Back in the ’50s and ’60s my mom grew quite a collection of azaleas and rhododendrons, which she nurtured with a fertilizer especially for those acid-loving plants - Hollytone. But upon reading about the company that makes Hollytone, I learned that Espoma goes back even farther than my mom’s gardening days. It got started selling organic fertilizers in 1929, a famously horrible year to start a company, but somehow survived the Depression, though barely. It was the invention of Hollytone in the ’40s that made the company a success. While today Espoma carries 48 products, it still operates out of the same New Jersey location and is managed by the same family.
Just recently I had the chance to interview a 26-year Espoma employee, John Harrison, whose title is long but the bottom line is that he explains their products to everyone, so he’s the go-to guy on the subject of fertilizer. It’s no coincidence that he wrote the article I’ve been forwarding to friends and describing as the best explanation of synthetic versus organic fertilizers I’ve ever seen. It’s called “Choosing the Plant Food” and man, I wish more experts, especially in academia, wrote that clearly for laypeople.
So, what does John recommend gardeners do in the fall?
He recommends feeding acid-loving shrubs in late fall - October or later - with good old Hollytone. To avoid stimulating new growth, avoid applying it too early.
For lawns Espoma has several products, most of them completely organic (the exception being the phosphorus-free product). The advantages of using organic lawn fertilizers seems so obvious to me, I had to ask - why are people still using synthetics? And the answer won’t surprise you - they’re cheaper. The good news (I suppose) is that the price advantage of synthetics is less than it once was, due to price increases for the natural gas required to produce it. You may have read that synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum and that’s not true, but still, great quantities of natural gas, another fossil fuel, are used in their production.
And asked what university sources John consults most frequently, he names Iowa State, Cornell, Rutgers, Ohio State, and Texas A&M. Good group, and of course we'd nominate the University of Maryland, too, for their excellent resources.
Some vegetable gardeners use a light application of Espoma’s all-purpose plant food - Plantone - when they plant their cover crop in the fall.
When Planting Shrubs and Trees
And if you’re planting trees or shrubs this fall (maybe because you’ve heard “Fall is for planting” a dozen times?) he recommends using BioToneStarter PLUS at the time of planting. That PLUS refers to the mycorrhizal fungi it contains, and they’re the fungi being touted for their ability to jump-start root development. So it’s important to put the mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole and only in the planting hole, where the roots can access it. Applied on the surface of the soil, the fungi will be wasted. That’s what “Starter” in the product’s name is all about - for use only at the time of planting.