Eco-Garden Center is a Success!


by Susan
We lament the closing of Heronswood and the looming threat of Big Box stores to the continuedApf2_2 existence of independent garden centers, but for a bit of good news let me introduce you to an 80-year-old nursery in the Maryland suburbs of DC called American Plant Food.  It has that funny name because it began by selling an organic topsoil/fertilizer combination (using manure from local stables and the National Zoo)
which they called Green Magic.  Later the business became a full garden center and now this third-generation family-owned and -run company has expanded to a second location and they’re currently scoping out a third.  Dear God, please let me closer to me.

But here’s what makes this garden center interesting:  Back in 2000 it decided to go organic.  It’s been a gradual process and there are still a few baddies on the shelves but after these seven years, they’ve PROVEN that organic gardening methods work, so the transition will soon be completed.  And to find out how going organic has affected business I sat down with their horticulturist Mitch Baker, who told me there’s been no loss of customers.  In fact, their eco-friendliness has brought them some new customers, people looking for a retailer they can trust.

What’s more, when asked what’s new in the nursery biz, Mitch’s answer is:
enviro-consciousness.  That means selling fewer synthetic products, yes, but primarily the changes thus far have been on the supply end – moving away from plastic pots and trays.  He sees changes in the products being offered coming slowly, with the creation first of organic or eco-friendly sections in the stores, so they’re not getting rid of the toxic stuff YET.  It takes time to educate customers about the many ways that organics work differently than Miracle-Gro-type products –  results that aren’t instant, and less-than-100 percent reduction in insect populations, which is fine with the plants but not yet fine with so many consumers.

Mitch advices the eco-conscious consumer to look for the OMRI label on products they buy – for Organic Materials Review Institute.  Looking around the APF products section together, we found the label on most products but noticed that Bradfield Organics doesn’t use it, which is curious because the certification and label is cheap and easy to get.

But here’s a bonus for retailers willing to be out ahead of the pack in Going Green:  When local media outlets need experts on environmental issues they call the organic garden centers.  For their stories about Rachel Carson’s recent 100th birthday, they ALL interviewed Mitch.  One skeptical TV reporter didn’t seem convinced by the organic spiel so Mitch dragged him and his crew to his own all-organic garden in DC, and seeing was believing.

And guess who else is going organic.  According to Mitch, golf courses are discovering that organic turf care, including the use of compost tea, saves them heaps of money they’d otherwise be spending on fungicides.  They’re also responding to concerns expressed by their more environmentally concerned members.  Go golfers!Baker

And no surprise, this garden center has gone crazy for compost tea.  They have five 22-gallon brewers and sell the stuff from April through October on weekends.  It sells
for $15/gallon and has the full range of microorganisms (versus "Soil Soup",
which is an extract of dormant microorganisms.)  The alive, nonextract stuff has no
shelf life at all, so must be used the day it’s sold, preferably within 6 hours.

Every time I go to their website I’m impressed all over again, especially in comparison to my other favorite nursery which will go unnamed.  Look what’s there, folks.  First, it’s strictly for information, doesn’t sell a thing, but it’s still an effective sales tool because people ask for products they see on the site, especially their compost tea.  Just this year Mitch is hearing people referring to what they’ve seen on the site and asking for it, including their services.  I hope other retailers look closely at the site, especially the "Gardening Resources" link to a long drop-down list of how-to articles and the calendar of what to do when, then go forth and copy!  And notice too while you’re there their huge commitment to the community.

Well, I had to ask, since I’m always harping on the need for them.  American Plant Food offers an on-site consultation, including a plan and plant recommendations, for only $150.  Good deal!!!  Or if you want help by the hour – coaching – they charge a reasonable $75 per hour.  And because I’ve both taken and sent clients to this nursery, I asked Mitch for advice about how to best work with the staff there.  He says it’s damned frustrating for the staff and their customers alike when designers give their clients lists of plants to buy, since nurseries rarely have exactly what the designer has specified.  He suggests instead that designers (and coaches) give their clients plant "suggestions" to take to the nursery, along with measurements of the area to be filled and photos.  The nursery design staff then recommends plants the client can actually buy, and charges nothing for the help.  And nobody walks away frustrated. Oh, and clients should be told NOT to show up unannounced on Saturday morning but instead, to make an appointment.

