Is fertilizing a lawn really necessary?
September 12, 2013 10:05 AM   Subscribe

What will happen to my lawn in the long run if it's not fertilized? My wife and I aren't lawn-obsessed and we don't want to contribute to the chemical runoff that's a consequence of Americans' quest for the perfect lawn. We have a mixture of turfgrass, crabgrass, ground ivy, clover, violets, and various other plants, and that's fine with us. We just want it cut every week or two so it doesn't get too unruly.

We're in western Massachusetts, in a house on former farm land with good, well-drained soil. We don't water the lawn either. We hadn't put down any fertilizer since we moved in, in 2005, and the lawn has been in good enough shape as far as we're concerned.

Today, some employees of our mowing service spread fertilizer on the lawn; we didn't discover it until after they were done. They said it was organic. I'm going to ask their boss why they did it without authorization. But I am now wondering what would happen without fertilizer, in the long run. The clover is a nitrogen fixer; will that be enough to keep the lawn in decent shape? Would it be a good idea to apply an organic fertilizer from time to time, and if so, how often?
posted by brianogilvie to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I maintain a lawn at a vacation home that used to be fertilized and (for all the reasons you mention) decided to stop fertilizing it. It's been about a year and a half now and we've been getting it cut regularly. It's about the same but here is what I have noticed

- it's not the weird POW uniform green that it used to be and some parts of the lawn alternate in color (yellows or lighter greens during dry times or really hot times) more than I recall them doing that
- there's some patchiness which I assume is because the soil is actually different in places. I presume the fertilizer was making up for some local soil nutrient deficits maybe?

I know nothing about lawns but we have a service that takes care of this lawn and I have felt like we still have a nice looking lawn without the fertilizer though I have been looking into organic options just to kick things off on the right foot after wintertime next year.
posted by jessamyn at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is no need to fertilize your lawn. You basically have a meadow, which is a self-sustaining ecosystem. If you are living on former farm land, the soil was undoubtedly over-fertilized for generations and is still chock full of nutrients. And it will stay that way, as long as you leave your lawn alone and generally allow dead plants to decompose back into the soil. As you say, clover will add more nitrogen back in if you suddenly have a shortage. But right now, in all likelihood, your soil is still saturated with nutrients and your lawncare service's fertilizer is washing away in the next rain storm. Lawncare companies are in the business of selling chemicals and selling highly unnatural monoculture lawns. If that's not what you're interested in, tell them to just mow the grass/assorted other things and leave the clippings behind.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just to be clear, I live in a rental house, and nobody has fertilized our yard in decades, or done anything else to it. We have a lovely mix of grasses and wildflowers, and we occasionally mow it if the neighbors give us the stink-eye. We mow with a manual mower, which leaves the clippings behind.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:15 AM on September 12, 2013

Absolutely. As long as you are not bagging and taking away the grass clippings when you mow, your lawn gets plenty of feed from the cuttings and the clover.

This is a good link:
posted by meta87 at 10:15 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your lawn has lots of weeds, as you describe, the only thing fertilizing does is make it grow faster and have to be mowed more often. I had a western Massachusetts lawn (Lanesboro MA) for 25 years and never fertilized it except to spread around the woodstove ashes in the spring, and chop up the leaves in the fall with a mulching mower. Nothing bad happened in the long run — it's still in good shape, the new owners have kept up the benign neglect.

If you have a more mono-cultural lawn and want to keep it that way (ie., no crabgrass, no weeds, just grass), then you need to do a few applications of stuff. That's my current situation. I still try to minimize fertilizer so as to minimize mowing. But I put on a fertilizer with crabgrass pre-emergent control in the spring, and in the summer I spray any patches of weeds that pop up. But I find that for the most part, mowing at the highest setting and only every two weeks chokes out most of the weeds.
posted by beagle at 10:18 AM on September 12, 2013

Western Boston suburbs here. We have a completely organic lawn and garden, no fertilizer, and we have a mix of the sorts of grass you describe. We cut ours about once a week. We don't bag our clippings but let them fall back into/into the grass. I know nothing about lawns, nor do I want to know anything. With no care, other than cutting, our lawn is nice enough. I don't like uniform green lawns anyway.

If we get enough rain the parts in the sun are nice green grass, though not the sort of nuclear green my Better Living Through Chemicals neighbor has. If we have a bit of a drought the grass will, of course, dry out. We have nice sandy soil that drains nicely, though I don't know how it is at keeping moisture.

So yeah. Do nothing, just cut it. I wouldn't freak out over some organic fertilizer though.
posted by bondcliff at 10:28 AM on September 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all! I don't want to threadsit, but just clarify that I'm not freaked about the organic fertilizer, just irritated at my lawn service for applying it without asking, when it wasn't part of our agreement.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:33 AM on September 12, 2013

Yeah, my family has always been fond of the motley collection of stuff that grows in a natural lawn. One of my favorite activities as a kid was staking out a 1-square-foot section of lawn and documenting all the different types of plants and bugs living there. Wouldn't have been possible with a mono-lawn. Fertilizer is totally not necessary.
posted by Cygnet at 10:39 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I owned a home in central MA (Worcester County) for four years and never fertilized nor watered my lawn, even during that one summer when it got above 100° temps every day for almost a week. The only thing I ever did was mow it every week. I had no problems with the lawn; it looked healthy enough.

Unless you're maintaining a golf course, I see no reason to fertilize a lawn. Even then, it's questionable why you'd want to.
posted by tckma at 11:04 AM on September 12, 2013

The clover should be fertilizing the soil with nitrogen.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:28 AM on September 12, 2013

I never used to be interested in fertilizing my lawn and it never needed it. Then we got a dog and the amount of traffic on it went from occasional to constant. Which is fine in the summer when it's growing, but over the winter he's just as active and lawn doesn't grow/repair. Now I'm going to have to take an interest in the damned thing because we're cultivating some dead patches which will then allow mud & runoff on this sloped section.

So I say, if your lawn as its being used it holding up fine, leave it alone. Fertilizer exists to supplement what it can take from the naturally occurring materials, and if it's not being stressed then it may need a lot less.
posted by phearlez at 12:23 PM on September 12, 2013

I love violets, clover, ivy and other 'weeds' and go out of my way to encourage the violets, purple clover, daisies and Queen Ann's lace in my yard. You might want to tell your yard service that you really don't want them to use any weedkillers. Fertilizer runoff causes a lot of environmental problems, and your yard generally doesn't need it.
posted by theora55 at 8:42 PM on September 12, 2013

Growing up, I don't remember that we ever fertilized our lawn and it was fine. We also didn't use weed killer and we never rolled it, so it didn't look like a pool table -- you won't win the HOA Yawn Lawn of the Year Award without lots of chemicals and fiddling about -- but it was healthy, it withstood lots of use, and it was safe for babies, pets, and the environment.

Short answer: never fertilize your lawn.
posted by pracowity at 12:17 AM on September 13, 2013

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