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5 Reasons to Not Over-Fertilize Your Lawn and Garden

Catherine is a proponent for responsible stewardship of our natural resources and covers topics of plant life and sustainable living.


Instant gratification may be the way of the world today, but nature runs by a different clock. Gardening teaches patience and forces us to slow down and follow the seasonal cycles of rest and growth. Reducing fertilizer applications is a good first step.

5 Reasons to Avoid Fertilizer Overuse

  1. The accumulation of salts will weaken both plant health and soil structure.
  2. Random applications of fertilizer will promote unnecessary new growth flushes which increase insect damage.
  3. Rapid growth means an increased need for water. This is impractical with critical drought situations throughout the world.
  4. The run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus promotes algae bloom in our streams and lakes. It can cause gastro-intestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, and breathing difficulty. It can be fatal to dogs who make drink large amounts.
  5. Domoic acid toxicity in seafood and shellfish is becoming a bigger threat to ocean food chains. Algae bloom from phosphorus pollution is prevalent in many coastal areas like California and Florida where sightings of beached sea mammals is becoming all too common.

The algae bloom from fertilizer run-off is deadly to sea mammals.

The algae bloom from fertilizer run-off is deadly to sea mammals.

The Benefits of Organic Fertilizer

I can certainly appreciate a person's desire for magnificent, non-stop blooms and lushness 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 fertilizers work best with showier annuals in containers. On lawns and in garden beds, a slower organic approach is smarter for a number of reasons.

  • They are not only feeding our plants, they are helping the microbial life in soil that supports healthy roots and efficient nutrient uptake.
  • Composting is a recycling process in itself. It provides food for beneficial decomposers and aerators like pill bugs, ants, and earthworms which break down the carbons in organic matter and make them readily available to plants. Worms increase the amount of humus in the soil and leave behind mineral-rich excreta.
  • Monthly top dressings of well composted organic materials add structure to the soil, reduce the need for water, and help control weed growth.
  • Organic fertilizers and compost contain fewer salts which are toxic to plants in high amounts. Instead of spraying a commercial fertilizer each week, consider the option of a homemade compost tea.

How To Apply Fertilizer

When it comes to fertilizers, both organic and inorganic varieties provide the same main nutrients. 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 leaf growth and a rich green color.
  • The second, phosphorus, encourages flower and fruit production.
  • The third, potassium, ensures overall health, strong roots, and good cellular structure.

Inorganic fertilizer like Ammonium sulfate is great for quickly greening trees and shrubs, but organic fertilizer is less likely to burn because concentrations are less. There are also macro and micronutrients to consider like manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, boron, copper, etc. which are already present in compost. These help with pattern yellowing, veining, purple leaf coloration, and pest resistance.

There are many plant specific fertilizers, many of which have the same ingredients. The most important of these are:

  • Acidifying fertilizers which benefit plants like camellias, hydrangeas, azaleas, gardenias, & blueberries. Organic equivalents are chicken manure, peat moss, coffee grounds, and compost
  • High phosphorus fertilizers increase fruit set and flowering potential. Organic super bloom foods are bat guano and mushroom compost.
  • All purpose fertilizers are those containing humus, worm castings, mycorrhizae, fish emulsion, kelp and seaweed blends, and compost.
  • Rose fertilizer equivalents have alfalfa meal, bone meal, fish emulsion, and soybean meal. Coffee grounds can be scattered around roses too.

Always follow directions carefully. Water well before applying liquid fertilizers for better absorption. Granular and pellet fertilizer should be water well immediately after application. Manure, which is high in salts, should be thoroughly composted and watered in well after application. Slow release fertilizers like Osmocote or Jobe's spikes are good commercial alternatives to organic feedings but offer no advantages to soil tilth. They are great for indoor containers.

Fertilizer is needed when plants are actively growing. Colder weather brings dormancy and may slow a plant's uptake of nutrients, so it's best to hold back applications even if some leaves are yellow.

Lawn Fertilizer

  • 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 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 greened up. The final application of the season 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. One of my favorites as a combo is humic acid based Gro-Power. A good organic lawn fertilizer is leonardite, a natural lignin by-product derived from near-surface mining. Compost and compost tea applied by sprayer are also excellent.
  • Always read the labels for proper application. This helps prevent leaf burn and keeps high concentrations from collecting in irrigation run-off.
  • Commercial lawn services will feed lawns 4 times per year. Spring applications include herbicides for pre-emergent weed and crabgrass control, summer ones add extra nitrogen for green-up and pesticide to kill turf pests, fall and winter feedings are higher in potash to encourage strong root structures.
  • Lawn programs result in nice looking lawns, but imagine what chemicals linger there when walking barefoot. Pets like to eat the grass, and kids play on it. What about those golfers who lick their golf ball for a clean putt? Yuck!

More Natural Tips for a Healthy Lawn

  • Cut fertilizer amounts in half. 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.
  • Leave grass clippings as natural mulch. This will encourage earthworms and improve water penetration and healthy roots.
  • Keep mower blades sharp. Set mower blade height 2 1/2"- 3" in summer.
  • Avoid removing more than 1/3 of grass height at a time.
  • Water deeply and less often. If smaller areas are dry, they can be watered with a hose-end sprinkler.
  • Adjust sprinklers timers to meet seasonal needs.
  • Aerate the lawn every two years or when it's compacted. This should be done at the same time as the first feeding for the specific grass type. Plugs can be left to break down with irrigation. Do not aerate dormant turf. Clay soil areas and high traffic lawns may need annual aeration.
  • If water penetration is a problem, run sprinklers until the point of run-off, turn off, let the water soak in, then run again 1 hour later. A surfactant like yucca extract can help penetration by breaking the surface tension.
  • Invest in a moisture meter. It's an essential tool for checking uneven distribution and the need for water.

Natural Solutions for Common Lawn Problems

  • Dead spots can be fungal related and are made worse by overwatering, whereas wilted grass will take on a bluish tint and won't spring back when touched. Take a moisture probe reading. Fungal issues can treated with the proper fungicide for turf grass, and sprinklers can be adjusted. Toadstools and slime molds are indicative of ample moisture and are innocuous.
  • Lawn Insect control should really only be used when specific pests have been identified in large populations. Beneficial nematodes can be diluted and applied by sprayer to address grub, chinch bug, and other turf pests. These biological controls can be ordered from A great source for help is your local integrated pest management or IPM website.

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 payoff with a thick lush lawn, healthy drought-tolerant roots, and fewer weeds. There is also the confidence that comes from knowing that your beautiful green areas are not harming your health nor that of your children, pets, and wildlife.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can I over fertilize to get rid of creeping charlie?

Answer: Fertilizer should only be used as directed on the package, especially in the case of Weed and Feed formulations. Lawn fertilizer contains primarily nitrogen which promotes quick growth including that of undesirable weeds. If you are having a problem with creeping charlie, I would recommend a spray herbicide that will specifically target broadleaf weeds but not the grass. You can find it at garden centers.

© 2011 Catherine Tally


Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 07, 2019:

You're welcome, Louise89. I'm glad you found my article helpful.

Louise89 on July 07, 2019:

Thank you for the great advice.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 15, 2015:

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.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 07, 2015:

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.


Ted Tanka on April 07, 2015:

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....

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 02, 2011:

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

dobo700 from Australia on April 02, 2011:

Nice Hub - excellent tips and advice.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 03, 2011:

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

Harlan Colt from the Rocky Mountains on March 01, 2011:

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