All About Fertilizer Burn on Plants, and How to Fix It

Fertilizer burn is a common issue that can affect plants of all kinds. It occurs when too much fertilizer is applied, resulting in damage to the plant’s foliage and roots. While it can happen to any plant, fertilizer burn is especially common in vegetable gardens and with container plants. The good news is, with some care and quick action, plants can often recover from mild to moderate fertilizer burn.

What Causes Fertilizer Burn?

Fertilizer burn happens when the salts and chemicals in fertilizers build up in the soil to excessive levels. This creates a situation where the roots absorb more nutrients than the plant can handle.

The most common causes of fertilizer burn include:

  • Using too much fertilizer – This overwhelms the plant with an overabundance of nutrients. Using the wrong type of fertilizer or one with very high nutrient levels can also cause burn.
  • Not following label directions – The instructions on fertilizer packaging give the proper dilution rates and application frequency. Applying too much or too often is a recipe for burn.
  • Applying fertilizer to dry soil – Fertilizer dissolves best when the soil is moist. Dry soil causes the fertilizer to concentrate in one spot.
  • Spilling fertilizer on leaves – Foliar contact can result in leaf scorching and tip damage.
  • Using pure or concentrated fertilizer – Undiluted fertilizers contain very high nutrient levels and almost always cause burn.
  • Repeated fertilizer applications – Fertilizing too often allows salts and nutrients to accumulate.
  • Slow drainage – Poor drainage or compacted soil prevents fertilizer salts from washing away.

Signs and Symptoms of Fertilizer Burn

The signs of fertilizer burn generally show up within a few days of application:

  • Leaf scorch – Leaves turn brown or black around the edges and tips. This occurs when fertilizer makes direct contact.
  • Leaf yellowing – The foliage turns yellow and can eventually die off. This indicates nutrient overload.
  • Leaf curl – Leaves curl or roll inward from the edges as a protective response.
  • Stunted growth – Plants slow or stop growing, existing leaves are small and new leaves don’t develop.
  • Root damage – Excess salts burn and dry out the plant’s root system. Symptoms appear above ground.
  • Wilting – Leaves look limp, droopy and thin even if the soil is moist. Damaged roots cannot take up water.
  • Tip dieback – The ends of stems, leaf tips and needles turn brown and die back.

The severity of damage depends on the type and amount of fertilizer as well as the plant variety. Quick-release synthetic fertilizers tend to cause more acute burning compared to slow-release organic options. Delicate herbs and vegetables like lettuce and basil are quite sensitive. Trees and shrubs can tolerate more.

How to Fix Fertilizer Burn on Plants

When you catch fertilizer burn early, it is often possible to minimize damage and help affected plants recover. Follow these steps:

1. Stop Fertilizing Immediately

As soon as you notice any symptoms, cease all fertilizer applications. Adding more will intensify the problem. Wait at least 2-3 months before considering fertilizing again.

2. Water Thoroughly

Water the plants well, allowing the water to fully saturate the root zone. This helps to dilute salt concentrations and flush excess fertilizer from the soil.

3. Add More Organic Matter

Work compost, peat moss, well-rotted manure or leaf mold into the top few inches of soil. This helps absorb fertilizer salts and provides nutrients to aid recovery.

4. Consider Replanting in Fresh Soil

For potted plants with severe leaf loss or completely damaged roots, replanting in brand new, unfertilized soil often gives the best results.

5. Apply High-Calcium Fertilizer or Lime

Calcium helps displace salt buildup. Apply gypsum or high-calcium fertilizer per label instructions. Dolomitic lime also helps balance soil pH.

6. Increase Light and Air Circulation

Boosting light and airflow will help distressed plants recover more quickly. Move outdoors if possible or improve indoor light and ventilation.

7. Cut Back Severely Damaged Foliage

Prune off badly burned leaves, stems and flowers to limit stress on the plant and allow it to refocus energy on new growth. Make cuts just above healthy tissue.

8. Be Patient and Wait for Recovery

It takes time for roots to regenerate and plants to adjust after fertilizer burn. Their growth will likely seem stalled for several weeks as they heal.

