Lawn Food vs Fertilizer – What’s the Difference?

Do you ever get confused by all the different lawn care products that are out there?

Weed and feed, lawn starters, lawn food, turf builders, lawn boosters, organic feeds, super-duper-grow-tastic-all-lawn-can-eat-buffets…

And that’s just the fertilizers!

Which pretty much answers the question in the title of this article.

Lawn food vs fertilizer – what’s the difference?

There isn’t any.

But rather than make this the shortest article ever, I’m still going to include some useful information on  the relationship lawns have with fertilizers – and why you should be adding them to your yard.

Contents

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Lawn Food vs Fertilizer – The Short Version

Is lawn food the same as fertilizer?

Yes.

That is, if we’re talking about products that are designed to stimulate the growth of your lawn, keep weeds at bay, and help prevent pests and disease.

man peparing lawn fertilizer

Plants (including the grass in your lawn) actually make their own food – so it’s a bit of a misnomer anyway. Keep reading for more on this process.

So, why all the confusion? Let’s find out.

Lawn Food or Fertilizer?

Simply put, there is no difference between commercially available plant food and fertilizer – it’s just a clever marketing strategy by some companies, and it’s not actually “food” at all.

Here’s a description of both, in a nutshell:

Fertilizers are products that are designed to boost the nutrient levels in the soil, so grasses, vegetables, and other plants can draw what they need to grow into healthy, bountiful organisms.

Plant/Lawn food is just the name that some garden-care companies give to their fertilizer products.

However, actual plant food is something completely different – and you’ll find more on this topic coming up.

Simple, right?

Now that’s all cleared up, I can start telling you some really useful stuff.

Here’s a great article on all the different types of lawn fertilizer available, so you can figure out the exact product that your lawn needs – depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

And the advice at this link will tell you when you need to fertilize your garden in general – and how often.

lawn fertilizer in bag

Plant Food vs Lawn Food vs Flower Food

Just so there’s no confusion – the same description can be applied to commercially available “plant food.”

Like lawn food, it’s a fertilizer product that contains ingredients to help boost a plant’s growth, which might be tailored to a specific plant – depending on the product.

You’d use dedicated lawn food on your lawn, and dedicated plant food on your plants.

Here we can mention stereotypical lawn food from Scotts, for example, and plant food from Miracle-Gro.

Both of which, of course, are actually just fertilizers!

But those sachets of flower food you get when you buy a bunch of blooms are a little different.

They’re designed to help keep cut flowers fresh for longer, and generally contain three surprising ingredients – citric acid, sugar, and bleach.

Yes, you read that correctly!

In fact, it’s actually very easy to make your own cut flower food, with one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of bleach, two teaspoons of lemon juice, and a quart of lukewarm water.

Do that the next time you buy flowers for your partner (or for yourself), and the flower food sachet is missing.

And speaking of doing things yourself, why not check out this article on DIY lawn fertilizers – which will tell you all you need to know to produce your own, money-saving batch of “lawn food!”

Real Lawn Food

Now we’ve dispelled the myths of lawn foods (as in – it’s not actually food at all), let’s take a look at where plants and grass actually get their real food from.

And then, if you keep reading, how fertilizers fit into this process.

How much did you pay attention in biology class?

This doesn’t need to be overly complex – and so here’s a quick refresher:

The key word (that most of us will remember) is photosynthesis.

This is the process where plants make their own food by “synthesizing” what they need from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight. The byproduct of this, of course, is oxygen.

In order to complete this fascinating process, plants need chlorophyll – the pigment that gives all plants their green color.

And in order to produce a healthy amount of chlorophyll (among other things), our green friends need at least 17 mineral nutrients drawn from the world around them.

That’s plant nutrition in its most basic, basic form.

new lawn growing

Super basic.

These nutrients can be divided into macro and micro varieties, which I’ve organized into a helpful table, below:

Macronutrients Micronutrients
Nitrogen (N) Iron (Fe)
Phosphorous (P) Boron (B)
Potassium (K) Chlorine (Cl)
Calcium (Ca) Copper (Cu)
Sulfur (S) Manganese (Mn)
Magnesium (Mg) Nickel (N)
Carbon (C) Molybdenum (Mo)
Oxygen (O) Zinc (Zn)
Hydrogen (H)

Consider each nutrient a building block for an organism to be a healthy, well-adjusted, grounded, contributing member of plant society.

Remove one, and over time you will notice the effects, depending on the nutrient, the plant, the conditions, and how much it has been deprived.

And while each nutrient has its own part to play, the most important of these, are the three macronutrients at the top of the left-hand column.

Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – the “big three.”

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that their chemical symbols – N, P, and K, correspond to those numbers on the front/back of bags of fertilizer.

This tells you the percentage of each nutrient contained within that particular product. And we basically use such fertilizers to ensure optimum conditions so that a plant can create genuine “plant food.”

This leads us nicely onto our next chapter, but if you’d like to take a more detailed dive into how plants make their food, you can check out the highly educational video below:

How Fertilizers Work

There are many benefits to fertilizing your lawn and garden, including promoting vibrant colors, strong root systems, bountiful yields, and keeping weeds, pests, and disease under control.

