Everyday gardener // Livable options for gardeners who are tired of Scotts shenanigans

As humans these days, we’re called upon all the time to stop using one product or another for reasons ranging from silly to life threatening. While I’m sometimes glad to know what’s going on with a product I like or use, I also get tired of all the naysery and gloom and doom. Having said that, I must admit that last week I wrote an unflattering post for my Everyday Gardener blog about Scotts, the makers of Miracle-Gro, Osmocote and other products gardeners, including me, have used for eons. 

I don’t make a practice of slagging on things in that Girl-Who-Cried-Boycott way, so that post was out of the norm for me. I wrote it because over the last couple of years I’ve learned several things about Scotts that have spurred me to find alternatives to their products. Not that I wasn’t already looking. If you read my column, you might remember that I’ve been trying to move from synthetic to organic fertilizers anyway because the latter feed the soil, not just plants. And, organic fertilizers are more sustainable since they aren’t mined and/or chemically processed. Still, I have continued to use Scotts’ fertilizer for annual flowers in pots from time to time. No more. 

Toxic bird seed 

In my post, which you can read at everydaygardener.com if you like, I called attention to just a few of the many troublesome things about Scotts, not the least of which being their sale of toxic bird seed. If you missed this, earlier this year Scotts pled guilty to charges that they had illegally used insecticides known to be toxic to birds and wildlife in two brands of bird seed: “Country Pride” and “Morning Song.” The Ohio-based company coated the seed with the insecticides because they wanted to protect it from insect pests during storage.

Millions of bags of the toxic seed were manufactured and sold, and it wasn’t long before news reports of a possible link between the seed and bird and wildlife deaths surfaced. Despite those reports, and eventual warnings from two of the company’s own employees about the toxicity of insecticides used in the products, the seeds remained on the market for nearly two years. As evidence mounted, Scotts was caught trying to cover its tracks by falsifying EPA paperwork. Eventually, the company was fined $4.5 million dollars; pocket change for a company like Scotts. 

I’m always grateful for the email notes readers send me, and last week, after that post, I received more comments than ever. One woman, who hadn’t heard about the toxic seed, wrote to say that my post made her cry. She had some unused bags of the bird seed in her barn, and she was going to destroy them right away. Most everyone who wrote wanted to know what they could use instead of Scotts’ products. And their requests prompted me to write this column. 

Alternatives to world domination

You’ve probably already noticed that Scotts’ products are ubiquitous. But trying to buy a freakin’ bag of soil has become unbelievably annoying in the last couple of years as many garden centers have started carrying only Scotts’ soil mixes, which usually also contain the company’s fertilizers whether you want them or not. 

What can you do? Make your own potting soil by creating a 1:2:1 mixture of compost, top soil and perlite, vermiculite or pine bark. Out in the garden where you don’t need soil to be so light and airy, just amend the existing soil with compost (composted manure, kitchen compost or mushroom compost). Or make up a 1:2 garden mix of compost and top soil to fill a new area, like a raised bed.  

Fertilizer choices vary widely. There’s no denying that synthetic options like Miracle-Gro are cheap and easy to use. So you could go with synthetic products made by a different company — Googling to find out about past product issues and legal troubles would be wise. Or you could go the organic route. As I’ve said in the past, some organic products are not good, sustainable choices. Rock phosphate, which contains a good amount of phosphorous, is strip-mined. Bat guano (aged bat poo) is harvested from caves in a manner that destroys the ecosystem inside. Greensand, a good source of potassium, and gypsum, which provides calcium and sulfur, are also mined. Read labels closely to avoid buying organic products that contain these things. 

For garden beds, some good organic, sustainable fertilizers include: kitchen compost, composted manure, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, bone meal, Milorganite and kelp and fish emulsion. Containers, especially indoors, are a bit trickier, which is why many gardeners, including me, have turned to the convenience of Scotts’ blue stuff. Changing our ways will mean giving up some ease and convenience while accepting things like fish emulsion products, such as Neptune’s Harvest, make great fertilizer, but can be kind of stinky. (Though there are some deodorized options available.) 

Vermicompost (worm poo), either dried and in bags or in liquid form (TerraCycle offers several choices), works well but can be spendy. And then there are organic fertilizers that have been developed for use in hydroponic growing. I see these recommended for use on houseplants fairly often, but I don’t know enough to give them a thumbs up or down. I’ll research those and get back to you.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and Master Gardener. For more gardening tips and articles, subscribe to her blog at everydaygardener.com.