How to Prevent Fertilizer Burn

While fertilizer is important for plant growth, more does not mean better. Use the following tips to fertilize effectively without risk of burn:

  • Read and follow all label directions – Never exceed the recommended application rate or frequency.
  • Perform regular soil tests – This determines if nutrients are lacking before applying fertilizer.
  • Use slow-release fertilizers – The gradual nutrient release rarely causes burn. Look for terms like “controlled-release” or “timed-release”.
  • Avoid foliar contact – When using a foliar spray, apply early or late in the day to allow leaves time to dry. Never apply to wilted plants.
  • Water plants well before fertilizing – Moist soil prevents fertilizer from concentrating in spots.
  • Avoid direct contact with stems and trunks – Keep granular fertilizers away from the base when applying.
  • Spread fertilizer evenly – Broadcast spreading ensures uniform distribution, preventing concentrated patches.
  • Apply lower rates more frequently – Using less fertilizer but applying more often prevents buildup.
  • Know your plants’ needs – Some require more nutrients than others and are prone to burn if overfed.
  • Use organic fertilizers – These break down more slowly and gently in soil. Organic nutrients are less likely to burn.

By following best practices for fertilization, gardeners can nourish plants without the damaging effects of fertilizer burn. Pay close attention in the weeks after applying fertilizer and you can catch problems early before they intensify. With quick response, most plants can make a full recovery.

All About Fertilizer Burn on Plants, and How to Fix It

Fertilizer burn can happen to any plant when too much fertilizer accumulates in the soil. It damages roots and leaves. By ceasing fertilizer applications, flushing the soil, and pruning damaged tissue, plants can often recover from mild to moderate fertilizer burn. Taking steps like soil testing, using slow-release fertilizers, and following label directions can help avoid fertilizer burn in the first place.

Frequently Asked Questions About Fertilizer Burn on Plants

Here are answers to some common questions about fertilizer burn.

What are the first signs of fertilizer burn?

The earliest symptoms of fertilizer burn are typically leaf scorching and yellowing around the edges, leaf curling, and stunted growth. Root damage occurs first but is not visible above ground immediately.

Why did my plant get fertilizer burn?

The most common causes of fertilizer burn are using too much fertilizer, applying it too frequently, getting it on the leaves, or applying to dry soil. High nutrient levels accumulate and damage roots and leaves.

What does fertilizer burn look like on grass?

On lawns, fertilizer burn appears as yellowing or browning patches. The grass blades may look burned along the tips and sides. The turf feels crispy underfoot. Damage is usually worst where fertilizer was spilled or overlapped.

Can fertilizer burn show up overnight?

It typically takes 2-3 days after fertilizing for the symptoms of fertilizer burn to appear. While plants can show signs overnight, this is less common unless large amounts of highly concentrated fertilizer were applied directly to foliage.

What plants are most sensitive to fertilizer burn?

Delicate herbs like basil, leafy greens, and young seedlings are the most likely to show fertilizer burn. Tomatoes, peppers, and roses are also quite sensitive. Trees and woody shrubs are more tolerant.

Will plants recover from fertilizer burn?

If caught early, many plants can fully recover from mild to moderate fertilizer burn with proper care like flushing the soil and pruning damaged tissues. Severe cases may kill sections of the plant or require replanting.

How long does it take for a plant to recover from fertilizer burn?

Depending on the severity, it can take anywhere from 2-8 weeks for plants to perk up, generate new growth, and recover after fertilizer burn. It takes time for roots to regenerate and reestablish.

Can too much fertilizer burn plant leaves?

Yes, since most fertilizers are salts, too much fertilizer can absolutely burn and damage plant leaves and needles through direct contact or via the roots. Leaf scorching is one of the main symptoms of fertilizer burn.

Is fertilizer burn permanent?

No, fertilizer burn damage is rarely permanent as long as the plant still has some healthy roots and foliage. Even plants with extensive leaf damage and dieback can regrow new tissues over time once excessive fertilizer salts are flushed out.


Fertilizer is an important part of caring for landscape and garden plants. But improperly applying too much fertilizer can easily result in burn. Look for symptoms like leaf scorch, yellowing, curling, stunted growth, and wilting. These indicate fertilizer salts have damaged the roots and overloaded the plant’s nutrient intake capacity. To fix fertilizer burn, suspend fertilizing, heavily water, add organic matter, and prune back dead tissues. With quick action, most affected plants can recover and return to health within a couple months. Using fertilizer properly by following label directions, testing soil, choosing slow-release options, and fertilizing based on need can prevent fertilizer burn and the damage it causes.