Jeff Semler: Get a soil test before spreading fertilizer

April 09, 2012|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Spring has sprung and many in the community are hard at spring chores.

This is the time of year that many a pound of fertilizer is applied to hill and dale.

Before you open the fertilizer or dust off your spreader, ask yourself this question, “Have I taken a soil sample?” If the answer is “no,” then the next question is, “Why am I going to spread fertilizer?”

Much has been made of the need to improve the health of the bay and how we all have a responsibility to help. 

Nutrient management is now a fact of life for every farmer in Maryland. However, there is a gigantic gap in nutrient management — and that is with the homeowner.

We have reached a point in Maryland where we have just as many acres in lawns as we do in fields. Yet, homeowners can spread as much fertilizer as they want and do so without a soil test to guide them.

Let’s use an example of spreading one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet on your average lawn four times a year. That amounts to four pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet or 174 pounds of nitrogen per acre, which is more nitrogen than many farmers spread to grow a corn crop.

Another difference is the farmer spreads his fertilizer in a spreader that is calibrated so he knows exactly how much material he is applying. Most spreaders used by homeowners are not calibrated and thus many are not sure how much material is being applied.

The moral to this story is get a soil test and then apply fertilizer according to the soil test. Second, use a mulching lawn mower that allows the clippings to be incorporated in the lawn and reduce your fertilizer needs by as much as one-third. This translates into savings for you in reduced fertilizer costs.

It is high time everyone starts practicing nutrient management and not just farmers. I can tell you for sure every day is Earth Day for farmers because without healthy soil there is no crop. And no crop means no payday, and while many farmers will tell you farming is a way of life, it is also a way of making a living.

So how do we go about reducing nutrients? First, of course, as I have already mentioned is to take a soil test, whether you are growing 100 acres of corn, one acre of lawn or three tomato plants. Then, apply the needed nutrients in accordance with the soil test recommendations.

Next, take care when applying the recommended fertilizer. When applying near water sources, stay back at least 10 feet depending on the slope. Remember, a storm drain is a water source. Also, sweep up any fertilizer that lands on hard surfaces such as patios or driveways. This loose fertilizer will wash into the water system without any problem come the next rain.

Lastly, start a compost pile. If you catch your grass clippings, use them and any other lawn debris and household organic waste. You can then apply your compost as a soil amendment to your flower garden, your vegetable garden or to a new lawn seeding.

If you need information on soil testing or composting, contact the Extension office. Enjoy the great outdoors, whether you are gardening or just watching the grass grow.

 Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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