Dear Pennington,


Thanks so much for having your publicist suggest that we partner with you to help promote Pennington Smart 1 Feed. He was smart enough to notice that our blog has “gone mostly grassless” and we probably wouldn’t be the likeliest people to trumpet your lawn seed.  So he probably figured that trying to manage all of the pesky viburnums and tulips and tomatoes we plant instead of grass, we’d be a natural for your specialized fertilizer products.

And the fact that Pennington Smart 1 Feed plant fertilizer contains a slow-release formula that keeps working for up to eight months, giving plants what they need when they need it with no help from us is certainly appealing.

But I’m afraid we’re too Smart for Smart Feed.  Because there is another organization already on the job, fertilizing our plants and giving them just what they need when they need it with no help from us. They’re called the soil microbes.  They evolved to fertilize our plants, so we don’t need to.  All we have to do is provide the raw materials for them.  A nice mulch will do the trick.  Once a year and we’re done. Mulch is also a multi-faceted product that eliminates weeds and helps us water less.  I don’t think your Smart fertilizers do that yet.

The problems with outsourcing the soil creatures’ job to Pennington are myriad.

  1. The Haber-Bosch synthesis that allows you to manufacture artificial nitrogen from the air requires intense heat and wastes colossal amounts of energy.
  2. Plants often can’t use these megadoses of nitrogen all in one go.
  3. The excess nitrogen turns into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
  4. The runoff from excess nitrogen is causing giant dead zones in our oceans.
  5. Artificial nitrogen sets up a vicious cycle that depletes to the soil’s ability to store carbon and nitrogen.
  6. Edible plants raised on artificial nitrogen taste like complete crap.

It’s hard to think of another product that is more useless yet wreaks more havoc, other than possibly credit default swaps.  Yes, yes, I am well aware of the argument that without synthetic nitrogen, nearly half of humanity would go hungry. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

Let me tell you how I think of my garden: It’s an ecosystem. I don’t shake anything out of a bag or jug–not even organic fertilizer–because I don’t want to disrupt the life in the soil. Instead, I shrewdly use it to grow beautiful food with very little sweat on my end.


  1. Would you come talk to my clueless careless neighbors? 360° around us are the chemical nazis. No legislation, but worse are no brains.

  2. What you said makes a lot of sense. But what if your garden is nitrogen depleted? When I test the soil in my veggie garden it’s low in Nitrogen. I’ve tried planting some legumes and I’ve added composted grass clippings and coffee grounds. Unfortunately, due to the limited light in my garden, crop rotation is difficult. I ended up buying and adding blood meal this year and hopefully that will help. If you have any thoughts on how to keep the soil nutrients in balance without bags or jugs, I’d love to hear it!

  3. Wow, must be nice to have soil that’s not horribly infertile. Also, I think you are overstating that study on taste. Since when did slightly less sweet and more tart equal tastes like crap. The integrated organic/conventional which is what I would consider the efforts of most gardeners to be, wasn’t so derided by that study.

  4. Jess, I second Lisa. Compost. Composted manure is truly a beautiful thing. A healthy mulch. I use maple leaves and grass clippings. Christopher C of Outside Clyde uses wood chips from the tree-trimmer.

  5. I would think that a company who’s bi-line is Fertilizers and Chemicals might have noticed your manifesto that states “appalled by chemical warefare in the garden” and steared clear of a hornets nest!

  6. Yes, yes, and SO many yes’s!
    And I don’t find this to be ‘free advertising’ at all for Pennington – it’s awareness for gardeners.
    I laugh to myself when I see automated ads for me for Scott’s. They have a better chance of directing porn ads! Haha.

  7. You hit the nail right on the head! I got such a good laugh that I snorted a bit. Thank goodness I wasn’t drinking anything.

  8. Chickens illegal in my neighborhood.

    Fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, rubber tire mulch, all LEGAL.

    Atlas Shrugged anyone?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  9. Mulching does not eliminate weeds. It provides weeds with a fertile loose place to gain hold although a loose place to be pulled from as well.

    Mulch also does not provide microbes necessarily with all they need to create fertilizer. Leaf mold, animal droppings, dead animals, dropped berries etc provide all the forest plants need for the microbes to make food.

    Another mis-guided bit of advice is that adding organic fertilizers to sterile media like pro mix is a good idea. Not so. Sterile media contain no microbes so one must add both to inert mixes.

    The TROLL

  10. To the nitrogen-deprived: pee in a bucket in your garden shed, and dilute 1:10 with water. Use on plants. No fossil fuels needed to create that fertilizer.

  11. Using organic compost and mulch for our individual gardens and manageable organic farms is well and fine; but has anyone done empirical experiments, or done the Math, on how to feed the world’s hungry without synthetic fertilizer? That is a challenge that needs to be tackled before we can cavalierly dismiss synthetic fertilizers from food production. Its easy to take a noble stance for an ideal; its difficult to convert that ideal into a reality. What are we doing to make the latter happen?

  12. My neighborhood is infested with chemicals and little yellows signs announcing that our children and pets are being poisoned. When I volunteered my backyard for a Baltimore Honey Bee hive, I was rejected because of the murderous environment I live in. My neighbors cannot be taught and they talk about me behind my back because we have dandelions. Organic — the alternative lifestyle.

  13. Great post! I’d love to see a rant about the “Everyone Grows with Miracle Gro’ ad campaign! Hope they contact you too!

  14. This rant is OK up to a point. The microbes in the soil and the plants themselves need some nitrogen to do well and it has been my experience that most garden soils need some added nitrogen to keep things going. Why do you think it is highly recommended that we plant nitrogen fixing cover crops in our gardens during the fall and winter? And for those who recommend using tons of compost to get a garden up to par as far as nitrogen is concerned apparently are not aware that finished compost has very little nitrogen in it. Those wonderful microbes we all love have used up all of the nitrogen in the compost pile to get to the finished compost stage. Compost is a great soil amendment and adds needed nutrients. But I would not rely upon it as the complete fertilizer for all gardening situations. Check out this link ( ) and the section titled “Suggested Uses for Compost.” The bottom line for me is to use blood meal (a truly organic fertilizer) in my garden to help things out. I doubt that by using blood meal in a controlled way I am contributing to ocean dead zones.

  15. A new and very provocative study, “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments,” by Dr. Kendall J. Eskine from Loyola University New Orleans, indicates that buying and consuming organic foods can actually induce self righteousness and selfish behavior.

    In other words, it can make you a jerk.

    Read more:

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