The Osmocote® Story

For 50 years Osmocote® has the been the plant food of choice for professional growers and passionate gardeners. This is the story of how Osmocote® began and how it became a key item in the toolkits of all “serious gardeners.”

The Beginning

The early years…

Osmocote® originated at the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation in the mid-1960’s. It was initially intended for cereal crops but the technology was too expensive for widespread agricultural application. Just a few years earlier another unique form of fertilizer was developed at the Crown Zellerbach Corporation. Crown’s  contribution to fertilizer technology was in the form of tablets that were designed to feed tree seedlings. Crown Zellerbach licensed the technology to Agriform Company. Both fertilizers struggled financially and their owners decided to sell the know-how. By pooling, they attracted a California venture capital company, Sutter Hill.

Sutter Hill formed Sierra Chemical Company with these two complimentary technologies in 1966. It was based in Union City, CA. Sierra eventually moved to Milpitas, CA, which is in the heart of the area now known as Silicon Valley. In 1971, a Canadian investor, Genstar, acquired Sutter Hill. As part of that arrangement, Sierra was hived off and placed with 50+ private investors who lived mainly in San Jose and Monterey, CA.

Core Values

A print ad for Osmocote® from an earlier time circa 1984.

Robert Severns had been in charge of Operations at Sierra when Sutter Hill owned the company. He became president of the now-privatized company. Mr. Severns recognized the value of the Osmocote® technology, but perhaps more importantly, he understood the horticultural industry. Because consistency and reliability are essential to high valued-added growers, Mr. Severns organized the company to ensure that Osmocote® delivered on its promises. This focus on excellence continues as a core
value of the brand.

Better manufacturing processes resulted in improved product performance. When safety and quality were consistent and predictable, Sierra submitted the Osmocote® product to agricultural colleges for testing. Field tests take many years, so the reputation of Osmocote® developed slowly. Sierra’s financial performance gradually improved as well. However, after the oil shock in 1974, inflation ravaged the industry and the country. Sierra’s growth was arrested and its management decided to go into the field and ‘talk to the growers’. This experience resulted in a collaborative exchange of information and feedback. Today, ‘talking to the growers’ is another core value that Osmocote® strongly prioritizes.

Around this time, Jay Rossi, a marketing executive, joined Sierra. Under his influence, and with the support of Robert Severns, the company began to place more importance on fulfilling the needs of the consumer. Of course its private owners expected to profit from their investment, but management believed that Sierra’s financial success would ultimately reflect the extent to which the company helped nursery growers achieve their goals. Immediately, Osmocote® became a pillar of this strategy due to its consistent results and labor-saving technology.

High value-added growers use Osmocote® extensively. These growers include producers of fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, woody ornamentals and trees. Greenhouse Product News, a nursery trade publication, reports that when purchasing a controlled release product, 73% of growers choose Osmocote® as their primary brand. In Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Osmocote® is used at rubber, palm and coffee plantations. Osmocote® is produced in a variety of longevities – even lasting as long as 16 months for macadamia nut trees. In many locations, the Osmocote® product is combined with growing media to form a grower specified pre-mix.

Osmocote® can be purchased at these major retailers and fine independent garden retailers

Osmocote® Since the Late 80’s

Sierra Chemical was sold to W.R. Grace Chemical Company in 1989 and the business was re-named, Grace-Sierra Horticultural Products Company. At the time Sierra employed 400 people, mostly in the U.S. It had sales of $115 million. In addition to manufacturing facilities in California, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and South Carolina, Grace-Sierra established an international presence with a manufacturing base in the Netherlands, the European center for value-added agriculture.

On the strength of the Osmocote® technology, Grace-Sierra became the leading global provider of specialty fertilizers and related products. The primary users continued to be nurseries, PGA golf courses, greenhouses and high value-added field crop farmers. In addition to its fertilizers, the business included premium potting soils and a line of conventional and bio-rational pesticides.

In 1994, W.R. Grace reorganized its total business and sold Sierra to The Scotts Company (now The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company). It was christened, Scotts-Sierra Horticultural Products Company where it became a key component of Scotts Professional Business Unit. Osmocote® was produced at manufacturing plants in Charleston, SC, and Heerlen, the Netherlands. In early 2011, Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL) acquired the Scotts Global Professional Business including the Osmocote® brand and its production facilities. As part of that transaction, Scotts retained a license to market Osmocote® branded products to consumers worldwide.

How Osmocote® Became a Consumer Brand

Strangely, the details about how Osmocote® became available to consumers are undocumented. We believe that sometime in the early 1980’s, Grace-Sierra noticed that nursery growers with retail operations occasionally resold small paper bags of Osmocote® to avid, amateur gardeners. Perhaps such customers noticed 50 lb. bags of Osmocote® on the floor of the greenhouse and asked about it. Retail nurseries may have offered ‘dip-out’ sales to ensure consumers had a successful experience with the plants that they were purchasing. Whatever ignited their interest, consumers sought smaller packages of Osmocote® and Sierra began to support them.

Upon moving to Scotts, Osmocote® was repackaged in water-resistant bottles and bags. That made it possible to merchandise the product on the plant-tables at DIY’s and superstores. The increase in distribution, supported by advertising, resulted in a tripling of the consumer business.

The Osmocote® Consumer Business Today

There are two consumer formulas. Plus Outdoor and Indoor Plant Food is appropriate for general use but it’s especially well suited for plants in boxes, pots, hanging baskets, and other containers. It is also recommended for indoor use, specifically with ornamental citrus and succulents. The formula contains 11 mineral nutrients and has a 6-month longevity. It is the most complete Osmocote® plant food formula Scotts has ever made available for amateur use. The professional version is called, “Osmocote® Plus”.

Flower & Vegetable Plant Food is intended for in-ground perennials and woody ornamentals in beds and borders. It’s also ideal for vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, root vegetables, melons and berries that need vigorous above-ground growth and strong root development. It has an NPK of 14-14-14 and a 4-month longevity. The professional version of this formula is called, “Osmocote® Classic”.

An Interesting Connection

Osmocote® Plant Food for consumers is marketed and distributed by The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. Bloomington Brands LLC manages the U.S. business under contract to Scotts. Bloomington Brands operates as a joint-venture between Scotts and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. It provides internships for MBA and undergraduate students. Students bring energy and fresh ideas to the Osmocote® brand. The program began in 2003 and is supervised by Bob Stohler, a retired Executive Vice President of Scotts. Upon graduation, many former interns work full-time in marketing positions at Scotts.


In the preparation of this article, we are grateful for the support of Nursery Retailer Magazine (previously Nursery Business Magazine).