What is Fertilizer Burn?

fertilizer burn

Fertilizer burn threatens all plants, whether houseplants or landscape plants. You try to do the right thing and properly care for your plants, and it’s possible you could hurt them. Fertilizer burn is a danger, but it is avoidable. Learn how to spot the signs of fertilizer burn, take action if your plants are damaged, and prevent this from happening.

Benefits of Fertilizing Plants

Fertilizing essentially provides balanced nutrition for plants and helps them thrive. Plants in nature receive nutrients as nearby plant matter drops, breaks down, and floods the soil with vitamins and minerals. Houseplants do not have this benefit, although they have the advantage of rich potting mixes and specific fertilizers to help support continued growth.

Causes of Fertilizer Burn

Fertilizing plants is helpful, but too much of a good thing or improper application can have dire consequences. Damage from fertilizer can happen in a couple of different ways.

  1. Overfeeding a plant. Plants can only absorb so much water and fertilizer at a time. While it is tempting to encourage more growth by giving the plant more fertilizer than is directed or applying it more often, it is not beneficial. Giving a plant more than it can handle can cause fertilizer burn on the roots.
  2. Applying fertilizer to the foliage. Plant food is intended to be dissolved in water and absorbed through the roots. Even granular fertilizers need water to break down and sustain plants. Pouring fertilizer directly on the foliage or splashing the product on the leaves when applying can cause burns. Most fertilizers contain salt, which can suck the moisture out of the leaves, causing them to dry out.
  3. Not enough water. Water is essential to use a water-soluble plant food or a granular, slow-release product. Too little water when using a water-soluble mix will cause high concentrations that can damage the roots. Not enough water for a granular mix means the granules will not dissolve, and the roots will be exposed to a much higher concentration than is safe. 

What Does Fertilizer Burn Look Like?

Damage from fertilizer burn depends on how the plant was harmed. Damaged roots will appear as a withered plant. The foliage will droop and decline and look like overwatering damage.

Fertilizer damage can appear as yellow spots or streaks in the foliage if the product comes into contact with the vegetation. The leaves will eventually turn brown, dry out, and die. Damage from improper fertilizing usually appears a few days after applying plant food.

fertilizer burn

How Long Does Fertilizer Burn Last?

How long fertilizer burn lasts depends on the extent of the damage. Plants can recover from mild cases of fertilizer burn. Remove damaged growth and get back to the basics of plant care. Damage stresses out a plant, so help your plant de-stress by ensuring it receives proper lighting, water, and humidity. Some houseplants are adaptable and can live in various conditions, but if you are nursing a damaged plant, make sure to give it what it prefers. Just because a snake plant can live in low light doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Move the plant near a sunny window or use a grow light and give it time to recoup. Fine-tuning the care will help the plant bounce back.

Fertilizer burns can be fatal to plants in extreme cases. If most of the foliage is damaged or the roots are significantly harmed, the plant is unlikely to recover. All is not lost because you may be able to take cuttings and propagate the plant to create new plants.  

How to Prevent Fertilizer Burn

It seems counterintuitive that something helpful would ultimately harm plants, but it’s possible. Prevent fertilizer damage by following these steps. 

  1. Always follow the instructions on the packaging to ensure you correctly apply plant food using the proper amounts and frequency. 
  2. Apply fertilizer to the potting mix and keep the product off the stems and leaves as much as possible. If you get plant food on the vegetation, rinse the foliage and wipe it down with a damp cloth to remove residue and get rid of any dust buildup while you’re at it.
  3. Keep track of how often you fertilize plants to avoid overdoing it. If you can’t remember exactly when was the last time you fertilized a plant — wait. Your plant is better off waiting another week or two instead of risking being overfed. 

Plant Care Made Easy

Fertilizing is not always necessary, but it can be an important part of houseplant care. Routine feedings can keep plants lush and healthy and looking amazing. Follow the instructions when fertilizing your plants and do plenty of research when using a DIY plant food to ensure your plants get all the benefits and no damage.