But how do they actually work?

It helps to think of them as a sort of multivitamin for plants.

Sometimes, we humans can’t get all the nutrients we need from our diet – and we need a little help to reach the recommended daily amounts.

I take an effervescent vitamin supplement every morning, for example, to boost my immune system. Adding fertilizer/lawn food to the desirable plants in my garden is a similar practice.

The “Big Three”

Synthetic fertilizers contain a combination of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The latter is often abbreviated to “potash.”

Nitrogen is used to promote healthy green leaves – boosting the production of chlorophyll, and is essential for growth.

Phosphorus promotes a strong and healthy root system, as well as helping to produce blooms, fruits, vegetables, and seeds.

Potassium is required for stress tolerance, and to help keep disease and pests at bay. Think of it as a general supplement for overall plant health.

Top-tip – you can easily remember the benefits of the “big three” using this simple trick. Nitrogen helps plants grow up, phosphorus helps them grow down, and potassium helps them all around.

Organic fertilizers are more useful for providing the micronutrients that plants need – something that synthetic fertilizers aren’t particularly useful for.

hand on green grass

(Check out this article for some useful organic gardening tips.)

And while small amounts of macro and micronutrients are all found naturally in the soil and air around grass and plants, think of fertilizers as a helping leg up.

But how do you what the soil needs in the first place? What’s the best ratio of NPK numbers to use?

That’s quite straightforward, as you can conduct a simple soil test, which will tell you exactly where your soil has a deficit, and could do with some help.

I highly recommend doing this before you start throwing anything down, as what works for my soil might not work for yours – particularly when living in different parts of the country/world.

Don’t just head to the local big-box store and pick up the first “lawn food” you find. Make sure you’re getting the ratios right, and your lawn will benefit as a result.

Fertilizer/Lawn Food Fillers

You might be wondering what else is in these fertilizers, considering the percentage amounts of the NPK numbers don’t add up to 100.

The rest of the product contains “fillers,” which are inactive ingredients that are used to dilute the nutrients.

They’re not there to make up the numbers – fillers help prevent nutrients from “burning” the plant life, as you can have too much of a good thing.

They also help the soils and plants absorb the nutrients, and prevent the fertilizer from drying out. Typical fillers include sawdust, clean dirt, peat moss, and ground corn cobs.

For more information, you can check out the video below, which explains how fertilizers help plants grow.

And before we finish up with some frequently asked questions, here’s an article you don’t want to miss: Our complete, month-by-month lawn care calendar.

It has everything you need to know and do throughout the year for the best chance of a beautiful lawn – so don’t miss it!

weed killer being used on grass

FAQs

Should I use liquid or granular fertilizer?

Easily one of the most common questions we get asked here at YardThyme – which is better – granular or liquid fertilizer?

It really depends on a number of factors, but a rule-of-thumb I like to remember is to use liquid for fast results, and granular for a slow-release formula.

Of course, it’s not always that black and white, and you can follow the link above for a full, in-depth article on the subject.

Does Fertilizer kill weeds?

It depends on the type of fertilizer – but to keep things simple, most fertilizers are designed to feed all plants – which includes undesirables like the six most common weeds you find in your lawn.

If you’re using a weed and feed product, however, it might be able to control weed growth with the inclusion of a pre-emergent herbicide mixed in with the fertilizer.

This article on fertilizers and weeds will tell you everything you need to know.

Should I use lawn food?

Yes. Next question.

Joking aside, you don’t need to use lawn food. Our lawns will be fine without – they just won’t ever reach their full potential without a bit of help.

But next time you’re driving around your neighborhood in the summer, make a note when you see a lush, thick, carpet of grass with a vibrant, deep green hue.

That’s the work of a fertilizer – among other lawn care practices.

If you’re serious about lawn care, then you need to be using a good quality fertilizer at least twice a year. And make sure you’ve got all these essential lawn care tools in your shed while you’re at it.

However, all that said, if you’re set against using any such formulas on your lawn, you can go the organic route.

Start a kitchen compost bin, with a compost tumbler outside – and you can create a super-charged topdressing that will benefit anything green in your garden.

Does fertilizer kill worms?

Earthworms are the gardener’s friend, and using lawn foods/fertilizer should be a concern for every gardener when it comes to protecting helpful species.

But fear not, for they should be fine with an application of most fertilizers – but you can check this article on worms and fertilizers for more info.

Does fertilizer go bad?

It’s a great question – as many gardeners have products sitting on the shelves in their sheds for several seasons.

And you can go here to find out if those fertilizers have a shelf life, including how long they last, when you should be using them, and if you can salvage that product that’s been stashed for X years.

Summary

I hope this article has cleared up any confusion about lawn food vs fertilizer, as they are actually one and the same thing!

It’s easy when you know, right?!

Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and/or if you have any fertilizing tips, tricks, and advice you’d like to share with your fellow green thumbs.

Stay safe out there, and happy gardening!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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