September is almost here and that means it is prime time to fertilize your tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass lawns. If you could only fertilize your cool-season grasses once per year, this would be the best time to do it.
These grasses are entering their fall growth cycle as days shorten and temperatures moderate (especially at night). Cool-season grasses naturally thicken up in the fall by tillering (forming new shoots at the base of existing plants) and, for bluegrass, spreading by underground stems called rhizomes. Consequently, September is the most important time to fertilize these grasses.
Apply 1 to 1.5 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. The settings recommended on lawn fertilizer bags usually result in about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. We recommend a quick-release source of nitrogen at this time. Most fertilizers sold in garden centers and department stores contain either quick-release nitrogen or a mixture of quick- and slow-release. Usually only lawn fertilizers recommended for summer use contain slow-release nitrogen. Any of the others should be quick-release.
The second most important fertilization of cool-season grasses also occurs during the fall. A November fertilizer application will help the grass green up earlier next spring and provide the nutrients needed until summer. It also should be quick-release applied at the rate of 1-pound actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. (Ward Upham)
June is the time to fertilize warm-season lawn grasses such as bermudagrass, buffalograss, and zoysiagrass. These species all thrive in warmer summer weather, so this is the time they respond best to fertilization. The most important nutrient is nitrogen (N), and these three species need it in varying amounts.
Bermudagrass requires the most nitrogen. High-quality bermuda stands need about 4 lbs. nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. during the season (low maintenance areas can get by on 2 lbs.). Apply this as four separate applications, about 4 weeks apart, of 1 lb. N per 1,000 sq. ft. starting in early May. It is already too late for the May application, but the June application is just around the corner. The nitrogen can come from either a quick- or slow-release source. So any lawn fertilizer will work. Plan the last application for no later than August 15. This helps ensure the bermudagrass is not overstimulated, making it susceptible to winter-kill.
Zoysiagrass grows more slowly than bermudagrass and is prone to develop thatch. Consequently, it does not need as much nitrogen. In fact, too much is worse than too little. One and one-half to 2 pounds N per 1,000 sq. ft. during the season is sufficient. Split the total in two and apply once in early June and again around mid-July. Slow-release nitrogen is preferable but quick-release is acceptable. Slow-release nitrogen is sometimes listed as “slowly available” or “water insoluble.”
Buffalograss requires the least nitrogen of all lawn species commonly grown in Kansas. It will survive and persist with no supplemental nitrogen, but giving it 1 lb. N per 1,000 sq. ft. will improve color and density. This application should be made in early June. For a little darker color, fertilize it as described for zoysiagrass in the previous paragraph, but do not apply more than a total of 2 lb. N per 1,000 sq. ft. in one season. Buffalograss tends to get weedy when given too much nitrogen. As with zoysia, slow-release nitrogen is preferable, but fast-release is also OK. As for all turfgrasses, phosphorus and potassium are best applied according to soil test results because many soils already have adequate amounts of these nutrients for turfgrass growth. If you need to apply phosphorus or potassium, it is best to core aerate beforehand to ensure the nutrients reach the roots. (Ward Upham)
May is an excellent time to fertilize cool-season lawns such as tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass if they will be irrigated throughout the summer. Non-irrigated lawns often go through a period of summer dormancy because of drought and do not need this fertilization.
May is a good time to fertilize because the springtime flush of growth characteristic of these grasses has tapered off, so the fertilizer you apply will be less likely to cause excessive shoot growth than if you fertilized at a full rate in April. Slow-release nitrogen sources are ideal. These nitrogen sources promote controlled growth, which is desirable as the stressful summer weather approaches. Relatively few fertilizers available to the homeowner supply ALL of the nitrogen in the slowly available form. But one such product that is widely available is Milorganite. Other such products available in the retail market include cottonseed meal, alfalfa-based fertilizers, and any other products derived from plants or animals. (Bloodmeal is an exception, and contrary to popular belief, the nitrogen it supplies is quickly available.) These products are all examples of natural organic fertilizers. They typically contain less than 10 percent nitrogen by weight, so compared to most synthetic fertilizers, more product must be applied to get the same amount of nitrogen. Translation: they are more expensive!
Apply enough to give the lawn one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. For example, if the fertilizer is 6 percent nitrogen by weight, you will need to apply almost 17 pounds of fertilizer product per 1,000 square feet. Summer lawn fertilizers that contain at least a portion of the nitrogen as slow-release are fine to use as well. Be sure to follow label directions. If cost is prohibitive, you can use the less expensive quick-release (i.e., soluble) sources, but split the application into two doses as follows: apply enough to give the lawn 0.5 lb nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in May and again in early June. (Ward Upham)
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Ward Upham is the Kansas State Master Gardener Coordinator and runs the Horticulture Response Center. Other contributors include K-State Extension Specialists.