Feb. 19 2020 06:00 AM

Sustainable practices can be friendly to both your client’s turf and you.

Across many industries, companies are looking at environmentally friendly practices, prompted by public concerns such as climate change, pollution and threat to pollinators. Those issues hit especially close to home when it comes to landscaping and irrigation, as well as the chemical inputs that green industry professionals use.

Transitioning to a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach takes lots of planning to match your clients’ expectations and protect your company’s bottom line.

Changing course

For Frank Crandall, owner of Frank Crandall Horticultural Solutions, Charlestown, Rhode Island, a company that offers both organic consulting and organic landscape services, the transition began in January 2005 when he took a trip to Barre, Massachusetts, to take the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s five-day land care training course.

“It was a comprehensive course in organic land care principles, taught by experts in the fields of soil health, organic pest and disease control, composting, organic lawn care, native plants, invasive plants and a whole bunch of other topics,” says Crandall.

This course changed his life. “I had been trained in traditional landscaping methods, using chemical pesticides, herbicides and nonorganic fertilizers,” he says. “The course taught me that there were natural tools I could use instead of those.”

A lawn after organic applications.
Photo: Frank Crandall

Crandall began transitioning his landscaping business over to more sustainable practices, a process that took about two years. “I immediately gave up using some of these harsh sprays and converted to using insecticidal soaps and neem oil, things that were allowed by NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) and OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute).”

Among the greatest fears any small business owner has is losing hard-won accounts. Crandall admits that part wasn’t easy. “The big challenge was getting the word out to our clients, saying that we’re going to be doing things organically from now on, and here is the program that we’re going to follow.” He found that most of his clients were at least willing to give the new way a try.

Several, however, were bothered by not seeing the sort of immediate results they were used to. “But we didn’t lose them,” says Crandall. “Those people, we put on a hybrid program that used mostly organics but included some nonorganic elements, mainly for weed control. For the most part, we’ve been able to keep those customers.”

When you have existing customers who have become used to a certain quality in their lawns, it can be tough, Crandall admits. “Then you have to ask yourself the question, do you lose a good client because you’re not willing to keep using traditional pesticides and herbicides?”

New baby, new way

Eric and Shay Lunseth, owners of Organic Lawns by Lunseth in Minneapolis, Minnesota, were willing to take that gamble. The birth of their first child 10 years ago was the catalyst for changing over the landscape business they’d started in 2007. “Both Shay and I realized how important it was to us to keep chemicals away from our property,” says Eric Lunseth.

They had talked about converting their business to organic lawn care earlier, “and I had dabbled in it a little bit while working for other companies,” he continues. “We spent two years experimenting with the products on our own lawn to make sure they would work. By 2010, after two seasons, we felt confident enough to start selling organic services to clients.”

With nine residential customers their first year of going organic, “we said to the clients, ‘take it or leave it,’” says Shay Lunseth. “‘We’re going organic, and we hope you come with us.’ And most of them did.” They now have around 1,100 clients.

How to transition a lawn to organics

By Frank Crandall

Adapted from his article Landscape Now: Transitioning From Traditional to Organic Lawn Care. Used with permission.

A soil test is the first step. The results will provide a road map as to what soil amendments are needed.

The first year of organic conversion may include the use of preemergent and post-emergent chemical
weed control treatments and chemical grub control; after that, all treatments should be nonchemical.

An organic program would include early spring applications of lime and organic, low nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizers with an NPK number of 8-1-1 and kelp booster in late spring. Soil conditioner should be added in summer, and in early fall, another application of 8-1-1 fertilizer.

These inputs would be in addition to compost top dressing and applications of compost tea.

For weed control, seek out Organic Materials Review Institute-approved products containing d-limonene, an oil extracted from orange rind, ammoniated soap of fatty acids or corn gluten. For grub control, use neem oil, beneficial nematodes and milky spore; for flies and mosquitoes, Bacillus thuringiensis.

Good cultural practices will help you achieve success. These include aeration, overseeding and watering infrequently but deeply in the early morning hours. Mowing to a height of 2½ to 3 inches with a mulching mower allows grass to better resist disease and shades out weeds; grass clippings and chopped-up leaves add nitrogen.

True believer

Michael Nadeau, owner of Wholistic Land Care Consulting LLC, Sharon, Connecticut, started landscaping at age 12, working for a neighbor’s company. At 17, he passed a difficult test to become a certified arborist and worked for a tree service for awhile. The arborist license allowed him to spray pesticides, which led to him starting a spraying business. In 1981 he started his own landscape and tree service company, with his brother joining him in 1982.

