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Pioneering Garden Center Still Going Strong with NO Pesticides

Skip Shorb said the recurring incidence of cancer in his family led to the ground-breaking decision to send pesticides packing and adopt compost tea as his garden center's primary product.

Skip Shorb said the recurring incidence of cancer in his family led to the ground-breaking decision to send pesticides packing and adopt compost tea as his garden center’s primary product.

American Plant’s Top Product? Compost Tea

In my career in the horticulture industry I would guestimate that I’ve been to at least 2,000 garden centers in the past 20 years. So many of them are the same, frankly, with their plants outside, their pots and tools around the perimeter and the pervasive smell of chemical weed and insect killers volatizing on the inside. As much as I love these independent, family-owned bastions of the North American springtime, I can’t stand inside most of them for more than a few minutes without getting a headache from the fumes.

That’s why my visit to the American Plant Food company in Maryland was so refreshing last Friday. In preparation for a talk I was giving in Potomac, Md., this past Saturday, I visited American Plant to gather some props — natural fertilizers and pesticides — that I could recommend to the audience.

Much to my delight the natural stuff was all American Plant had available! No Scotts Turf Builder, no Miracle-Gro, virtually nothing that wasn’t organic. The company hasn’t sold the components related to chemical gardening for more than a decade.

The company’s second-generation owner, who has already passed on the deed to the business to his children, was utterly direct in explaining his revolutionary decision with one word: “Cancer.”

“We used to sell all the chemicals here,” said Skip Shorb. “DDT, malathion, sevin, Dursban. 2,4-D. You name it. And so many people in my family had cancer, myself included, it was impossible not to make the connection. When you look at the data linking 2,4-D (chemical weed killer) to certain blood cancers, it’s all very black and white. So we made the decision to get it out of the stores.”

The result, said Shorb, was the loss of one group of customers who went elsewhere for the chemicals — followed in unison by another, larger, group who was comforted by American Plant’s kinder, gentler approach.

Whereas a few other garden center owners will whisper about their chemical worries, and fewer still will turn their back on Scotts Miracle-Gro products that dominate the marketplace by flexing a huge advertising muscle, Shorb is candidly, refreshingly, outspoken.

“You don’t need that garbage,” he said. “It’s not good for the Chesapeake Bay, it’s not good for your pets and it’s not good for you. And, as we’ve proven, you can still grow great gardens with the natural products.”

His best-selling product by far, he said, is the compost tea that American Plant brews fresh for sale Friday through Monday in the summer months. Customers have learned the benefits of the biologically active liquid and don’t balk at the necessity to apply it immediately after bringing it home. The organisms in the compost tea are a living, breathing entity and will begin to die off as soon as a cap is applied.

“Applying fresh compost tea helps everything in your garden, from the fertility to the insect and disease control,” said Shorb, considered among the most prominent national leaders in the garden center industry. His three-location company is within the top 50 nationally in terms of sales and perennially listed among the most innovative companies in their field.

Given his status and openness to share the information, it’s curious that more garden centers haven’t followed his lead. The will, he said, has to be ironclad.

“There is so much advertising pressure put out there focusing on instant gratification, or why people should hate dandelions or insects, that it’s not easy (to turn away the chemical products),” he said. “Quite frankly, I’m surprised we’ve stuck with the decision since I’m no longer running the day-to-day operation. I’m still chairman of the board, but I don’t have a vote.”

His family, however, was celebrated for its decision in the most recent edition of the trade journal Today’s Garden Center: The latest generation of Shorbs doesn’t appear to have any inclination to go back in time.

“That was definitely a challenge at first, and it’s an easy sell now,” said Brett Shorb in Today’s Garden Center. “We rarely have a customer come in and ask for a chemical alternative.”

So next time you head to your favorite local garden center, tell them about American Plant Food’s decision a decade ago. Give them a link to this article. Tell them to give Skip Shorb a call. He’ll give them an honest answer.

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.

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