You can’t, unfortunately, grow lobster – even vegan lobster – in your garden. Lobster can, however, make your garden grow better.

Carlos Quijano started Coast of Maine Organics in 1996, making compost and other garden products with ingredients sourced from Maine and New Brunswick. His first product, according to Vice President of Marketing Cameron Bonsey, was Penobscot Blend, a compost made from mussel shells and residue from the salmon and blueberry industries. Not long after, he added Quoddy Blend to the product line, which uses ground-up lobster shells and other parts of Maine’s signature culinary delight.

Quijano started the company after he learned that seafood processors Down East were trying to compost waste from their industry but not doing a good job of it. His plan was to improve the process, create a commercially viable compost and sell it in bags featuring art work by Eric Hopkins, whose work Quijano loves.

While the company’s headquarters is in Portland, the composting facility is in Marion Township, just north of Machias in Washington County. From there, Coast of Maine has easy access to refuse from lobster processing plants, from salmon farms and processors, and from blueberry fields in Maine and New Brunswick.

But what I really wanted to know was, does lobster compost have any advantages over other compost, or is it just a marketing ploy?

It turns out, using lobster in your garden, along with crab that is a side catch, has real benefits, Bonsey said. Chitin, which is found in shells of lobsters, crabs and many insects in the arthropod family, provides nutrition to plants and helps to thicken their cell walls. Thicker cell walls give the plants extra protection against pests.

Barbara Damrosch, a garden writer who with her husband Eliot Coleman owns Four Season Farm in in Harborside, praised chitin in a Washington Post column. “Here’s how they work their magic,” she wrote. “The exoskeletons of crabs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish and countless insects contain a substance called chitin, a slow-release source of the nitrogen that plants need. Because it doesn’t leach out of the soil, it doesn’t pollute waterways the way soluble nitrogen fertilizers do. But that’s not all. When crustacean shells are added to the soil, they stimulate and increase populations of chitin-devouring bacteria and fungi. Once these have decomposed the shells, they go on to devour certain chitinous pests, most notably root-knot nematodes, which can lead to poor yields in a number of crops.”

In case you’re wondering, Coast of Maine does not get its shells from restaurants that serve lobster. Instead, the lobster refuse comes from large lobster-processing plants, which extract the meat for frozen sales. Coast of Maine doesn’t pay for the shells, Bonsey said, but by using them, it saves the processors the time and effort of disposing of the shells themselves.

Using tillers with 16-foot-wide rotating cylinders, Coast of Maine mixes and aerates long piles of composting material, which includes organic matter such as lobster shells and carbon from wood shavings or sawdust. Lobster compost is high in chitin, which is good for the garden. Photo courtesy of Coast of Maine

Because the shells are slow to break down, it takes Coast of Maine up to 8 1/2 months to create and cure lobster compost. First, the shells are ground up by a huge grinder, and then peat moss, bark mulch, sawdust and other carbon sources are added. The working compost is sifted during the process to remove and grind larger shell pieces that haven’t broken down, and the process resumes.

I asked Bonsey about the peat moss. Though gardeners have used it for centuries, recently, some have questioned whether harvesting peat is sustainable. The company gets its peat from nearby Cherryfield and New Brunswick, he replied, and harvesters work to harvest it as sustainably as possible. Still, the company is looking for alternatives.

In addition to the Quoddy Blend lobster compost, Coast of Maine also sells Lobster Meal, which it makes from finely ground, dehydrated lobster, with some crab included. It rates as a 6-2-0 (6 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorous and no potassium) fertilizer with 8 percent calcium. Coast of Maine says it promotes strong stems and root systems and healthy green, foliage. It also has contains insect-fighting chitin.

Both lobster products are OMRI-certified organic (Organics Material Review Institute), as are most of Coast of Maine’s products.

As much as I love the Eric Hopkins art on the bags that contain Coast of Maine’s products, those bags are plastic. And plastic bags of all kinds have become more of an environmental concern now than they were in 1996, when the company was formed. Bonsey said the company is looking for an alternative, but with its plant located four hours from Portland, bulk-loading into trucks is impractical. Because garden centers usually display the compost outdoors, burlap and paper bags would decompose too quickly. He added that legislation recently signed by Gov. Mills shifting the cost of recycling such material to the manufacturer will help.

For people who want to buy organic compost in bulk in Greater Portland, he recommends Benson Farms in Gorham.

The lobster products are not Coast of Maine’s bestsellers. That place will soon be taken over by Stonington Blend, he said, a potting blend favored by marijuana growers in the states that have legalized marijuana. While all Coast of Maine products are named for actual locations on the coast of Maine, Bonsey said the pun on this one is a side benefit.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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