The owner of tiny but growing Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care is convinced the Atlanta market is primed for organic turf care

Greg Gutknecht provided organic fertilization and weed control services on behalf of a company in Seattle, Wash. These types of services are more commonly offered and accepted in the Pacific Northwest than most other regions of the United States.

However, Gutknecht thinks the demand will grow elsewhere. In fact, he’s confident he can continue growing what he describes as more sustainable lawn care services in and around Atlanta, Ga., where he’s lived since 2003, even though he admits he’s yet to discover a natural or organic product to control north Georgia’s tough lawn weeds.

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care treated this all-natural vegetable garden with compost tea and sea kelp. No synthetic NPK was used for fertilizing.

Even without a suitable alternative weed control, he sees no reason why Atlanta-area property owners won’t eventually come around to a more natural approach to lawn care like he practiced in Seattle. “I fell in love with the idea and the different techniques they were using, because some of the products I used were pretty potent and would give me a headache,” he says. “These products did not.”

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care

Location: Atlanta, Ga.
Clientele: Residential and commercial
Services: Natural lawn care programs; coreaeration; overseeding; topdressing; plant andmulch installation; natural insect and diseasecontrol; compost tea application

Client list is growing

While working at an Atlanta-area nursery, Gutknecht started his then-called Earth Balance Organics – now called Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care – as a part-time endeavor. His business eventually grew into a full-time venture; he now has 135 clients and brings in about $100,000 a year.

“The ‘green’ industry is growing, especially in the last couple of years,” says Gutknecht, emphasizing the word “green.” “It has finally come to Georgia and as most people focus on sustainable food and trying to reduce their carbon footprint, we’re trying to get people to take that idea to their lawn as well. We’re starting to see more gardening going on here than before.”

While the company primarily relies on organic approaches to turf care that are listed with the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), Gutknecht relies on traditional approaches for weed control. “Being in an aesthetic industry, most of the clientele wants a clean turf,” Gutknecht says. “They don’t want a bunch of weeds in there. We did have to do this hybrid approach, so all of my products except for the weed control are naturally derived, including for insects and diseases. I don’t use any traditional insecticides or fungicides at all. I get consistent results from all of the products I use and can match traditional insecticides and disease control with natural products.”

Gutknecht focuses on the soil with turf and plants being secondary, because if he can get a healthy soil, everything else will fall into place.

Custom programs

“Some grasses respond better than others,” he says, so he customizes his approach for each type.

Fertilization and weed control are the two primary services of Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care. Other services include aeration, overseeding, topdressing, small plantings and some stone work. The company does not provide mowing services. “That’s a project that may come around eventually, but I really don’t have the use for that. Nobody seems to be asking me,” says Gutknecht, adding that he refers mowing requests to other companies.

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care has topdressed this turf with worm castings.

Gutknecht’s primary agents in turf and plant fertilizations are sea kelps, which act as a growth hormone, and compost teas. “I’m getting great results from it,” he says. “The compost is used for the microbiology of the soil. We’re putting back those bacteria into the soil because it is proven now that heavy use of traditional fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides deplete the soil of the bacteria in there.” The compost tea inoculates microbial life into the soil or onto the foliage of plants and adds soluble nutrients to the foliage or to the soil to feed the organisms and the plants present. It also helps to establish soil micro flora in poor soils, he says, and also helps with soil compaction, thatch removal and other soil problems in turf and plant bed areas.

While Gutknecht primarily services the residential market, he is trying to move more into the commercial sector. “You hear all of the companies say they’re going green,” he says. “They’re going green on the inside. Let’s talk about the landscape where people [walk] through to get into the establishment. I am going after the larger chains to see if this is something they’d be interested in.”

Trained for action

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care has up to three employees, depending on seasonal needs. Gutknecht ensures each employee has a copy of the manual for Georgia requirements to become a certified applicator. “Even though we’re not using those kinds of products as is the focus of that exam, I still want them to have that experience and to know what to do to use rates in our products,” Gutknecht says. “Just because we’re using organics in naturally-derived products, some of them can be pretty potent,” he adds. “You don’t want to go around messing up stuff like that.”

Gutknecht doesn’t believe it costs more to use organic products; his pricing falls in the middle range when he bids on projects. “Something that might be a cost factor is that these products generally don’t go as far, meaning if we have a 50-pound bag of OMRI-listed manure fertilizer, it will cover about 5,000 square feet, where if you have a 50-pound bag of traditional fertilizer, it may cover twice that, or even 15,000 square feet.” To address that, Gutknecht has switched to liquids. “I use very little granular products anymore,” he says. “My cost factor is very competitive with all of the traditional companies.”

Natural does work

The company’s biggest challenge is “getting people away from the idea that just because I use naturally-derived products that they don’t work and that you have to bombard a property to have a clean landscape, and that’s not the case.

