Organic vs. non-organic fertilizer ingredients

by Caroline Brown

I thought it might be useful to compare the "ingredients" in organic and non-organic fertilizers. The two bags I have on hand are North Country Organics Pro-Gro with a 5-3-4 NPK ratio, and Scotts Starter Fertilizer, with a 20-27-5 NPK ratio.

North Country is what we used this year on my lawn; last year when we seeded the lawn, we used Scott's. (That was back when we were still "ignernt.")

Before I compare the ingredients, I want to compare the companies. North Country Organics is based in Bradford, Vermont. They have a full line of organic fertilizers, seeds, pest control products, etc. Many are the NCO brand but they distribute products from other manufacturers as well. Their products are available online and at retailers throughout New England, Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Missouri. According to their website's "about" page:

NCO was founded in 1983 with the concept that any type of agriculture or horticulture can be productive, successful, and more profitable without compromising the earth's delicate eco-system with harmful chemicals.

I used Pro-Gro 5-3-4 on my lawn. They also have a fertilizer product that's called Nature's Turf 8-1-9 for specific use on lawns; in a perfect world I suppose I should have used that. But, I am not one to pay postage costs for a 25# bag of fertilizer so I bought what the nursery had in stock. (One of the problems with using organic products is that you often can't find what you want at retail stores. Drives me bananas.)

Anyway…the ingredient list for Pro-Gro 5-3-4 says:

Derived from: Dried Whey, Cocoa Meal, Compost, Peanut Meal, (Natural) Nitrate of Soda, Fish Tankage, Animal Tankage, Phosphate Rock, Soft Phosphate with Colloidal Clay, Ground Shells, Kelp Meal, and (Natural) Sulfate of Potash/Magnesia.

I have some questions about the materials, such as how they were obtained. Were the phosphates mined, for example? That may still be organic but I hate mining…I wish there was another way to get things like phosphates, coal, whatever, besides tearing holes in the earth. Also, what does "tankage" mean? But all in all, it seems to me a very earth-friendly ingredient list…that's why I bought it.

Please note: although you can tell from what I've written here that I admire North Country Organics fertilizer, I don't necessarily consider this an endorsement of it. I did use it on my lawn but haven't really seen the results yet. So I don't really feel it's appropriate (yet) to recommend it.

Scotts Starter Fertilizer is made by the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. According to their "about" page:

The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company (NYSE: SMG) is the world's largest marketer of branded consumer lawn and garden products, with a full range of products for professional horticulture as well. Scotts Miracle-Gro has helped to grow the nearly $7 billion global consumer lawn and garden market through product innovation, industry-leading advertising efforts and its trusted brands.

I did find something that was a little more warm and fuzzy, but still the main focus is on their size, profits, & famous brands.

When my father, Horace, founded Miracle-Gro in 1951, he couldn't have envisioned how the consumer lawn and garden industry would grow into a leading outdoor leisure activity and a nearly $7 billion global business. That's probably even more true for O.M. Scott, who started The Scotts Company in 1868. Neither could they have imagined the future success of this company. Today, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company is the world's leading lawn and garden company with trusted brands in every category in which we compete.

Scotts Miracle-Gro US brands include Scotts, Miracle-Gro, Osmocote, Ortho, Scotts Lawn Service, and Smith & Hawken (?!??), which they acquired in 2004. Their international brands include KB, Weedol, Levington, Pathclear, Evergreen, and Substral. And just to warm the very cockles of my Monsanto-hating heart, they are "Monsanto's exclusive agent of Satan for the international marketing and distribution of consumer Roundup."

Taking a VERY deep breath and moving along…..The Scotts ingredient listing says:

Derived from: methyleneurea, ammonimum phosphate and potassium chloride. *Contains 4.5% slowly available methyleneurea and dimethylenetriurea nitrogen.

Um, my spell checker does not recognize those words. Also, I am unable to type them without going very slowly and staring at the bag at the same time. (Try it yourself.)

Please note: You can pretty much tell that this is not an endorsement of Scotts fertilizer so I don't need to add a qualifier. I guess I really don't have anything else to say about these ingredients. Except perhaps…WTF?

Sorry for the long & meandering post…it's been one of those mornings.

18 Responses to “Organic vs. non-organic fertilizer ingredients”

  1. I gather that you wouldn’t be a fan of Miracle Gro !!!

    A few years ago, I wrote a profile about a horticulturist and we had quite a chat that day (about 3 hrs. if memory serves). The topic of Scott’s Miracle Gro came up and he was explaining to me (with my limited plant knowledge!) how unnatural this product works to make plants grow quickly and abundantly. You might end up with lots of flowers and enormous tomatoes but at a price.

    Still appears to be a very popular plant food though so I guess the word hasn’t gotten out much. I always thought it was a bit ‘weird’ how this stuff worked. It did seem unnatural. I know there are better ways to nourish plants, your posts are helping to teach me too! Thanks Caroline. 🙂

  2. yeah….it’s like steroids for plants!

