If fertilizing your lawn this fall, look for ground limestone and avoid anything in plastic bags. Robin J Gentry/Shutterstock.com

A few weeks ago the Sunday paper had a raft of circulars from big-box stores advising people to buy fertilizer, compost, topsoil and other products to get their lawns and gardens ready for fall. All those products came in plastic bags.

First off, thanks for advertising. It supports newspapers, which I love, and not only because I spent my entire career working for them. I just enjoy reading them – even when they make me angry.

But the ads are misleading. First, fertilization should be done based on a soil test, done by the University of Maine soil-testing lab), and you won’t get the results back before the ground freezes.

Beyond that, fall is the wrong time to fertilize many of the things growing in your yard.

An exception is the lawn, if you are going to fertilize your lawn at all.

Lawns go mostly dormant in the heat of summer. Sometime in September, when temperatures cool and rain resumes (at least most years), would be the time to fertilize. But many experts advise using a mulching mower, so the grass clippings can feed the lawn, and skipping the fertilizer.


If you do fertilize your lawn, you should use a fertilizer without phosphorous, the middle number in the three numbers showing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium on the fertilizer label.

Maine soil already has enough phosphorous, and any that is spread in gardens will wash off, ending up in lakes and rivers. The phosphorous reduces the oxygen in water that fish need to survive. It also promotes the growth of algae and other unwanted pollutants. Some states have banned phosphorous in fertilizer, although Maine hasn’t. It does advise homeowners not to use phosphorous on lawns.

And you don’t want to use a nitrogen fertilizer in the fall on the vegetable garden or on perennial borders.

First, nitrogen disappears quickly from the soil, affected by moisture and temperature. If you put it on the vegetable garden, it will disappear by the time you plant your crops in the spring.

Nitrogen also promotes quick growth of plants in your perennial borders. So, adding nitrogen will result in new, tender leaves and stems on plants, and those tender parts are likely to be killed off by the single-digit temperatures of a Maine winter. You will just end up pruning them off in the spring.

What you can do in the fall – especially if you have had the soil test but maybe without one – is add lime, or ground limestone. They key syllable here is “stone.” It takes time for water to dissolve the tiny lime particles enough that they can be absorbed by plants. Maine has mostly acidic soil, which the limestone counteracts. Letting the limestone dissolve over winter is not a bad thing.


Lawn care lesson aside, what drew my attention to the gardening ads was the plastic.

The stores sell fertilizer, lime, topsoil, compost, mulch and almost everything else in plastic bags.

I hate plastic. First off, it is made from oil, the extraction of which results in things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Dakota Access Pipeline. It contributes to climate change. And plastic never disappears. I know that most gardeners would carefully dispose of the plastic, either at recycling bins at some grocery stores or municipal disposal, but a lot of plastic ends up in oceans, killing and sickening marine life, not to mention a lot of litter, too much of it in our own yard dropped by passersby.

I almost cried after my first supermarket trip after COVID-19 hit. The store wouldn’t let me use cloth bags, and I had to take plastic. (Before the next trip, Press Herald columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige suggested putting the groceries back in the cart without bags and bagging them at the car. Except for that the one rainstorm we had all summer came when I was bagging groceries at the car, it has worked well.) If you shop carefully, you can avoid plastics for your gardening products.

The fertilizer we use on everything, from North Country Organics in Vermont, comes in paper bags. So does the ground limestone we have used in the past.

When it comes to mulch, compost and similar products, buy in bulk. It will cost you less and you can avoid those wicked plastic bags. If you do not own and can’t borrow a pickup truck, companies selling bulk goods will deliver to you.

What if what you need amounts to about a bagful of mulch or compost? Talk to the provider of such material in your town. Jordan’s Family Farm in Cape Elizabeth lets customers pick up 5-gallon pails of their products, including crushed stone, compost, mulch and sand, and figures out a price. I’m sure a similar company in your town would do the same thing.

In addition to avoiding the plastic, you will be helping a local business.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

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