Organic pH Down for Plants – Using Vinegar, Citric, Humic & Fulvic Acids And other modifications to my fertilizer routine

In Houseplants & Tropicals
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First, before we get into the grit of this post, if you’re wondering “Why not use Phosphoric Acid instead?”—and I’ll explain. For the two years prior to writing this post, I had been using phosphoric acid to lower the pH of my plant-nutrient solution. And that worked well—until it didn’t. In late spring of 2019, I purchased a different brand of pH Down (phosphoric acid) from a local greenhouse; whatever was in that new bottle setback about half my collection of over 300 plants—it ended up killing well over 25 plants and for months after I’ve stopped using it, I experienced a halo affect of issues ranging from setback roots, leaf spotting, leaf colour problems and general slow growth. Thankfully those issues have progressively faded, but even a full year after the whole thing, some of my most-prized orchids are still recovering. If you want to know more about that debacle, you can read the story about my pH Down blunder, here. You may be wondering, “why not switch back to the original pH Down brand that you were using before?” – and I may eventually do that, but for the immediate term, it threw me off my game and I wanted to try something else.

Why this recipe? Despite that setback, I still understand the importance of acidifying my alkaline tap water in an effort to offer maximum nutrient availability. In short, it helps them grow faster and larger as key nutrients (like nitrogen) is more accessible to many types of plants. I pH-adjust water for my orchids, aroids and pretty much all of my houseplants so I needed to find a more reliable way to lower the pH of my tap water and turned to food-grade products (which are tested/approved for human consumption). I had heard many people use citric acid, vinegar, and a few other options, so I decided to explore those acids which were either safe for human consumption or are produced by plants, bacteria, or natural processes.

Does this recipe work when used? It did, but I’ve modified it over the year since I switched to it. I have been using this ‘pH Down’ and have been following a 4-week cycle on my entire collection—a cycle that involves regular tap water one watering, pH adjusted the next (so the pH swings on a monthly basis). The results are better than I expected, but it could also just be that my plants aren’t being poisoned by whatever that pH Down product was. Some of my slowest growing plants like the miracle berry have doubled in size only a few months after using these organic acids. Others like my orchids have produced an abundance of new roots and my “jungle aroids” have produced their largest leaves yet. If you want to see my collection of plants for yourself, you can hop over to my instagram feed.

Please note: I am not recommending you or others use this recipe. It’s been working well for me so I’m publishing it for those who follow my blog and want to know the details of how I grow my plants. I also don’t think that this is some magical recipe that will make your plants explode in size — there are a lot of cultural parameters I have learned to tweak over the years to improve my ability to grow plants…pH-adjustment is just one of those things I adjust for better growth (along with light, potting media, watering practices, etc).

Without any more blabber, here’s my pH Down recipe…

Organic pH Down Recipe for Plants

Acidifying Ingredients

*Note: I use heaping table/teaspoons; not perfect measurements.

  • 1L, Empty water bottle
  • 2 tbsp, Citric acid
  • 1 tsp Humic/fulvic acid  (Optional or used every other month)
  • Water; or
    Carbonated tap water – via SodaStream (optional…but provides carbonic acid)

UPDATED July, 2020: Attempted but no longer using
At the start of this experiment, I used the following list of acids but since stopped using them for various reason.

  • Apple cider vinegar (.5 – 1oz)
  • White vinegar (1 – 2oz) – the vinegars seemed to work fine in general, but I noticed with some of my more sensitive-leaf orchids (such as Macodes petola), they started to develop slight leaf yellowing. I gradually decreased the amount of vinegar used over time and the spotting stopped so I have entirely stopped using vinegar on my orchids, but still use it occasionally for the miracle berry and other select terrestrial tropical plants.
  • Malic acid (not recommended) – I stopped using this because it caused severe leaf spotting in select plants and even set back a few of my seedlings.

Directions to Make pH Down

  1. Add all acids to the 1L bottle w/ a funnel.
  2. Top-up bottle with tap water (carbonated if you have a sodastream).
  3. Shake & use.
    ** This can be stored for short periods of time. Some have said citric acid loses acidity over time; but from my experience,  it still worked after one month. Be sure to re-test the pH when using if stored for longer and remake if the acidity decreases.

