When it comes to organic gardening, most people think about growing food without toxic pesticides. But it turns out that synthetic fertilizers can be equally as toxic to the soil life and garden ecosystem. Here we’ll dissect synthetic versus organic fertilizers, in plain language, and answer the very common question: can Miracle-Gro be used in organic gardening?
Miracle-Gro is all too common on the aisles of any garden store. But is it truly as miraculous as the name would have you think? Do they make your plants flourish or do they kill soil life, wash out into the watershed, and end up in your food?
*For reference, we are specifically referring here to Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food. Miracle-Gro produces a wide range of garden products that will be explained below.
Organic vs. Synthetic Fertilizers
Gardening is a rewarding opportunity to reconnect with the source of our food. Most people choose organic because they don’t want toxic chemicals like pesticides in their garden, yard, or their food. However, organic fertility is just as important if you want to avoid synthetic chemicals.
In the context of food and gardening, organic means natural, non-synthetic, non-toxic materials sourced from nature. Conventional farming, on the other hand, uses man-made synthesized chemicals like synthetic fertilizers.
Don’t get me wrong, everything on earth is technically a “chemical’ (in the context of biochemistry), but synthetic chemicals are a whole different ball game. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, for example, was synthesized by German scientists during WWI for use as ammunition and explosives.
Organic fertility, on the other hand, is a lot easier to trace back to the source. Think about compost, animal manure, straw, leaves, bones, feathers, fish, and other plant and animal byproducts.
These types of materials are the foundation of a healthy garden because they actually feed the soil microbiome (the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that help our plants). Microbes break down organic (carbon-based) materials into rich organic matter that nurture the soil for years to come. This process has fueled all plant life on Earth for millions of years.
The Problems with Synthetic Fertilizers
In contrast to the ancient nutrient cycling in soil, synthetic fertilizers are relatively new. They were first synthesized during the 19th century Green Revolution (which wasn’t really all that “green”). Chemicals like Miracle-Gro urea-based fertilizer have since been found to kill soil microbes and cause loads of other problems in the environment and human health.
Harmful to Human Health
The primary ingredients in synthetic fertilizers like Miracle-Gro are urea nitrogen and ammonium sulfate. When exposed to the air, these compounds create a toxic greenhouse gas that damages human lungs.
Nitrogen can build up in the human body when it isn’t detoxified fast enough by the liver. This can lead to major health problems. Nitrates have also been linked to problems with reproductive organs, the urinary system, blue baby syndrome, and much more.
Not to mention, Miracle-Gro is full of heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want any of that junk on my hands, in my garden, or in my body!
Synthetic Fertilizer and Water Pollution
These algal blooms are caused by synthetic fertilizer runoff, specifically the 21 million tons of synthetic fertilizer dumped on Midwestern farms that leach out down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. I don’t know about you, but no organic gardener I know would want to contribute to this environmental catastrophe.
Massive Fossil Fuel Use
Fossil fuels are the key input into synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Anyone concerned about climate change or environmental sustainability probably does not want to use synthetic fertilizers once they realize how much energy they take to produce.
The Haber-Bosch method used to create urea-based fertilizers releases over 450 million tons of CO2 emissions per year to make synthetic ammonium. If you use Miracle-Gro in your garden, you’re basically spreading a fossil fuel product on your plants. And creating a huge carbon footprint in the process.
How Plants Uptake Fertilizer
Soil microorganisms are actually below-ground nutrient factories for plants. They mediate the nutrient cycling of minerals for plants to “eat.” That’s why most people recognize healthy soil as being rich, dark, and full of life such as earthworms and microbes.
These ecosystems “feed” plants through complex biogeochemical cycles that have happened on earth since ancient times. Synthetic chemical fertilizers alter and inhibit these natural microbial cycles that are so vital to healthy plants.
Like an IV Drip
Outside of these cycles, modern synthetic nitrogen such as Miracle-Gro is like an “IV drip” of nutrients to the plant. If you think about an IV, it injects nutrients and drugs directly into your bloodstream when you are sick in the hospital.
All of that stuff bypasses your digestive system because it doesn’t go through your mouth, stomach, and intestines as it usually would. You (or in this case, the agricultural system) becomes dependent on the IV.
Well, guess what? Soil is like the external digestive system of a plant. When we “feed” plants synthetic fertilizer like Miracle-Gro, we are bypassing their digestive system. It might give them a quick boost, but it’s at the cost of long-term health of the soil, food, and ecosystem.
Is Miracle-Gro Organic?
The short answer: no. Standard Miracle-Gro “all purpose plant food” fertilizers are synthetic and toxic to organic gardens.
However, the company Scotts Miracle-Gro inc. has started to offer some organic-approved products. It’s up to you to make the decision if you want to support them. Miracle-Gro has a line of organic garden soil, fertilizers, potting mixes, and more.
Organic Fertility Alternatives
Thankfully, finding organic fertilizer is super easy thanks to the ever-growing organic movement.
You should search for fertilizer and amendments with the OMRI Approved for Organic Production seal. OMRI stands for the Organic Materials Review Institute, which is an Oregon-based non-profit that reviews and certifies inputs for USDA-certified organic production. Stick with real fertilizers, and not homemade options like Epsom salt.
Even though you likely won’t be certifying your garden as organic, you can still take advantage of the simplified labeling put in place for professional organic growers.
Here are some of our favorite organic fertilizer options that are widely available:
- High quality compost (homemade or locally sourced).
- Vermicast (worm compost).
- Neptune’s Harvest fish and kelp-based fertilizers.
- Down to Earth Fertilizers.
- North Country Organics kelp meal, bone meal, feather meal, and more.
- Jobe’s Organic Fertilizers.
These organic fertilizers are food for microbes! Microbes take the decayed plant-or-animal matter and minerals, then break them down into plant-available nutrients. Jobe’s Organic formulas are fertilizers we often recommend for roses, and fertilizers specific for hydrangeas.
When you nurture a healthy soil microbiome, you also nurture a healthy human microbiome.