What do the numbers on the bag of fertilizer mean?

Did you ever wonder what the 3 numbers on that bag of fertilizer represent? Yes, they are there by law, but knowing what they mean may help you better decide for yourself what’s best for your turf.
Sometimes that bag labeled “Step 1″ might actually be better suited as a “Step 4″ for your particular situation. Sure, the company that markets that bag of fertilizer would like you to think they know what’s best; but then why do they sell the exact same products in stores from New Jersey to Wyoming and down to Georgia? Aren’t soil conditions different around the country? It’s time you learned to think for yourself DIY’er!

Those 3 numbers are called the fertilizer’s “analysis” and represent the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that is available from the bag. (Actually, it represents the percentage of N, P2O2 and K2O that is available, but for our purposes, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium will do.) Using the fertilizer “20-10-10″ as an example, the bag with this analysis will contain 20% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus and 10% potassium.fertilizer analysis

Now, you’re probably thinking that 20 plus 10 plus 10 only adds to 40%, so what’s in the other 60% of the bag? Depending on the brand of fertilizer, the rest of the bag may contain micro-nutrients like iron to turn KY Bluegrass, Blue and other filler material (like Urea). The filler material (in which the nutrients are suspended) allows you to evenly apply the nutrients across the area you want to fertilize. If the filler material were not a part of the mix, you could potentially over-or-under-fertilize certain areas creating un-even coloring or burning. The filler material allows for a uniform application of the nutrients.
Understanding the fertilizer analysis is essential to purchasing and applying it correctly. Let’s next explore what each element does in your lawn.

  • Nitrogen – Of the 3 major elements grass plants need, Nitrogen is the staple. This is what gives grass its rich green color and makes it grow hardily and reproduce itself by thickening up. A healthy, thick lawn will naturally resist weeds and other pests and require fewer pesticides.
  • Phosphorus – does most of its work in the root system. Strong, healthy and deep roots are able to support more blades on the top, so don’t overlook this element.
  • Potassium – works right along with the nitrogen to help toughen the roots and foliage, which enhances your lawn’s ability to resist drought, wear and tear, disease and extremes in temperature.

Typically, I will NOT use fertilizers with analysis’ like 33-3-3 or 35-0-2 (we are talking about synthetic fert here). In my opinion, these rates create way too much top growth (way too much nitrogen in this fertilizer analysis) and offer little else for overall turf health, although your lawn will be very green if you use them. I like to spend the extra money and use ratings that look like this: 20-20-10 or 20-10-10. Some companies refer to these analysis’ as “starter fertilizer,” and while they are great for new seed, they are even better for existing lawns. Sometimes, what’s healthy for the baby is also healthy for adults.

The final consideration is in knowing how much fertilizer to apply to your lawn (the ‘rate’). Most products can be applied at a 1-pound per thousand rate, which means that one pound of fertilizer is applied to a 1,000 square foot area. This is pretty tough for you to figure out at home, spreaderso I recommend you experiment a little with your broadcast spreader. Put exactly 1 pound of play sand in your spreader, measure out a 1,000 square foot area, and go spread the sand. Adjust your spreader accordingly until you can completely cover that area with the single pound of sand (each pass with the spreader overlaps the previous one back to the wheel marks). If you can do it with sand, you should be ready to actually apply the fertilizer and get pretty close to the 1-pound per thousand rate.
If you find the 20-10-10 product at 1-pound rate does not give you the green-up you desire, then up your rate to 1.75 pounds per thousand on the next go-round. After that, it’s just a matter of fertilizing on an “as needed” basis. If you irrigate your turf regularly, and you live in the Midwest like me, you may put down 5 or 6 or even 7 applications per year. If you use slow-realease organic fertilizers, then 4 or 5 will be sufficient.
On a final note, you will find that analysis in natural fertilizer products is much lower. (something like 8-4-7) This means that if you want to use a natural or organic product to fertilize your lawn, you will nee to put down as much as 17 pounds per thousand like with Milorganite (my favorite organic fertilizer) to achieve the same results that the synthetic rates will at 1-pound per thousand.

Organic, Natural and Synthetic Fertilizers Revealed, part 2

Are you still thinking green? Do you still want to do your part to save our world and care for our environment?

In Part 1 of this view of Natural, Organic and Synthetic lawn fertilizers, we learned that each segment has it’s positives and negatives, but I think we can all agree, the key is in the moderation. Over-using any kind of fertilizer, be it 100% organic or completely man-made, is not good for the the environment or your lawn. I want each of you to understand that “balance” is the key to this process. Extremes on either side will not help anyone, including the environment.

In Part 2, we will look at how fertilizers are classified, packaged and sold to the consumer. We will also explore what we term “cultural practices” in the lawn care industry.

Once again, this posting is meant to be 100% informative and may even be classified as boring, but I honestly feel that it’s a subject that must be addressed from a “middle-of-the-road” perspective. If you do not want to take the time to sort through it all, then you can search for the “Cliff Notes” that I have highlighted in GREEN and you’ll get the gist of the entire post. Sounds fair right?

