The great fertilizer debate

Features - Fertilizer/Soil Health

Consider these factors when choosing between granular and liquid products to achieve that lush lawn your customers desire.

March 16, 2015

Decisions, decisions. Lawn care operators make a multitude of choices every day. One fairly important one is whether to use granular or liquid fertilizer. The problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Granular fertilizer contains nutrients in a pellet form that is applied with a spreader. Once it hits the ground, it requires external forces, such as moisture, enzymes and microbes, to break it down and turn it into food to feed the plant. Liquid fertilizer, on the other hand, already contains the needed materials.

A major component of fertilizer is urea, a type of nitrogen-based fertilizer that can be coated in sulfur, polymers or other chemicals, but there are also stabilized nitrogen and many other technologies.

Spray or spread?

The key is to apply the right fertilizer in the right place at the right time at the right rate, says Eric Miltner, turf and ornamental agronomist with Koch Agronomic Services. In general, there are more options available in the granular form of fertilizer.

“Every kind of technology out there is available as a granular product,” Miltner says. In extreme examples, there are granular fertilizers that only need to be applied once in the spring which might be particularly attractive to a landscape contractor.

When deciding which form of fertilizer to use, the first thing to keep in mind is the application process and what equipment you have on hand.

Granular fertilizer can be applied with a basic push spreader. Other types are drop spreaders or hand rotary whirlybird spreaders. For application of liquid fertilizer, though, you need a truck, a spray tank and a hose, or a ride-on sprayer.

Spreaders are easy to put in the back of a pickup truck. “If you have to put a 250-gallon tank in a truck and fill it up with water, will the truck be overweight? There is more liability in dealing with sprayer equipment,” says Christopher Gray, product marketing manager of professional fertilizers at LebanonTurf in Lebanon, Pa.

“If you send out an employee, you want them to do the job in one trip, so you want to fill up the tank as much as you can, but it’s more cumbersome.”

But what if you make a mistake and misapply the fertilizer, or inadvertently streak or miss some spots? In that case, granular is more advantageous in that it is easier to spot any errors.

“When applying granular, you might misapply it due to walking too fast or slow,” Gray says. Also, if you skip some spots or apply it too heavily, it could lead to streaking. “If you don’t want to retreat an area, then liquid fertilizer has its advantages,” he adds.

Also, applying granular can be a little messier. “Once you apply them, the fertilizer gets on hardscapes. That has to be swept up or picked up and removed,” Miltner says. “That is an extra step that you probably won’t have to do when you apply by liquid.”

And having storage capacity for the equipment is another consideration that a LCO will want to keep in mind. For example, liquid fertilizer requires more temperature control.

Long-term versus short-term.

For a start-up landscape business, it is likely going to be easier to use granular fertilizer, at least in the early phase of business, because the spray tank required for the liquid fertilizer can be very pricey, in addition to the cost of the truck. “You’re talking $40-50,000 or more to outfit a spray truck – a much bigger initial investment,” Miltner says.

“A lot of your decision will be based on what equipment you have currently,” Gray says. Spreaders are generally priced between $50 and $250, he says.

As far as longevity goes, Gray says granular is the way to go. “You can get 10 to 12 weeks out of one single application of granular. With liquid, most of the nutrients are quickly available to the plant. You get a very quick reaction but end up with four to six weeks’ longevity.”

With polymer-coated ureas, there is an incredible variety to choose from, Miltner says. “You can get extreme longevity,” he says. How long the fertilizer lasts also ties into expense, so a landscaper should know how to track the cost per gallon of the product versus the overall endurance of it.

And in terms of effectiveness, Gray and Miltner believe both are equal in that regard, provided it is being applied correctly.

Neither Gray nor Miltner see any geographic trends regarding which type of fertilizer is more commonly used, but price will often fluctuate wildly, making it the deciding factor for many.

Plus, Miltner says, operators should be aware of state regulations, particularly with regard to slow release of the newer nitrogen products. “Some states have said that 20 percent of nitrogen has to be slow-release,” he says.

“This can be easier to achieve with granular over liquid, but there are liquid slow-release products. This is something that people have to think about now that they didn’t have to think about years ago.”

Client requests?

Do customers have a preference as to which one landscapers should use on their property? Not really, Gray says. They just want you to do a good job.

But there is one thing that most customers can agree on: They hate weeds. And that’s where liquid can come in handy. “You can put in weed killer and fertilizer; you can apply two at the same time. Liquid weed control is more effective and quicker,” Gray says. On the other hand, granular fertilizer can contain other nutrients needed by the soil.

“When we fertilize grass, we use more nitrogen than any other nutrients because that’s what the turf needs. But certain sites also need phosphorus and potassium. You can get blends made with right proportions of these, all in the blend, with the granular fertilizer,” Miltner says.

The size of a property is another consideration when determining usage. “If you have a large area to apply fertilizer to, a broadcast spreader for granular is easier and can cover it more efficiently,” Gray says. Liquid is easier to apply on a smaller area.

Sometimes a situation could call for using both liquid and granular on the same job, depending upon a customer’s needs or other plants in the landscape.

“The application method doesn’t have an over impact on customer satisfaction. It has to do more with the agronomic program, the technicians and their knowledge and competence at what they do,” Miltner says.

The type of customer interaction you are seeking may also play a role in what fertilizer you tend to use. “I’ve talked to a lot of landscapers over the years,” Gray says. “Most don’t want callbacks. They just want to get the job done and don’t want to repeat applications.” Consequently, they will use granular products with the mindset that they are saving on labor.

Others, however, prefer regular face-to-face customer interaction, so they might use liquid fertilizer, as that would get them in front of the customers more frequently. “It depends on the philosophy of business that can drive the choice of granular versus liquid, and there’s a happy medium in there somewhere,” Gray says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.