Skip to Content


Media inquiries: Please contact Julie Buchanan,, 804-786-2292.

Date: January 16, 2003

Fertilizer lessons/lessens for new year

(RICHMOND, VA) - The year just started, though some people are already envisioning warm days and yard chores. Before that time arrives, some review may be in order.

Lesson number one: Fertilizers are not plant "food." People forget from their student days in basic science class that plants produce their own food using water, carbon dioxide and energy from the sun.

This common misconception makes people think applying more fertilizers to lawns and gardens equals "better and greener." Fertilizers are salts, however. If tender plant roots are close to the fertilizer granules, water is drawn from the roots. Plant cells in these roots begin to dehydrate and collapse, then roots "burn" or dry out to a point where they can't recover.

Lesson number two: All-important is applying fertilizer in the right amount and at the proper time of year. Doing so maximizes nutrient benefits to plants and avoids potential water quality problems.

Forget fertilizing in spring! Wait until summer to fertilize warm-season grasses such as Bermuda grass and zoysia grass. Wait even longer - September through November is best - to fertilize cool-season grasses like tall fescue, perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass.
Lesson number three: Never apply more than one pound fertilizer per 1,000 square feet and never fertilize when grass is brown, or dormant. Take care to keep fertilizer on the lawn and not on the driveway or sidewalks. Chemicals that spill on impervious surfaces just get washed into the nearest storm drain to pollute creeks, streams and rivers.

All fertilizers are labeled with three numbers, which represent the percentage by weight of nitrogen (N), phosphate and potash. Nitrogen is important for leaf and stem growth; phosphorus is derived from the phosphate and stimulates root and flower growth; and potassium, derived from potash, helps build plant tissue and in chlorophyll production. A soil test is a good idea: some soils already have enough of certain nutrients, in which case less fertilizer is better.

Slow-release fertilizers make these three nutrients available to plants over an extended period. However, be careful when using a slow-release fertilizer around trees or shrubs, because the later nutrient release may keep plants growing into the fall when they should be hardening off for winter.

For a month-by-month guide to an environmentally sound lawn and garden or a lawn fertilizing brochure, contact the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at 1-877-42WATER. Or call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. Add hardy plants to your landscape - request regional (mountain, Piedmont and coastal) native plant lists from DCR, or contact the Virginia Native Plant Society at 540-837-1600.


Share this news release:  An Image An Image