“When I hear people say that organics don’t work, what they’re referring to is the weed control,” he adds. “The climates of the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast and central U.S. are different. We’ve got mild winters in Georgia and we have a lot more plant and weed varieties that grow here that those organic products do not control.”

While requests for organic landscape maintenance are increasing in number, Gutknecht is cognizant that it still isn’t being embraced on a wholesale basis. Still, he says the general public is starting to recognize the impact of nitrogen and phosphorous runoff into water bodies through storm events and irrigation, and notes that more landscape maintenance companies are incorporating organic approaches in his area. “I’m unique in that I’m the only one I’m aware of who uses compost tea on a consistent basis,” he says. “That’s the backbone of my business. I don’t understand why a lot more people don’t use it, but I’m having good results with it.”

Gutknecht is joining a number of landscape companies that sell products directly to the public, and his company has an online store. “A lot of people don’t have the time to do the maintenance of their lawns and plants and we do that for them, but you also have the do-it-yourselfers who do like to get out and get their hands dirty every now and then,” he says. “We want to offer these natural products to that consumer. I’m getting more inquiries as the product lines increase.”

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care is preparing this area for topdressing with worm castings.

More products available

“Before, you were limited by what was out there, and now that more products are becoming available – especially for disease and insect controls – demand is growing quickly,” he says. “There really wasn’t anything out there 10 years ago that we could use, but now there are a variety of things.” Among them is garlic oil to control mosquitoes.

Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care has an Earth Steward Lawn Care Program that combines the use of top-quality OMRI-listed organic fertilizers with traditional products, or, if customers desire, an all-organic program that includes corn gluten as a preemergent in place of traditional weed control products. The company does practice IPM to reduce the amount of pesticides being applied to the environment. Gutknecht points out to clients that premium organic OMRI-listed products can create healthy lawns and plants that can withstand drought, help crowd out weeds and use their own natural defense systems to resist attacks from insect and disease-causing organisms. He will fix problems at no charge for customers dissatisfied with the service.

The programs

The Earth Steward Lawn Care Program is customized for various grass varieties. The programs for bermuda or zoysiagrasses involve seven visits that include a preemergent application with potassium for strong root development; three visits to apply an organic fertilizer application with spot-application or hand-pull existing weeds, and scheduled aeration with natural fungicide application if needed; a fifth visit for a granular humate application; a sixth visit for preemergent application for winter annual weed prevention, spot-application for control of existing weeds and natural fungicide if needed; and a seventh visit for lime application to adjust soil pH and a spot-application for control of existing weeds.

The program for fescue starts with an organic fertilizer application and spot-control of weeds, followed by a visit to apply preemergent for crabgrass and summer annual weed prevention with potassium; a third visit for organic fertilizer application and hand-pull or a spot-application for existing weeds with a natural fungicide application if needed; a fourth visit for a granular humate application; a fifth visit for fall aeration, overseeding and an organic fertilizer application; a sixth visit for a preemergent application for winter weed prevention with potassium; and a seventh visit for an organic fertilizer application and spot-application for existing weeds.

The plant care program entails six rounds, including the use of natural insect prevention using garlic or Neem oil; a foliar feeding with liquid natural sea kelp and compost tea for disease prevention; an organic liquid fertilization; a soil amendment with sea kelp and compost tea; a soil amendment with compost tea and natural insect prevention using OMRI-listed garlic solution, and a deep-root feeding using a natural micronutrient solution.

The fungicide used by the company controls diseases such as dollar spot, brown patch and Pythium blight on turf, as well as black spot, powdery mildew, shot hole and other plant problems. The company’s tree root injections are bio-stimulants and fertilizers applied directly to the rootzone of weakened, diseased and stressed adult trees or large shrubs, allowing them to grow healthier and make them more pest-resistant.

The company also does plant installation and mulching. Mulch is usually applied in mid to late spring after the soil has warmed up and begun to dry from winter rains and snow, and then again in the fall. Earth Balance Turf & Plant Care offers a neighborhood discount program for neighborhoods that sign up.

In five years, Gutknecht would like to see his company running up to six trucks throughout the Atlanta area and do more commercial work, and would like to establish partnerships with large chains to maintain their properties using natural products. “Not only can you go inside in a clean environment, but you can sit outside in a clean environment as well,” he says.

Future plans also include franchising the service side of his business and eventually having a major retail outlet online with a brick and mortar store as well.

Gutknecht’s brother Ed is also on board to help grow the installation side of the business. “We’re taking baby steps,” he says. “We’re young in the industry. We’re at the forefront of the green movement. We’ll do well as long as I can keep the interest in it. It’s all about education. We as Americans are brainwashed into thinking you have to bombard the environment in order to get rid of the weeds. Some of these weeds are actually good for you. If the environment isn’t polluted with a bunch of chemicals, those dandelions make a good salad.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.