Liquid vs. Granular Fertilizer

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

Your turfgrass is generally ready for a nutritional boost after a stressful season of bubbling under the sun or freezing under the snow. 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 down your options so you can offer the best care for your lawn. 

What is liquid fertilizer?

Liquid fertilizer is a liquid concentrate you dilute with water and spray onto your lawn. Some liquid fertilizers begin as a dry, water-soluble substance 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 controlled-release granular fertilizer. 

Liquid fertilizers are usually sold in bottles that can readily be attached to the end of a garden hose. Some options to consider include:

What is granular fertilizer?

Granular fertilizer is dry and typically comes in the form of pellets. Most granular fertilizers are controlled-release (slow-release) fertilizers, although there are some quick-release options.

Granular fertilizer is available in various-sized bags or bottles at physical stores or online. Opt for options such as:

The difference between controlled-release and quick-release fertilizer

In lawn care, you need to consider what kind of fertilizer you want for your yard. Controlled-release fertilizers (also known as slow-release) release nutrients over six to eight weeks. Quick-release fertilizers act as soon as you water them.

Given a choice between the two, opt for controlled-release fertilizer. This type guarantees long-term lawn health without toxicity. That said, quick-release fertilizer can be a viable option if you’re looking for fast results and a higher concentration of nutrients.

Ultimately, the right fertilizer will depend on your lawn’s needs, the type of grass you have, the time of year, and how much time and money you’re willing to spend on it..

Consider these benefits and drawbacks before deciding.

Type of FertilizerAdvantagesDisadvantages
Controlled-release✔ No toxic buildup on the soil
✔ Helps with water movement and soil structure
✔ Introduces beneficial soil microbes
✔ Safer to use around children and pets
✘ Lower concentrations of nutrients
✘ Takes longer to absorb
✘ Costs more
Quick-release✔ Lower cost
✔ Highly concentrated
✔ Acts faster
✔ Higher nutrient ratio
✘ Can cause more toxic buildup
✘ Made from synthetic materials
✘ Can pollute groundwater
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Do liquid and granular fertilizers have the same nutrients?

Granular and liquid fertilizers supply the three essential nutrients (also called macronutrients) your grass needs: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 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. Each macronutrient provides different benefits, as outlined below.

Nutrient Key Benefits
Nitrogen✔ Helps rapid growth and protein synthesis
✔ Increases leaf development for dense lawns
✔ Very beneficial to established lawns
Phosphorus✔ Promotes healthy root growth and lawn thickness
✔ Promotes plant maturity and seed development
Potassium✔ Increases drought and disease resistance
✔ Strengthens root systems and aids in maintaining grass color and vitality

Remember, grass can’t differentiate between granular or liquid fertilizer nutrients. Your lawn will absorb the nutrients from either type of fertilizer, and most fertilizers are safe for all grass types. 

Pros and cons of liquid fertilizer

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

Liquid fertilizers come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Pros of liquid fertilizer:

  • 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. To make it easier to spot already fertilized areas, you can mix this type of fertilizer with an indicator dye.
  • It also can be mixed with herbicides or pesticides for a well-rounded treatment option.
  • Liquid fertilizer typically shows results sooner than slow-release granular fertilizer due to its increased mobility in the soil. It’s 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. 

Cons of liquid fertilizer:

  • Liquid fertilizer can sometimes trigger a growth surge. A growth surge can be desirable for new lawns but not so much for established lawns. It can stimulate rapid shoot growth and hinder root development, making the grass more vulnerable to stress, pests, and various fungi
  • Because liquid fertilizer provides nutrients so quickly, re-applications are required more often than for slow-release granular fertilizer. 
  • Liquid fertilizer is typically more expensive than granular fertilizer. Costs will surge if you have a large lawn that needs multiple applications per season.
  • Liquid fertilizer has a shorter shelf-life than granular fertilizer, so use it within the manufacturer’s recommended timeframe.

Pros and cons of granular fertilizer

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

Just like its liquid counterpart, granular fertilizer doesn’t only provide benefits for your lawn. Certain drawbacks should be taken into account when selecting a type for your lawn.

Pros of granular fertilizer: 

  • Granular (or slow-release) fertilizer is ideal for long-term grass health.
  • Granular fertilizer can last several weeks or months, so you don’t need to apply it as often as quick-release liquid products. 
  • Granular fertilizer has a longer shelf life than most liquid fertilizers. 
  • Granular fertilizer is typically less expensive than liquid fertilizer, especially when you buy in bulk. 
  • You can apply granular fertilizer anytime, regardless of the time of day or year. 