So, Mitch, how DOES American Plant Food stave off Big Box competition so well it can even expand to a third location?  Service and good information are key.  Shoppers arrive and are offered help finding what they need – what a concept.  So I’m not surprised when I hear glowing reviews from people who shop there.

Next up:  Picking the horticulturist’s brain.

All photos were taken from the American Plant Food website.


  1. Merrifield nursery, take note. I live in Va. but always worked in Md. so am familiar with nurseries in both suburbs. Merrifield still pushes the toxic stuff; wake up!

  2. Alrighty, Susan, here we go again!

    I’m sure American Plant Food is a great garden center and offers it’s customers outstanding customer service and high quality products.

    However, let me point out a couple of questions I have as to why you think it’s such a great place.

    First, you seem to think (I apologize if, once again, I assume too much) it’s a great thing that they sell compost tea by the tanker load – to the tune of $15.00 per gallon. This, despite much current research (pointed out by guest Ranter, Jeff Gillman from the University of Minnesota and author of “The Truth about Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why,” from Timber Press) that suggests it’s essentially snake oil – at best.

    Second, the vast majority of problems in landscapes, lawns and gardens are abiotic (i.e., non-living). It’s when plants are stressed by these conditions – often when we try to grow them where “we” want them to grow, versus where they want to grow – that secondary insect pests, pathogens and weeds can get a toe-hold.

    In these situations, it’s tempting to spend a ton of money on inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. (either synthetic or organic) to “mask” symptoms of us trying to bend nature to our will (just like taking medications for high blood pressure mask symptoms for eating too much and exercising too little)!

    Instead of taking customer’s money for compost tea, fertilizers and organic pesticides (which, by the way, are still pesticides and not entirely benign), it would be truly revolutionary if the staff at American Plant Food (and other garden centers) would:

    – Prevent customers from planting camellias (as an example) in sticky, poorly-drained, construction-compacted, clay soils where they’re not likely to thrive.

    – Never sell shrubs that grow to extreme size as “foundation” plants!

    – Tell customers to live with feeding damage caused by a wide range of insect pests that is purely aesthetic versus life-threatening instead of selling them “organic” control products. (Now that would be REAL customer service!)

    – Not put grass seed on the shelves until the time of year (depending upon location) that customers are most likely to be successful with their overseeding/renovation projects.

    Second, we need to get past this “garden coaching” thing as some sort of cutting edge, never-done-before phenomenon.

    The tiny garden center I worked in when I was in high school in the middle of a cornfield in northern Illinois charged customers $10.00 for a site visit in the mid-1970’s.

    I’m sure if you polled a lot of garden centers that have been in business for generations, you’d find that many of them have offered garden “coaching” in one form or another before most of us were even born!

    Finally, I would like to encourage more garden centers to offer plants in bare root form!

    That way, we’d . . .

    – consume less fuel to ship dirt and water thousands of miles across the country (not to mention the fuel consumed in harvesting/handling B&B and container-grown plants),

    – not have to consume energy to manufacture “eco-friendly” containers,

    – be able see plant roots, thus allowing us to plant them at the correct depth – resulting in less stress and subsequently less need for inputs to mask future decline symptoms.

    The technology for offering trees, shrubs and perennials in bare root form was developed, oh . . . .hundreds of years ago. And, in more recent forms Missouri Gravel Beds (which, again, guest Ranter Jeff Gillman, may want to explain in greater detail for readers) can be used to offer bare root plants throughout the growing season – even on midsummer days when temperatures soar over 100F!

  3. Terry, here’s the link to Jeff Lowenfel’s guest post in support of compost tea:
    I know a few writers who think HE actually won that debate, so you might want to catch up on the compost tea research. And another Jeff, Jeff Ball, a 40-year gardening educator I admire, swears by compost tea, and as someone with no profit to gain from singing its praises, he’s convinced me to give it a try.
    And to catch you up on coaching, here’s the link to the garden center industry blog urging them to consider offering these services:

  4. Susan – as I noted in a previous post, I’ve never found it necessary to fertilize any of the trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, vines, etc. in my landscape/garden – nor in those of my clients.

    When plants fail to perform well in landscapes and gardens, it’s infrequently related to a truly nutrient deficient soil.

    In fact, the (over) abundance of potassium and phosphorus in many lawn and garden soils throughout New York state has been well-documented via an analysis of soil tests submitted to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab (search Nutrient Management Spear Program and New York Soil Test Summaries).

