Spreaders can do more than just apply fertilizer—they can spread seeds, granular pesticides, ice melters, mulch, gypsum, and more. There are two basic types of spreaders: broadcast and drop.
The broadcast spreader drops fertilizer or other material from a hopper onto a pan that rotates at high speed. The material is flung by centrifugal force in a feather-edge pattern that ranges from a few inches wide to 10 feet or more. This means that there is less material at the edges than in the middle, so overlap is required to give an even distribution. Broadcast spreaders are either hand-held and powered by a crank that you turn as you walk along or pushed or towed and powered by the turning wheels.
Drop spreaders put down an even layer of material that’s about the width of the spreader (from 14 to 30 inches or more). As the material falls from holes in the hopper, it is spread evenly by finned agitators that are linked to the axle. Because the pattern is even, there should be no overlap or else those areas will have too much material. Drop spreaders can be either pushed or towed. No hand-held models are available.
Drop spreaders give much more precise coverage than do broadcast spreaders. This allows you to spread fertilizer or pesticides right up to the edge of the lawn without getting any on adjacent flower beds, to control the amount of overlap, and to avoid blank spots. On the other hand, drop spreaders have a fairly narrow pattern, requiring more passes back and forth across a lawn, and they do not work well on surfaces that aren’t level.
Broadcast spreaders are much quicker, more suited to large areas, and effective on any kind of surface you can walk across. They can be used to spread fertilizer or pesticides across rough ground covers, across the tops of shrubs, or on vegetable gardens. However, because they lack the precision of placement and coverage offered by the drop spreader, drop spreaders are preferred for lawns.
Choose a spreader in terms of its capacity to do your biggest job. Before buying the material to be spread, consult the instructions that come with the spreader to find out the number of pounds you need per acre and what setting to use for the feed-slot opening.
Hand-Held Broadcast Spreaders
The all-plastic type of broadcast spreader is hand-held by a pistol grip, holds about 2 pounds of material, and broadcasts from 4 to 12 feet. Excellent for small to medium-size lawns, these are the ones most commonly used by homeowners.
Another type has a canvas-bag hopper with a wood base and a plastic spreading platform. This spreader will hold about 10 pounds and spread material in a 4 to 16-foot-wide pattern. Because this type holds so much more material, it is quite heavy; consequently it is used more by professionals than by homeowners.
Wheeled Broadcast Spreaders
These large, wheeled spreaders, which work on the same principle as the handheld model, are designed to cover a wide area quickly and are most effective on flat, large lawns. They are commonly made of plastic or of steel with a baked epoxy or enamel finish to counter the corrosive qualities of fertilizers and pesticides. The hoppers are square or round, and their capacities range from 20 to 80 pounds for push models, up to more than 100 pounds for tractor-pulled types. On most models the spreading pattern can be adjusted from about 4 to 10 feet in a half circle. The feed opening is set by a lever on the handlebars.
These spreaders cover an area only the width of the hopper (from 14 to 30 inches in the push models, wider in tractor-pulled models). Its limited spreading width makes it slower than the broadcast spreader, but it gives a more uniform distribution. It is a good choice for seeding lawns because of this precise pattern. The hopper holds 30 to 80 pounds of material, depending on the model. Most models have a calibrated metering device, controlled by a lever on the handlebars, that is set according to instructions for the material to be spread.
Drop spreaders are designed in such a way that they drop material when you turn in one direction but not in the other. Since this makes it slightly difficult to apply material evenly, follow this pattern: make two passes at each end of the area. Then work up and down the area, closing the gate of the spreader as you make each turn. This ensures an even application because material is being dropped only when you walk at a steady rate in a straight line.
Overlap the wheel tracks; this enables the material of one pass, which drops right up to the inside edge of the wheels, to exactly meet the edge of the material dropped on the last pass. As with broadcast spreaders, don’t open the gate until you’re already walking or you’ll drop too much material at the beginning.
Keep hoppers on all spreaders clean and dry so that material will not stick to them. Hose out drop spreaders after each use and let them dry. Do not store them with fertilizers inside—many fertilizers absorb water when exposed to air, and they will cake up into a cementlike substance that’s hard to get rid of. It’s very important to apply a little penetrating oil to the moving parts to keep them from sticking or rusting.