A Bumper Crop of Organic Items for the Green Consumer

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 17, 2008


If you are looking for a disciple of organic gardening, you would be hard-pressed to find a more fervent true believer than Jeff Otto. Otto created a company called East Coast Organics after a snowstorm took out his greenhouse nursery in the 1990s.

For the past 10 years, he has been pushing natural fertilizers, soil stimulants and growing mixes, products made with everything from renewable coconut fiber to seaweed. His eyes light up when he talks about getting Whole Foods to carry his tubs of worm dung (black gold for gardeners, full of plant nutrients).

Otto, bearded and with dreadlocks below his waist, is on one level a throwback to the hippie age. On another, he is the future of home gardening in the 21st century. "The retail is ready," he said. "The green consumer is predominating right now."

I came across Otto at last week's Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show, a regional event at the Baltimore Convention Center. It featured a conspicuous chunk of exhibitors thinking green.

Otto, who works from a warehouse in Baltimore, is an established exhibitor at the annual show who said he is seeing more orders than ever for his products from garden centers. "They're talking the language," he said. "I'm really blown away by the amount of response."

But as demand for eco-friendly products grows, Otto and other classic, small-time operators are seeing the marketplace increasingly defined by large corporations.

The most visible 800-pound gorilla is Scotts Miracle-Gro, which has launched a series of organic lawn and garden fertilizers and soil mixes. Monrovia, based in Azusa, Calif., and one of the nation's leading growers of nursery plants, will this year introduce a line of seven organic fertilizers and four soil mixes, made from plant and animal byproducts and suffused with beneficial fungi for root growth. The fertilizer packaging is compostable.

Henry Ortland, a spokesman for Monrovia, said the introduction is a natural progression for a company that has been developing organic mixes for its container-grown plants. One of the hurdles to the mass production of organics has been the high price of livestock feed, which is used in natural plant foods. But synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum products, and with oil at $100 a barrel, the organic prices become competitive.

"Now you can have a product that's competitive, beneficial and reduces our dependence on oil," said Ortland, who is based in Atlanta.

Small enterprises still define much of the organic trade. Elsewhere on the show floor, Ernie Reigel was displaying spray bottles of brightly colored liquids developed by a company in Port Townsend, Wash., called Pharm Solutions. Among the products was an oil spray (used to smother leaf-eating pests) made from soybean oil, instead of the conventional paraffin; a mite spray made from cottonseed oil; and a rose spray made from peppermint oil said to disorient aphids and other pests. Reigel also was taking orders for a concentrated acetic acid spray, four times stronger than household vinegar, to kill weeds. "They fly off the shelf," said a garden center owner placing an order. "They can't get enough."

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