A landscape company takes an organic approach
Photos courtesy of Fresh Idea Organic Land Care Management.
When Rebecca Lipton was 5 years old, her mother sent her to an Audubon camp. That experience, learning about the environment and ecology, has shaped her life.
Today, Lipton operates Fresh Ideas Organic Land Care Management in Plympton, Mass., a company that specializes in a wide range of landscape services, all with an environmental approach.
Lipton is an accredited member of the NOFA Organic Land Care Program, a group formed “to extend the vision and principles of organic agriculture to the care of the landscapes where most people live, work, play and otherwise spend their daily lives.” She credits that group and its educational programs for her ever-expanding knowledge of the environmental issues involved in lawn and landscape maintenance. “It’s a wonderful program. The accreditation program means that we have to earn a certain number of credits every year. They educate us on topics such as entomology, plant diseases, invasive plants and soil biology. I’m fascinated by soils. You can never learn enough about soils and the relationship it has to the health of plants.”
In the 1990s, Lipton became a certified organic farmer in Massachusetts, selling a variety of fruits and vegetables. She continues to operate a fruit-growing operation, this season wholesaling blueberries to local health food stores. “I used to have a farmstand on the property and sold everything there,” she says. “I may go back to that, because this year I really missed meeting the people. I’m a people person.”
That character trait serves her well in her landscape business, because convincing homeowners to care for their lawns and landscapes organically takes a fair bit of trust, she says. “I have to discuss with them the challenges and expectations. I really try to make customers aware of the struggles and costs involved. They really need to get to know me in order to do that. Some people really want it and understand what it will take, and I think people are understanding it more and more. People are very aware of issues such as health and the environment today.”
That doesn’t mean that Lipton is a proponent of tearing out all lawns. “I love lawns, and feel there is an important role for turfgrass in a landscape,” says Lipton. She also encourages her clients to add other elements to their landscapes. Most recently, she is experimenting with the addition of “foodscapes,” or small-scale, residential, vegetable gardens. She’ll handle everything from preparing the garden site in the fall to planting the vegetables to garden maintenance and putting the area to bed again the next fall.
She offers more traditional landscape maintenance services (including lawn aeration and applications of organic fertilizer and compost tea), but does not currently offer mowing services, though she says she’s rethinking that area of her business. “Presently, I don’t do mowing, but I’m becoming more concerned about how today’s typical mowing practices are impacting the health of lawns. Mowers are getting bigger, heavier, and compaction is one of the biggest concerns for organic landscape managers. The increasing width, combined by hilly lawns, leads to a lot of scalping. I get very annoyed by mowing that [is] too short, the use of dull blades and non-mulching mowers. Cultural practices are extremely important to organic lawncare people.”
Lipton is often called in to transition clients’ lawns from being cared for with chemicals to organic care. There can be challenges in doing that, she says. “The microorganisms have to be brought back and you really have to concentrate on the process.”
|Rebecca Lipton poses with the "foodscape" she installed at a residence in Newcastle Island, N.H. The owners requested organic landscape management because of runoff concerns on the property, which sits directly above the ocean.|
She adds that there are also challenges in establishing new organic lawns from scratch. She mainly uses North Country Organics’ Eco Blend, which can be purchased with clover or without. “I’m a clover person, but I won’t use it if the client doesn’t want it. My main concern is to get them to go organic, so if that means keeping clover out, I’ll do that.”
She’s also realistic with homeowners about what to expect with an organic lawn and landscape. “I work on the North Shore of Massachusetts, where the soil is as sandy as a beach, all the way up to New Hampshire, where the soil is basically granite,” Lipton jokes. While some of those factors can be overridden with more traditional lawn care techniques, such as chemicals and fertilizers, the limitations of the site are likely to be more evident when managed organically.
“Many times when people call me on the phone, one of their first questions is: ‘Do you have a program you can put me on, and how much will it cost?’ But, there’s no way for me to know those answers until I see the site, talk to the owners about their needs and do a soil sample.” She prefers soil tests that include microbiology, but says that sometimes they prove cost-prohibitive.
Landscape plants are another area she focuses on, again with an ecological twist. “I love to pull out invasive plants, when the homeowner allows it, and I work with a lot of native plants,” she says. It’s important for her to put the right plant in the right location. “I think it’s because I’m a farmer, I love permaculture and I love to work with the contours of the land. When I work on a site, I try to view the land as the crow flies, from a topographic viewpoint of what’s going on. I don’t just pull in the driveway and look at the lawn. I really try to get the lay of the land.” Doing so, she explains, helps to understand where different plants will do best.
Lipton realizes that her approach to landscape management makes her stand out from much of the rest of the competition in the green industry. She was recently included in a Boston Globe article on organic landscape management, and that type of attention can create opportunities to market her niche services, but Lipton admits, “I wish I was better on the marketing and financial part of the business.” For now, she’s focused on working with clients on an individual basis to help them create organic lawns and landscapes they’ll be happy with. The business end of things may take care of themselves, as she says interest in organic lawn care continues to grow.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.
Organic Land Care
The NOFA Organic Land Care program defines organic landscape management as an approach that: