A healthy lawn needs a few key things to stay healthy, and one crucial element is fertilizer. Even when applied carefully and with the best of intentions, our lawns are at risk of fertilizer burns from granular fertilizers and other common types of fertilizer we use at home. Once lawn fertilizer burn has set in, so too can the dread that our lawn is dead.
However, treating grass burns from fertilizer is not impossible, and if caught quickly enough, there may be a chance that your lawn can revive. Excess fertilizer will lead to brown grass and even dead grass, but only if neglected and untreated. If a build-up of mineral salts is experienced from misuse of chemical fertilizers, the information below can help you keep your lawn green after fertilizer burn.
How to Treat Nitrogen-Burnt Turf?
The most common nutrient that grass OD’s on is nitrogen. Organic fertilizer and synthetic slow-release fertilizer help regulate the speed by which growing grass absorbs the nutrients in the soil. Applying excess fertilizer or the improper type of quick-release fertilizer can lead to brown spots and dead grass in very little time. To treat nitrogen and other fertilizer burns you will need to apply several inches of water while taking the following steps.
Identify Fertilizer Burn
Grass can turn brown or die for a myriad of reasons, and yellow grass is even more common. Sometimes turfs are dormant, and other items’ drought or disease are causing discoloration. To zero in on the symptoms of fertilizer burn, you can look for yellow sots in a green lawn and pay attention to weak grass, especially in the days following a fertilizer application.
Check Fertilizer Instructions
If you are new to lawn fertilization, some of the application rates can be tricky to get right. Water soluble fertilizers are measured in Millimeters and ounces, and slight variations can lead to delayed growth in patches of grass. Take time to make sure you didn’t overapply the fertilizing solution, or you may be contributing to the turf’s poor condition.
Just like when sowing grass seed, extra water is needed to get the high-nitrogen fertilizer to the grass roots where it can be utilized. Allow your lawn a bit more time with the sprinkler after regular fertilizing to avoid lawn stress. A good schedule is frequent deep watering every day for a week to aid grass growth and prevent salt buildup.
Wait and Observe
If you fixed the application rates and soaked the soil with water, the rest is on the grass, its deep roots, and the surrounding soil microbes. Often extra watering is the best solution, and simple steps will reward you will healthier turf and recovering patches of grass. When the brown streaks on the yellow lawn turn a deep green color, you know the excess nitrogen has been removed from the entire lawn.
Fix Dead Patches
Sometimes the yellow patches will not recover, and the fertilizer damage is too great for parts of your lawn to survive. This is most common where a high concentration of fertilizer was spilled, and no watering or cleanup occurred. You can remove the dead grass and then resod or sow seeds in the bare spots from fertilizer burn. Watering and extra care are needed to give the new grass plants the best chance of coming back.
Adjust Future Fertilization Applications
If careless fertilizing or accidental spraying on plant leaves or vulnerable turf, then you will need to take action to avoid doing that next season. Make sure grass is actively growing before applying instant fertilizer, and only use slow-release fertilizers in the spring and fall to prevent runoff and waste. With these adjustments, you won’t have yellow streaks on your turf anymore.
Will Turf with Fertilizer Burn Recover?
Yes, as long as the roots are still alive, your turf should be able to come back from even severe fertilizer burn. Other factors like fungal disease or pest damage could endanger a burnt lawn that would otherwise recover, but in most cases, lawns are resilient and can be healed. One thing I have noticed is that excess nitrogen from fast-release fertilizers is more damaging to warm-season and shorter grasses than other turf types.
The other factors that greatly impact whether a lawn will survive burns from chemical fertilizer nutrients are access to water, the severity of the burn, and pre-existing stress factors. A lawn that has been suffering from drought, extreme heat, or other environmental stressors may succumb to nutrient burn much faster than an otherwise healthy lawn.
What is Fertilizer Burn?
Fertilizer damage occurs because most formulas are high in salts. Salts are used to deliver nutrients to the roots of the grass in the soil, and the more salts there are, the higher the chance of fertilizer burns. Fast-release fertilizers have the highest levels of salt per pound, whereas slow-release fertilizers and high-quality liquid fertilizers have low levels.
The salts pull out too much moisture and can sauce the grass to burn. Turf that is slightly yellow will recover with proper watering, but grass that is very brown may be dead at the root zone and unable to come back. Too much fertilizer accumulates in the dirt and creates soil imbalances which can lead to microbe issues and other growth disadvantages.
