What Fertilizer Should I Use?

April 6, 2009 at 3:44 pm 1 comment

Question: What is the best fertilizer for my yard in Almont? Joe R.

Answer: This is a seemingly simple question, but it involves a complex set of issues. While it would seem that a Master Gardener should just know off the top of her or his head what to tell you, the actuality is that a proper answer requires an analysis of your individual situation. We really need to have a lot of information about the particular circumstances:

1. Where do you live? I know you live in Almont, but do you live down on the river or up on the hills above?

untitled-112. What type of landscape do you want to fertilize? Is it a lawn? Is it beds of annuals and garden crops? Is it a perennial garden? Different types of plants benefit from different fertilizers, even in the same yard. For purposes of the remainder of this discussion, I will assume you are asking about a lawn.

3. At what time of the year are you going to be fertilizing? Often, it is best to use one type or one amount of fertilizer in Spring and another type or another amount in Fall. (Note: for horticultural purposes, Spring and Fall are local conditions, not the calendar Spring and Fall. In most of Gunnison County our Spring is later and our Fall is earlier than elsewhere in the US.) Improper timing of the application of fertilizer or excess amounts of fertilizer can actually cause more problems than the fertilizer solves.

4. Why do you want to fertilize? Are there problems with the landscape? Are there brown patches or circular spots on the lawn? Do you feel the grass should be greener? Did your neighbor tell you that your lawn looked bad? Often there are underlying issues which should be addressed before any fertilization takes place. There might be certain fungal or other diseases affecting the lawn. There may be insect damage. Your irrigation system may be in need of a tune-up. Putting fertilizer on a lawn to correct a problem such as improper irrigation or insect damage or necrotic ring spot may be the wrong thing to do. Often problems need to be corrected before application of a fertilizer.

5. Have you had your soil tested? Master Gardeners are very high on the benefits of having soil tests done as part of analyzing a landscape or garden problem. Most soil tests for homeowners are relatively inexpensive ($20-30) and can pay for themselves almost immediately in savings of time and money wasted on unnecessary chemicals, incorrect horticultural practices, etc. Soil tests can be ordered through Gunnison County Extension or any of several good private laboratories. Call the Extension Office in Gunnison (970) 621-1260 for information. In my own case, the savings in fertilizer alone paid for my soil tests many times over. Generally speaking, soils in the Rocky Mountains are varied and complex. One soil typical along rivers and streams can be and usually is much different than the soils only a hundred yards away up on the sides of the valleys. Thus, the fertilizer needs of one homeowner may be quite different than the needs of his nearest neighbor. Without a proper soil analysis, choosing a fertilizer becomes a hit and miss proposition.

6. What fertilizers or other chemicals have you applied to your landscape in the past 3-5 years? Sometimes, landscape problems are the result of historical over-application of fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. Applying more fertilizers to an already over-fertilized landscape can be ruinous. In one case I was asked to advise on, the owner of a summer home was following his back-home practice of spreading his fireplace and barbeque ashes over his lawn as fertilizer – a practice frequently recommended in books and magazines. Unfortunately, this is not a good idea in Gunnison County where soils already tend to be basic (alkaline) rather than acidic. Adding ashes, which are basic, to already alkaline soils increases the alkalinity even further. In the case I am talking about, the lawn was significantly “burned” by the ashes and died in several large areas. Merely adding fertilizer in this situation would not have solved the underlying problem.

7. Do you have a dog? Gunnison County is dog country. Almost everyone has a dog. Dog waste is one of the most common sources of lawn and landscape problems in Gunnison County. Dog urine is high in nitrogen and nitrogen-forming compounds. A concentrated amount of this material on a particular spot in the landscape will “burn” the vegetation in that spot. Since the problem here is too much nitrogen, applying a fertilizer which has a nitrogen component will only exacerbate the damage.

8. In the case of a lawn, what trees and shrubs are planted in or adjacent to the lawn? Often, poor lawn performance can be traced to the presence of trees or shrubbery. Many types of grasses do poorly in shaded areas. Thus, it is common to find lawn problems relating to shade from trees and shrubs. Sometimes this is a sneaky problem, only appearing several years after a tree or shrub is planted, when it grows big enough to provide a large amount of shade. Since the lawn damage does not appear in the year the tree is planted, it can be hard to associate the tree planting with the lawn damage. Also, the leaves and fruits of some plants contain organic chemicals which are designed to inhibit the growth of competing plants near them. When these leaves or fruits land on a lawn, the organic “herbicide” in them can damage the lawn. Applying fertilizers in these situations will not cure the underlying problem in such a case.

9. What has your neighbor been doing? Sometimes landscape problems can arise from activities on neighboring properties. Common examples are: (a) spraying of chemicals which either drift in the wind or drain in rainwater onto adjacent properties, (b) recent construction which changes existing drainage patterns, or releases construction-related chemicals (concrete residues, paint solvents, etc), and (c) changes in landscaping (planting or removing large amounts of vegetation). All such activities can impact neighboring properties. NOTE: such circumstances often involve legal issues as to which Master Gardeners may not become involved and do not provide any advice.

10. What are your horticultural practices? How often and how much do you water? How often do you mow your lawn and at what height? Did you amend the soil before planting the lawn? Has the lawn been aerated? When did you seed or over-seed your lawn? More generally, how do you use your lawn (e.g., for the occasional picnic or for weekly games of rugby)?

11. Last but not least: What kind of lawn is it? Different types of lawn have different needs. Is your lawn Kentucky blue grass or tall fescue or perennial rye grass or some mixture of such grasses. Is it native grass? The better you know the particular make-up of your lawn, the better you can target in on the correct fertilizer practices. Obviously, the simple question “What kind of fertilizer should I use?” is not quite so simple after all. To get the best answer, a lot of information needs to be gathered. Only after a thorough analysis can you really attempt to answer your question as to what type of fertilizer to use and how to use it. Sometimes, fertilizer is not the answer to your real problem. Most Master Gardeners have heard complaints by people against the company that made or sold them fertilizer, when their landscape problem would not have been solved by any fertilizer at all.

Numerous fact sheets and in-depth informational materials on the topics in this answer can be found the CSU Extension Website (www.gunnison.colostate.edu) . A follow-up to this answer will be posted soon: stay tuned for What kind of Fertilizer? Part Deux, where we will discuss more specifics about using fertilizers in Gunnison County. Reminder: analyzing any home landscape problem begins best with getting proper soil tests.

David Apker, Gunnison County Advanced Master Gardener


Entry filed under: Lawn.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. gardeninfoforyou  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Great article. You have mentioned a great number of issues. Thank you for this information and greating from the Netherlands.


    Home and Garden


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