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Organic Gardens/fertilizer from vinegar and ammonia


QUESTION: Hi, First I am taking care of a young Dawn Redwood in our community which likes highly acidic soil. I happen to have access to household ammonia which I found can be used as a fertilizer at a tsb to a gallon of distilled water. If that is acceptable why does the water have to be distilled and can it be put on with a sprinkler can? The information I found suggested use of a hose end sprayer which I would think dilutes the mix further.
Second, vinegar apparently can also be used as a fertilizer and is highly acidic which the tree would like. If I used this for the tree what is the mix proportions of vinegar to water and is distilled water required as well? Thanks, Jack

ANSWER: I love questions like this - better gardening thru chemistry.  If we took this kind of scientific approach to everything, instead of the fuzzy fertilizing and pop pesticiding, the world would be a better place.  We'd live longer, we'd die happier, and we'd all breathe easier.

Letís remember that there is a big difference, chemically speaking, between, despite what the chemical people like to say, Nitrogen and Nitrogen.  The chemical people like to say itís obvious that Nitrogen = Nitrogen.  Thereís Nitrogen in the air, thereís Nitrogen in fertilizer, thereís Nitrogen in protein, whatís the big deal?  Plants like Nitrogen no matter how they get it; they donít care.  Rose is a rose is a rose.

But this is fuzzy science.  N2 does not equal N or N3.  You want to stir potentially toxic un-ionized ubiquitous Ammonia (NH3) (a base, by the way) rather than its more expensive benign, charged form, Ammonium (NH4+  - which, remember, is NH3  +  H)).  It's been done.  Some gardeners swear by mixtures of Ammonia and Gatorade, as a cocktail of trace minerals and Nitrogen. You must be VERY careful with the Ammonia.  It has to be diluted or it will burn roots and easily kill the plant.  You are probably referring to the supermarket type Ammonia, which people use for cleaning because it has dissolved soaps.  

By the way this is why I get a lot of homeowners every summer who go out to responsibly fertilize their lawns one day and a few days later the entire lawn is taking its last breaths, and they don't see what went wrong.

Low-cost high-profit fertilizer factories mix Ammonia and Carbon Dioxide to make Urea (CO(NH2)2), the main ingredient in chemical plant food.  If you check Wikipedia's "Ammonia" pages you'll see that you can in fact use Ammonia "directly as a fertilizer by forming a solution with irrigation water, without additional chemical processing."

But you want to provide a low pH pot for your baby tree.  I admit not to having grown Dawn Redwoods myself before, or any Redwoods for that matter.  That may change but not today.  I have however grown lots of low-pH plants and I know a lot of about soil chemistry and what makes soil tick.

Your solution is to water your plant with (I assume) a solution of water and vinegar, which when you buy it in the supermarket is diluted acetic acid.  I've done that.  It works very well for Gardenias especially.

But you want to fertilizer with NH3.  CH3CO2H (vinegar) + NH3 (ammonia) + H2O = NH4C2H3O2 + H2O.  Ammonium acetate, a salt.  Not good.

Given the low pH needs of your infant Redwood, I would think that seriously it would be preferable to use FLOWERS OF SULFUR instead of the base-ic Ammonia-Water mix.  This solves a lot of problems.  You won't be mixing vinegar and ammonia, for one.  

For one thing, Sulphur is the favorite food of sulphur-loving bacteria, the microbes who turn soil pH low low low low low.   Elemental Sulphur (the "flowers" referenced above) are scratched into the surface of the soil around the plant.  Because this is not a chemical, it takes time to work - give it a year and then re-test your soil.  Re-apply periodically.  While you're waiting for it to work, water with diluted vinegar-water.  You can also use orange juice or lemon juice.  Get yourself a cheap pH test meter so you can measure this at home.

You can also use iron sulphate.  It works faster but it's not easy to find.

Not knowing the needs of Redwoods, I can't say if the sphagnum peat moss trick will work, but normally, it pushes pH down, the formula depending on the soil you're starting with.

Now I have to ask you, Why do you want to "feed" your baby redwood?  I mean, come on, this is a plant.  Plants are auto-trophs.  They do not need us to feed them.  They make their own food.  Give this good soil and it will feed itself.

The minerals it needs will be generated by microbes -- friendly fungi and bacteria.  And they'll do it responsibly.  Giving a plant ammonia fertilizer is like giving a kid soda.  They'll get plenty of carbs, but what about the meat and potatoes?  Man does not live by bread alone.

As for the distilled water, the water does not have to be distilled - I think someone came up with this idea in a science experiment where everything has to be pure, or maybe it's a translated version of an aquarium plant formula where there are fish involved.

Vinegar by the way is not a fertilizer, in the sense that it has no minerals a plant can use.  It alters the environment of the plant and that can be good or bad.  Depending on the vinegar, start with a tablespoon to a gallon of water, and adjust after pH measuring.  The tree is not growing in a pot, however, so there is no way to measure precisely the perfect pH.  Just be careful.  You don't want to burn the roots.  This is not stable to depend on 24/7/362, but it is a start.

This is a lot of detail to be putting into a single answer, but I have a limit to how much I can say in a single post.  (They did that because I can go on for days.)  If you have a followup, I would strongly recommend posting a new question, and I promise to check it promptly, unlike this week.  :)  Thank you for your question.  Which part would you like expanded?


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi, I am not posting this as a separate question because you answered my question. I had the ammonia because older neighbors had given it to me to take to recycle day for hazardous materials. After your answer the ammonia was disposed of in this way. You may be right that the best approach may be to leave the tree alone. The soil here on the Eastern Shore is sandy and it is tough to grow things. A Dawn Redwood, under optimal conditions, can grow 6' a year so I guess when I was not seeing that amount of growth I decided to help it along. I may try the vinegar in the spring. Thanks again for your helpful information. JackB

Thanks for your friendly followup.  I can't resist replying.  To wit:  Your comment about helping it along and optimal conditions.  Those optimal conditions are a long list of factors.  They include light, temperature, wind, day length, air pollultion or not, other plants, weeds at the base (you've heard by now about toxic chemicals many plants exude from their roots to inhibit growth of other plants).  There's the whole underground civilization that pours molecules of all shapes and sizes into the soil, and the dynamic soil foodweb that pours nutrients into the roots of your adored plant.  Giving a plant extra things will not in the absence of other things help.  Of course, making them available as needed is ideal.  Good luck with your project - I hope it did not have to suffer Sandy.  L.I.G.

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There is NO EXCUSE today for a gardener to use chemicals. Perfect Lawns? Pristine Roses? Immaculate Flowers all Summer long? If you live in the Northeast/Atlantic Coast, I'll guide you down the non-toxic road to Organica - and you will not believe how easy it can be. Yes, it can be complicated, but backing off from Ortho and Scotts is not as hard as you think. Your neighbors won't believe their eyes. I have intelligent answers on soil care, bug killing, weed control and fungus-freedom!


I have college credits in horticulture and botany, and 30 years of gardening for personal pleasure. Plus I am a volunteer docent at the local botanical gardens. But a person's real gardening skills are learned from trial and error. I am strict about not using chemicals in the garden. Always have been. Always will be.

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