Here’s the plant food everyone is talking about!

Apparently I don’t talk to the right people; I’d never heard of this product until newbie gardener and longtime skeptic John emailed me about Eleanor’s VF-11 plant food.

Upon visiting the website, this is what I learned about VF-11 and roses (the rose aficionado market is apparently a lucrative one for snake oil salesmen):

Point: “VF-11 Plant Food is not a ‘push’ like other fertilizers…think of it as a strength and health builder.”

Counterpoint: It certainly is not a fertilizer. It doesn’t contain enough minerals to do anything for a plant. So why not just use water? There’s something that can work miracles on drought-stressed plants!

Point: “VF-11 builds so much strength and health in your roses that plant cells ‘harden’ and ‘seal in the amino acids’.”

Counterpoint: I will kindly label this as nonsense since this is a G-rated blog. It says nothing but sounds sciency.

Point: “When you’re Foliar Feeding your roses, no need to worry if it blows back into your face. It’s gentle, gentle, gentle and safe.”

Counterpoint: Foliar feeding is an ineffective way of fertilizing plants (you can read more about in a column I wrote some time ago). In short, foliar application of specific nutrients is an excellent way of determining whether a deficiency of that nutrient exists, but it does nothing for the plant on a long-term basis.  I won’t beat that dead horse any longer. And thanks, I’d rather not have stuff blown in my face, regardless of what’s in it.

And more amazing facts elsewhere on the site:

Point: “And you do not need a lot of additives in your soil, like compost etc.”

Counterpoint: Wow. Who knew that organic matter was bad?

Point: “It’s an electrolyte balanced solution.”

Counterpoint: So’s urine. And urine has more nitrogen. (I won’t enter the debate about peeing on your plants.)

Evidence?

For evidence, the site offers two tissues analyses of pistachios that were sprayed with VF-11 (the foliar feeding method). The previous year (no VF-11) the leaves had high levels of copper and low levels of boron and magnesium. After treatment, the copper was reduced and boron and magnesium improved. Since boron and magnesium are not in the product, perhaps the copper was somehow transmuted into boron and magnesium? I can’t think of a more rational explanation if VF-11 is the causative agent. But I can think of lots of reasons this variation might happen from year to year, including the use of copper fungicides and the ability of some nutrients to restrict the uptake of others.

There’s also tissue analyses from a “sick vineyard” taken in June, then repeated in October after foliar application of VF-11. Both potassium and magnesium are singled out for note, though the ratings information is strangely missing (in other words, there’s no notation whether the levels are deficient, sufficient, or excessive). The differences between the %K and %Mg are circled for one sample, though a quick statistical analysis of all 4 samples show no significant differences between dates.  And even if there were – does anyone really expect leaf nutrient levels to be the same in June as in October? Keep in mind that the plant is both producing fruit and preparing for dormancy. Nutrients do move around!

Where did this magical recipe come from?

Again, relying on garden forums for my information (since the product website is vague on the topic), Eleanor “got the formula from a “cantankerous” elderly chemist who grew healthy plants, including tomato plants that were 30 ft. long.”

What’s actually in this miracle product?

According to the Washington State’s fertilizer product database (a really helpful resource for anyone, not just Washington residents), it is 0.15% N, 0.85% P, and 0.55% K (yes, these are all less than 1%). It also contains 3.5 ppm zinc and 3.2 ppm molybdenum. Products with such minute levels of minerals really aren’t fertilizer, but they really aren’t plant food either. Once this is diluted, you are left with…water. This is uncomfortably similar to homeopathic “cell salts,” which are highly diluted mineral products used to prevent disease in humans. Coincidentally, fans of Eleanor’s potions report that VF stands for Verticillium/Fusarium, “signifying that it creates disease resistance”. Hmm.

