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How to Select, Store, and Spread Fertilizer

Every spring, soil in yards across the country finds itself turned over, tilled, and trenched in preparation for the long, temperate growing seasons that make much of North America such a vibrant place to live. As rewarding as these growing seasons may be, they require a lot of work from veggie-hungry homeowners looking to eat healthy, save money, and even help the environment.

Selecting Your Fertilizer

In addition to those savings, a home gardener or landscaper can save water and time by choosing and spreading fertilizer. There is no universally applicable type of fertilizer. Which fertilizer is best depends on the type of soil (acidic, alkaline, sandy, clay, rocky, rich, or deficient). There are also fertilizers designed for vegetables, others for fruit, some which generally improve soil quality, and those formulated for specific plants.

Perhaps the biggest division in today’s fertilizers is between organic and inorganic. Inorganic fertilizers contain chemical additives such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. While these materials do occur naturally, some plants enjoy or require a higher percentage—hence the additives. Inorganic fertilizer is rated by the amount of the above additives contained within. Nitrogen encourages the growth of stems and leaves; phosphorus promotes flowers, fruits, tubers, and disease prevention; potassium in turn promotes protein production, resulting in thicker stems and leaves.

Inorganic fertilizers may also have chemicals in them designed to alter the soil’s acidity level. For instance, aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate are added to increase acidity. Lime fertilizer alters the soil on the alkaline side.

Organic fertilizers will have zero additives and erase the risk of burning plants, contaminating ground water, and affecting surrounding plants, and they are generally more diverse. Organic fertilizers also have long-term benefits for soil quality. They usually contain compost, peat moss, wood ash, manure, even bat guano. Furthermore, homeowners can easily create their own fertilizer by maintaining a compost heap or bin utilizing most organic waste, from vegetable scraps to grass clippings. Over time (faster under the right conditions), this compost heap will decompose into a rich fertilizer that is something many gardens will need.

Storing Your Fertilizer

Fertilizer should remain or be placed into a sealed bag for storage if at all possible. Even in the garage or shed, open fertilizer (such as that left in a spreader) will absorb moisture from the air and become hard to work with. Keeping fertilizer out of the spreader is especially important for inorganic fertilizer because it will cake up in the spreader, apply unevenly, and potentially burn the lawn or plants.

Fertilizer should always be stored out of the elements. The main point is to keep it dry and spreadable.

Spreading Your Fertilizer

Especially with lawns, spreading fertilizer correctly is extremely important. Yellowing and streaks easily occur due to improper spreading. At the least you’ll see alternating light and dark streaks on the lawn. There are two common types of spreaders (apart from hands and shovels): rotary and drop spreaders. A rotary spreader applies fertilizer in an arc (like a rotor sprinkler) by way of a rotating disc at the bottom of the hopper. Rotary spreaders are known for covering large areas but also have issues spreading the fertilizer evenly.

Drop spreaders distribute the fertilizer directly below the spreader itself. Also known as gravity spreaders, these are much more common among homeowners. They may require more time for spreading (not too much of an issue for most residential landscaping), but they spread more easily and evenly. For purposes of even spreading, it is important that the spreader and fertilizer remain dry. It is best not to use water to unclog or clean a spreader before using it.

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