Fertilizer Regulation 

The first thing to realize is that the United States Government is interested in regulating the fertilizer industry and has controls in place to monitor it’s packaging, distribution and use. However, the majority of the control is held by each state individually. The Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO) “strives to gain uniformity by consensus among each of these entities (states) without compromising the needs of the consumers, protection of the environment or fair competition among the industry.” source 

In other words, AAPFCO attempts to standardize regulations across the United States. Furthermore, they attempt to educate and effect sound legislation that protects both consumers and business owners, manufacturers and distributors. In doing so, AAPFCO adopts standards that allow consumers the information they need to make sound environmental decisions. One example of this is the standardized label that must appear on ALL bags of fertilizer sold (does not matter if they are synthetic, natural or organic). The label is similar in purpose to the “Nutrition Facts” labels you find on food in the grocery store.

Long story short, there is a body in place that looks out for, and keeps a balance on, the fertilizer industry. A further definition can be found here, from the Fertilizer Institute. So the next time you hear an extreme environmentalist spewing off about a particular fertilizer company or distributor, realize that the “spewer” is attacking the wrong entity. He/she should be attacking the organizations that regulate the industry and effect change there. On the flip side, if you find a lawn care operator who is abusing the environment, you now are armed with some information on just where to turn him in!

Professional Lawn Companies

It’s worth noting here that professional lawn fertilizing companies are regulated also. They are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture through State Extension Cooperatives and must meet rigorous standards in order to operate legally. Some of these standards include: fertilizer and pesticide storage and transport, usage and reporting, and licensing of individual spray technicians. Each state has different regulations regarding each of these areas, but every state does have some measure of control in place. In Illinois, for example, for a technician to treat a lawn with fertilizer and pesticide, he must pass a 100 question test covering the “general standards of the Illinois Pesticed Applicator.” In addition, the owner or head operator of the company must also pass a more specific exam. So next time you hire a lawn care provider, ask him or her if he is licensed with your state’s department of agriculture and ask for his license number. If he can’t or won’t provide it, move on! I can tell you from personal observation that most of the environmental abuse I have seen has been perpetrated by unlicensed lawn care operators who have no clue how, when or what to apply to a lawn. In my business, we say that those guys just “Spray and Pray.” :)

What to Look For When You Buy Fertilizer

Just because the label reads “natural” does not mean it is! Standards vary from state to state, but in Illinois, for example, a product that reads “naturally derived fertilizer” must be at least 50% derived from a natural source, and the rest can be synthetic. Is this the choice you really wanted to make? Were you looking, instead, for a 100% organic product? If you are confused by these statements, please go back and read Part 1 again to familiarize yourself with these definitions.

A product that reads “made with” organic products may not necessarily be 100% organic. In fact, according to the Organic Materials Review Institute, a product that is only 70% organic is permitted to use the terms “made with.”  There are also standards that organic distributors must follow during the processing of their products, however, if they market products that are less than 70% organic, they do not fall into this same standard.

Finally, some products that truly are 100% organic do not refer to themselves as such. One example of this is Ringer Lawn Restore. It is a first class 100% organic fertilizer, though it is marketed as an “all natural” fertilizer because consumers think of “cow poopy” when they think of “organic,” and Ringer does not want to be associated with cow poop. (Ringer, by the way, does not contain any manure at all)

What I am getting at here, is, that just because you see the word “Organic” or “Natural” on the label, does not mean that it is 100% along those lines. And truthfully, there is no way for you to know just EXACTLY what you are getting, no matter how carefully you read the label and do your research.

So How do we Make the Best Choice for the Environment?

It is pretty obvious that if you’ve made it this far into this extremely boring article, that you are very conscious about making the right choices. And I’m gonna tell you how to do that.

MODERATION: Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: dictionary.com

That’s right folks, whatever choice you make in fertilizer: Organic, Synthetic, Natural or some mix of two of these, the key is to be mindful of how much you are spreading, where you are spreading it, and how often. Let the labeling of the product guide you, and ALWAYS purchase your products from a reputable, regulated retailer or professional. If you do these things, then being “green” is simple.

Finally, you can greatly reduce the need for fertilizer in your lawn by exercising the proper cultural practices. That term refers to your basic maintenance practices such as cutting the lawn, watering it, and caring for the soil. Some great cultural practices that will reduce your lawn’s need for fertilizing are:

(1) Use a mulching lawn mower to return or recycle lawn clippings back into the turf…a great form of natural, organic fertilizer.

(2) Water your lawn regularly (2 times per week) and deeply, rather than daily and lightly or sporadically. Proper moisture levels promote healthy turf that needs less support from nutrients like potassium and phosphorus

(3) Core aerate your lawn 2 times per year to keep the soil from compacting. Aeration is a completely mechanical process that utilizes no chemicals at all. Be sure to actually pull cores of soil as those also help to stir up micro-nutrients and enzymes as well as promote microbial bacteria that occur naturally in healthy soil.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll get into some of the real meat of the environmental issue: PESTICIDES and INSECTICIDES and their uses in home lawn and landscape maintenance.

Your questions and comments are always welcome.