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What Kind of Fertilizer Should I Use?

by Dawn West, All About Lawns Columnist

If you've ever gone to shop for fertilizers, you know just how many different kinds there are to choose from. It can be a bit overwhelming just making the simple decision of what to use. To help make things less complicated for you, we have broken down the types of fertilizers into four major categories - Granular (Dry) Fertilizers, Liquid Fertilizers, Synthetic Fertilizers, and Organic fertilizers.

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  1. Granular (Dry) Fertilizers:  Due to their relative ease of use and length of duration, Granular Fertilizers are perhaps the most popular among homeowners today. If you've seen a neighbor walking behind a spreader with little sand-like particles being spread out on the lawn in circles, you've probably seen it done. Granular Fertilizers usually come in 20-50 pound bags with the title of the company, application, and properties (i.e. numbers - see: what is fertilizer) written on the bag. The fertilizer will typically be a time-release (slow) or fast-release bend of fertilizer. The following are the relative descriptions and properties for each:
    • Time-Release (Slow) Fertilizers:  Time-release fertilizers are quickly becoming a popular choice for home owners. They provide fertilization over a period of time (usually 2-6 months) after application by slowly releasing its nutrients through a permeable coating around the fertilizer. This is obviously a popular choice to most homeowners because, once applied, your lawn will usually not need another application until at least a few months later. The release of nutrients is often accelerated during conditions of moisture (watering) and by the penetration of microorganisms that work their way through the coating. Some of the benefits gained by the use of this type of fertilizer are: long-lasting effectiveness due to slow release, a decreased likelihood of burning your lawn, relative easy of use, fewer applications needed per year, and the reduced chance of the fertilizer leaching (dissolving or passing) through the soil. Leaching can be a concern if you have less-dense, sandy-soil that can allow the nutrients to pass-through too quickly, especially during rainy or wet conditions. The draw-backs of using this type of fertilizer is that it tends to be more expensive, releases best in warm weather, and the effects tend to be slow or delayed depending on watering conditions.
    • Fertilizing
    • Fast-Release Fertilizers:  Fast-release fertilizers are known for their ability to supply nutrients to the grass faster than the time-release types, hence the name. Even though they are typically applied in the same manner as the slow-released, the fast-released fertilizers will tend to show their results much quicker with immediate nitrogen availability. However, due to their relatively quick release, they usually last up to a few months between applications. The benefits of fast-release fertilizers are: Quick release and green-up, lower costs, ease of use, and ability to release in colder weather. The draw-backs are: ease of grass burn, more applications needed per season, greater need for watering, and the tendency to leach (dissolve or pass) in sandy soils.

  2. Liquid Fertilizers: Liquid Fertilizers are commonly used by attaching a hose to a small container filled with fertilizer and spraying the combination on the lawn. The fertilizer in the bottle or container is in concentrated liquid form, and must have the power of the hose nozzle, along with the water, to work. If you do not have water or a hose to do this with, you might as well stop here and opt for the granular. However, there are a few benefits to using a liquid fertilizer. First, almost anyone can operate a hose, thereby creating a easy way to apply the fertilizer. Additionally, if spread evenly, you can reduce the risk of burning your lawn with liquid as apposed to granular. With liquid, the nutrients are immediately available to the roots providing the fastest response to fertilizing. Another benefit is its effectiveness is a fertilizer and herbicide combination for weed control. You can spray certain areas (where the weeds are) and the effects are almost immediate. Just make sure the weed killer you choose will not harm your grass at the same time. However, the biggest drawback to using liquid is the cost, especially if you have a larger lawn. Additionally, since the fertilizer works immediately, you will need to fertilize more often due to its short-term effects. Again, the bigger the lawn, the bigger the cost!
  3. Synthetic Fertilizers: Synthetic fertilizers are usually manufactured chemically and can provide a more immediate release and greening effect. However, some argue that the effects are not natural, thereby not providing the nutrients needed by the soil. The benefits to synthetic fertilizers are that they can act fast, penetrate the soil, provide a quick response and greening effect, and are easy to use. However, the draw-backs are that the effects are often temporary, thereby requiring more applications. Synthetics can also easily burn the lawn if not properly applied.
  4. Organic Fertilizers: Some people believe that the best fertilizers are those that are totally natural. Organic fertilizers are those made from once-living organisms and/or their by-products. Often applied over the lawn by special spreaders, shovels, rakes, and hands, organics tend to be slow to break-down and release nitrogen. They can also improve the texture and surface of the lawn. By adding soil or lake-bed sand to the surface of your lawn, you can improve the surface and help create a more-densely populated lawn. The draw-backs to organic soil are that they tend to be unpredictable and release nitrogen best during times of moisture and warmth. They are also hard to apply evenly, high in only one of the three major nutrients, and in the case of manures, can even smell bad .

Much like soils, fertilizers tend to come in various combinations to suit various needs. It is not uncommon to find different combinations of fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, fungicides, etc.. You can even find organic matter mixed with other types of fertilizers. The better technology gets, the more combinations you are bound to see. Until then, the experts will continue to debate and recommend.

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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