you hold in your hand while turning a small crank to spread the fertilizer. Due to its small size, hand-held spreaders are effective only on very small yards or patches of grass that require fertilizing and/or weed control. Awalk-behind rotary spreader has two wheels that help spin the rotary spreader at the bottom to quickly release the fertilizer and spread it out over a larger area (typically 3-5 feet in width). Most types can hold a relatively large amount of fertilizer in the holding bin and make a fairly even distribution of fertilizer while moving at a constant rate. Additionally, most of the spreaders have a release control lever at the handle (much like the throttle on a mower) that controls the amount of fertilizer released during spreading. Before you begin, make sure you read the instructions on the fertilizer so you do not apply too much (or too little) fertilizer to you lawn. Most fertilizers give a coverage rate per 1,000 square feet, so it's a good idea to measure your lawn and/or know how much fertilizer should be applied before you begin.
Fertilizing Pattern
Fertilizing Pattern

As shown in the illustration, the proper way to fertilize with a Broadcast spreader is similar to how you mow.Note: Before you begin, remember that if you are filling your spreader, it is best to do it over a side-walk or drive-way so any spillage will not accumulate on your lawn and burn it. With the hand-held version, it is usually best to walk back-wards while spreading to avoid being messy and to give yourself a better view of the distribution. With the rotary walk-behind versions, it is best to start with the edges of the lawn and proceed back and forth until your lawn is completely covered. Make sure on the first pass that you determine the spreading width so you can make parallel passes without excessive overlap. Always make sure that if you stop or pause during the spreading, that the control lever is turned off so no excess fertilizer will leak onto the lawn and burn it. Once completed, you should water your lawn a few times to help wash the fertilizer and nutrients to the soil level where they belong. If you have excess thatch, or thick grass is suspending the fertilizer above ground, it is a good idea to run a rake through the grass to help release the fertilizer to the ground and prevent grass burn.

Drop Spreading:

Drop spreading is typically done with a drop spreader that operates similar to the walk-behind broadcast spreader except that instead of broadcasting (or throwing-out the fertilizer) to a relatively large area, the drop spreader will drop the fertilizer straight down only to the width of the wheel-base of the spreader. Therefore, it usually takes longer to fertilize with a drop spreader, but it is more accurate then its broadcasting counterparts. The pattern you should use to apply is much the same as the broadcast spreader except that, since the spread width is narrowed, it's a good idea to slightly overlap the the wheelbase while making a pass to assure even coverage. It's also a good idea to make two passes perpendicular to each other to insure an even spread. However, make sure that you only apply half of the recommended fertilizer on each pass when you do so.

Liquid Spraying:

Liquid spraying is typically done using a bottle of concentrated liquid fertilizer attached to the end of a garden hose. Once mixed together and sprayed out from the force from the garden hose, liquid fertilizers can give immediate results. Since most people know how to handle a hose, attaching and spraying can seem simple. The only problem is that the larger your lawn is, the more difficult is can be to evenly spread using this method. To better assist you there are two things that can help:
  • One,it's a good idea to determine the spreading width back and forth. Once determined, try to mark-off your lawn with markers or ropes to divide it into these areas for spraying. Once established, these boundaries can help determine your progress and amounts applied. This should help you spread your fertilizer as evenly as possible.
  • Second,it's a good idea to walk backwards while applying once you establish your boundaries, so you can get the best vision of what has been sprayed, and avoid getting fertilizer all over your shoes. Once completed, watering never hurts, especially during hot and dry months!

Organic Spreading:

Some organic fertilizers can be spread with the previously discussed processes. However, it's a good idea to look at the bag (if it exists) to find out the recommended process. In some cases, organic fertilizers have to be sewed by hand or spread with shovels and rakes over your lawn. This is obviously not an easy process, and can be done improperly if not evenly spread. Take your time in spreading/raking to make sure each area gets equal coverage. It is sometimes a good idea (like with liquid spraying) to mark-off areas for coverage.

Despite which technique you use, there are a few things to remember when fertilizing:
  1. Always follow the instructions on the bag of fertilizer. Many will have a time release so it's important to know when to apply and when to wait. Since there are so many types of fertilizer out there, it is easy to not know what is required each time you fertilize. Besides, unless you're a pro, who really wants to remember everything!
  2. Always fill your fertilizer over a driveway or cement surface, and not over your lawn. Spilling fertilizer on small areas of your lawn will burn and leave spots that can make your lawn look unattractive. Besides, do you want to explain to "The Yard God" next door how you got that spot on your lawn? Boy, could that be embarrassing!
  3. Make sure you water your lawn well after fertilizing. Again, fertilizer caught in the grass leafs can burn the grass and damage the lawn. Watering and raking will help loosen-up the grass blades so the fertilizer granules can drop to the soil where they belong.
  4. Avoid fertilizing during periods of droughts and extremely dry weather. It could only end up burning your lawn if moisture is not present. Make sure you water before and after each application. Under extreme drought and dry conditions, you can even delay or cancel that application to give your lawn enough time to recover. Fertilizing during these periods can cause your lawn to grow faster, needing more water and mowing to stay healthy. That can mean more work for you!
  5. Try to clean (rinse-off) your spreader after each usage. Not only can fertilizer and its dust get all-over everything, but it can also corrode the metal parts of your spreader over time.
  6. If you have children or pets,exposure to fertilizer (especially with chemicals and sprays) can pose a serious health risk to them. Make sure when applying that you follow the instructions on the bag or bottle. Also keep people and pets away from the lawn for the time specified in the instructions. For example, once sprayed, some lawn companies will advise you that no contact should be made with the lawn until at least 48 hours after application.

About the Author
Dawn West B.A. holds a B.A. in English from Harvard University and teaches writing at Oregon State University.

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