 

What you need to use the pH Down

  • Pre-mixed acids in 1L  bottle – this is your “pH Down”
  • Fertilizer (I use MSU Orchid Fertilizer)
  • A jug for combining fertilizer, your pH Down, and tap water (I use a 4L/1Gallon juice jug)

Directions For Using pH Down When Watering Plants

  1. Get a pH meter or litmus paper.
  2. Place watering jug in sink.
  3. Add fertilizer (1/4-1/2 tsp per gallon of water is generally good) to jug.
  4. Shake the “organic pH Down” vigorously before each use.
  5. Add a capful of “pH Down” to 1 gallon jug, directly into fertilizer crystals.
  6. Turn on tap and fill jug with tepid-temperature water (it should feel slightly cool, but not warm to your touch – human body is 37•C…it should feel slightly cool to you, so not cold or warm)
  7. Stir a few times with large spoon (optional)
  8. Test pH
    1. If pH is 5.5-6.5 – Good! Use on plants as you normally would water them.
    2. If pH is over 6.5 pH – add a second capful, retest pH, and either just use 2 caps or adjust the recipe for more acidity next time.
    3. If pH is lower than 5.5 pH – dilute 1L bottle by 1/2, remake & test fertilizer jug with new diluted version, and adjust the recipe next time.
  9. Use pH-adjusted fertilizer water on plants
    1. Spray the top of the potting media until the water starts to come out the bottom. You may want to read these 4 houseplant tips for some awesome foundations plant care concepts that have made me a better grower.
    2. You can also foliar feed by spraying the leaves.

 

Fertilizer & pH Cycling – Don’t Acidify ALL THE TIME

My watering routine is currently to alternate between one acidified watering and one non-acidified watering, and I gradually lower the fertilizer application over the 4-week cycle. I believe this will prevent any chance of acidity buildup in the substrate. If using alkaline water can result in pH climb over time from precipitates, you could imagine that using citric acid (a soluble crystal) to water could also result in a buildup of citric acid in the media, dropping the pH a bit lower each time. Maybe citric acid is broken down, but I think some people missunderstand the term “weak acid” when applied to acids like carbonic and citric acid…it doesn’t mean they are weak in their ability to exist; a week acid just holds on to the electrons more than a strong acid which freely donates electrons making the acid strength stronger. At anyrate…to prevent any chance of pH creep in either direction, I cycle the acid application with regular alkaline water to err on the side of caution. This is the monthly cycle I follow:

  1. Acidified water (to 5.8pH) + fertilizer 1/2tsp
  2. Tap water (7.9pH) + fertilizer 1/4tsp (reduced)
  3. Less-acidified water (to ~7.0pH) + fertilizer 1/4tsp (reduced)
  4. Tap water (7.9pH) flush AKA leach (no fertilizer)
  • I have used different fertilizers over the years (12-8-8, 20-20-20, etc), but now I just stick to MSU orchid fertilizer for all my plants because it includes micronutrients and because I know the product is pretty consistent.
  • I don’t need calcium (because my tap water already has a lot), but if you’re growing plants from limestone regions of the world (like from the Peruvian mountains, or Malaysian limestone outcrops), then a routine calcium boost may be helpful. *Optional and for select plants only: Once every 6-8 weeks: Acidified water + fertilizer + eggshell (see details below)

 

/// Disclaimer: from here down is new experimentation; I don’t yet recommend you follow this…

Calcium Supplementing for Plants Adapted to Calcium Rich Soils
Theory: Eggshells are just as effective as CalMag (if you’re adding an acid)

Eggshells are loaded with calcium—they’re literally made up of calcium carbonate and a bunch of other minerals—similar to oystershells and limestone found in rock formations in some mountain regions. Calcium carbonate is not easily dissolved in water—unless you add an acid. To release those minerals from an eggshell, you can add vinegar, citric acid, or carbonic acid & 1/4 eggshell (pulverized to powder – ~3g) in a 1L bottle. The eggshell dissolves resulting in calcium acetate, calcium citrate or calcium bicarbonate (+whatever micro nutrients are also in an eggshell)—all forms of calcium which plants can use.

If you take a capful of the calcium solution and a capful of your pH down, then you can still lower the pH of your tap water to ~5.8, while also increasing soluble calcium.

Should you do this, the first watering the week following this calcium application should just be a flush of tap water with no fertilizer or nutrients to clear out any residual calcium before you start your standard feeding.

