Turf Magazine - June, 2009

NATIONAL FEATURES

Going Organic

Company campaigns to change lawn care
By Jenan Jones Benson
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 business.

“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 in 2007.

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 to life.”

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 an Eco-Rider.

SafeLawns’ Services

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 viewpoint.

“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, inaugural celebration.

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.