Cons of granular fertilizer: 

  • Granular fertilizer can be more difficult to spread than liquid fertilizer, requiring a tool such as a spreader. You’ll need to know how to use it and pay close attention to the areas you’ve already fertilized.
  • Granular fertilizer usually won’t deliver nutrients fast enough to a struggling lawn that needs an immediate nutrient boost. 
  • When applying granular fertilizer, you must provide sufficient water for nutrients to reach the grassroots.
  • Granular fertilizer contains more salt, which can promote intense heat at the grassroots level.
  • Not all granules contain the same amount of nutrients. On top of that, according to the PennState Extension, granular fertilizer may contain dust and broken particles. These factors generally lead to an uneven distribution of nutrients.

How to apply liquid fertilizer

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

Required tools

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

The process

  1. Opt for a clear, sunny, non-windy day to apply liquid fertilizer. The wind can blow the fertilizer away from the target area, wasting the product and possibly causing fertilizer burn if it lands on an already fertilized spot. 
  2. It’s best to apply liquid fertilizer at the end of the day when the weather has cooled, but there’s still enough light for a proper application. Hot temperatures can cause grass burn.
  3. Spray an even fertilizer application across the lawn. Applying too much liquid in one area also can lead to burned grass. 
  4. As you fertilize, walk backward to avoid stepping on fertilized grass.

How to apply granular fertilizer

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

Required tools

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

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

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

You can open or close the holes using a lever on 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. For better control, you can open and close the holes as you wish.

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

The best tool for the job will depend on your lawn’s size. Follow these guidelines when selecting your tool of choice:

  • 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 – Small gardens or minuscule patches of grass

The process

illustration showing how to spread fertilizer
Illustration by Juan Rodriguez
  1. Calibrate the spreader you’re going to use according to the recommended instructions on the granular fertilizer bag. These correspond to a certain type of spreader model and the type of fertilizer product inside. Fertilizers can have different densities or pellet sizes, which is why calibration should be done according to the product you purchased.
  2. Pour the granules into the hopper while standing on the driveway or patio. An accidental spill could cause your grass to burn. Collect any fallout and put it back in the hopper.
  3. Starting in one corner of your yard, push your spreader consistently around the perimeter, about 3 miles per hour. 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 cover the middle section. Position your spreader inside the border and walk forward in a straight line. 
  5. Once you reach the end of the row, turn the spreader and walk forward again, starting a new row.
  6. Continue walking in straight lines parallel to your last pass, overlapping slightly to avoid missing any spots. Repeat until you’ve covered the entire lawn.

Key factors to consider when choosing a fertilizer

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 option. 
  • Application convenience – Granular fertilizers take longer 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 to only 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. 

For a more in-depth look at fertilization practices, check out our guide to lawn fertilization.

FAQ on liquid vs. granular fertilizer

What other uses does liquid fertilizer have?

You can use liquid fertilizer to feed seedlings, potted plants, and container gardens or start vegetable seeds. They’re an easy, quick fix anytime your plants or vegetables need a pick-me-up. Many people use liquid fertilizer sprays for new transplants to support growth and development.

What other uses does granular fertilizer have?

Apart from feeding grass, granular fertilizer can promote healthy outdoor garden beds. Push it into the soil before planting your seeds or seedlings. Alternatively, you can use this fertilizer type in planting holes before transplantation. The nutrients will already be available as soon as your plant hits the soil.

Can liquid and granular fertilizers be used simultaneously?

Yes, if you follow certain steps. Apply a granular, slow-release fertilizer to jumpstart new grass growth. After that, spray liquid fertilizer over your lawn every few weeks. The same goes for plants or vegetable gardens.

Give your lawn a boost with fertilizer

If your lawn is showing signs of slowed growth, thinning patches, or discoloration, it might be hungry for a nutritious meal. Whether you use granular or liquid fertilizer, your grass will vibrate with health after a cocktail of nutrients. Just be careful not to give your lawn too much love; going overboard with the fertilizer can burn your grass.

If this all sounds like too much work, hire a local lawn care pro to push the rotary spreader for you. Their skills are just what you need to achieve an impeccable green lawn before the outdoor barbecue. 

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Andie Ioó

In my free time, I enjoy traveling with my husband, sports, trying out new recipes, reading, and watching reruns of '90s TV shows. As a way to relax and decompress, I enjoy landscaping around my little yard and DIY home projects.