What is Fertilizer Burn? 

Bag of white fertilizer granules spread on grass

A lush lawn involves more than just knowing when and how to fertilize; it requires understanding potential pitfalls like fertilizer burn. Whether you’re an experienced gardener or new to the world of lawn care, fertilizer burn can happen to anyone.

To help you avoid this common lawn care mistake, we describe what fertilizer burn is, how it looks, and most importantly, how to prevent and get rid of this unsightly problem.

What is Fertilizer Burn?

Apart from providing your grass with necessary nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK), fertilizer also increases your lawn’s resistance to diseases, pests, and foot traffic damage. A robust lawn can help you breathe cleaner air and enjoy less stifling temperatures in summer.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you may be tempted to apply extra fertilizer for good measure. After all, fertilizer is food for your grass, so how much harm can it really do? The answer is plenty. 

Fertilizers contain salts that accelerate nutrient release for grass intake. When you apply too much fertilizer to your lawn, the excess salts seep into the soil, surround the root system, and prevent proper water absorption. Once your grass is affected at the root level, it loses its health, vitality, and vibrant color, leaving you with dead brown patches. This is called fertilizer burn.

Excess fertilizer can:

  • Kill your grass
  • Contaminate nearby waterways
  • Harm wildlife
  • Disrupt soil microbial growth

That’s why it’s important to follow the directions on your fertilizer before applying so you know the right amount to spread on your lawn.

How to Identify Fertilizer Burn

bald area of grass that looks brown
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Watch out for these signs of fertilizer burn in your lawn:

  • Grass blade discoloration streaks
  • A lack of new grass growth where there should be
  • Patches of yellow or brown grass resembling scorch marks. The grass will typically be crispy or crunchy to the touch.
  • Checkerboard-like shapes, with burned areas in the middle of each square. This is typically the result of fertilizer overlap.

How to Fix Fertilizer Burn

Fertilizer burn doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence for your lawn. Depending on the level of damage, certain affected areas can be brought back to life with the proper care. 

Here’s what you need to do to fix fertilizer burn.

Thoroughly Inspect Your Lawn

Landscaper inspecting lawn
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Inspect every inch of your lawn and determine if the entire lawn is affected or only select areas. Check the roots for damage by pulling a section out of the ground and examining its condition. Healthy roots will look white, long, and dense, whereas damaged roots will look grayish and brittle.

Consider all the possible reasons your lawn could look unhealthy, and ensure you’re targeting the correct problem. Yellow or brown patches can also mean a lack of moisture, lawn diseases, or signs of your pet urinating on your lawn. However, if you’ve recently fertilized your lawn, and it’s looking stripey in certain areas, chances are you’re dealing with fertilizer burn. 

Remove Damaged Grass and Leftover Fertilizer

Digging grass with a small shovel
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If fertilizer burn is indeed affecting your lawn, pull out as much of the damaged grass as possible. Use a rake in stubborn areas and a broom to sweep it all up. Next, look for leftover fertilizer sitting on your grass, removing whatever you find to minimize any other damage. The longer you leave it on your grass, the more damage will occur.

Water Your Lawn

Water Hose on Lawn
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Overfertilizing your lawn is like eating too many very salty french fries. To properly flush the fertilizer salts out of the soil, the solution is simple: provide large amounts of water.

Hydrate your lawn every day for a week or two, setting your sprinkler to provide about 1 inch of water a day to affected areas. This should be enough water to flush out the salt buildup and allow your grass to recover. 

It’s best to water your lawn in the morning, before 10 a.m., giving it enough time to absorb the moisture throughout the day. Otherwise, you may be adding fungi problems to your fertilizer burn. Also, avoid overwatering the parts of your lawn that do not have fertilizer burn.

Reseed, If Needed

Hand with grass seeds reseeding a bare spot
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Check your lawn for new growth. You may have to start from scratch if there is no new grass growth. Dig up the dead grass from the roots, reseed, and wait for fresh grass to appear. Apply fertilizer about four to five weeks after new grass growth, following the instructions exactly to avoid a repeat fertilizer burn problem.

How to Prevent Fertilizer Burn

Preventing fertilizer burn is easier than you think. Follow these tips to keep your lawn looking fresh year-round:

  1. Don’t apply fertilizer when your lawn is dormant or under drought or heat stress. Wait for cooler weather and some rainfall to fertilize moist soil. Follow up by watering the lawn to distribute the fertilizer evenly.
  2. Don’t apply fertilizer to extremely wet grass. The water will cause the fertilizer to stick to the grass blades and burn your lawn. Not to mention that the distribution of the nutrients will be uneven, and you may even experience runoff.
  3. Choose a slow-release fertilizer. This type of fertilizer guarantees long-term lawn health without any toxicity. It also contains a lower concentration of salts that are released gradually into the soil, preventing fertilizer burn. For help selecting the right fertilizer, give this fertilizer selection a read-through.
  4. Follow the application instructions. This will ensure fewer mistakes and subsequent consequences for your lawn.
  5. Use a quality spreader you know will apply the product according to your lawn’s needs and the application instructions on the package. If unsure, give it a test run beforehand and make any necessary adjustments.
  6. Try to avoid fertilizer overlap; cover each section thoroughly, maintaining a steady and careful pace. After application, irrigate the granules to push them into the ground and off the grass blades.
  7. Fertilize according to your soil’s needs. If you haven’t performed a soil test in some time, now may be a good time. You’ll have a much clearer picture of your soil’s condition and any existing deficiencies or pH problems.

FAQ About Fertilizer Burn

Are there any other reasons I may have brown spots on my lawn?

If you haven’t fertilized recently, here are a few other reasons your lawn may have brown spots:

  • Fungi
  • Scalping
  • Dormancy
  • Diseases
  • Dog pee spots
  • Chemical or gasoline spills
  • Insects, such as grubs or chinch bugs

Can organic fertilizers cause fertilizer burn?

Yes, if you apply more than the label recommends. However, most organic fertilizers are naturally slow-release. Whether organic or synthetic, slow-release fertilizers are much less likely to cause fertilizer burn than fast-release fertilizers – especially if applied according to the label.

What’s the difference between synthetic and organic fertilizers?

The key differences between synthetic and organic fertilizers are as follows:

FactorsOrganic Synthetic
Advantages✓ Doesn’t burn lawns
✓ Slow and steady nutrient release
✓ Contains many trace minerals and balanced nutrition for your grass
✓ Improves soil health
✓ More commonly available
✓ Formulas made for exact lawn needs
✓ Acts quickly
✓ Costs less
Disadvantages✗ Less nutrient release in cooler temperatures
✗ Costs more
✗ Dependent on microorganisms in the soil
✗ Shorter lifespan
✗ Can deteriorate soil
✗ Can burn lawn
✗ May cause chemical runoff

Professional Help at Your Fingertips

There’s no reason you should have a less-than-stellar lawn. If your fertilizer applications have failed to yield the desired result, entrust your lawn to a local lawn care pro. They’ll care for your lawn year-round, fertilizing, mowing, and edging to your satisfaction. 

Take the first step toward a healthier lawn and discuss tailored solutions that can make your outdoor space flourish.

Main Photo Credit: Yuliya Starikova / Canva Pro / License

Andie Ioo

Andie Ioo

In my free time, I enjoy traveling with my husband, sports, trying out new recipes, reading, and watching reruns of '90s TV shows. As a way to relax and decompress, I enjoy landscaping around my little yard and DIY home projects.