In Little Shop of Horrors, a down-on-his-luck shopkeeper’s assistant named Seymour discovers a rare plant species that brings him fame and fortune. The plant is christened Twoey (short for Audrey II), after Seymour’s secret love, Audrey. But Twoey is no ordinary plant. He is, in fact, an alien that lives off of human blood. “Feed me, Seymour, feed me!” he cries. And Seymour has no choice but to open up his veins in reply.

You may, at times, have felt a bit like poor, beleaguered Seymour (hopefully without the blood sucking) when you’re trying to fertilize all of your clients’ lawns as spring rolls around. Feeding root systems is one of the most important tasks for lawn care—and for your business. Knowing how to select and apply the right fertilizer when temperatures begin to rise can help you avoid being overrun by hungry plant life and rising fertilizer costs.

Choosing your N-P-K

In order to choose a proper fertilizer, it helps to know a little about the major nutrients that lawns need to thrive. Healthy lawns require at least 18 elements to grow properly: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron manganese, boron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, chlorine, cobalt and nickel. Most of these elements are supplied naturally, but nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are needed in larger quantities. These are usually delivered in the form of fertilizer.

Nitrogen, an important component of chlorophyll and plant proteins, is responsible for both growth and color. It’s a finicky element that requires the right balance to perform properly. Without enough nitrogen, turf will grow slowly and thin out. It will also become susceptible to disease and yellowing. On the other hand, too much nitrogen will cause excessive shoot and leaf growth (not to mention added maintenance), reduced root growth and leave turf more vulnerable to insects and disease.

Phosphorus stimulates seedlings and the root system, causing early root growth and plant vigor. Rather than penetrate the soil deeply, it binds to soil particles, which can sometimes make it subject to erosion and runoff. Some soils are naturally high in phosphorus and do not need it added through fertilizer. Potassium fortifies turf against drought, diseases and environmental stress. It also helps regulate physiological processes, such as how turf uses nitrogen. Like phosphorus, potassium stays on the surfaces of soil particles, although in more sandy soils it can move out of the root zone in time. Supplemental fertilization is usually not required in soils that contain high levels of potassium.

Which ratio of the three elements should you use? Determining the proper fertilizer doesn’t have to be hit and miss. There are several sources of information that can steer you towards the right fertilizer for the climate and soil type. First off, your nearest state university probably has an extension service that passes technical research onto the public. Your local fertilizer distributor should also be able to provide a credible recommendation.

To be absolutely certain which nutrients are needed, conduct a soil test. Soil tests are conducted by soil fertility laboratories and by some university laboratories, usually at low cost. Once you submit a soil sample to the laboratory, it will provide you with a conclusive analysis of the nutrients that are already in the soil and tell you the soil pH, which affects nutrient availability. More than one test may be necessary, as test results could vary according to the type of grass. “Different grasses have different makeups,” says Alan Wilson of Wilson & Associates Sports Turf in Lexington, South Carolina. “There can be a lot of variance regionally.”

Chuck Holton, national sales manager for ENCAP LLC in Green Bay, Wisconsin, adds that age could affect the test. He says, “If the soil came from a new lawn, it may need more phosphorus. If the soil came from a more mature lawn, it may need additional nitrogen or trace elements.”

Once you know how much of each nutrient you need, match up the numbers with the fertilizer grade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the fertilizer grade, also called the fertilizer analysis, be displayed on the product label as a series of three numbers.

For example, a fertilizer grade of 10-6-4 would be 10% nitrogen, 6% phosphorous and 4% potassium. The rest of the bag, depending on the brand, is a mixture of secondary nutrients and material that helps apply the major three nutrients. All three are required for the product to be called a complete fertilizer, and complete fertilizers are recommended for most lawn fertilization. However, if a soil test indicates that only one of the three main nutrients is required, you do not need a complete fertilizer.

All fertilizers are not created equal

Knowing the fertilizer grade is only part of the battle. You must also decide between options that determine the makeup of the fertilizer and how it acts. Quick release or slow release? Organic or synthetic? Some also offer a pre-emergent herbicide option.

Quick-release fertilizers, generally in liquid form, are available to turf soon after application and create rapid growth and color changes. “For new turf that needs a quick boost, quick-release fertilizers are a good option,” says Wilson. “Sometimes we’ll do a custom application to a playing field on a Tuesday in order to have it green by Friday night.” But because quick-release fertilizers have the capacity to work so rapidly, they must be handled carefully. Applying too much too soon raises the potential for leaf burn. Slow-release forms, on the other hand, use natural soil processes to break down the fertilizer and gradually release the nitrogen.

Slow-release fertilizers are more often granular, and they tend to last longer than quick-release forms and can be applied at higher rates.

You’re probably more familiar with granular synthetic fertilizers, which have higher fertilizer grades and are more readily available. They have a good reputation for being the best bet for your money. But as organic methods gain popularity, there are increasing numbers of organic fertilizers on the market. Organic fertilizers consist of biosolids, manure, bone meal, and other naturally occurring materials.