    I find it interesting that, as a long-time, mainstream “horticulture industry” practitioner that Garden Ranters are so suspicious of, I’m the one defending the real “do less” approach to landscaping, gardening, lawn care, etc.?

    It all comes back to simply working with nature, instead of trying to bend it to our will!

    That way, you won’t need to spend time, money or effort on compost teas or organic pesticides!

  5. So Terry what do you DO when confronted with a truly nutrient deficient soil. Do you ADD things to it or only plant things that will survive in such poor conditions or do you recommend people move to get some better soil if they really want certain plants?

  6. Well Terry, what’s your answer to Christopher C.’s excellent question? Sounds like you have all the answers in your perfect world. You sound really angry.

  7. Good morning, Brooke and Christopher! – Nope, I’m not angry at all. In fact, if you go to my website and link to my Saturday radio show or watch my TV segments online, I think you’d find that I’m a pretty upbeat person.

    What I try to do is help people understand that it’s often very hard, if not impossible, to “fix” plants with fertilizers and pesticides (be they synthetic or organic) if they’re planted in a spot where they’re simply not going to thrive.

    As I pointed out in a previous post, an analysis of soil tests from throughout New York State has shown that there are very, very, very few soils that are deficient in phosphorus and potassium – and many that have high levels of these nutrients. My gut feeling is that this would be the case if soil tests from most states where reviewed.

    Therefore, plants struggling in these soils are doing so for reasons other than nutrient deficiency.

    My response to Christopher’s question is that there’s really no such thing as a nutrient deficient, or “poor” soil.

    I help my clients choose plant materials offering multiple seasons of interest that are adapted to conditions a site has to offer – instead of trying to “fix” the site in an attempt to grow plants that are not well adapted and may, therefore require ongoing (and sometimes expensive) applications of water, fertilizers, pesticides, labor, etc.

    I have to admit that I’m surprised that I seem to have to defend the concept of low-input landscape design and management that helps people avoid spending time, money and energy on stuff they don’t need, here on Garden Rant!

  8. Choosing the right plants for your climate, zone and specific site is a given. Using a mulching mower on grass and leaves and mulching with wood chips from a tree trimmer, my personal favorite, and never had any nitrogen deficiency problems are wonderful. I am a no fertilzer at all kind of guy.

    But, “there’s really no such thing as a nutrient deficient, or “poor” soil.”

    Are you kidding me with this? You have never been asked to landscape a new home in a new subdivision built on twenty feet of boulder and compacted fill or a house in a neighborhood on a hill where all the excavation and grading removed any soil that may have existed and left you on subsoil or rock?

    What will grow in compacted fill with the texture of concrete? What will grow on solid rock? What will grow in urban and commercial planting beds left between the concrete slabs?

    You better ADD something or you will have some major “abiotic” site limitations leading to the “secondary insect pests, pathogens and weeds.”

  9. I know I’m not an expert by any means, however I watered some of my very poor grass (in a new subdivision) with compost tea last year. Immediately you could see where I ran out of tea. This year you can still see where I ran out of tea, therefore I am a believer of compost tea. I also had to amend some of my soil to be able to grow anything at all. My neighbour rents a jackhammer to dig holes for trees. Somehow, I don’t see anything growing in this concrete without a bit of help, I agree that we still have to plant the tougher plants in hopes of survival.

  10. Why is it that arguments against my suggestion that we rely too much on inputs leap immediately to extreme conditions such as the ones proposed by Christopher (above) and multimillion dollar brownfield reclamation projects mentioned by Michelle Derviss (see last week’s “Sure it’s organic, but what’s IN it?”)?

    What percentage of sites are we talking about here . . . . 5%, maybe 10%?

    Even then, I’m sure that builders are required by their contract to spread at least four to six inches of “topsoil” and establish a seeded lawn, right?

    As a professional horticulturist, I feel it’s my responsibility to help my clients understand/appreciate how nature really works and the limitations/opportunities provided by the conditions found on their property.

    Even where soils are very shallow and compacted, it’s possible to install densely spaced plugs of a wide range of drought/wet-tolerant grasses and perennials, bulbs and bareroot trees and shrubs that offer year-round interest and are environmentally-sensitive.

