4 Reasons to Not Over-Fertilize Your Lawn

Big box garden centers push the use of high nitrogen fertilizers by stacking palettes high and offering sale prices.
Big box garden centers push the use of high nitrogen fertilizers by stacking palettes high and offering sale prices.

It's best to synchronize our watches with nature's cycles.


Instant gratification seems the way of the world today, but it works against the very nature of living things. Gardening is an activity that counteracts the rush of our daily lives by teaching patience and shifting us into a much slower gear. Nature runs by a different clock, and we both benefit when we synchronize our watches.

Good Tip:

Nitrogen can be depleted during the breakdown of carbons. To prevent this, organic mulches should be well-composted. Another option is to make compost tea and apply to your lawn with a sprayer.

I can certainly appreciate a person's desire for magnificent, non-stop blooms which can be had with weekly feedings from a sprayer. These fertilizers force plants to maintain top performance which depletes vigor for successive seasons; therefore, these water-soluble fertlizers work best with showier annuals in containers. On lawns and in my own garden beds, I am a proponent of the slower, organic approach for a number of reasons.

First, we are not only feeding our plants, we are also sustaining the microbial life which supports healthy roots and promotes efficient nutrient uptake. Composting is a recycling process in itself, and it provides food for beneficial decomposers and aerators like pill bugs, ants, and earthworms which break down the carbons in organic matter and render them more readily available to plants. These hard working organisms increase the amount of humus in the soil and leave behind mineral-rich excreta (worm castings.) Monthly top dressings of wellcomposted organic materials add structure to the soil, reduce the need for both water and nitrogen fertilizer, and help control weed growth. Organic fertilizers and compost also contain fewer salts which are toxic to plants in high amounts. Excess sodium weakens tissue growth, makes plants more susceptible to insects and disease, and can damage soil structure over the long term.

Organic vs. chemical fertilizer

When it comes to fertilizers, both organic and chemical varieties provide the same 17 essential building blocks for plant growth. The 3 primary ones: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium always appear on product labels- showing as 5-3-1 or 15-15-15 for example. The first, nitrogen, promotes good foliar or green growth; the second, phosphorus, encourages flower and fruit production; and the third, potassium, insures overall health, strong roots, and good cellular structure. Of course, be aware of the natural growth cycles of your plants and fertilize accordingly. Do not feed when plants are dormant. Fertilizers are to used when plants are actively growing. Consider the type of turf grass in your yard. Cool season grasses like rye, fescue, and bentgrass tend to slow their growth in the heat of summer. These lawns do best when fertilized during the spring and the fall when growth is most active. Warm season grasses like Bermuda, Zoysia, and St. Augustine go dormant and turn brown when temperatures dip. These grasses should be fertilized in the spring when the lawn has fully greened up with the increasing temperatures. The last application should be 6-8 weeks before the first frost. There are lawn specific fertilizers which are primarily nitrogen based, and there are other products which can be cast all over the garden to feed lawns, trees,and shrubs. It is important to thoroughly read labels of each for proper application so as to not burn the grass.

Natural milky spore safely rids the lawn of grubs and other root-chewing pests.

Leonardite is a valuable source of humic acid and makes a great organic lawn fertilizer.

Leonardite, an oxidized by-product of lignite found in coal beds, is rich in humic acid and makes a great organic lawn fertilizer. It conditions the soil and improves water penetration to promote deep root growth. Applied twice yearly with compost dressing and combined with the healthy practice of productive, less frequent watering, this nutrient will keep the lawn vigorous and pest-resistant throughout the growing season.

If a non-organic fertilizer is the norm for your lawn, cut the application amount in half and spread the feedings 2-3 months apart. Typically, lawn services will feature programs which feed lawns 4 times per year with each season. Spring applications include herbicides for pre-emergent weed and crabgrass control, and summer ones add extra nitrogen for green-up and pesticide to kill turf pests like grubs, cinchbugs, leatherjackets, armyworms, and sod webworms. Fall and winter feedings are higher in potash to encourage strong root structures. These programs result in nice looking lawns, but they make me wonder what poisons linger there when I walk barefoot. My pets like to eat the grass, and my kids play on it. What about those golfers who lick the golfballs for a clean putt? Yech!