One of the major distinctions between organic and synthetic fertilizers is that synthetic forms are almost immediately available to plants, while organic fertilizers, which have lower fertilizer grades, must first be broken down by soil microorganisms. The additional time required for this to happen can either allow turf to receive the nutrients more naturally, or it may mean that plants do not receive the nutrients they need when they need them—timing is crucial.

An organic fertilizer may also need to be applied more often. That having been said, organic fertilizers offer such benefits as reduced chances of over-fertilizing and burning turf and less susceptibility to leaching. In fact, organic material can actually improve soil structure.

Many fertilizers, both organic and synthetic, are combined with either pesticides or pre-emergent herbicides for convenience. For spring, it is less likely that a disease or insect problem will coincide with the application, so a pesticide may not be needed. But a pre-emergent herbicide will probably be necessary to prevent weed seeds from germinating. These potential weeds include dandelions, chickweed and crabgrass.

Pre-emergent herbicides are a good idea, particularly for hard-to-kill crabgrass, which is an annual plant that germinates in the spring. Killing the weed seeds when the weather first starts to warm up allows the pre-emergent herbicide to be active in the soil and is really the only option for eliminating crabgrass. Once the weeds sprout, it will be too late to prevent crabgrass.

Before you use any type of fertilizer, check your local and state regulations to make sure that you are in compliance with all fertilizer ordinances. All fertilizers can create runoff pollution if used incorrectly. Many municipalities, concerned about pollution of their waterways and algae blooms caused by excess phosphorus, have recently enacted ordinances that restrict fertilizer usage during times when the conditions are right for runoff.

While selecting the right fertilizer is vital, so is proper application and lawn care in order to bring the turf out of winter dormancy and keep it healthy. However, “more is not better,” reminds Mike Sisti, marketing manager for Lebanon Turf. Applying the fertilizer according to the soil type and the manufacturer’s guidelines will help avoid burning the turf and creating flush growth. It pays to be patient now and cultivate a healthy lawn that won’t be overstressed come summer.

“Wait until warm-season grasses begin to green up,” suggests Curtis Suffridge of the University of Southern Carolina Grounds Department. “You don’t want the turf to flush out and then have to go through a late-season frost.” For cool-season grasses, begin fertilizing early, before the onset of hot summer weather, when the growing stalls.

Sisti also reiterates the importance of following sound cultural practices to reduce vulnerability to disease and pests. “Keep the mower blades sharp, cut the turf to about 2 to 3", depending on location, aerate once or twice a year and water properly,” he advises.


How to avoid rising costs

It’s no secret or surprise that fertilizer costs are rising dramatically. “Prices are going up due to international demand,” says Holton. High oil prices also factor into the equation. Holton thinks, “We can expect about another 20 to 25% increase in costs, despite the fact that costs have been going up substantially in the past 10 years.”

So how does one avoid being run over by the price hike? First of all, try to forecast your need in advance. “Plan early and be prepared,” Sisti says. “Even if you can only plan as far ahead as the next application, planning will help save you money.” Try to buy no more than you need. Leftover fertilizer generally does not keep well. If you buy too much, you may see most of it go to waste.

Next, “control the applications,” says Wilson. “Make sure the operator uses caution—don’t over fertilize. Also, check the calibration of your equipment.” A properly calibrated spreader will reduce the chances of the fertilizer being applied improperly, saving you money on the cost of fertilizer and cutting down on later maintenance.

Holton reemphasizes the importance of a soil analysis. “A balanced pH will allow greater utilization of the fertilizer,” he says. “The nitrogen can be processed better in turf that has a balanced pH.” He also mentions ENCAP’s Movement Control Technology, which helps keep fertilizer in the soil by holding both the nutrients and soil base in place.

According to Sisti, the prices of phosphorus and potassium, especially, have gone up. “A soil test can tell you, for example, if there’s phosphorus readily available in the soil. If there is, you may not need to purchase a fertilizer that contains phosphorus, and you can save on costs.”

Monitoring your watering is also vital to the proper use of fertilizer. Water efficiently—early in the morning or later in the evening, if possible. During these times less water will be lost to evaporation. Also, take care not to over-water. Over-watering will create runoff, which will flow down the street and pull the nutrients from the fertilizer along with it. “Smart watering will save money in the costs of both water and the fertilizer,” says Holton.

Keeping records on the appearance and performance of the turf helps you develop a regimen, explains Suffridge. “If the grass looks healthy, you may only need to do a half application, or you can break up the applications. Know your turf and don’t be afraid to try different things.”

Finally, educate your clients. Just as it’s important for manufacturers to keep their end users informed about the price hikes, your relationship with your clients will benefit from keeping the lines of communication open, Sisti thinks. Tell them that you are utilizing the best management practices to make your fertilization program as cost effective as possible.

With knowledge and the right fertilizer, jump-starting your clients’ lawns for spring doesn’t have to be a man-eating fiasco. Instead, you can successfully prepare them for a healthy, long summer growing season. And with vibrant lawns boasting the quality of your services, it won’t be long before your profits start growing, too.