Natural fertilizers gain new following

Black Earth Compost collects organics in piles at area farms.
Black Earth Compost collects organics in piles at area farms.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In spring, a gardener’s fancy turns to manure. Or at least it used to, back before an ever-widening array of man-made fertilizers offered chemical solutions tailored to specific gardening goals.

But local experts say naturally derived fertilizer and compost — from manure and other organic sources — is once again preferred in area flower beds, vegetable gardens, and even on lawns.

“Most people in general, they really want organic,” said Jack Donaher, general manager of Essex County Co-operative garden center in Topsfield. “They just want to be more friendly to the environment. They don’t want to use synthetics anymore.”


Natural products popular at local garden centers include MooDoo, composted cow manure from Vermont cows, and Chickity Doo Doo, from Midwest chickens. Products from the ocean are also hot, including Neptune’s Harvest Organic Fertilizer, a liquid made from hydrolyzed fish byproducts by a Gloucester company, and the popular Coast of Maine lobster compost.

“The lobster compost is my most popular seller as far as bagged compost goes,” said Donaher. “The new one I have is Black Earth Compost, a local product. . . . I’ve sold almost a pallet of it so far. It’s going quite well.”

The Gloucester-based Black Earth switches up the trendy “farm to table” movement to bring organic waste from “table to farm,” said founder Conor Miller. The company collects food waste and other organics in piles at area farms, where it is mixed with horse manure and wood shavings used as bedding in barns. Aerated through solar-powered blower systems, the piles over time produce rich, black compost. Half of the product is given back to the host farm, and the other half is bagged for sale at local garden centers.

“The wood shavings on their own would take forever to break down, and the food wastes on their own would be kind of a soggy wet mess that would stink without the wood shavings,” Miller said. “Together they form a really nice compost.”


Miller is careful not to reveal too much proprietary information about what he said is an increasingly competitive business. But he said the company has businesses and institutions from Newburyport to Swampscott providing leftover food, and a handful of farms involved as composting sites.

“We get calls from, particularly, young mothers and probably more women in general; they want to be growing food out of this and they don’t want chemicals in there,” said Miller.

The move to natural fertilizers is especially strong with vegetable gardeners, agreed Tim Lamprey, owner of Harbor Garden Center in Salisbury. “People get a little scared of what’s in their food. They’ll use organic fertilizers, they’ll use organic insecticides, they’ll do all the stuff that is called safer. We see it a lot with young mothers coming in, if they want to grow stuff for their kids.”

Of course, it’s still possible to find people using plain old cow manure as fertilizer. West Newbury farmer Bruce Colby said manure from the 50 cows at his Artichoke Dairy fertilize his 75 acres of hay and corn fields, a considerable savings over buying commercial fertilizer. He sells manure to a handful of customers who’ll back up a pickup truck, but isn’t looking for any more. “I don’t have that much and I use it myself,” said Colby.


Cost can also be a factor in favor of synthetics. Gardeners generally must use more volume of an organic product, said Michael Nickerson, retail manager for Nunan Florist and Greenhouses in Georgetown.

“Organic is not as high-powered. It’s kind of the tortoise and the hare if you will,” Nickerson said. “The tortoise is slow and steady and consistent, where the synthetics are generally water soluble, so as soon as they get dissolved in water, they hit hard and fast, but then they wean away awfully fast, so they have to be used more consistently.”

Many people also use fertilizers such as Milorganite that are made from solid waste produced by municipal water treatment plants. It is also an effective deer repellent for gardens, said Nickerson. Corn gluten for weed control is a popular alternative to chemicals, Donaher said.

Lawn care is still the area friendliest to chemical products, but even that is changing. “More and more people are going to organic because of what they perceive to be problems associated with using chemical fertilizers,” said Lamprey. “The sales on organic lawn fertilizers in our store, anyway, way outweigh what we sell in chemical lawn fertilizers.”

It’s worth noting that there is organic and then there’s organic. Products advertised as certified organic go through an expensive and time-consuming government process, locals said, while some use the word “organic” to mean simply that it comes from animals and plants rather than a chemical manufacturing process.


Labels don’t always guide gardeners, though. Many people simply follow habit when picking a fertilizer or compost. “It’s what you learned or what you grew up with or what your mother used or whatever,” said Nickerson.

“It’s like saying what’s the best car,” Lamprey said. “Everybody’s got a different idea of what approach they want.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.