  3. My sister has a montly spray program, uses Round-up, Miracle Grow etc and her yard…and vegs…and flowers are spectactular. There is alo an abundance of bugs, birds etc. I gutted my entire back yard, removing all grass. The yard is a jungle of fruit trees, roses and containers with all my tomato and pepper plants. I have used bat guano, fish emulsion etc, all natural products and my tomatoes suck! There is end-rot, misshapen tomatoes. Not all are bad but nothing like her garden. It is REALLY frustrating.

  4. Donna, your sister and her family are eating and breathing in toxic chemicals that you are not. The trick is that neither one of you should be relying on “products,” whether organic or not, to have a nice garden. You have to make sure that your soil is good, you’re planting the right plants and trees in the right place, etc. The point of sustainable gardening is to garden knowledgeably so that you have to use as little “additives” in your garden as possible…and if done correctly, when you do need an additive, you can use an organic one.

    For ex…you said you have blossom end rot on your tomatoes. This has to do with a mineral deficiency in your soil, plain & simple. There’s nothing wrong with the tomato. If you had your soil tested this might help you understand what you should be adding to your soil.

  5. Hey guys! This website really helped me I can definatley get a good grade on this project i’m doing. It told me about the organic and non organic fertilizers. I need to grow MARIGOLDS and I need them to grow quicly even though I have 3 months. It may just be my soil as you said to Donna. Thank you for helping me!!!

  6. Several chemical fertilizers have high acid content. Acids in chemical fertilizers, like sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, lead to high soil acidity which would in turn result in the destruction of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, the microorganism that plays a key role in supplying a growing plant’s nitrogen needs.

    Plants certainly do not recognize the difference between organic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers. Their tiny root hairs will absorb those microscopic nutrients, regardless of where they come from or how they were manufactured. But even so, with today’s growing environmental concerns, some people debate over the wisdom of using chemical fertilizers as a nutrient source.

  7. I googled methylenediurea and dimethylenetriurea nitrogen. I couldn’t understand what the reports were saying except the methyl… has fromaldehyde; can anyone tell me if this stuff is harmful to humans? I know some fertilizers used to use arsenic but I guess they dont’t any more.

  8. Hi Doris, I googled them too and had the same response as you…confusion. I found this information in the cached file of a document on a fertilization program for the Bureau of Land Management. I don’t know if this answers your question; for me personally I’m not interested in it! Here is the link too:

    Methylenediurea is used as a conditioning agent. Methylenediurea is formed by injecting formaldehyde based additives into molten urea in the hot production process. The reaction is immediate and essentially irreversible. “In laboratory experiments duplicating boxcar conditions, 55C (130 F) no detectable gaseous formaldehyde was released from urea fertilizer” (The Fertilizer Institute, 1983). “Evolution of gaseous formaldehyde, if any, from solid urea-based fertilizers approaches limits of detection during any phase of their storage, handling, or use” (The Fertilizer Institute, 1983). Methylenediurea does not have any established occupational exposure limits.

  9. Thank you so much. The local wal-mart and lowes are selling ebony king which to my reasearch does not take our heat very well. URG. Glad to find your article and suggestions. Thank you

  10. Wow! very interesting. It is scary what they can put in our fertilizer, that then goes into our water supply! YIKES

  11. I’ve been researching fertilizer for a mom in our La Leche League group who wondered if there was a problem with her handling commercially-fertized potting soil while wearing cloth gardening gloves, and then washing her hands and breastfeeding her baby. Fortunately, there is a very low concentration of fertilizer in potting soil, since there is no way to tell what is actually in the product she is using. Even this blog didn’t mention the possible contamination of ferilizer such as Scotts products with industrial by-products used as filler, the so-called “inert ingredients” that keep ferilizer from caking into a solid lump in your garden shed. (Bad enough that EPA in 1999 found perchlorate in ferilizer for home use.) Apparently the possibility of contamination with persistant toxics such as heavy metals is a real one.
    Personally, we stopped using weed-and-feed on our lawn years ago, due to the expense. About ten years ago we were introduced to a “backyard natural habitat” program, and began realizing that we had done our property a big favor by avoiding commercial fertilizer and herbicides. Our neighbors hate our dandelions (we may buy some environmentally-friendly spray, now that the Govt. of Ontario has made that the only option), and we love our shade gardens, designed by a friend who understands where to plant what. Our small composter (and our soil) is full of happy earthworms. So we must be keeping all our busy micro-organisms happy as well.

    What we buy is what is produced, which effects the whole environment. The more we use our own compost, composted manure, algae (Planet Food from Symplexity Health is our favorite), sea weed, and so on, the more control we have over what goes in the ground and into the water table.

  12. very funny – your goole ad on this page was for Scott’s Miracle Gro – LMAO. Thanks for the info – glad I found you.

  13. Thanks for this post…I always wondered what was in Miracle-Gro!

  14. It was an impressive article. I didn’t really know what is the difference between organic and non organic fertilizer before. It gave me such precious knowledge about the plants. Thank You..

  15. Thank You for all the important informations about this things.. I just click this website for my studying and I finally found out that this website is really awesome!

  16. Hello There. I found your blog the use of msn. That is an extremely smartly written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to learn more of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.


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