Tonics for lawns? Are we talking about snake oil from a traveling salesman? Or, a natural, homemade mixture to rejuvenate your grass sensibly and inexpensively?
This issue, like most everything these days, has both die-hard advocates and many scoffers. What is the truth on this topic?
Are lawn tonics effective?
Are they Safe? …Practical? …Necessary?
There is a lot of ambiguity about these mixtures. What is it they do, and how do they do it?
Let’s take a look at some of the common recipes, and talk about what the individual ingredients have to offer. Much of what they suggest sounds good, and used judiciously can be helpful.
There are a few cautions and concerns, however, that should be considered before you decide if this is an approach that makes sense for your situation.
Certain household products that are consumed, or used for cooking, or even for cleaning, contain elements that can help plants grow.
Using the right ingredient or mixture, in the right proportion, at the right time, for the right reason, can result in a quick growth response from your grass or garden plants.
So a lawn tonic, basically, is a homemade formula of “so-called natural” items that stimulate, revive or correct problems with your grass. That should not be surprising. Not that long ago, the only things available to care for your plants were normal everyday products with multiple uses.
Most people today rely on common chemical products for treatments in their yard and garden. These were initially developed by companies looking for cost effective ways to produce items that would be easy to use. They were successful, since people were willing to pay for that convenience. ("Progress" follows the money!)
As claims grew of new, improved results with various chemicals, those relationships with suppliers became a dependency. Consumers relied on the manufacturers to tell them what they needed to correct all types of problems. Soon the brief labels on packages became the primary source of information for homeowners with garden problems.
The final outcome of this trend is that today many people do not even attempt to understand the nature of a product before applying it. They choose a package based on the picture and headlines.
An appreciation for some old fashioned techniques, and a desire to avoid chemicals, has rekindled interest in tonics for lawns and other homemade remedies.
Unfortunately, the knowledge that existed generations ago, as to why these methods worked, has not accompanied the current wave of popularity.
Consequently, people are experiencing a wide range of results, from positive to quite negative, when they attempt these methods.
Substituting the wrong ingredient, using the lawn tonics too concentrated or too frequently, and using them inappropriately makes a homemade formula potentially as ineffective or as damaging, even as deadly, as a chemical product can be.
Where do you get a formula for homemade lawn remedies?
There are a few common recipes for making tonics for lawns that are widely distributed on the internet. These are included below.
One high profile garden expert, Jerry Baker, guards his formulas and shares them only with his followers… for a price… but even some of his recipes can be found online. The origin of the majority is unknown.
This is the most common tonic recipe found on the internet:
Here is a variation of common tonics for lawns:
Are these Tonics the same as Homemade Lawn Fertilizer?
Not exactly, although there are many similarities in the effects achieved. Let’s look at the ingredients in these suggested lawn tonic recipes.
Beer. This is considered a source of carbohydrates for the microbes in the soil. Microbes are the necessary link for converting food matter in the soil to food elements that plants can utilize.
Soda. The sugars in soda are also carbohydrates for the microbes. Low calorie diet sweeteners would not provide the same benefit, and could be antagonistic, so do not include these in tonics for lawns.
Ammonia. This would be a source of nitrogen, which could be absorbed quickly by plants, depending on a few other factors, such as temperature.
Mouthwash. It is assumed, though not specified, that this acts as an insecticide and/or fungicide, to possibly eliminate enemies or hazards which might be present in the lawn.
Dish Soap. This acts as a wetting agent which would help water to penetrate more easily into the ground, or to allow ingredients to coat the grass surface more easily for better absorption.
Molasses or Corn Syrup. This provides sugars or carbohydrates, the same as the beer and soda. Molasses also contains iron which, in the right elemental form, can promote the greening process in plants. The form in this product is unknown.
Liquid Lawn Fertilizer. It is what it suggests. Seems rather redundant, don’t you think? Is the fertilizer not adequate in itself? Are the benefits of the natural ingredients not compromised by a chemical fertilizer? Sounds like someone just trying to cover all the bases.
