The Lawn Fertilizer Fiasco: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It

In our never-ending quest for Super Secrets, we’ve turned to golf-course superintendents to help solve real lawn-care problems faced by homeowners like you. Last week, we tackled the issue of unsightly brown patches. This time, it’s all about a botched fertilizer job!

Let’s dive into the juicy details. The captivating photograph above captures a lawn-care mishap, courtesy of David Phipps during his recent trip to Nevada. Phipps, an experienced turf expert and representative of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, encounters various turf troubles on his journeys. Whenever he spots something amiss, he snaps a picture to serve as both a conversation starter and a cautionary tale. By the looks of the sad striping in the photo, it’s evident that the lawn in question fell victim to a botched fertilizer job. But what exactly went wrong? We asked Phipps to dissect the likely missteps and provide tips for all you lawn enthusiasts trying to get it right at home.

The Problem: A Bad Spread

Typically, when we see a fairway getting fertilized, it involves a broadcast spreader – a wheeled contraption with a bucket on top and a spinning wheel below. As the fertilizer drops through a hole in the bucket, the wheel disperses it across the turf evenly. However, in this case, Phipps points out that even the most basic aspect of this process didn’t go as planned.

The Possible Causes

1. Ghost in the Machine?

One possibility, according to Phipps, is that the machine itself malfunctioned. Perhaps the wheel had a faulty rotor, resulting in insufficient spinning speed. Alternatively, some other mechanical flaw could have caused an excessive amount of fertilizer to pour out at once. “When the fertilizer comes out too fast or the wheel isn’t spinning fast enough, it just falls to the ground,” explains Phipps. “This leads to a heavier application in some areas and, of course, those awful stripes.”

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2. An Improper Setting

However, Phipps believes it’s more likely that the machine was working fine, but someone operating it made an error. Broadcast spreaders come with different settings, and commercial fertilizers usually have specific instructions. In this case, it’s possible that the settings on the spreader didn’t match the recommended amount of fertilizer. Luckily, the fix is simple: “Check the bag of fertilizer; it usually has a corresponding letter or number. Find the matching letter or number on your spreader to ensure you’re putting out the right amount,” advises Phipps.

3. A Sloppy Pass

Imagine you’re operating a Zamboni. Would you carelessly glide it over the ice? Of course not! Spreading fertilizer requires the same level of precision. Unfortunately, it appears this wasn’t the case here.

When fertilizing a lawn, Phipps recommends starting with the perimeter to achieve a clean edge. Spreaders have a drop-shield on one side, which acts as a guard rail to prevent fertilizer from straying where it shouldn’t (like onto the sidewalk or other hard surfaces that could lead to water contamination). Once the perimeter is done, work back and forth across the rest of the lawn, creating a “double overlap.” Imagine it’s early morning, and the lawn is dew-covered, allowing you to see your wheel marks. With each pass, make sure the outside edge of your spray pattern meets the wheel marks from the previous round, resulting in double coverage on one side. The other side will have single coverage, but you’ll take care of that on the next pass.

Examining the photograph, it’s evident that the coverage was uneven. While some parts of the lawn received a hearty meal (represented by the dark green stripes), other areas (the pale stripes) were left starving. Thankfully, things could have been worse. Applying excessive fertilizer can scorch and kill the turf, which, fortunately, didn’t happen here. But let’s face it, not much else went right.

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Now armed with these insights, you’re equipped to avoid falling into the fertilizer fiasco trap. Remember, a well-manicured lawn is within reach if you master the art of even spreading, pay attention to settings, and follow a systematic approach. Happy fertilizing!