|John Engwar, of Groundscapes Express, blows compost onto existing lawn.
Paul Tukey is a man on a
mission. The magazine publisher, author and public speaker is passionate
about the nation’s lawns. After a career as a sports writer, Tukey
changed directions. With little except years of teenage lawn mowing
experience and a fondness for the outdoors, he entered the lawn care
“I started out with a red Snapper mower just
like Forrest Gump,” Tukey says. Over time, he added additional
maintenance services and eventually employed 27 people.
After just a few years, Tukey decided to go organic,
but without an investment in learning proper techniques, his business
suffered. Although he sold the company in 1995, his interest in organic
lawn care was just blossoming.
The organic movement
Putting his journalism experience to work, Tukey
created People, Places & Plants, a magazine focusing on New England
gardening. His HGTV television show, sharing the magazine’s name, hit
the airwaves in 2002, quickly followed by invitations to speak and author
lawn care guides. Tukey’s The Organic Lawn Care Manual was released
Along the way he met Todd Harrington, owner of
Harrington’s Organicare, whom he dubs “the soil surgeon.”
Although Tukey consulted many notables in the industry, Harrington was the
one who had the winning organic package “that brings dead soil back
The National Foundation for Safe Lawns (www.safelawns.org) was
formed as a nonprofit in 2006, with the goal of educating homeowners about
the dangers Tukey perceived in petroleum-based chemical lawn care products.
Leading soil scientist, Elaine Ingham, Ph.D., and retired turfgrass science
professor, Ronald Duncan, Ph.D., serve on the advisory board.
The foundation is currently undertaking three major
initiatives. Its million-acre challenge seeks to convert 1 million of the
nation’s 40 million acres of turf to eco-friendly methods by 2010.
The group advocates eliminating synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use and
using non-gasoline mowers.
SafeLawns is working with grassroots groups to follow
the lead of Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont, which have placed
restrictions on lawn chemical applications. Its third endeavor centers upon
clearing up the confusion surrounding the term “organic lawn
care.” In conjunction with industry experts and the EPA, the
foundation seeks to develop standards for consumer products that can be
easily identified with a certification seal on packaging.
Tukey’s message has been well-received by
audiences across the country, but he found that as many as one-half of his
converts weren’t interested in performing organic lawn care
themselves. Instead, they wanted referrals to firms capable of making and
maintaining the transition.
To fill that need, Tukey and Harrington franchised the
soil surgeon’s concept. Ten percent of sales at the for-profit
SafeLawns & Landscapes (www.safelawns.net) support the foundation’s work.
|Photos Courtesy of Safelawns & Landscapes.
|Six weeks after overseeding, this portion of the Rose
Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston flourished.
|A SafeLawns employee applies organic granular
fertilizer and liquid SafeTea simultaneously with
an electric, ride-on, application machine called
The franchise operations were licensed for sale in
April 2008; at press time, seven locations were up and running from Maine
to New Jersey, with additional territories available. The largest is
associated with Mahoney’s Garden Centers in eastern Massachusetts.
The company focuses on creating and maintaining
quality soil. Services include organic insect and disease control, deep
root and surface bed fertilization, horticultural oil spraying for
ornamentals, winter evergreen protection and deer deterrent programs.
Tukey and Harrington say a properly established and
maintained lawn is beautiful regardless of the whims of the weather and
reduces fossil fuel consumption and air pollution by up to 75 percent. The
SafeLawns system can cut irrigation and mowing by half. Lawn care firms may
see that as also reducing their sales, but Tukey suggests a different
“We may need to train customers that a lawn care
contract is an agreement to care for a lawn, not to cut so many times or
apply fertilizer at preset times,” he says.
SafeLawns at work
SafeLawns teams have converted a number of existing
properties to organic methods, such as the National Mall in Washington,
D.C., which they renovated last year.
Around Memorial Day 2008, Tukey, Harrington and
company took on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (www.rosekennedygreenway.org) in
Boston. The 15-acre greenway is a series of four parks within a curvilinear
corridor of land extending approximately 1 mile through downtown Boston. It
features historical landmarks, gardens and tree-lined avenues.
The first step was educating the Massachusetts
Turnpike Authority, which managed the area, on organic methods. The
Greenway Conservancy recently leased the property and will maintain it.
SafeLawns advocates looking at the overall
composition, including nematodes, bacteria and common deficiencies, such as
calcium. To successfully grow and maintain grass, a balance between the
soil biology, chemistry and structure must be achieved. Often,
there’s simply too little soil resting on a base of clay or gravel.
The team then looks at the amount and timing of sunlight, foot traffic,
irrigation and drainage to determine the most appropriate turf.
The rehabilitation at the Kennedy Greenway was like
most projects, the budget didn’t allow to complete every aspect
optimally, so they used different methods in various sections.
“If possible, do it right the first time,”
Tukey says, because some of the areas had to be reworked later on. Some
spots were regraded and core-aerated; compost and seed were added. In other
areas, sod was used to achieve quick results. Both treatments were
successful. As the dollars ran short, the team had to forego grading and
instead blew in a tractor-trailer load of compost mixed with seed. Shortly
thereafter, a heavy rain washed it all away. The area had to be reworked
after Labor Day to ready it for the new greenway’s October 4, 2008,
Organic lawn care requires new ways of thinking and
working and a long-term commitment to soil health principles.
Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes
articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has
been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.