Regular lawn fertilizers typically provide nitrogen for growth, and phosphorous and potassium for root development, cell strength and disease or stress resistance. So there seems to be similarities in this natural approach. But there are some limitations, and even contradictions, that need to be evaluated.
If the beer, soda, molasses, and other sugar sources all contribute carbohydrates, why the duplication?
Would they work equally well alone, to make it simpler?
There is a possibility that the beer, being a fermented product, adds new microbes to the assortment in the soil, but are they compatible or complimentary, or even in an active state?
This is the first problem with homemade remedies. The true interaction within these lawn tonic formulas is unknown, and the most appropriate ratios are not determined.
The recipes passed from one person to the next are merely easy to remember amounts (1 cup each or ½ cup each) with no actual facts to support those proportions.
Tonics for lawns are a smorgasbord of ideas, not a scientific development.
Next, consider that the dish soap is specified as being plain soap, not anti-bacterial. Supposedly the latter type would kill off good microbes in the soil. Why then would you add mouthwash which is typically listed as an antiseptic? It may have ingredients which would do the same thing you are supposed to avoid with using the wrong soap. If it can kill bad insects in your lawn, will it not be strong enough to eliminate the good microbes?
Ammonia, as a source of nitrogen, is going to readily promote greening and growth. If anything makes tonics for lawns seem successful, this is probably it.
Yet, it is no more natural than the ingredients in a bag of chemical fertilizer. There is also the potential for plant damage if too strong of a concentration is applied.
In addition, ammonia readily dissipates into the atmosphere, so much of what is applied ends up not being used by the plant, if it is merely sprayed on, not soaked into the soil.
This leads to another concern with homemade remedies. Instructions are often inadequate, inappropriate or contradictory. One recipe says to apply to the lawn, and let it sit. Another says to water it in to the soil. This can produce very different results.
If soap is supposed to help the water penetrate the ground, but the formula is not to be watered in, why take a chance on hurting the grass? Soap can burn plant tissue if it is applied in temperatures above 80 degrees!
If beer and soda are providing food for the microbes, what good do they accomplish if not watered down to the level where the microbes can utilize them?
In the final analysis, these ingredients, the quantities suggested, and the methods are more guesswork than anything. That doesn’t mean you should reject the formula, but don’t accept it blindly as being proven, valid, or even safe to use.
One mistaken assumption is that a recipe containing all natural ingredients must be safer to use than chemical products. This is a potentially dangerous belief. Just because you wash your hands with it in your kitchen doesn’t imply that dish soap on a lawn is a safe or good idea.
Plants can also overdose on ammonia. Another example is vinegar, useful in the kitchen, quite deadly for many plants. (Read "Vinegar As A Weed Killer."
One of Jerry Baker's popular tonics for lawns includes chewing tobacco juice. This is extremely high in nicotine which is an effective insecticide, but also harms beneficial insects, earthworms and soil organisms.
It also might contain tobacco mosaic virus which can infect tomatoes and some of your other prize plants!
People will often substitute ingredients. Why not? Since it’s a homemade recipe, shouldn’t one thing be as good as another?
A gardening blog related the difficulty one person faced when grass and flowers died after she sprayed them with her lawn tonic. It was determined that she didn’t have a regular liquid lawn fertilizer, so she grabbed a bottle of Weed and Feed that she found in her dad’s garage. It was a simple mistake with sad results.
(NOTE: "Weed and Feed" is a weed killer mixed with fertilizer. It retains that ability to kill, no matter what formula you might mix with it, so never include them in tonics for lawns or flowers or anything else.)
Another negative is the nuisance factor. If you follow the instructions of Mr. Baker on one of his general purpose tonics, he specifies an application of the mixture every three weeks during the growing season.
Mixing these ingredients and taking the time to apply them with a hose end sprayer will soon become a tedious chore.
