Should you water or fertilize first?

When it comes to caring for your lawn or garden, two of the most important tasks are watering and fertilizing. But which should you do first – add water or fertilizer? There are good arguments on both sides of this debate, and the right answer depends on factors like the type of plants you’re growing, the time of year, and your climate. Keep reading as we explore the pros and cons of watering before fertilizing vs fertilizing before watering.

Quick Answers

Here are some quick answers to key questions about watering and fertilizing order:

Should I water before or after fertilizing? In most cases, it’s best to water before applying fertilizer. This helps move fertilizer into the soil and prevents burn or damage to plants. An exception is slow-release fertilizer, which can be applied before or after watering.

When should I fertilize – morning or evening? Fertilize in the morning, before the hottest part of the day. This gives plants time to absorb nutrients before high temperatures arrive.

How soon after fertilizing should I water? Water immediately after applying fertilizer, within 24 hours at most. Quick watering helps carry fertilizer into the soil.

What’s the best fertilizing schedule? Fertilize at the start of each growing season in spring, and once every 4-6 weeks through the peak growing months. Reduce frequency in hot summer or for dormant plants.

The Case for Watering First

There’s a simple reason many gardeners recommend watering before adding fertilizer: it helps the fertilizer dissolve and absorb into the soil, getting to plant roots faster. Dry soil can “lock up” fertilizer granules or powder, preventing proper absorption. Pre-watering hydrates the soil, creating moisture that carries fertilizer down into the root zone.

Watering immediately after fertilizing serves a similar purpose. Those first few waterings promote fertilizer penetration and absorption. Lightly watering after applying fertilizer (about 1/4 inch) is ideal. Soaking the area heavily could wash fertilizer past the root zone before plants take it up.

Beyond fertilizer absorption, there are other benefits to watering first:

  • Prevents fertilizer burn – Dry soil and plants are more susceptible to damage from highly concentrated fertilizer. Watering first minimizes this risk.
  • Avoids leaching – Fertilizer dissolves best with some soil moisture present. This prevents it from leaching downward and out of the root zone.
  • Encourages growth – Well-hydrated plants can maximize growth from absorbed fertilizer.

As long as the fertilizer you use is formulated for soils (not just foliar feeding), watering first is unlikely to dilute or wash away the nutrients. Granular fertilizers are designed to break down over time, not immediately dissolve with watering.

When to Avoid Watering First

The main exception to watering first is when using a slow or controlled release fertilizer. These types of fertilizer are coated to break down gradually over weeks or months. They are also less prone to burning plants, reducing the need for immediate watering.

Moisture can impact the fertilizer coating and release rate. In this case, you would apply the controlled release fertilizer first, then follow up with irrigation.

Foliar sprays and liquid fertilizers designed to coat plant leaves also call for fertilizing first. You typically spray these directly onto dry foliage and irrigate after.

Why Fertilize Before Watering?

While less common, there are still good reasons you may want to fertilize before watering:

  • Convenience – It takes less time and effort to fertilize everything first, then water after. This can be helpful for large yards.
  • Avoiding runoff – Fertilizing dry soil can prevent nutrient rich water from running off before plants absorb it.
  • Fertilizer activation – Some types of fertilizer work best when watered in after application.
  • Foliar absorption – Foliar sprays need to coat dry leaves before being watered off for absorption.

While fertilizing first works in specific scenarios, it should always be followed closely by watering. Leaving fertilizer to sit on dry soil risks burning plants and losing nutrients.

Tips for Fertilizing Before Watering

If you do prefer to fertilize first, here are some tips for success:

  • Water immediately after fertilizing, within 24 hours at most.
  • Target just the soil, avoiding wetting foliage until you irrigate.
  • Use a slow release fertilizer to allow more time before watering.
  • Spread fertilizer evenly and according to label rates to prevent burning.
  • Consider a seed starter or diluted liquid fertilizer for seedlings and transplants.

Careful timing and monitoring soil moisture is key to avoiding damage when fertilizing first. Water deeply after applying fertilizer.