Synthetic fertilizers are absorbed faster than grass can use them and leads to abnormal growth and patch lawns. When cut, some turf may turn yellow while other sections grow faster and become richer green. This inconsistency can give the appearance that the grass has been burnt by flames or dried out in drought when in reality, it is poor fertilization techniques.
Signs of Fertilizer Burn
After applying fertilizer, it is important to keep an eye on your lawn to check for signs of fertilizer burns. Once it occurs, you can fix it, but acting quickly will increase the chance your turf will recover and become green again. In almost every case, it is a good idea to deeply water your lawn as soon as you suspect nutrient burn. To prevent deadly burns, if you spill fertilizer, you can try to clean it up before fertilizer burn happens.
Below are common signs that fertilizer burn is the problem with your grass
|Sign||Where to look||What It Means|
|Yellowing Tips||Grass Blades||Roots need water|
|Brown Patches||Grass and Roots||Potentially irreversible damage|
|Patchy Growth||Grass Blades||Uneven fertilization|
|Brittle Grass Blades||Grass Blades||The grass is having a hard time healing|
How to Avoid Fertilizer Burn
Even if you mess up while fertilizing, it is possible to prevent fertilizer burn from damaging your turf. the first thing you should do is stay calm and retrieve your fertilizer packet. If you already threw it away, you can probably find the information online. There should be some tips directly from the manufacturer on what to do. If that still doesn’t help, try the tips below to avoid fertilizer burn from high-nitrogen fertilizers.
Reading and rereading the instructions before using potentially harmful chemicals on your lawn, like herbicides and fertilizers, is a good start. You may see something the second time that you missed; this is especially true when it comes to application rates. Make sure to follow the directions carefully and always err on the side of less fertilizer rather than more than the recommended dosage.
Use a Colorant in Spray Fertilizers
A common error that occurs when applying liquid fertilizers by spraying is that you are unable to tell where you have already sprayed. When this happens, it is possible to overlap and apply way more chemicals than intended. If this happens, no matter how perfectly you mixed the solution, you can still apply too much and risk burning vulnerable turf grass.
Use Appropriate Applicator
If you are applying a liquid fertilizer, make sure to use a sprayer set to the correct dispersal rate to ensure a uniform but no thick application. When too much liquid is sprayed in one spot, or it is prayed inconsistently, you may end up with burnt areas of lawn adjacent to under-fertilized or rapidly growing lawn.
The same is true when spreading granules, as they need to be broadcasted evenly to avoid burns. Check the instructions to set the hopper and make sure you move constantly to avoid fert dumps.
Don’t Apply on Wet Grass in Windy Conditions
There are weather conditions that make fertilizing a breeze, and there are others that will blow it away. Make sure to check the week’s weather forecast when considering a fertilization date. If it will be raining and storming or there are high winds, you may want to wait for better weather.
As a rule, it is best to apply fertilizer to dry grass that will allow the roots to soak it up faster. Wind can make an even application impossible, so apply early in the morning or in the evening on still, calm days.
Use Plenty of Water
During times of extreme heat, drought, or water restrictions, a lawn should not be fertilized. Grass needs a lot of water to absorb and utilize the nutrients in fertilizer, and when water sources are scarce, those nutrients could be detrimental. Always water thoroughly after fertilizing or use the correct liquid formulation. Adjust the watering schedule to help push all the nutrients deep into the soil where your grasses roots can make the best use of it.
Let Grass Grow Longer
After fertilizing, it can pay off to let the grass grow a 1/2 inch or so longer than usual. In the spring and before dormancy (summer or winter), grass can be allowed to grow long and make the most out of the fertilizer. After the long initial growth, cut as often as required to keep the roots growing densely.
Less Fertilizer is Better than More
If you lack the exact measuring utensil required to measure a perfect amount, you can use a substitute scoop or volume-indicating container. However, it is a good idea to choose one slightly smaller than the required amount instead of one that is large or capable of holding more than the recommended maximum application amount. This will help you avoid over-fertilization even if you mess up the math.
Use Organic, not Synthetic Formulas
The best way to avoid nutrient burn in turf grass is to choose organic slow-release fertilizers over the less reliable, synthetic, fast-release ones. Organic fertilizer that is high in nutrients, both macro and micro, that a growing turf need is the best solution to having to fix fertilizer burnt lawns.
Homemade compost and fertilizers derived from natural plant and animal sources are better for your grass, the soil, and the environment and will make lawn maintenance even easier.