A Guide To The Different Types Of Fertilizer

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Fertilizing a yard has progressed far beyond just spreading manure, as was done in generations past. Getting to know about your fertilizer options can help you grow your most beautiful yard possible.

Fertilizer Basics

All types of fertilizer have one thing in common: they are designed to provide essential nutrition to your plants. Almost all types of garden plants benefit from fertilizer because most soil doesn't contain enough of the nutrients plants need for ideal health and growth.

The more you use your soil to grow plants, the more nutrition is depleted from that soil over time. Fertilizer ensures that your plants get the all vital nutrients they need including:

  • Calcium: Calcium helps plants neutralize toxins, and grow properly.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is essential to process sunlight.
  • Nitrogen: Plants need protein to make new tissues and nitrogen allows the plants make these proteins.
  • Phosphorous: This nutrient improves plant health and size, helps plants set flowers and buds, and helps roots and seeds grow larger.
  • Potassium: When plants get enough potassium, they are more resistant to disease. This nutrient also boosts overall health, regulates plant metabolism and helps plants make carbohydrates.
  • Sulfur: This is a building block of many plant proteins.

In addition to being supplied with essential nutrients, plants need to be in an environment with the right pH for them to absorb that nutrition.

Ready for Planting Finished Product


Understanding Fertilizer Labels

When you pick up a bag or bottle of fertilizer, you'll see three numbers on the label. These numbers, referred to as the N-P-K ratio, represent the amounts of three vital nutrients contained in the formula. Here's how it works:

  • The first number is the "N" in the formula, for nitrogen.
  • The second number is the "P", for phosphorus.
  • The third number is the "K", for potassium.

In addition to the N-P-K ratio, check your label to see if fertilizer is rapid acting or slow-released.

Organic vs. Commercial Fertilizer

Once you've decided to fertilize, you'll need to choose between organic and synthetic products. Each type of fertilizer has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages:

  • Synthetic Fertilizer Advantages: Synthetic fertilizers offer tight control over the amount of each nutrient and the speed with which nutrition is released into the soil. These formulas can be very concentrated, offering quick results with rapid acting formulas and allowing you to use less fertilizer than you would with organic products. Additionally, synthetics are generally less costly than their natural or organic components.
  • Synthetic Fertilizer Disadvantages: Unfortunately, chemical fertilizers may damage your soil, causing it to become more dependent on added fertilizer over time. Because of the rich, synthetic chemicals, your plants' roots risk damage as well.
  • Organic Fertilizer Advantages: Since they're released gradually, organic fertilizers provide steady long-term nutrition to plants for lasting results. These products also encourage growth of healthy soil organisms and sturdy roots. Organically fertilized soil also holds moisture and nutrients longer than soil fertilized synthetically.
  • Organic Fertilizer Disadvantages: You'll probably have to use more fertilizer, pay a bit more, and wait longer for results.

If you're interested in organic gardening, you might want to consider making your own organic fertilizer. You can find lots of recipes to try online. Here are a few common ingredients of homemade organic fertilizers:

  • Chicken manure
  • Corn gluten meal
  • Epsom salt
  • Fish emulsion
  • Gypsum
  • Lava sand
  • Lime
  • Molasses
  • Seaweed
  • Worm castings

Applying Your Fertilizer

When buying your fertilizer, be sure you're getting the correct formula for your specific plants, and follow the manufacturer instructions.

If you're starting a new garden bed, you can apply fertilizer in a few basic steps:

  1. Apply slow acting fertilizer to the soil in early spring and rake it in.
  2. Use a roto-tiller to push nutrients deeper into the soil.
  3. After your plants come up, give them occasional snacks by spraying quick-acting, water-soluble fertilizer directly on leaves. Always make sure you've properly diluted this fertilizer so you don't harm your plants.

To fertilize an established lawn:

  1. Be sure to choose the right fertilizer for your type of grass.
  2. Let your lawn come up and get green in the spring, and mow it a few times before feeding it.
  3. Use a spreader to apply slow-release fertilizer, walking behind it at a steady pace and covering each area of the lawn only once.
  4. Repeat at least one more time during the growing season, and then again with a winter formula at the beginning of the fall if needed for your type of grass.

Fertilizer Tips

To help you get the most from fertilizing your yard, here are a few basic tips:

  • Always thoroughly water plants and lawns before using water-soluble fertilizers.
  • Plants that are stressed by drought shouldn't be fertilized.
  • Don't fertilize at the same time as you apply lime for pH.
  • Newly planted trees and shrubs shouldn't be fertilized for the first year.
  • Only use the amount of fertilizer recommended by the manufacturer.

Your Healthy Yard

Taking the time to fertilizer your lawn and garden brings the rewards of a healthier, more attractive yard as well as a higher yield from any crops you decide to grow.

Last Updated: August 30, 2011
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About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

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