The deadly threat of algae bloom from increasing fertilizer run-off:

Domoic acid toxicity in seafood and shellfish is becoming a bigger threat to sea mammals and humans alike. Algae bloom from high levels of phosphorus pollution is prevalent in many coastal areas like So. California where sightings of dead or beached sea lions is becoming all too common.

4 Reasons to avoid excess fertilizer application

The 4 main reasons to avoid over-fertilizing the lawn are:

1) The accumulation of salts will weaken turf health and soil structure.

2) Too much fertilizer will promote new growth flushes and increased insect activity.

3) Rapid growth means an increased need for water. We are experiencing critical drought situations throughout the world.

4) The run-off promotes algae bloom in our streams and ocean. It is a serious neurotoxin to dolphins, otters ,sea lions, and whales.

Cutting back on feedings may be a hard habit to form but is well worth the effort. The transition should be gradual for best results. Cut fertilizer amounts in half and leave grass clippings as natural mulch. This will encourage earthworms and improve water penetration and healthy roots. Keep mower blades sharp and avoid removing more than 1/3 of grass height at a time. Set mower blade height 2 1/2"- 3" in summer.

Water 15 mins. twice a week in hot seasons instead of five times for 5-10 minutes and remember to adjust timers to meet seasonal needs. Heat stressed spots needing extra water can be sprinkled by hand. If penetration is a problem, water until the point of run-off, turn off the sprinklers, let the water soak in, then cycle again 1 hour later.

Dead spots are often fungal related and are made worse by over-water. Wilted grass will take on a bluish tint and won't spring back when touched. Milky spore and nematodes can be diluted and applied by sprayer to address grub, chinch bug, and other insect problems. Fungal issues can usually be reversed with watering corrections or can be evaluated by a nursery professional who will recommend the proper fungicide.

Organically treated lawns bring peace of mind where family safety is concerned.


Going organic may seem slow at first, like putting coins in a jar. If you keep at it, however, you will eventually see a big payload: a lush lawn with healthy roots and fewer weeds. There is also the confidence that comes from knowing that your beautiful green areas are not harmng your health nor that of your children, pets and wildlife.

© 2011 Catherine Tally

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Comments 7 comments

Harlan Colt profile image

Harlan Colt 5 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

This is a great hub. I am going to book mark it. This is also the first hub I have bookmarked. Welcome to hub-pages Soapbox Cat. I look forward to more of great hubs. I am voting up!

- Harlan

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cat on a soapbox 5 years ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you, Harlan. That's quite a compliment! Thanks for following.

dobo700 profile image

dobo700 5 years ago from Australia

Nice Hub - excellent tips and advice.

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cat on a soapbox 5 years ago from Los Angeles Author

Thank you,dobo700. I'm glad you found it helpful. Hope you drop by again :>)

Ted Tanka 20 months ago

Great Hub. Thank you.

I found another blog on a blog I like to read for lawn tips where the author talks about how to remember when to fertilize. I like how he links it to holidays as a really easy way to remember.

Let me see if I can find the blog.... here goes....


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cat on a soapbox 20 months ago from Los Angeles Author

Hello Ted. Thank you for sharing the blog. I think the reasoning makes sense, and timing IS everything. Yes, fertilizer is to be applied when growth is active and does best before the stress of heat. Healthy roots will crowd out weeds too. Here in drought-stressed So. California it is imperative to irrigate deeply and less often w/ our water restrictions. Fertilizer stimulates new growth which requires more water, so it should be done sparingly. Keeping blades longer and leaving mowed clippings on the lawn helps the turf stay cooler and the soil moist longer. Thank you for stopping by to read. I appreciate the thoughtful comments.


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FlourishAnyway 19 months ago from USA

I'm so glad you provided an alternative. This is a very timely hub this time of year. Anything we can to to help give back to Mother Nature.

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    Catherine Tally (cat on a soapbox)291 Followers
    55 Articles

    Catherine is a California Certified Nursery Professional. Her interests are birds,insects, integrated pest management, & organic gardening.

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