Gardening Issue: Popular Mechanics

by Alli Katz

A local company forsakes peat

All gardeners use potting soil,” says mark Highland, president of Organic Mechanics. “Why not use a local product?” Founded in 2006, the company, located just outside of Coatesville, makes a variety of soils for every level of planter—from large organic farms to botanical gardens to recreational gardeners. 

Most commercial potting soil uses a large amount of peat, an accumulation of nutrient-rich, partially decayed organic material. Most peat used in the United States has to be imported. “Peat is a natural resource harvested by big trucks and vacuums in Canada and then shipped down here,” explains Highland.  Organic Mechanics takes peat out of the equation. Instead, they use three primary ingredients for their potting soil: compost, coconut coir (a fibrous byproduct of the coconut industry) and worm castings. This combination makes for a rich soil that—with the exception of the coconut fibers—is produced almost entirely in the region. The compost they use is from a company just a few miles from their warehouse and is carefully monitored both for moisture content and sourcing. The coconut fiber, while primarily imported from India, is shipped compacted, expanding to five times its original size when it arrives at Organic Mechanics. “We’re using two products with a combined carbon footprint smaller than peat,” says Highland. “It retains moisture longer and is healthier overall.”

Healthy soil is a passion for Highland. “I used to have plant blindness: that’s a shrub, that’s a tree, that’s some grass. But as I started learning about horticulture, I discovered that the health of the plant is ultimately connected to soil health.” After getting a B.A. from the University of Florida in  environmental horticulture, Highland worked for a landscape construction company in California. He eventually came back east to earn an M.S. in horticulture from the University of Delaware and began focusing on what makes soil healthy. In 2006, he launched Organic Mechanics, using a nickname he got during his undergrad days. 

At first, the company had only one product—the culmination of years of research and hard work. For the past four years, Highland has concentrated on expanding the product line and the business. Organic Mechanics now has three products and sells their wares all along the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, and as far west as Chicago and the Great Lakes. Using local baggers, the company keeps its carbon footprint down and maintains the local connection, ensuring that their affiliates in other states hold up to the company’s high standards. 

Organic Mechanics’ goods can be found at Greenable in Northern Liberties, Primex Garden Center in Glenside, at Whole Foods and in other natural food stores across the city. It’s not just the soil that makes Highland proud—he loves educating people about gardening. “Good workshop days are the best,” he says. “People go home excited about organic gardening and starting their own compost.” He wants people to know that there’s a better way to grow things. “It’s not harder or more expensive,” he explains. “It’s just a different way of thinking about gardening.”

organicmechanicsoil.com, 610-692-7404