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Decoding the Mysteries of Lawn Fertilizer Labels

by Kate McIntyre, All About Lawns Columnist

Walking into a lawn center and picking out a fertilizer can be a confounding task. There are so many options, and the fertilizer packages can seem to be written in a language that is only understood by lawn care experts. If you are puzzled about what your lawn needs, you should just keep in mind the big three nutrients in lawn fertilization: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

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Just like people, lawns need nutrients in order to stay healthy. They can get most of these from the soil and sun, but they usually need a little extra help in getting nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Lawn fertilizers are prominently labeled with the percentages of each nutrient contained in the fertilizer. They are always listed in alphabetical order: nitrogen first, then phosphorous, then potassium.

Going Green: Nitrogen

Nitrogen helps to keep your lawn green and encourages growth. It is most important that your lawn gets plenty of nitrogen during its peak growing seasons, which are early spring and fall for cool season lawns and late spring for warm season lawns. Nitrogen in fertilizers comes in fast-release and slow-release varieties. It is usually a good idea to opt for the slow-release formula. The fast-release nitrogen can cause burned, brown patches to develop in lawns. The slow-release formula takes care of this problem, but you do not always see the results of the fertilizer application immediately.

Deeply Rooted: Phosphorous

If you are getting a new lawn started or trying to reinvigorate an older lawn, phosphorous can help. It strengthens the lawn's roots and helps lawns to develop deep root systems. Lawns with strong roots are less susceptible to shocks and stresses, such as drought, than lawns with shallow roots.

Getting Tough: Potassium

Potassium strengthens your lawn as a whole. It helps your lawn to bounce back after heavy foot traffic, to develop resistance to diseases, and to stay healthy through cold weather. You should seek out fertilizers with more potassium when you are doing your fall fertilizing and when you are working to establish a new lawn.

You should keep in mind that your lawn's soil might have plenty of phosphorous and potassium in it already. If this is the case, you can stick to applying nitrogen only when to fertilize. To determine your lawn's fertilizing needs, consider getting a free lawn analysis from lawn care experts. They can tell you about the current condition of your lawn and soil and recommend a fertilizer that will keep your lawn looking its best.

About the Author
Kate McIntyre is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.A. from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Oregon State University.

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