Fertilizers Gardening Lawn

Less Fertilizer, Healthier Lawn!

Man discouraged by four lawn fertilizer applications.

By Larry Hodgson

The idea that a lawn absolutely needs fertilizer, and that the more you fertilize it, the better it will look, comes from the powerful fertilizer lobby. Free yourself from the tyranny of the “three to four fertilizer applications per year” regime imposed by the money-grubbing fertilizer industry. A single application of slow-release organic fertilizer is quite enough to meet mineral needs of a healthy lawn, especially if you add grasscycling and leafcycling to your lawn care program.

Two Free and Natural Lawn Fertilizers

To avoid having to pay for multiple lawn fertilizer treatments, learn how to combine grasscycling and leafcycling.

Manual mower leaving clippings in place.
Grass clippings can readily replace a large part of the lawn’s mineral needs. Photo: Ulrike Mai, Pixabay

Grasscycling means leaving lawn clippings in place after mowing. These clippings will decompose quickly and will supply the grass with minerals, including nitrogen. They also cool the soil and reduce evaporation, leaving the lawn better able to support drought. 

For grasscycling to be effective, the blades of grass must be cut short: that way, they’ll disappear very quickly, usually within 24 hours. If the blades are too long, they tend to form clumps here and there which only break down very slowly and, while they do so, block sunlight to the lawn, leaving bare patches over time. If you get into the habit of mowing the lawn 3 inches (8 cm) high when it reaches 4 inches (10 cm), which is the height recommended anyway, grasscycling will work perfectly.

Mowing fall leaves directly on the lawn
Mowing fall leaves on the lawn helps give it extra minerals. Photo: lfwa.org

Leafcycling means again using the lawnmower, this time to chop up the fall leaves that have collected on the lawn. The mower will shred them into little, easily decomposed pieces. 

If there is only a light covering of fall leaves, such that you can easily see the green grass underneath, just mow the leaves and the grass at the same time and let them remain where they fall. This will shred the leaves into tiny pieces that will “melt” into the lawn, then decompose and help fertilize it. Just like grasscycling!

If your fall lawn is literally covered in leaves, though—and if there are large deciduous trees nearby, that can easily happen—, you’ve got too much of a good thing! You’ll have to remove most of them or they’ll cut off the sunlight the lawn needs for good growth. So, do mow the lawn as above, but this time, install your lawnmower’s grass catcher bag. 

The bag will collect most of the shredded leaves and you can then use them as mulch, mix them into the soil of your vegetable bed or add them to the compost bin. Just don’t bag them up and leave them on the side of the road for your municipality to pick up. What a waste of a valuable resource that would be!

But if you pick up the shredded leaves, in what way does that fertilize the lawn? Well, even with a collector bag in place, a reasonable quantity of chopped leaves ends up on the soil at the base of the lawn grasses: enough to help “feed” the lawn, but not enough to cut off its sunlight. Thus, leafcycling is yet another source of minerals your lawn will be able to use for its growth.


What with grasscycling and leafcycling and one annual application of a slow-release organic fertilizer, you easily can maintain a healthy low maintenance lawn!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “Less Fertilizer, Healthier Lawn!

  1. How is it possible that they help water the lawn? For sure they slow down evaporation, but “water the lawn”???

    “They also help water your lawn, as they contain a lot of moisture: 80% or more!”

    • Maybe that was too simplistic. Perhaps I should have written ” reduce watering needs”. They do contribute water though: not all decomposition is in the heat of the sun where most of the water simply evaporates. When the trimmings have worked their way to the base of the plant, some of the water they produce will go to the soil.

  2. Randy Evans

    Do you recommend the fertilization be done in the fall?

    • It can be done at any time, but spring would be best, fall the second choice and in the heat of the summer, the least valuable season.

  3. Spring in a climate that tends to be rainy, fall in a drier one.

  4. YUP! Like SO yup!
    So much of what gardens consume is unnecessary. Clients do not believe that I do not use fertilizers or pesticides, not because of any environmental concerns, but because they are so unnecessary with proper horticulture. There are only a few items that get fertilizer, and only because I want to force vegetative growth. For example, I am working with a valley oak in the local park, and I want it to grow faster than normal so that it is safer from vandalism.

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