Liquid vs. Granular Fertilizer

Man using liquid fertilizer, connected to his hose, for use on his grass

After a stressful season bubbling under the sun or freezing under the snow, your turfgrass is ready for a nutritional boost. But shopping for fertilizer at your local garden center can prove overwhelming given all the available products. Our guide to liquid vs. granular fertilizer will help narrow your options so you can offer the best care for your lawn. 

What is granular fertilizer?

Granular fertilizers are dry and typically come in the form of pellets. Most granular fertilizers are slow-release fertilizers, although some granular products are quick-release. 

Slow-release fertilizers gradually release nutrients to the grass over a long period. Typically, you’ll only need to apply slow-release granular fertilizer once during the season.

What is liquid fertilizer?

Liquid fertilizer is a liquid concentrate that you dilute with water and then spray onto their lawns. Some liquid fertilizers begin as a dry, water-soluble substance that you must dissolve in water. 

Most liquid lawn fertilizers are quick-release solutions, which means they’ll immediately supply nutrients to the grass.

Because grass absorbs the liquid nutrients so quickly, liquid fertilizer needs to be applied more often than slow-release granular fertilizer. 

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Do liquid and granular fertilizers have the same nutrients?

Granular and liquid fertilizers supply the three most essential nutrients your grass needs: Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (potassium is sometimes referred to as potash in the context of fertilizer).  

Your grass will get the same nutrients whether you apply a liquid or granular fertilizer. And plants can’t tell the difference between nutrients supplied by granular and liquid fertilizers. 

What does N-P-K mean? Most fertilizers contain a ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). And fertilizer labels will often display this ratio in the order N-P-K. 

For example, a package displaying 24-25-4 means the fertilizer contains 24% nitrogen, 25% phosphorus, and 4% potassium. 

Granular fertilizer pros and cons

Close-up of white granular fertilizer for lawn care
Bicanski | Pixnio

Although granular and liquid fertilizers might deliver the same nutrients, there are some significant differences between the two types of fertilizer. Let’s take a look at granular fertilizer’s pros and cons: 


✓ Slow-release fertilizer is ideal for long-term grass health.
✓ Slow-release fertilizer can last for several weeks or months, which means you don’t need to apply it as often as quick-release liquid products. 
✓ Granular fertilizers have a longer shelf life than most liquid fertilizers. 
✓ Granular fertilizers are typically less expensive than liquid fertilizers, especially when you buy in bulk. 


✗ Granular fertilizers can be more difficult to spread than liquid fertilizers. 
✗ Granular fertilizers usually won’t deliver nutrients fast enough to a struggling lawn that needs an immediate nutrient boost. 
✗ Spreading fertilizer nutrients uniformly throughout the lawn is not always possible. According to the PennState Extension, granular fertilizers that contain significant amounts of dust, broken particles, and different-sized pellets may lead to poor distribution of nutrients. The extension recommends using products with uniform particle sizes and minimal amounts of dust and broken granules.

Liquid fertilizer pros and cons

Man using liquid fertilizer in a spray bottle for his garden
CDC | Unsplash


✓ Nutrients are available to the grass immediately after fertilization. 
✓ Every drop of liquid has an identical ratio of nutrients, creating an even distribution of plant food. 
✓ Liquid fertilizer has a more straightforward application process than granular fertilizer. 
✓ Liquid fertilizer typically shows results sooner than slow-release granular fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer is likely the better option if you need to green up your lawn quickly. 
✓ Because liquid fertilizer provides nutrients right away, it’s an ideal starter fertilizer for new lawns
✓ It’s often a helpful solution for dying lawns that require immediate attention. 


✗ Liquid fertilizer can sometimes trigger a growth surge. A growth surge can be desirable for new lawns but not so much for established lawns. Too much growth too fast can stimulate rapid shoot growth and hinder root growth, making the grass more vulnerable to stress, pests, and disease
✗ Because liquid fertilizers provide nutrients so quickly, reapplications are more frequent than slow-release granular fertilizers. 
✗ Liquid fertilizer is typically more expensive than granular fertilizer. 
✗ Liquid fertilizer has a shorter shelf-life than granular fertilizer. 

How to apply granular fertilizer

Man using a push fertilizer spreader to spread fertilizer on his lawn
Amanda Mills, USCDCP | Pixnio

There are three tools you can use to spread granular fertilizer:

  • Rotary spreader (also known as a broadcast spreader)
  • Drop spreader
  • Hand-held spreader

The best tool for the job will depend on your lawn’s size. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture recommends spreaders for the following lawn sizes

  • Rotary spreader: Medium to large yards (greater than 2,000 square feet)
  • Drop spreader: Small lawns (less than 2,000 square feet)
  • Hand-held spreader: Best for tiny areas

A rotary spreader is a push-powered tool that looks similar to a small wheelbarrow. Its hopper contains the granules and discharges them through one to three small holes near the bottom. 

The operator can open or close the holes using a lever located at the handle. When the holes are open, the granules flow out and strike a spinning plate which distributes the granules 3 to 5 feet away from the spreader.  