“I learned how to kill everything that moved using all the high-powered synthetic pesticides of the day,” Nadeau says.

But something didn’t feel right for a self-described nature boy who’d grown up roaming the woods. Then shaking spells brought him to a doctor, who asked him if he’d been exposed to organophosphate, a common pesticide chemical. “I’d been poisoning myself, being careless,” Nadeau says. “When we sprayed for gypsy moth on hot days, we’d take our shirts off and let the pesticide rain down on us to cool off.”

Sometimes using sustainable practices means incorporating native plants or species.
Photo: Michael Nadeau

Nadeau began investigating alternatives to chemicals but didn’t find many. “Biological pesticides were in their inception back in 1982. Then I heard about Rodale.” The Rodale Institute, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, is a pioneering center for research and education in organic farming and landscaping. A monthlong apprenticeship there made him a true believer in the organic way.

Still, Nadeau says they didn’t switch to all-organic until around 1988. “In the meantime, my brother and I started using some organic methods, gradually phasing them into our landscaping work. We’d substitute with organic fertilizers without telling the clients because frankly, we didn’t know if they’d work or not.”

Nadeau admits that the first few years of the transition were lean ones for him and his brother. “But remember, nobody was doing this back then. Though we lost our original clients, they were replaced by organic ones a little at a time. Then things really started to take off.”

But he cautions that the organic approach does take patience for both the client and the landscaper. “You have to have a benevolent soul for the planet to get into this,” Nadeau says. “After three to five years, though, the clients will begin to notice their costs starting to really go down. They’ll tell two people, and those two will two others, and after a while, you’ll have more business than you can handle. That’s what happened to us.”

As green as you want to be

There are many shades of green in the marketplace. Some landscape operations are fully all-organic, using absolutely no chemical inputs whatsoever. Others are mostly green, somewhat green or green-on-request.

Photo: Michael Nadeau

Crandall says you can have a split business that is partly organic and partly traditional, as long as you keep the materials and equipment used for each part of the operation strictly separated. That means having at least two of everything, including sheds. “The sprayer you’re using to spread organic pesticides or fertilizer should be designated for that use only,” he says. “You can’t go back and forth with tools, and you can’t just throw everything into the same building.”

The Lunseths offer a conventional chemical weed-and-feed program to their commercial customers. The reason? Organic inputs cost more, and large-scale commercial sites find it cost prohibitive.

Managing expectations

You shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of what their landscapes will look like for the first few months and years of this approach. It takes patience and trust.

“Don’t overpromise,” says Nadeau. “If you tell someone they’ll have a weed-free lawn with organics, you’re lying. You have to tell people both the up and the down sides of the organic way.”

Organic fertilizers encourage mycorrhizae and beneficial soil bacteria. There are no toxic chemicals in the runoff to pollute local water bodies. It’s better for the pollinators.

Weeds and insects are harder to kill using organic methods. The content of natural pesticides such as milky spore and Bacillus thuringiensis is unregulated, so you can’t be sure of how much you’re getting or its freshness. And organic inputs just plain cost more.

Photo: Dan Delventhal

People that are hopelessly addicted to having that perfect green lawn with zero weeds, what Nadeau calls “the show,” aren’t likely to go for this approach. “Maybe the husband plays golf and wants his lawn to look perfect like the course,” he says.

“It’s going to be a healthier lawn overall, but people have to be patient,” says Crandall. “Any new client we take on, we explain that it takes two to three years of building up the soil before it really starts to pay off. Most all of the clients that have allowed me a two-year window have been rewarded with a thick, lush lawn that doesn’t give many weeds room to grow.”

Dan Delventhal, owner of MowGreen Organic Lawn Care, Fairfield, Connecticut, says to keep customers through the switch, you should adjust their expectations. “You need to tell them that in the long run, they’ll save money and be safer, their soil will be healthier and their lawn is going to look better than ever before. But the results are not quick and immediate like they are with chemical landscaping.”

Delventhal started his business in 2006 as an all-electric landscape company. He says the sort of customers who are attracted to that kind of approach are usually open to organic landscaping. “People have to be inspired to go along with this and be a little bit more tolerant of having a weed here and there,” he says. “And you as the service provider have to be more diligent.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at pouncerspy@gmail.com.