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What Is Fertilizer Burn?

A person holds a plant's leaf that has been damaged by fertilizer burn.
Iryna Imago/Shutterstock.com

A lush, vibrant lawn and a happily blossoming garden are a sight to behold. Achieving this beauty for yourself often involves the careful use of fertilizers. But it’s not exactly a simple achievement.

A little too much enthusiasm for fertilizer can lead to an unwanted consequence: fertilizer burn. This phenomenon occurs when fertilizers harm the very plants they are intended to nourish.

Let’s dive into the world of fertilizer burn, exploring its causes, symptoms, and—most importantly—how to prevent it. With the right tools and information, you can ensure your gardening efforts lead to success…not scorched foliage.

What Is Fertilizer Burn?

Fertilizer is a wonderful resource for gardening. It can help supply plants with important elements they may be missing, such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Fertilizer helps improve and speed up plant growth.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much fertilizer. Over-fertilizing your plants can cause serious problems…like fertilizer burn.

Fertilizer burn is an undesirable reaction that occurs when plants are exposed to an excessive concentration of nutrients found in the fertilizer. Since fertilizers contain salt, too much fertilizer often leads to plant dehydration.

Essentially, the fertilizer pulls out moisture from your plants, leaving your plants scorched or burned. This often results in yellow, brown, or discolored plants or grass as well as root damage. In severe cases, it can lead to the death of your plant or grass.

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What Does Fertilizer Burn Look Like?

A plant leaf features fertilizer burn around its edges.

Detecting fertilizer burn is crucial. When you know what to look for, you can take timely action and salvage your beloved plants. While the symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the burn as well as the plant species, there are some common signs to look for.

First, you want to keep an eye out for leaf discoloration. Leaves or grass blades may start yellowing or browning, often starting from the tips and edges and spreading inward. In some cases, the leaves may develop a burned or scorched appearance (hence the name: fertilizer burn).

You also want to check for wilting. Plants affected by fertilizer burn may continue to droop even when properly watered. This often happens because of disruption in the water intake, either caused by imbalanced nutrient levels or damaged roots.

Lastly, you want to pay attention to your plant or grass growth. If the growth rate appears stunted, distorted, or less than expected, that could be due to fertilizer burn. Additionally, if your plant isn’t flowering like it normally would, that could be an indicator of fertilizer issues.

Can You Reverse Fertilizer Burn?

If you notice your lawn or garden showing signs of fertilizer burn, this is probably the question on your mind: can I reverse the damage?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward as “yes” or “no.” It depends largely on the severity of the burn and the resilience of your plant. If you want to try to reverse the damage, there are some things you can do.

Start by flushing the soil with clean, fresh water. You want to dilute the nutrients to help remove the excess. This can alleviate stress on the plant’s roots, help remove salt, and get your greenery hydrated again. Moving forward, make sure your plant or grass receives the amount of water and fertilizer it needs without overdoing it.

If the fertilizer burn was severe, you want to prune your plant. Remove any damaged foliage so your plant can direct all its energy towards healthy foliage and new growth. If your plant is resilient, it may be able to survive the fertilizer damage. If the damage was too severe, you will likely need to plant something new.

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How to Prevent Fertilizer Burn

A watering can pours water onto a plant in the ground.

While reversing fertilizer burn is up to your unique situation, preventing fertilizer burn before it happens is entirely possible. While it may go without saying, the trick is to not overdo it with the fertilizer.

Start by reading the directions of your fertilizer, knowing your plants, and fertilizing to your specific plant or grass needs. Pay special attention to the recommended application rates and frequency. Fertilizing more won’t lead to faster growth, so stick with the recommended amounts.

You can also consider slow-release or controlled-release fertilizers. These help release nutrients over an extended period, reducing the risk of nutrient overload and minimizing the chances of fertilizer burn.

Keep in mind that plants and grass are much more susceptible to fertilizer burn during periods of drought. This is because it’s much easier for the fertilizer to become concentrated since there’s less rain to wash it away. Additionally, you should never fertilize wet plants or grass.

You could also think about switching to compost or organic fertilizers, which remove the risk of fertilizer burn altogether. Organic fertilizers derived from natural sources such as compost, manure, or plant-based materials tend to be much gentler on your plants.

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By following these preventive measures, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of fertilizer burn and promote the health and vitality of your plants. Remember, a balanced and mindful approach to fertilizing is key to achieving thriving gardens and lush lawns.

Abbey Ryan Abbey Ryan
Abbey Ryan is a storyteller, preferably of stories in written form. Across the 5 years of her professional writing career, her work has been featured in The Chicago Tribune, Amazon, The Medical News Today, and more. When she's not writing (which is rare), she's likely traveling, painting, or on the hunt for a good snack. Read Full Bio »
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