Easy Steps to Fixing Fertilizer Burn on Your Lawn

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Jul 17, 2020

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Fertilizing your lawn is necessary to keep your turf lush and fresh looking. While the right amount of fertilizer will leave you with a thick, green lawn, too much fertilizer can turn a good thing bad.

Whether it’s by accident or just inexperience, applying too much fertilizer can stress your lawn, resulting in fertilizer burn. You can fix and prevent fertilizer burn by following our easy steps and tips.

But before diving into fixing and preventing fertilizer burn, let’s learn how to identify fertilizer burn and why fertilizer burns your lawn.

Symptoms of Fertilizer Burn

Fertilizer burn varies by severity, but it always has roughly the same symptom: discoloration.

Mild fertilizer burn is when your lawn starts to yellow slightly or has brown streaks through it. When you touch mildly overfertilized grass, it’ll still feel flexible and won’t break when you bend a grass blade.

With severe fertilizer burn, the grass will turn a shade of brown or tan. In severely overfertilized grass, the blades also become brittle and break if you attempt to bend them.

The Cause of Fertilizer Burn

Fertilizer burn is always a result of overfertilization and is generally the result of fertilizing at too high a rate, applying the fertilizer unevenly or accidentally spilling fertilizer in an area.

So, why does something healthy for your lawn cause damage if you apply too much? Fertilizer is more than just nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also has mineral salts that absorb into the soil.

When you apply too much fertilizer, the salts draw moisture from the grass, resulting in discoloration and, in severe cases, death.

Steps to Fix Fertilizer Burn

While fertilizer burn is frustrating, it’s not always a death sentence for your once-vibrant lawn. If you catch the burning early enough, you may be able to save the grass with these steps.

Step 1: Assess the Roots

Even if the grass is brittle and brown, it may still be salvageable. Determine its health by digging up a few small patches of your turf and inspecting the root system. If the roots appear moist, flexible, and in overall good health, there’s a chance you can save the grass.

If the roots are shriveled, brittle, and discolored, skip to the “Replacing Grass With Fertilizer Burn” section.

Step 2: Water, Water, and More Water

The key to riding your soil of that life-sucking mineral salt causing the fertilizer burn is to flush it out with water. Apply about an inch of water to the affected area daily for at least a week.

Remember, to only water the impacted area daily. If you water your entire lawn daily, you could end up with fungus and a whole new set of problems.

Step 3: Check the Roots Again

Skip to Step 4 if your grass has responded to the watering and is nearly back to its normal green color.

If the grass hasn’t responded to the watering after a week, dig up turf sections again and reinspect the roots.

Skip ahead to the “Replacing Grass With Fertilizer Burn” section if the roots have gotten worse or died.

If the roots are still moist and healthy looking, continue the watering for another week. If there’s still no improvement after that week, move ahead to the “Replacing Grass With Fertilizer Burn” section.

Step 3: Let It Grow

Once your lawn is nearly back to its normal shade of green, revert to your regular watering schedule and allow the grass to continue to repair itself and grow.

Replacing Grass With Fertilizer Burn

If you determine your burned turf is beyond repair or isn’t responding to your attempts to repair it through watering, you’ll have to replace it to make your lawn lush again.

Though the process is similar to ripping up any grass and replacing it with new sod, there are a few extra steps to take along the way.

Step 1: Remove the Old Grass

If the affected area is small enough, remove the dead grass by raking it out with a hard rake. If the burned area is too large for manual removal, use a sod cutter to cut up the dead grass, then roll it up like a rug and remove it.

Step 2: Prepare the Soil

Prepare the soil for the new grass by tilling or aerating it to loosen any compacted soil. Once loosened, test the soil’s nutrient and pH levels with a home soil test from a lawn and garden store. Amend the soil if it’s short on nutrients or the pH levels aren’t acceptable.

Level the soil with the backside of a hard rake.

Step 3: Lay the Sod or Reseed

When replacing the grass, you can either lay new sod for an immediate repair or reseed it to reduce cost.

If you’re laying sod, simply place the sod on the leveled soil. When you get to the perimeter, use a sod knife to trim the sod pieces to fit. Walk over the newly sodded area and use your feet to stomp down any uneven areas.

If you’re seeding, follow the instructions on the seed packaging to reseed the bare area. Place bird deterrents in the seeded area to prevent avian thieves from swooping in and snacking on your seeds. A few dollar-store pinwheels spread across the area on stakes will do the trick.

Step 4: Water and Wait

Water the area you seeded or laid sod daily for at least a week. Stop watering once you can pull up on the sod without it lifting off the ground or until the freshly seeded area is about 3 inches long.

When mowing your lawn, avoid the area you laid seeds or sod until the new grass is 3 inches tall or the sod no longer lifts when you pull up on it.

Step 5: Mow and Maintain

Mow and fertilize your lawn as you normally would to keep it healthy and a popping green.

Preventing Fertilizer Burn

With your fertilizer-burned lawn now repaired or replaced, make sure this never happens again with these tips for preventing fertilizer burn.

Fertilize on Calm Days

A steady breeze on your face is welcome when cutting the grass in the scorching heat, but it’s not something you want when fertilizing. Windy conditions can cause your fertilizer to blow into areas you already fertilized, potentially causing burns. This is especially true when using a spray fertilizer.

Only fertilize on days when the wind is calm. If you live in an area where winds are consistently high, consider switching to a large-granule fertilizer that’s harder to blow around.

Use a Colorant

When applying liquid fertilizer, it’s easy to lose track of where you did and didn’t fertilize. This is a common cause of overfertilization, as you could overlap an area multiple times without knowing. This overlapping can cause streaking or large brown patches.

You can keep track of where you’ve fertilized by mixing a colorant with your fertilizer. A colorant adds a harmless dye to your fertilizer, temporarily turning the grass a different color in the areas you’ve sprayed fertilizer.

Simply avoid fertilizing in the colored areas to prevent overfertilization.

Stick With Slow-Release Fertilizers

While fast-release fertilizers may help quickly rectify an isolated problem, stick with slow-release fertilizer for larger-scale fertilization.

Fast-release fertilizers get in your soil and almost immediately release their nutrients and burn-causing salts. When you overfertilize, the immediate release of the salts can overwhelm you grass faster and with far greater severity than a slow-release fertilizer.

With a slow-release fertilizer, the salts release more slowly, so your grass doesn’t dry out as quickly. This slower process gives you more opportunity to dilute the salts with the watering strategy outlined above.

The Tools for the Job

Fertilizing needs precision, and applying fertilizer by hand may be too imprecise. If you’re using a granule fertilizer, apply it with a broadcast or drop spreader to ensure you apply it evenly and at the correct rate.

To ensure your spreader is applying the right amount of fertilizer, follow its calibration instructions before starting and fertilize at the product’s recommended rate.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Part of being a weekend warrior DIYer is making mistakes and learning as you go. These mistakes can sometimes be costly or time-consuming, but there is always a valuable lesson in them. Burning your lawn with fertilizer is no exception.

Fortunately, you can bring your lawn back to life through nursing it back to health or replacing it. And using the lessons you learned from overfertilizing it last time, you now know what to avoid to ensure your fertilizer’s helping, not hurting, your lawn.

Need more tips? Check out our beginner’s guide to fertilization. It provides all the tips any beginner needs to fertilize their lawn like a pro.