From the ground up: Find the lawn ranger in all of us

Published: March 30 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:19 am in

We love our lawns. According to the Professional Lawn Care Association of America, we love them so much that, as a nation, we spend about $6.4 billion a year on lawn care. And after this long cold winter, we want to get out there.

Admit it; if you’re a lawn enthusiast, you’ve eagerly been scanning the edge of the sidewalk in search of those first tender green blades. And you want to fertilize.

But hold on lawn ranger, before you head for the fertilizer aisle, do you know if you even need to fertilize? The only way to really know is to have a soil test. Now would be a good time to do that. Soil testing is available through the Iowa State University Department of Agronomy for a nominal fee starting at $8. Find details at

Assuming that you need to fertilize, familiarize yourself with what the numbers on the outside of the bag mean. All fertilizers display three bold numbers that indicate the nitrogen — phosphorus — potash/potassium contained in the product. A bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer contains 10 percent each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. A 50-pound bag contains 5 pounds (or 10 percent) of each. The remaining 70 percent is inert ingredients, which are there mostly to help disperse the chemicals.

Nitrogen (N), the first chemical listed, helps with plant growth above ground. Lawn fertilizers frequently will have a high first number to promote lush, green growth.

Phosphorus (P), the middle number, works to establish healthy root systems and also is important for flower blooms and fruit production. Fertilizers designed for flower production, or starter-type fertilizers for lawns have a high middle number.

Potassium (K), the last number, is important for overall plant health. It builds strong cells and helps plants withstand stress.

Many lawn fertilizer products also contain an herbicide or weed killer and are often referred to as “weed and feed” products. The herbicide in most products for springtime application contains a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent weed seed from germinating. Unless you know your entire lawn is full of dormant crab grass seed, you may not need to apply an herbicide to your entire lawn.

Lawn fertilization can be a complicated, emotional subject, and we didn’t even get into pesticides. I leave you with this sage advice: No matter what, read and follow all package directions.

For a great perspective on organic lawn care, don’t miss “Guys on Grass, Organic Lawn Care 101” by Mike Nowak from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library.

Jackie Hadenfeldt MacLaren is a Linn County Master Gardener.

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