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After 80 Years, One Company Just Says No to Chemicals

 Jeremy Brunner and John Harrison, sales and marketing support manager, hold an original bag of Espoma fertilizer.

Jeremy Brunner and John Harrison, sales and marketing support manager, hold an original bag of Espoma fertilizer.

IF YOU HAVE LIVED anywhere East of the Mississippi in the past half century and you happened to wander into the well-used potting shed of a true, died-in-the-wool gardener, you would almost certainly find a simple, white bag of fertilizer. Maybe it would be half used, slightly soiled. Maybe the top of the bag would be rolled up, as if it were some left over Gold Medal flour or Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake mix.

Since the year of the Crash, 1929, the Espoma company has been producing bagged fertilizers from the same patch of land in Millville, N.J., which happened to be the town where the founder, H.G. Sanders, resided. It was the only fertilizer I ever recall my grandmother using in Bradford, Maine, back in the 1960s and it was the only brand I remember on the shelves at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop garden center in Falmouth, Maine, when I hired myself out as a gardener during high school in the 1970s. I used Espoma’s Holly-Tone for my customers’ shrubs and their bonemeal for the bulbs and other root crops. My gardening mentor, an old sailmaker named Richard Fortune Jr., swore by the bloodmeal for his tomato plants.

As a professional gardener, landscaper and gardening journalist for the past 20-plus years, I’ve visited hundreds, if not thousands of places, but for some reason it took me until Wednesday afternoon to make it to Millville, which is about 45 minutes southeast of Philadelphia and a half-hour west of Atlantic City.

And even if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can certainly judge Espoma by the remarkably unchanged and simple package on its iconic product of Holly-Tone. The company doesn’t offer any frills or nonsense, but rather efficient repetition. The factory and warehouse has been modernized and mechanized. Many new products have been added and some are even packaged in bright blue and hot pink spray bottles. At the core, though, the company clearly lives by the mantra that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“We grow slowly but surely,” said Jeremy Brunner, the great-grandson of H.C. Sanders.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the company doesn’t take risks. Two years ago, Espoma quietly — as usual — announced it was going to offer organic products almost exclusively going forward. The company had offered many so-called “bridge” products in the past, which are fertilizers that combine synthetic materials with natural substances. Reading the market trends and sensing consumer demand, Jeremy, his father, Serge, and the marketing team made the switch with a vengeance rarely if ever seen in the eight-decade history.

The result was a complete line of organic fertilizers and potting mixes for everything from orchids and roses to fruit trees. Espoma also added a line of ready-to-use botanical pesticides in those aforementioned colorful containers. Recently, Espoma purchased the lawn care division of the company Organica — which will make the company a significant player in grass maintenance for the first time.

“You have to change with the times, but you don’t have to change your core values,” said Jeremy during our tour of the plant. “These days, so many start-up companies are competing for shelf space in the garden center, the only way to compete is to have a complete line of quality products at a fair price.”

The computerized shipping and packing and robotic packaging stations clearly give Espoma a nice edge. The efficiency allows the company to keep its overhead low and retain an emphasis on the product inside the bag — which now comes almost exclusively from natural sources.

“You have to embrace the best of the new technology to be sustainable in business, while at the same time utilize natural products that keeps the supply chain and planet sustainable, too,” said Jeremy.

Right about then, he had to leave to go coach his 7-year-old son in wrestling, the same sport his father had taught him. Jeremy is about half my size, but I knew I’d never want to tangle with him — on the wrestling mat, or in business.

In a world where gardening brands come and go like alphabet soup, I’m fairly certain this one will still be in the best gardeners’ potting sheds 81 years from now.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Laura

    Thank you so much for blogging about this company. I have been using their products for years and had recently wondered about whether they were organic or not (as you have encouraged us to look closely at labels and beware of “natural” products) I have used their plant tone, holly tone, flower tone, bulb tone, bone meal, greensand and dried blood. I am so glad to hear that they have gone almost completely organic – now I can once again buy their products and know I am getting truly organic fertilizers and soil amendments.

    • Grace Montgomery

      I had the same thing happen to me- looked a little closer and found their plant tone was not completely organic and was very sad to no longer feel good about using it.

      I was thrilled when I found they had not only reformulated to be more organic but had even added beneficial microbes!

  • John Shuemaker

    I thought Espoma was always organic. Been using it for years and years, even before the kid came in to run the place. Either way, it’s always been a good company to deal with.

    John S., Atlantic City, NJ

  • Fred Bithers

    I don’t know why all the companies don’t make this same decision to use organic inputs. Don’t you think there’s enough cow manure, horse manure, chicken manure, alfalfa and other composted products to replace all chemical fertilizers — at least for lawns and gardens? Congrats to Espoma for leading the way on this.

    Fred Bithers, Springfield, Mo.

  • John McGonagle

    Espoma has always had good quality and value. it doesn’t surprise me to read that it’s a long-time family owned business. I’m surprised Scotts Miracle Gro and the other sharks haven’t bought them out by now.

    John McG

  • http://NoMowGrass.com NoMowGrass

    We’ve been hearing it for years “my lawn doesn’t look good so I HAVE to add chemicals”. We try to tell them – they have killed off all the life in their soil so they have a lawn addicted to chemicals. A few top dressings of good natural manure over a few years isn’t the quick answer but it is the long term path to end lawn addiction.

    The nice thing about building up micro-organisms is
    -the organisms also reduce thatch, which is eaten down by the micro-organisms.
    -the organisms work deeper over time and help clean/filter ground water.
    -aerating is reduced as worms return and do the aerating naturally.

    Great job on getting the addicted lawn off drugs.
    =) Sherry at NoMowGrass

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