As Dr. Barrett points out on his QuackWatch site about homeopathic cell salts, “many are so diluted that they could not correct a mineral deficiency even if one were present.” I would venture the same would be true in plants. Again, Eleanor’s aficionados report that the “11” in the name “signifies it has eleven ingredients include iron, boron, copper, zinc, and molybdenum.” Hmm. Washington State’s analysis lab couldn’t find either iron or boron. Or whatever the other 4 minerals might be (besides the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, molybdenum and zinc).

Finally, the most bizarre use of this product must be the one reported by another fan of Eleanor’s: “Eleanor called me this evening and she could hear my parrots in the background…she told me that she, too, has birds. She then went on to explain that a woman told her that her birds looked terrible and that she started to spray them with Eleanor’s VF-11…an amazing improvement in both their plumage and in their attitudes…so, Eleanor did a test with hundreds of birds…and confirmed that spraying your birds often with the same mixture of VF-11 and water…room temperature…would enhance their feathering and make them much happier!

“Eleanor believes that indoor pets miss out on a lot of necessary nutrition due to being indoors….she stated the importance of animals and birds of being exposed to “dew”. I always assumed that dew was just water…but, Eleanor believes it contains nutrients.”

I think I need to stop now.

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

27 thoughts on “Here’s the plant food everyone is talking about!”

  1. Then how come it works so well? I’m a born skeptic but I been using it for 1 week on healthy plants that have had a dramatic increase in growth rate just after one application . Could it contain giberellic acid?

  2. Samuel, you’d need a set of untreated plants to really see if there was a difference between using Eleanor’s as directed and using water in the same way. There’s no GA in it – only the mineral nutrients I listed in the posting itself.

  3. . . Both treated plants have only fed water through out their lives. . One in soil is a Hoya and a Basil with only has the roots growing in water. The hoyas that I have that I didn’t feed vf11 look identical to the way they did. Both treated plants are about 7months old and but both are very, very pale color. Within 24 hours of giving these the vf11 both have began toe turn green and have gotten green everyday since. Like I said I’m a born skeptic and I know about plant nutrition and what it takes so that it why I’m
    dumbfounded because if the trace amounts of ingredients. But from
    My experience its working like magic. I really want an answer that makes sense.

  4. Samuel, it’s likely that the nitrogen (and possibly potassium and phosphorus) in the mixture would relieve foliar chlorosis. Plants in pure water receive no mineral nutrition, so even a little bit would make a difference. (I’m curious to know if the hoya is actually in soil or potting media of some sort? In any case, knowing the nutrient content of the soil and/or water before you started the experiment would be important when looking at changes in the plants.

  5. Hi again, thanks for the quick responses. The Hoya is in potting soil. Basil is in clay pellets and water. Have experemted with it? With no results ? Everyday Ive come home from work this week I’m more impressed. I got about a cup from a friend who swore by it. He told me the content , I laughed. He convicts me to take a cup and try it. So now here I am trying to understand why it’s workimg better that more standard npk ratio for him and now for me. I’m goin to do a more controlled side by side comparison.

  6. have been using vf-11 for 5 weeks now on my plants! they are in flowering stage and have no discolor at all! again I only use Vf-11 and that’s all my plants need! Also I bazaar thing is that before I started using the vf-11 my lower leaf’s were turning yellow and I had little fly like bugs flying around and eating the plant. both have magically disappeared! BIG NICE THICK BUDS.. Thanks VF-11

  7. I have to agree with the author. I was using VF-11 on my “plants” in soil and by the time they reached flowering stage I had serious nitrogen and phosphorous deficiencies to the point of purple stems, yellow leaves and stunted growth. Also I tried using it as my only nute growing hydroponically. Big mistake! Contrary to what it says in the advertising VF-11 didn’t have enough nutrients and minerals to support life let alone growth. I even sprayed it undiluted on my plants and it didn’t burn them at all. It’s like using H2o

  8. This is funny. Way up above you rant about how the concentrations are so little that once diluted it’s virtually water and you imply it does no better than just water. In the comments someone gives you real results and your reply is that even a little nutrients VF11 might provide can make a difference. So which is it? Your snarky attitude shows you don’t want VF11 to work and you try to show in theory how it doesn’t yet so many people report it does. Very humorous to watch you struggle to not back pedal and find other reasons the plants are doing well other than VF11. I’m no VF11 lover actually and no ax to grind but your tone and hypocritical answers means you got little cred’ with me.