(And I am not willing to discover what residue may be left from running molasses through my sprayer! It might leave you needing a 'tonic'.)
Certain questions should really be asked before you adopt this regular practice. What is the overall health condition of your lawn? Does it really need a boost of some kind? What will be good for it long term? What are you willing to commit to as a consistent practice till it achieves a healthy state?
Tonics may produce fantastic results for some lawns.
Without discounting the validity of these results, the point remains that a healthy lawn is already situated to deal with the stresses of seasonal change and maintain a consistent great appearance without continual attention to boost or correct.
What is a healthy lawn? It is a lawn growing in soil with sufficient organic matter, a thriving population of soil microorganisms, regular addition of organic materials that replenish and maintain soil fertility, appropriate watering methods, and proper mowing and maintenance.
A person who eats primarily a poor diet of fast food and snacks, is not going to be healthy in the long term, even if he is conscientious about taking vitamin and mineral supplements.
Tonics are really corrective boosts or supplements. If your lawn needs a quick fix, there is no reason why the proper formula won’t give you the results you seek. But consider that as a short-sighted solution.
Investigate the alternative of quality organic fertilizers, that can be applied less frequently, but have a longer lasting contribution to the nutritional needs of your lawn.
Supplemental nutritional products for lawns (actually all garden areas), like seaweed extract and fish emulsion and Super-Thrive, are valuable sources of trace minerals and enzymes that don’t require frequent application.
They are known to supply specific benefit to the soil life-cycle, some of them also being a great source of the beneficial micro-organisms that are essential for plant roots being able to absorb the nutrients placed into the soil.
I am confident in promoting these Garden Supplements, which are generally intended to be used in addition to whatever fertilizer you apply to your lawn. In particular, SUPERTHRIVE is perhaps the original Tonic for Lawns in a bottle, dating back to the 1940’s!
Containing Vitamins, Hormones, and perhaps a proprietary secret or two, SUPERTHRIVE has been recommended by universities and the US Dept. Of Agriculture for its ability to revive and stimulate plants in failure mode or to super-charge healthy plants.
In my garden industry days, the majority of the wholesale nursery operations that I worked with faithfully used SUPERTHRIVE on all their plants.
Highly concentrated, the dose is just ¼ to 1 teaspoon per gallon for most garden applications. It can be applied as a soil drench mixed in a bucket; through a hose-end sprayer that is calibrated; or through a hose-bib siphon device.
Try the 4 oz bottle if you have a small area, or few plants. However, each larger volume size reduces the cost per dose significantly, for you crazy addicted gardeners who don’t know when to quit.
A Compost Tea is an excellent way to boost the vitality of all garden plants without the mess of various ingredients to create a lawn tonic.
If you have a compost pile, make compost tea by placing a quantity of finished compost in a stocking or mesh bag and let it soak in a bucket of water for a day.
Use this tea as a tonic as often as you like, with no danger to plants, people, animals or soil organisms. It can be applied to all garden plants and vegetables, and effectively works as fertilizer and supplement!
(That is a very simplified appraisal, and I hope to have more extensive articles available soon, on different aspects of making and using compost.)
To recap our initial questions about lawn tonics:
Effective? They can be, especially for lawns in poor condition.
Safe? If you are sensible about what you use, and how, when and why you use it; avoid substituting products you are not familiar with; be cautious and willing to do more research before you try something unknown; try a small area first to test it.
Practical? That depends on your priorities and where you care to spend your time and money. Do keep track of your costs for the size area you treat, and your time investment for a season, and compare that with the option of quality organic fertilizer.
Necessary? Many home lawns may need a boost. Lawn tonics are one way to do it. Like most other problems however, it is always best to determine the nature or cause of the need. Treat the problem and not the symptoms if you want long term success with your lawn and garden endeavors.
To further understand the implications of various ways to care for your lawn, read the helpful series of articles on Lawn Fertilizers
Lawn Fertilizer for general information on fertilizing.