Factors to Consider

When choosing whether to water before or after fertilizing, keep the following factors in mind:

Your Climate

In hot and dry climates, pre-watering is typically best. Dry soil and plants suffer more risk of fertilizer burn. In cool or humid areas that don’t stress plants as much, you can get away with fertilizing first more often.

Soil Conditions

Pre-water if soil is very dry, compacted, or hydrophobic (repelling water). This prepares the root zone better to absorb fertilizer. In well-draining soil with decent moisture you have more leeway to fertilize first.

Type of Fertilizer

As mentioned for slow release varieties, fertilizer type impacts order. Soluble fertilizers dissolve fast and are best applied to moist soil. Granular and synthetic fertilizers can go down first, followed promptly by irrigation.

Method of Application

Spray fertilizers should coat dry foliage for absorption before watering washes them off. Spreadable granular fertilizer is better watered into the soil right after application.

Plant Needs

Choose water first for freshly seeded areas, transplants, stressed plants, and seedlings. More established, healthy plants can handle fertilizing first better. Adjust for the most vulnerable plants in the area.

General Fertilizing Guidelines

Along with watering order, follow these tips for success with fertilizer:

  • Read the label – Follow all product rates and application instructions.
  • Consider a balanced fertilizer – All-purpose blends with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium suit most plants.
  • Know your soil – Have soil tested every 2-3 years to understand your nutrient needs.
  • Watch the weather – Don’t fertilize just before expected heavy rain, which can wash nutrients away.
  • Think long term – Build healthy soil with compost, organic matter, and slow release nutrition.

And remember to couple fertilizer with regular irrigation for best results!

Watering After Fertilizing

While not always required, watering after fertilizing is recommended in most cases. Here are some key tips on post-fertilizer irrigation:

  • Water immediately after fertilizing, within 24 hours.
  • Target the soil and avoid wetting foliage right away.
  • Water lightly, about 1/4 inch, avoiding runoff.
  • Ensure good coverage across the fertilized area.
  • Allow the soil surface to dry between waterings.
  • Consider repeat irrigation to move fertilizer through soil layers.

Proper follow up watering helps fertilizer absorption and minimizes any potential risks. For granular fertilizers, post-application irrigation is key.


While there’s no universally right order for watering and fertilizing, pre-watering the soil ensures the fertilizer gets moved into the root zone efficiently. This prevents waste, leaching, and potential plant damage. Exceptions like slow release fertilizers allow more flexibility. But in general, watering before and immediately after fertilizing gives the best results.

Factors like climate, application method, and the plants’ needs all play a role in the decision too. Following product instructions and labels is always advised. With care taken to water at the right times, fertilizing will give your lawn and garden a healthy boost.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it OK to fertilize plants when dry?

It’s best to avoid fertilizing extremely dry plants. Parched soil and foliage can exacerbate fertilizer burn. Lightly pre-watering helps fertilizer absorb safely.

How soon after fertilizing should you water?

Water immediately after fertilizing, within 24 hours at most. Quick irrigation helps move fertilizer into the soil before rain or sprinklers can wash it away.

Can you put too much fertilizer down?

Yes, over-fertilizing is possible. Use no more than the recommended rate on the label, reduce frequency for stressed plants, and monitor for signs of excess fertilizer like burnt leaf tips.

What time of day is best to fertilize?

Fertilize either early in the morning or late afternoon. Avoid the hot midday sun which can burn plants along with concentrated fertilizer.

Is liquid or granular fertilizer better?

Both fertilizer forms can be effective. Liquids provide faster nutrient availability while granular fertilizers release over a longer period. Use as directed for your needs.

Fertilizing First Pros Fertilizing First Cons
More convenient Higher burn risk
Avoids nutrient runoff Potential leaching
Works for some fertilizer types Less efficient absorption
Allows foliar sprays Must water immediately after
Watering First Pros Watering First Cons
Reduces fertilizer burn Takes more time
Improves nutrient absorption Can dilute foliar sprays
Prevents fertilizer leaching May lead to runoff
Better for dry soil Not needed with some fertilizers

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