A drop spreader is also a push-powered tool. It has a rectangular hopper with equally spaced holes arranged in a row. Unlike the rotary spreader, which uses its rotating plate to spread the granules over a wide area, the drop spreader drops the granules between its wheels. The holes also can be opened and closed by the user. 

A hand-held spreader is ideal for fertilizing small areas. The tool is equipped with a handle that you crank to expel the granules. You also can control how much fertilizer is released. 

illustration showing how to spread fertilizer
  1. Calibrate the spreader to deliver half the desired rate of fertilizer. Why? Because you’ll want to make two passes over your lawn instead of one. 
  2. Pour the granules into the hopper while standing on the driveway or patio. An accidental spill could cause your grass to burn. 
  3. Starting in one corner of your yard, push your spreader at a consistent pace around the perimeter, about 3 miles per hour. Most rotary spreaders send the granules 3 to 5 feet away from the spreader. If you’re using a rotary spreader, frame your spreader a few feet from the perimeter so that the granules land right at the edge of the adjacent surface. 
  4. Once you’ve walked along the whole perimeter, it’s time to make two passes across the middle section. Position your spreader inside the border and walk forward in a straight line. If you’re using a rotary spreader, pay close attention to where the granules land. 
  5. Once you reach the end of the perimeter, turn the spreader and walk forward again, leaving enough space between where the previous granules landed and where the next batch will land. If you’re using a drop spreader, you don’t need to leave any space in between your rows. 
  6. Continue walking in straight lines parallel to your last pass, with some space in between. 
  7. Once you’ve covered the whole lawn, turn 90-degrees and make your second pass across the lawn, creating a criss-cross pattern. 
  8. Once you’ve spread all the fertilizer, take a leaf blower (or broom) and blow any excess fertilizer that landed on the driveway, sidewalk, or patio back onto the grass.

Can I apply granular fertilizer by hand?

Avoid spreading granular fertilizer by hand unless it’s necessary. 

Spreading by hand will often result in poor distribution. Why? Because applying the granules evenly across the lawn by hand can be difficult. 

Your lawn will likely look like a creative collage. Strips of grass might appear greener than others in areas with more fertilizer, and sometimes the path of your throws is noticeable in the grass’s growth patterns. Areas with too much fertilizer might appear blotchy, brown, and burnt. 

How to apply liquid fertilizer

Person using a host attachment sprayer for fertilizer
Jerry Norbury | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Spreading liquid fertilizer is not as physically intensive as applying granular fertilizer. There’s no spreader to push, and you needn’t lift heavy bags of dry fertilizer. Most liquid applications involve attaching a spray bottle to the garden hose. 

Spray an even fertilizer application across the lawn. Applying too much liquid in one area can cause the grass to burn. Avoid spraying the fertilizer on a windy day, as the wind might disrupt where the liquid lands.

Which fertilizer is better?

Neither granular nor liquid fertilizer is better than the other. Both fertilizers apply the same amount of nutrients, but one might be more desirable than the other, depending on the situation. Here are four key factors to consider when choosing your fertilizer: 

  • Your lawn’s health: If you have a healthy and established lawn that needs gradual nutrients throughout the season, slow-release granular fertilizer is a great choice. On the other hand, if your struggling grass needs immediate nutrients or you’re establishing a new lawn, quick-release fertilizer might be the better choice. 
  • Application convenience: Granular fertilizers take more time to apply, and filling the spreader with pellets might work up a sweat. With liquid fertilizers, snap the bottle onto a garden hose and spray it across the lawn. If convenience is important to you, liquid fertilizer might prove easier to apply. 
  • Application frequency: If you would prefer only to apply fertilizer once every few months, then granular fertilizer might be the right choice for you. 
  • Budget: Shopping on a budget? Granular fertilizers are typically cheaper than liquid fertilizers and can be cost-effective when you buy in bulk. 

Does grass type matter?

Remember, your grass can’t tell the difference between nutrients from a granular or liquid fertilizer. Your grass will absorb the nutrients from either type of fertilizer, and different fertilizers usually are safe for all grass types. 

There are sometimes instances where quick-release or slow-release fertilizers might be more beneficial for your grass. It comes down to the time of year and whether you grow cool- or warm-season grass. 

Why? Because applying quick-release fertilizer during a turf’s active growing season might trigger rapid plant growth. For example, when you fertilize cool-season turf in spring with nitrogen, the Purdue Extension recommends applying slow-release fertilizers to minimize excess growth. 

Give your lawn a boost of TLC

If your lawn is experiencing slowed growth, thinning patches, or is turning yellow, it might be hungry for a nutritious meal. Whether you decide to green up your lawn with granular or liquid fertilizer, your yard is bound to show a significant improvement after a cocktail of nutrients.

But don’t give your lawn too much love–– over-fertilizing is possible. Applying too much fertilizer can burn your grass, whether you use granular or liquid fertilizer. 

Don’t have time to mow the lawn? Worried about applying your fertilizer all wrong? Hire a local lawn care pro to push the rotary spreader for you. A lawn care professional’s skills are just what you need to achieve an impeccable green lawn before the outdoor barbecue. 

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.