    1. Samuel was looking at a plant in water compared to a plant in water with VF11. It’s *possible* that in such a system – absolutely no nitrogen compared to a little bit of nitrogen – you *might* see a difference. When one does plant nutrition experiments (where one nutrient is left out but everything else is normal) you can see differences with even a little bit of added nutrient.

      However – most people I know aren’t growing their plants in pure water. They’re growing them in some sort of soil or potting media, which is going to have nitrogen in it. So practically speaking, you would not see a result.

    2. ‘Sceptics’ like this author and Dr. Barrett are not sceptics at all, they are ‘intransigents.’ A sceptic does not tie himself in knots to explain away confounding observations, even though he may remain sceptical.

      1. I don’t think anyone in tying themselves in knots. Scientific experts just point out inaccurate statements and outright nonsense. Scientists (those who believe in the scientific method) can’t very well be intransigent or science would never advance.

        Substantial evidence is required for a skeptic (and a scientist) to suspend disbelief.

  9. So being in the fertilizer industry, I read the same reports as you. I wasn’t impressed with anything I read. But what I can tell you is that I was very impressed with what it does. I have a 100 year old Christmas cactus and it was turning yellow. I didn’t have time to change out the soil so I used a cap full of this product with water and I was amazed. It works!!

  10. It works great on expired potted flowers! They come back with a vengeance bigger and brighter than before. REALLY! Is it safe for fruits and veggies to be eaten? I guess they could not be called organic after treatment with VF-11 right?

  11. Hmmm, I’d give the “skeptic” more credibility had she actually conducted and documented scientific trials with the material rather than just challenging labels, ingredients, and claims. I’m a (retired) scientist and a plant devotee, primarily cacti and succulents, a pastime that I’ve engaged in for over 30 years, and the only “claim” I can make about VF-11 is as follows: I tried various plant foods/fertilizers including a couple sold specifically for succulent plants over the years, and for the most part I noted variable results, including some noticeable growth, some un-noticeable, and a few outright deaths of some plants after plant food dosing (always 1/4 the recommended dose at 1/2 the recommended frequency, a dose/interval regimen commonly accepted among cacti and succulent enthusiasts). I had seen the bargain-basement label design of VF-11 over the years (c’mon guys, how ’bout a little color?), and finally acquired some. Results: dose 1/3 tablespoon/gallon of RO water across dozens of genera, watered and fed once weekly–little noticeable growth or blooming but no deaths after six months steady treatment; dose 1 tablespoon/gallon: much more noticeable growth and blooming, particularly in Euphorbias, no deaths over six months; dose 2 tablespoons/gallon, spectacular growth and blooming across all of my 650 plants, no exceptions, no deaths, now over two years. I agree that the ingredient list and concentrations do not seem consistent with those of most liquid plant foods, but I wonder how much “science” went into some of those other formulations–no doubt some had quite a bit, but it seems likely that some others were and are just guesses. I also grant that there are many other factors in cultivated plant growth, but I kept all controllable variables constant over the time specified and the only variable I could only partially control was cloud cover over the two greenhouses involved. Temperature varied seasonally (no surprise) but results were consistent and many of my plants far exceed “spectacular” where five years ago none approached it, including plants I’d had for 20 years. So, despite some similar misgivings as the skeptic might have, the results I’ve obtained from VF-11 justify my continuing use of it and my recommendation that skeptics and non-users alike at least give it a try, especially if you’re not happy with the results you’re obtaining with other regimens.

    1. Since you are a scientist I assume you realize that the focus of scientific experimentation is not to disprove others’ claims. It is up to the proponents to provide evidence. So I invite you to sumbit your results to a credible, peer-reviewed journal. Once it’s passed that bar I am happy to take a second look.