Eggshells have value for plants

A hotly debated topic, some people recommend eggshells, others argue against their use in the garden. For me, the science is pretty cut and dry. Eggshells can be valuable. They’re made of calcium carbonate and release calcium under acidic conditions – and they can buffer the pH if the water or potting media becomes too acidic or too low in calcium—that’s a win especially if your water is too soft or too pure (ie. RO water). If the water is alkaline or already high in minerals, then the eggshells won’t dissolve (unless you add an acid like vinegar or citric acid). In nature, rain water (carbonic acid) along with other byproducts of natural decomposition (acetic, gluconic, glucuronic, citric, L‐lactic, malic, tartaric, malonic, oxalic, succinic, pyruvic, and usnic acids) all naturally dissolve calcium carbonate making new soluble (and plant-usable) forms of calcium. Bacteria and fungi consume decaying materials, produce those acids and decrease your potting mix pH. Adding eggshells can prevent the pH from diving too low and they provide calcium in the process. So…you can either add them directly to your potting mix (which means eventually they kind of become a bit of a sludge) or dissolve them in a weak acid and add them to your water (at a very dilute ratio).

Why add eggshells? For Calcium! For plant health! For good leaves, roots, and growth.

Calcium is a vital macronutrient that plants need but it’s non-mobile (the plant can’t reposition it from old tissue), so you have to continuously provide it as the plant grows. Calcium deficiencies in plants are common especially when growers use inorganic potting media, or a potting media which is low in calcium (like peatmoss or bark). A calcium deficiency typically isn’t immediately obvious, but instead presents as secondary problems such as: fungal and bacterial infections (AKA ‘leaf spot’ and root/leaf/crown rot) and pest problems – plants use calcium internally as an alert/response trigger to deal with pests and because it’s a fundamental building block of the cell walls, it’s integral to the plant’s health and resistance to pathogens. Calcium is also rarely included in synthetic fertilizers, so eggshells are a quick and easy way to feed your plants calcium naturally.

Consider this test for yourself

Science experiment: Take a 16oz glass of vinegar and put an egg into it and leave it for 24h—the eggshell will completely dissolve overnight as the calcium carbonate is converted to calcium acetate.

But is vinegar an ‘natural acid’? Yes – and you can read all about how vinegar is made here. But do you know what sauerkraut is? It’s pickled cabbage. Do you know how it’s made? Fermentation! By bacteria and yeasts converting sugars in the cabbage leaves to alcohol (which oxidizes to become acetic acid), or by directly producing acetic acid in the case of some bacteria – AKA ‘vinegar’ – and pickled leaves. Aerobic decomposition of sugars in nature (like when leaves, fruit, or tree sap decompose) produce acids too. If you’ve ever fermented kombucha (tea leaves & sugar) or made wine/beer the same thing happens. All of those processes that drive fermentation for our foods, also produce acids at large-scale naturally—and it’s happening everywhere in nature…on trees, in the dirt, on rocks, on fruit hanging on trees, on leaves, all over the place in a never-ending cycle of decay and acidification.

Is carbonated water natural? Kind of…when water evaporates and condenses into clouds and rain, it interacts with the atmosphere, creating carbonic acid. Rainwater has a pH of 5.5 because of carbon dioxide and it is a catalyst for breaking down calcium carbonate in nature. It’s how erosion works and is often why plants can grow in highly alkaline areas like the Rocky Mountains and limestone regions of Malaysia and the Andes in South America—because the rain is acidic and the earth pH is alkaline, it creates a pendulum of pH variation ensuring the plant can get access to nutrients and thrive in more alkaline conditions.

Carbonating water (with a soda stream) is a rapid way to create carbonic acid in our homes and it will drop the pH of your water to about 4.5pH. Beware: if you’re buying bottled carbonated water, make sure it’s <10ppm total dissolved minerals – sometimes companies add sodium to their sparkling water (12mg/L [Perrier], 32mg/L [Pellegrino] to 118mg/L [Grolsteiner]).

Test it for yourself: take a glass of water, carbonate it, let it go flat. Test the pH. Drop an eggshell (measure the weight first) into the water overnight. In the morning, test the pH again, and check the after weight measurement of the eggshell. You’ll see that it lost mass and the water pH increased.

Want to know more about eggshells?

The value of eggshells & vinegar…