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It takes more than mowing and watering to keep a lawn lush, green, and beautiful. Regular applications of fertilizer are also needed for optimal grass health. Major decisions to make before beginning a lawn fertilization regime include whether to apply organic or synthetic fertilizers and whether to do the job yourself or hire a professional lawn care service.
Choosing a Fertilizer
There are two major types of fertilizer: organic and inorganic. A third type, synthetic organic, consists of human-made organic materials such as urea and ureaform.
Organic fertilizers (cottonseed meal, blood meal, fish emulsion, manure, etc.) contain once-living organisms that provide nutrients (microorganisms) to the soil and promote long-term lawn health. They don't work as quickly as synthetic fertilizers but over the long run results tend to be better and fewer applications are needed. Inorganic fertilizers are manufactured on a large scale, often from petroleum industry by-products (ammonium sulfate, potassium nitrate, potassium chloride, and others). They release nutrients more quickly than organic fertilizers and therefore produce a rapid greening boost. This quicker cycling, however, means that inorganic fertilizers need to be applied more often. Lawns, in fact, can even become dependent on synthetic fertilizer applications. There are additional concerns that synthetic fertilizer runoff pollutes waterways and damages wildlife.
To read more about the inorganic vs. organic debate, check out this fact sheet from the University of Wisconsin.
The other main factor to keep in mind when choosing a fertilizer is the percentage of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). These are the three primary nutrients in fertilizer. Labels typically identify the nutrients (N-P-K) in a ratio (3-1-5). Clemson University provides a good overview of plant nutrient needs. The document recommends performing a soil test in order to determine the exact nutrient needs (and thus the fertilizer needs) of your lawn.
Hiring a Lawn Care Service
Lawn fertilization is certainly something that homeowners can do, so it becomes largely a question of whether you have the time and/or desire to do it. There's no doubt that hiring a lawn care service is easier…but do the pros actually get better results?
Consumer Reports addressed this question a few years ago and found that results varied among national lawn care services. You might be better off going with a local landscaping company that offers lawn care tailored more to the needs of individual customers, not the logistics of a national, high-volume business.
When it comes right down to it, however, the competency of the individual lawn technician or technicians is what matters most. Check company references and ask friends and family to provide recommendations. Always read the fine print of a contract so that you know what products are being used. If you insist on organic products, find out whether the company can supply them.
Lawn Fertilizer Average Costs
- A bag of lawn fertilizer might cost $6 to $26 depending on the pounds per bag and the fertilizer nutrient profile. The amount needed depends on the lawn size (Penn State shows you how to calculate the amount of fertilizer needed).
- Another way to examine fertilizer cost is to look at the cost/lb. N (the University of Arkansas provides a breakdown).
- A walk-behind broadcast spreader costs $100 to $300. A hand spreader costs $10 to $75.
- Hiring a professional lawn care service might cost $30 to $60 (for a single fertilizer application) on an average-sized lawn (up to 3,000 sq. ft.). Larger lawns may cost extra. Some companies charge by the hour (around $100/hour for a 3-man crew).
- A fertilizer service plan (usually 4 to 9 annual applications) might cost $350 to $600.