  12. Well, all that was presented at the top of this thread was a series of hypotheses (“based on my knowledge, the product couldn’t be….” or “must be….”), with no experiments proposed or conducted to help us sort through which of the hypotheses might have merit. It’s no great shock that the purveyors of a product speak and write of it in glowing terms, complete with some down-home hyperbole. True that they should look to providing some evidence, but my search of the literature for any brand-specific plant fertilizer analysis comes up empty so I hardly think that the makers of VF-11 are unique. Science is nothing but a process of stripping away that material and information which we establish is not true, in the hopes that what remains is within shouting distance of the truth. In the spirit of that fundamental concept, I presented my results only to show that a little down-home experimentation in a scientifically devised manner was not only easily done but yielded practical information of use to the plant enthusiast–implicit is the invitation for all to conduct their own experiments, rather than simply to reject a product out of hand based on the opinion of one person, sans that person’s experimentation to validate (or not) the various hypotheses. Also, as a scientist with much experience in polite peer reviewed publication, I’d also point out that the pejoratives and borderline insults in the initial assessment of the product (e.g., “snake oil salesmen” to describe the purveyors of the product, and the gullibility of the product’s users, presumably some of whom follow(ed) this website) are unbecoming and convey what is in my opinion a less than appropriate attitude.

    1. This product is not a fertilizer. A fertilizer must be registered as such with state departments of agriculture. There are many registered fertilizers on the market. Doesn’t it make you curious as to why the word “fertilizer” doesn’t appear on this product? One would think that the maunfacturers would be eager to provide verifiable evidence to convince any skeptic. All we have is anecdotes (such as your observations) and hyperbole. As a scientist you must recognize this. And while your observations may be of interest to many gardeners, it does not meet the standard of verifiable evidence.

      There is no regulation of these kinds of products, and they depend solely on their ability to convince consumers to buy their product in the abscence of evidence. There’s no polite way to say this other than to call it what it is. If and when there is any evidence – published in a credible source – that there is some efficacy to this product, I will be happy to retract my comments. Until then, I call a spade a spade and many gardeners are happy to have someone do that.

  13. Fine, as long as your spade calling is clearly labeled as your opinion and your opinion only, based not on experimental assessment but on whatever knowledge you may have in the wider field. Where I was made uncomfortable was not only the name calling but the seemingly unrelenting destruction/alternative hypothesis of any viewpoint or observation other than your own–that does not make for very productive interchange and again I don’t imagine many people appreciate being implicitly called clueless all that often. Note that I actually agreed with some of your initial assessment–back when I first noticed the product in my local hardware store I wondered how such low concentrations of nutrients could have any effect at all on plant growth (and note also that the purveyors are complying with regulations by stating those concentrations clearly on the label). But, I had tired of losing expensive plants that reached that point after months of languish and I wondered if high nutrient concentrations might be the culprit, so I gave VF-11 a try and obtained the results reported here previously. I do wonder if somehow the product “unlocks” nutrients already present in the potting soil, and if it does I also wonder if those nutrients might be depleted unduly early by the VF-11. That’s another query for another time and thank you for your responses.

    1. I call a spade a spade where there is NO underlying theoretical science to support a claim of efficacy. “I do wonder if somehow the product “unlocks” nutrients already present in the potting soil.” That is clearly a hypothesis, but where is the underlying science? How could this possibly work? And don’t you imagine in all the decades of research such a mechanism would have been identified long ago?

      There are all sorts of things that people believe in regardless of whether science supports the belief or not. We all have these biases. Mine is that my copper bracelets keep my fingers from getting arthritic – which started back in the early 1980’s. I swear by those bracelets, but I would never recommend them to anyone since there is no underlying science to support their efficacy. Likewise, I don’t recommend those garden products that have no underlying scientific support for efficacy. And since my expertise is in the applied plant and soil sciences, I post on our blog challenging the manufacturers of such products to provide credible, published evidence that they work. That’s what people want to hear if they are looking for an objective analysis. If they are already married to their belief, no evidence to the contrary is going to sway them.

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