Is your lawn starving? If you haven’t fertilized lately, it could be. Grass needs nutrients to thrive, but many lawns are constantly malnourished and don’t look as good as they should.

Patchiness, bare spots, browning, and weed invasion are hallmarks of a starving or struggling yard. These problems can be prevented with proper fertilizer application, good lawn maintenance, weed control, and a solid year-round lawn care plan.

The Power of Nitrogen

The mineral element, nitrogen, plays a big part in the health of grass. Your yard is like a large army of hungry plants, waiting to be fed. Nitrogen is the primary fuel they need to stand tall, and when it’s missing they begin to droop and die.

When nitrogen enters the body of a plant through its root system, internal plant processes rev up. New growth, in the form of shoots, occurs within hours of nitrogen application. You’ll likely need to mow more often in the coming weeks after application of a high nitrogen fertilizer..

During this time of strong shoot growth, root growth slows. This is something to keep in mind as you apply nitrogen fertilizer. When you add it to your grass, growth shifts from roots to shoots, giving you a lush lawn. But it comes at the expense of strong root growth, which may be more important during certain periods, like establishing a new lawn, preparing for periods of high stress such as the summer heat or preparing for the cold winter winds.

Nitrogen also contributes to the color of grass by boosting chlorophyll production. After a fertilizer application, you’ll probably notice that the color of your grass turns a darker, more emerald green.

Choosing a Fertilizer Ratio

Before applying fertilizer, take a look at its label for a three letter/number code. This corresponds to the nutrients found inside. Three letters N-P-K or nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium – correspond to percentages in the fertilizer. Your grass needs all three, Nitrogen for top growth and color, Phosphorus for root production and Potassium to regulate the chemistry of the turf grass.

So, for example, a 20-5-10 mixture indicates 20% nitrogen, 5% phosphorous, and 5% potassium – a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The remaining percentage is inert filler that ensures even application across your lawn.

Fertilizers come in all kinds of ratios, depending on grass and soil needs. Common options found at nurseries and home improvement stores include:

  • 5-10-5
  • 5-10-10
  • 6-6-18
  • 8-0-24
  • 10-10-10
  • 20-5-10

In general, a 20-5-10 fertilizer mixture is good for giving a nitrogen boost to New England’s grasses, helping feed your lawn in late spring. But that’s a powerful load of nitrogen to apply all season long, and will burn your plants if applied too often. You’ll want to switch to something less nitrogen-packed as the season progresses.

Types of Grass

You’ll also need to know your exact type or types of grasses to apply fertilizer properly. Turfgrass is generally divided into cool weather (typical of our New England region) and warm weather grasses, which can be blended to provide a robust lawn all season long.

The most common varieties of lawn grass in the U.S. are:

  • Bermudagrass (warm season)
  • Centipedegrass (warm season)
  • St. Augustinegrass (warm season)
  • Zoysiagrass (warm season)
  • Fine fescue (cool season)
  • Tall fescue (cool season)
  • Kentucky bluegrass (cool season)
  • Ryegrass (cool season)

When you purchase fertilizer, the packaging should indicate its matching grasses. But because of the risk involved with choosing the wrong fertilizer – including widespread grass loss – it’s best to consult a lawn care professional.

Preserving Lawn Health

Fertilizer isn’t the only weapon in your lawn care arsenal. It works in conjunction with many other methods. In fact, when you pair a nitrogen-based lawn fertilizer with early spring crabgrass preventer, you have an excellent starting strategy for a beautiful New England lawn.

Here are some things to keep in mind about fertilizer and year-round lawn health:

Starting from scratch with sod, some homeowners invest in the sod but forget to invest in the fertilizer. When sod arrives, it looks pristine and green. But it will quickly fade out and die without proper care. Encourage deep root growth by starting with a high phosphorus “starter” fertilizer about 6 weeks after laying sod, and be sure to water frequently. After the sod takes root, increase the nitrogen dose periodically to maintain a balance between root and shoot growth. The strategy is similar for starting a new lawn from seed.

Soil test help you see what’s happening with the pH of your lawn and decide on a fertilizer program. Soil pH runs on a scale of 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acid and 14 being the most alkaline. Your topsoil’s pH can vary during the year, depending on rainfall amounts, while the deeper soil stays more consistent. You might also find that you have varying pH levels across your property. By taking numerous samples from different areas of your property and combining them into one mixed sample, you’ll get a good representation of your property’s total soil composition

Root growth is key for a healthy green lawn. Well-developed roots can improve water retention in grass by as much as 100%. But if you overfeed with nitrogen-based fertilizer, your grass may never develop deep roots because it’s always focused on growing top shoots. Allow time between fertilizing for root growth to occur – generally 4 weeks for fast-release fertilizers and 6 to 8 weeks for slow release. A balanced N-P-K fertilizer program will ensure you are feeding both the roots and top shoots throughout the season.

Shade can’t be cured with fertilizer. In lawns with a lack of sun, some homeowners get overzealous and apply too much fertilizer to make up for it. This is the wrong strategy. Instead, select a grass variety that thrives in shade. Alternatively, you can replace deeply shaded grass zones with a ground cover like pachysandra or sweet woodruff, or landscape shady areas with gravel or a perennial bed.

Preventing crabgrass is easier than controlling it later. Crabgrass thrives in the hottest days of summer, when your turfgrass is most vulnerable. Areas that are most prone to crabgrass growth are along driveways and walkways due to the radiant heat these hard surfaces give off. So apply crabgrass preventer and other weed control additives in early to late spring, as a preventive measure and don’t forget to treat along the walkway and driveway.

Forsythia can remind us New Englanders that it’s time for early spring weed control. When you see their characteristic yellow blossoms, make a mental note to apply pre-emergent weed control immediately, before weeds take root. This should be paired with an early season fertilizer for your turf grass.

Pests can be a hidden cause of patchy, clumpy, bare, and brown grass. Grubs, for example, are a normal part of a large and healthy lawn, but can take over in a small or poorly-maintained area. They also attract moles, crows and raccoons, which can further damage grass and landscaping. Approach lawn pests carefully, because in some cases the law requires intervention by a certified pro.

Fungal diseases can also cause brown, red or pink spots on your lawns and can present in a variety of shapes and patterns , but they’re tricky to diagnose without professional help. If you suspect fungal disease, avoid overwatering and aerate your lawn. These measures can limit or halt the spread of fungus.

Blend grass varieties for best results. It’s important to have a good mix of bluegrass, fescue and ryegrass for a lush New England lawn. Blending grass types helps to increase the durability of the turf while protecting your lawn against diseases that attach one particular grass type.

Organic matter will help you get more for your fertilizer dollar. When you add compost, leafy matter, and other organic materials to your soil, it will have better nutrition and water retention. The soil will also have a looser texture that’s better for deep grass roots and allow for increased nutrient absorption .

Apply fertilizer evenly, or the results can be disappointing. If you’ve ever driven past a lawn that had dark and light stripes, or blotches of bright green color, you’ve seen a lawn that was improperly fertilized. Spreaders help distribute fertilizer evenly. Use a spreader to apply lawn treatments to ensure that your growing season will be as long and healthy as possible.

For more information about fertilizer and long-term lawn care, reach out to the experts at Swazy & Alexander. We serve the Newburyport area, including Newbury, West Newbury, Rowley, Georgetown, Ipswich, Amesbury, Salisbury, Byfield, and Boxford.