    If, however, I meet with a potential client that has their heart set on recreating an English Garden cut from the pages of a lifestyle magazine, or they insist on the instant gratification provided by large B&B/container-grown materials on a site similar to one described above I simply tell them that I’m not the man for the job.

    After all, it’s O.K. to not accept a job that you’re just not comfortable doing in a way you don’t feel will be successful in the long run.

  11. Terry, I am with you on this mostly. Living in Illinois there is no way any fertilizer is necessary. Nor do I rototill and after planting try hard not to disturb the soil.
    But I have to agree with others that it is a common problem in subdivisions to leave behind a soil than has little microbial activity. It is an effort to kickstart life again. Can you imagine amending an acre or even a quarter acre of soil?
    Sara Stein in ‘Planting Noah’s Garden’ speaks to this problem. A soil test done on one place returned saying only magnesium was present in sufficient supply to support a garden. She recommends checking with the county extension office to get information about underlying native soil. They have maps that will show expected texture drainage and fertility.The soil profile is described inch by inch to several feet.
    They recommend a pioneer planting strategy that uses plants able to seek that lower stratum. On that particular site she is discussing, Quercus,Rubus,Malus,Wild roses,raspberries wild gooseberries,aromatic sumac and Juniperus virginiana the common Red cedar many find on older sites (now we know why).
    Point being nature has a way of dealing with soils extreme disruptions. Right plant for place has real meaning.
    As for speeding up the process with compost tea? I am withholding judgment for a time but I understand it will happen albeit slowly through natural process.

  12. The extreme conditions I described are very very common in many many places.

    There is also the notion of nutrients leaching through the soil over time be they chemical, organic or in sutu. Harvesting plants also removes nutrients whether they are farm crops, lawn clippings, hedge timmings or leaves. A soil with little or no added additional organic matter input is going get lean over time, particularly in warmer or tropical climates.

    I’m not suggesting to spread fertilizers chemical or organic willy nilly. I am suggesting that building a living healthy soil is a legitimate response to lean, poor or non-existent soils and as routine garden practice for best results with most plants.

    Building a healthy soil is pretty much the same as fertilizing in many respects. The inputs are just a little different.

    You have just come off as so absolute and still do. Plant choice is not the only option to a site’s soil condition.

    Is there something unnatural about improving the soil?

  13. Terry is certainly entitled to air his opinions at length _on his own blog_.

    Yeah, silly me. Terry doesn’t have a blog. He hangs around here “blogging” in the comments with his multiple screeds.

    That’s the mark of an Internet troll with a burning agenda, not a ‘professional horticulturist’ with a valid counteropinion.

  14. I would be pretty depressed if I were a subdivision dweller who hired Terry to help me with my garden. Even though I would never live in a subdivision, but gosh, who’s gonna help those non-gardeners out there? Terry’s gonna tell them “NO” to practically every plant they see, “Sorry! Too bad for you! Your soil sucks, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to fix it” (according to Terry)

  15. Hi, Terry

    I hope you don’t mind my replying to your e-mail responding to both Susan’s post and my own at Open Register (about garden centers offereing home consultations being an old idea) here as well as the personal response I sent to you.

    It’s true that onsite consultation has been around for a long time. I think there is a difference between coaching and consultation, though.

    Coaching involves an ongoing relationship where the home owner learns how to be a gardener over a period of time. Think of it as gardening lessons, much like piano lessons, except that the teacher comes to the pupil. That’s the aspect of the NY Times article and the Garden Rant posts that made me think about the Washington Post’s ongoing series, The Budding Gardener.

    Consultations, which can also be a valuable tool for garden centers, are usually a single visit. The consultant assesses the yard and gives advice on what to plant and where. And although a handful of garden centers offer home-site consultations, most conduct informal consultations in the store and only visit a customer’s home when making a delivery.

    The reason the coaching idea captures my attention is that retailers across the country are trying to figure out how to reach out to young, new homeowners who don’t understand gardening. Garden retailers want to connect with this demographic in a way that will help them succeed with their gardens, and therefore turn them into long term shoppers that prefer independent garden centers over Home Depot and that ilk.

  16. One last comment . . . . ,

    For those of you interested in the topic of soil “health,” check out the Cornell University “Soil Health” website,

    One of the primary products of this effort is an entirely new type of soil test that attempts quantify soil “health.”

    If you poke around the site, you’ll also find links to a ton of information on all aspects of soil management.

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