Fall Fertilizing Basics to Foster a Beautiful Spring Garden

Master fall fertilizing to bring back a beautiful, bountiful garden in the spring.

Updated October 2, 2023
hand of a farmer giving fertilizer

Even though the leaves turn brown and the plants go dormant, a gardener’s work is never done. Every season, there’s something important to check off your to-do list, and fertilizing your garden in the fall should make its way to the top. Learning how to fertilize in the fall will help you lay the groundwork for a bountiful and beautiful arrangement in the spring.

Fall Fertilizer Basics to Bring Back a Beautiful Landscape

It seems counterintuitive, but fertilizer isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of gardening ingredient. Not every plant needs the same kind, the same amount, or to be doled out in the same season. Master the fall fertilizing schedule by familiarizing yourself with the basics.

What Is Fertilizer and Why Spread It in the Fall?

Basically, fertilizer is a mixed material full of nutrients that your plants need to flourish. Specifically, most fertilizers are made up of three different ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Nitrogen promotes foliage growth, phosphorous stimulates root growth, and potassium supports a plant’s overall health.

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In the fall, things might not look too good from up top, but there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. Your plants' roots are growing, and they’re pumping out important chemicals to help them resist the fall and winter freezes. Fertilizing in the fall is so important, because it supports your dormant plants as they brace for winter and start the work of extending their roots and preparing for the spring growth.

How to Fertilize Perennials

Unlike annuals, perennials come back every year. And if you fertilize them in the fall, they’ll come back bigger and bolder than before. With your perennials, sprinkle on a high-phosphate fertilizer that has a low nitrogen content.

Need to Know

If you're ever unsure about how to fertilize something in your area, contact your local cooperative extension. They'll get you the right resources and the information you need to handle any agriculture questions you might have. 

How to Fertilize Spring Bulbs

If you want bulb plants to blossom in the spring, then you’ve got to plant them in the fall. It’s crucial that you apply phosphorous fertilizer mixed with a hearty compost at the roots as you’re planting them to give them the boost they need to establish before the winter frost sets in. Doing this extra step will really secure your bulbs and help them last the winter.

How to Fertilize Roses

As always, roses continue to be the most persnickety plants. Unlike most other flora, you don’t want to fertilize rose bushes in the fall, because you’ll stimulate growth. For all its beauty, your rose bushes don’t have a lot of brain, and they’ll work hard making new buds and stems not caring that their new arms will all just wither and die in the cold.

The best thing you can do for your rose bushes is leave them be in the fall.

How to Fertilize Vegetables

When fertilizing your vegetable garden in the fall, you could take a more organic approach. Simply, add mulch, leaves, grass clippings, and any other organic material to your garden bed. Then, you can let Mother Nature do its thing. As the organic material decomposes, the nutrients will be spread into the soil and fortify your veggies.

Or you can go with conventional fertilizers. With vegetables, in particular, you should invest in having a soil sample done so you know exactly what combination of fertilizer to use. Too much of any fertilizer ingredient can destroy your harvest before it really starts. 

How to Fertilize Trees & Shrubs

Your foliage deserves a little looking after, too. Apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the root zone (where the root system has extended around the tree) in early November either by hand or with a fertilizer spreader.

How to Fertilize Lawns

Lawns are a little different from plants or trees, because you’ve got to cover a whole lot of space, and different species require different compositions of fertilizer. Similarly, you don't want to fertilize warm-weather grasses on the same schedule as cool-weather grasses. But a good rule of thumb is to fertilize with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer once in September and once again with a phosphorous-rich fertilizer in early November.

Tips to Succeed at Fall Fertilizing

There’s not a lot of wiggle room with fertilizing. Either you do it right and your plants come back stronger and more beautiful than before, or you mess up and don’t see any of the benefits. Nail fall fertilizing by following these tips.

  • Get a soil sample done. An absolute must before fertilizing is getting a soil sample done and reviewing the results. You need to identify what your soil has a lot of and what it has hardly any of. You need to custom tailor your fertilizer compositions to your soil to see the maximum effect. 
  • Water for a few weeks after fertilizing. Water where you fertilized a few times a week for a few weeks, because it'll help the nutrients seep into the ground and reach the roots.
  • Try a slow-release fertilizer for maximum effect. Slow-release fertilizers release their nutrients at a slower rate, which is perfect when you’re just trying to fortify them and not promote substantial growth.
  • Fertilizing later is always a safe option. If you’re not sure when you should and shouldn’t fertilize, it’s always a safe bet to apply it in late-October/early-November before the first frosts hit. 

Give Your Plants a Fighting Chance

Although you might be tempted to call it a day’s work when the leaves start falling and the weather turns cold, it’s actually far from over. If you want to foster the best garden you can, then you need to get on a good fall fertilizing schedule. Give your plants that last little boost they need to help them fight through the winter.

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Fall Fertilizing Basics to Foster a Beautiful Spring Garden