I'm standing in the midst of a grassy, windswept field in Marysville, OH holding what could be the next killer app in lawn care. It's a vial of herbicide made from a sustainable, natural source—Canadian thistle fungus—and it's designed to wipe out clover, dandelions and other broadleaf weeds without damaging grass.

Scotts working on natural herbicide

I’m standing in the midst of a grassy, windswept field in Marysville, Ohio, holding what could be the next killer app in lawn care. It’s a vial of herbicide made from a sustainable, natural source—Canadian thistle fungus—and it’s designed to wipe out clover, dandelions and other broadleaf weeds without damaging grass.

If plans stay on track, the product—code-named CBH, for Canadian Bioherbicide—could reach America’s lawns as soon as 2011. If so, it will be a pivotal moment in the fast-moving evolution of naturally derived lawn and garden products in the U.S. In no small way, success will hinge on the marketing heft of its formulator, lawn and garden giant Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., whose labs supply much of what the world’s homeowners buy each year in a quest to keep their grass green, plants plentiful and homes pest-free.

It’s an industry in transition, and Scotts is preparing everything from an insect repellent derived from wild tomatoes to mulch uses automotive-surfactant technology to help water penetrate soil faster. Nearly 40% of the nation’s 100 million households with a yard or garden say they are likely to use all-natural methods in the future due largely to environmental and health concerns, says the National Gardening Association.

A key hurdle for Scotts, whose roots lie deep in synthetic chemical products, is meeting that new demand while not sacrificing the effectiveness that keeps sales up and shareholders happy.

“People want stuff that works. And it’s not that natural products don’t work, but when it comes to the area where I think you’d get the most juice from naturals—pesticides, weed control—they don’t work as well, so there’s an innovation required,” says Scotts Chief Executive Jim Hagedorn. “Is it possible? Yes.”

Recently I spent time with the CEO and his researchers at Scotts’s headquarters here. Experiments take place on 120 acres of rolling turf and inside an 18,000-square-foot greenhouse that can mimic any environment in North America. In a nearby humid “rearing room,” bugs are bred for sacrificial duty and white-coated researchers pepper their speech with phrases like “knockdown time” (how long it takes a bug to stop moving).

Much of the company’s $45 million annual research and development budget is devoted to formulating technology to be consumer-friendly. What applicator is best? Will it freeze, thaw and still work? While the company manufactures the majority of its products, it often licenses or buys intellectual property from smaller companies and research institutions and then tweaks it—a trickier task with naturals, a broad term for ingredients derived from plants, animals and minerals. “There are just not as many people working on naturals,” says Jeff Garascia, Scotts’s senior vice president for global research and development. “And the ones that are don’t always understand the biology of pests.”

This year, for instance, Scotts introduced an insect killer under its new Ecosense label whose active ingredient is soybean oil. Scotts bought the technology from a small North Carolina company and set about speeding up its pest knockdown time, which was clocking in at an uncomfortable one minute. (Under 30 seconds is the goal, and 10 seconds is on par with non-natural solutions). A popular test subject: the hearty American cockroach, which Scotts keeps in large supply and feeds a diet of mostly dog food and apples.

During my visit, Scotts used the Ecosense insecticide to demonstrate knockdown time of less than 30 seconds on a fat cockroach that jerked about briefly before growing still. (Researchers believe soybean oil thwarts pests’ breathing.) The speed is an achievement for scientists, who, through repeated reformulations, halved the number of ingredients needed—making it less expensive to produce—while also improving its efficacy.

The bioherbicide, which interrupts the plants’ ability to photosynthesize, is also looking promising. Scotts’s researchers point to 3-by-3-foot plots of ailing dandelions and clover treated with the product adjacent to plots treated with Scotts’s tried-and-true chemical weapon, Weed-B-Gon. The “injury,” as scientists call it, is nearly identical.

Other natural herbicides are sold in the U.S. from well-known brands such as Jonathan Green and Safer, though many must be applied in significant quantities as pre-emergent weed suppressants or are nonselective, meaning they also kill grass. Montreal-based Sarritor Inc. sells a fungus-based selective weed killer in Canada aimed at dandelions and says it plans to bring it to the U.S.

Scotts says its bioherbicide will be aimed at a variety of broad-leafed weeds and won’t harm grass. It plans to launch the product first in a granular spot-control format to apply after weeds come up and is working on a pre-emergent formulation and a “weed and feed” product with fertilizer.

These new natural weed killers are “the holy grail of organic lawn care,” says Paul Tukey, founder of the not-for-profit advocacy group Safelawns.org. “It’s not about how to grow grass. It’s about how not to grow weeds.”

Some environmental advocates remain circumspect about Scotts’s plans, suggesting a better natural route is to improve soil conditions so grass and plants can fight weeds and disease on their own.

“Now we have this [large] company … investing in green product development,” says Jay Feldman, director of the not-for-profit group Beyond Pesticides. “The question is, do they do that in a way that is best for the greening of our country and environment or in a way that simply provides market edge for greater product sales?”

For now, at least, Scotts sees no conflict between the two missions. Consider broadcast spreaders. Homeowners often use them to apply fertilizer on lawns, not realizing the excess landing on driveways gets washed by rain into waterways where it can hurt aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. So Scotts added an “EdgeGuard” feature that, when activated, keeps fertilizer from spraying in a certain direction.

I also tested a prototype of a battery-gun pesticide applicator code-named Triton. You attach a two-liter cartridge of weed or insect killer and pull the trigger; the gun then delivers a more accurate and targeted dosage of pesticide than many conventional sprayers. And its new disposable “Kill & Contain” mousetrap requires no poisonous bait. Instead, it entices mice inside with a dab of peanut butter and quickly suffocates them. Thanks to an external “caught” alert switch, consumers never have to see or touch their dirty work.

Many environmentalists have been calling to replace lawns with native plants that don’t consume as much water or fertilizer—a direct assault on Scotts’s core business. Its response? New grass seeds and soils that conserve moisture, and fertilizers that require lower application rates. For instance, its “Water Smart” EZ Seed introduced this year contains coconut-fiber “coir technology” that helps seeds absorb eight times their weight in water. The marketing promise: “50% thicker grass with half the water.”

Scotts’s take from naturals, roughly $100 million, is still only a fraction of its $3 billion annual revenue, but Mr. Hagedorn, the CEO, says it is “growing fast.” Perhaps nothing sums up the company’s inherent struggle with naturals more than its new Ecosense brand fire-ant bait. Derived from a natural soil-dwelling bacterium called Spinosad, the company worried about branding it as “natural” for fear consumers wouldn’t think it worked. It’s a Catch-22 fueled in part by its own fierce marketing of nonnatural products over the years. “If you’ve been bitten by fire ants or your kids and pets have … and somebody said, ‘Do you want a natural alternative?,’ I think you’d say, ‘No, I want the nuclear alternative,’ ” Mr. Hagedorn says.

From the August 19, 2009 Wall Street Journal