South Florida landscape firm grows separate, thriving organic-based fertilization operation

Purely Organics of Florida

Owner: Kenny Perkins
Incorporated: 2009
Headquarters: Coral Springs, Fla.
Markets: South and central Florida
Services: Sells and applies organic ferltilizers
Employees: 11

Integrated Turf Care provides a wide array of lawn care and landscape design, maintenance, installation and irrigation services. The company, based in Coral Springs, Fla., has an equally diverse client base, ranging from residential homeowners to commercial shopping centers, office parks and large municipal properties.

But for owner Kenny Perkins, there was one aspect of lawn maintenance that’s become to be a true passion: organic fertilization. So three years ago he formed a second company, Purely Organics of Florida ( devoted exclusively to selling and applying organic fertilizers.

“It began several years ago as we were trying to see where the industry was going and to develop another niche. I started reading articles on soil biology and sustainability – those are topics that even to this day many lawn and landscape service providers aren’t familiar with,” Perkins recalls. “I really started looking into organic fertilizers, but there weren’t many real options. They were just guys brewing teas and worm castings and biosolids and things like that.”

South Point Park in Miami Beach uses a fertigation system that applies organic fertilizers. Fertigation is an efficient way to deliver nutrients and makes the use of organics cost-competitive with synthetic fertilizers, claims Kenny Perkins, owner of Purely Organics of Florida.

Not only did Perkins find existing organic fertilizers to be “marginally performing,” but issues related to foul smells and challenges applying the materials turned him off from wanting to use organic products. Lack of verifiable results was another turn-off. “As we were doing our homework, we found one product that seemed promising and we spent quite a bit of money on it, but it really was just another witch’s brew that had no data or testing behind it,” Perkins recalls.

Finally, Perkins says he came across a product line from a company called Purely Organic Products. “Having wasted a bunch of money on organic products already, I told them, ‘If you believe in your product you’ll send me half-a-ton and we’ll apply them and see how they do,'” he explains. “They were touting the same performance as synthetics [fertilizers]. I thought, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Well, we started using them and, holy cow.” Integrated Turf Care tried both liquid and granular fertilizers from that company and Perkins says the results were impressive.

Perkins says the products he tested did match synthetic performance in terms of turf green-up after application, but he was more interested in the other benefits offered by organic fertilizers, which are harder to see at first glance.

Improving soil biology

“An organic program can really build the soil biology, increase cell wall thickness in the plant, initiate a systematic bioresistance response in the plant and so on,” he explains. “We have been using them for a couple years now and we are definitely seeing a great reduction in our use of pesticides and fungicides, depending on soil and weather conditions. And we truly are starting to see a reduction in water usage.”

Perkins estimates that on properties where he has been using the organic fertilizers, pesticide and fungicide usage has been roughly cut in half. And the reduction in water usage has proven to be especially important given the irrigation restrictions that have been in place in Florida in recent years, he notes. “We’re allowed 108 [irrigation] cycles per year. In our landscapes, we’re probably experiencing 30 to 50 cycles per year,” Perkins claims.

Given the success he saw using these products, Perkins decided to become a strategic partner in Purely Organic Products. Like Perkins, the founder and COO of Purely Organic Products, James Reinertson, uses the products through his service company, Purely Organic Lawn Care, based in Maine. While the Northeast and Southeast require different approaches to turf care, “We’ve both used the products and have seen how they work,” says Perkins, adding that both he and Reinertson are committed to increasing knowledge throughout the green industry about the effectiveness of high-quality organic fertilizers.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is education. When you talk to lawn care and landscape service providers, so few of them can talk about soil biology. So we really need to get people to realize that there is a different way out there – a way that works,” says Perkins. “I often have people tell me that they’ve tried organics and they don’t work, that they’re a bunch of BS. I tell them, in many cases, I couldn’t agree more.”

Perkins claims that what sets Purely Organic Products apart, and allows these products to work like synthetic fertilizers, is that they are food-grade proteins instead of the more typical biosolids.

“Some of the blends are proprietary secrets – it’s using these materials in the right combinations that’s the key,” he explains. “We have the highest nitrogen organics in the marketplace.”

Explaining how organics work in scientific terms helps make lawn service providers more willing to try them, says Perkins. “Just a little course on soil biology and agronomy can show why organics are better, due to the fact that they neutralize the pH and really bring the soil back into balance. That way nutrients that may already be in the soil become available to the plant,” he says.

Of course, cost has long been another concern about using organics. Perkins estimates that the granular products do tend to run roughly 10 percent more expensive than synthetics. He maintains that, when used in fertigation systems, Purely Organics products are cost-competitive with synthetic fertilizer products, and feels that fertigation will become more commonplace in landscape irrigation systems in the future.

“With fertigation, you remove a lot of labor costs from the process and you bring automation to your nutrient program,” he explains. “Spoon-feeding on a daily basis makes much more sense than putting out intermittent large applications.” Fertigation systems are most associated with golf courses, but several cities – including the city of Miami Beach – where Perkins works benefits from fertigation in parks settings. And Perkins notes that some large homebuilders are currently exploring adding the concept to their communities.

Share your positive message

Perkins has also found that there’s a marketing advantage to using organics. For some customers it’s non-negotiable; for others, once the benefits are explained, they come onboard. “All other things being equal, why wouldn’t you use a product that is safer for you, your pets and the environment, and which is sustainable?” asks Perkins.

Before using organic products, Purely Organics of Florida tests clients’ soils. Perkins says that company representatives then provide technical assistance in choosing the right product from the “menu” of offerings. He notes his crews use mainly liquid and wettable powder formulations and have found that applications are no more difficult than with synthetics. “The organics run through your current spray rigs and current spreaders,” he explains.

Depending on the needs of the soil and turf, there’s a range of product options within both the liquid and granular categories. “Depending on the situation, a turf manager might need a little more salt: That would be our 12-0-4 fish product. In the summertime here in Florida when things are growing so quickly you don’t want to add nitrogen, but you want to keep all the soil micronutrients, so you could use the soil stimulant product. Some products are derived from cottonseed flour, some are derived from blood meal, etc. There are many different management tools depending on the need,” Perkins says.

Perkins’ biggest message to other lawn service providers is this: “There are organics that work. Like anything else, things evolve and improve. Most of the application issues and most, if not all, of the smell issues that had been a problem with organics [are going away]. And public sentiment is definitely taking us in this direction. Plus, most corporations now have sustainability initiatives,” he says. “It’s something you want to be able offer customers,” he advises, noting that it’s not necessary to take a one-or-the-other approach.

Why not offer both?

“There are companies that offer only organic programs, but there are many others that offer hybrid programs,” notes Perkins. “There is a misconception that you have to be either all organic or not.”

Using organic products to improve turf and landscape health is good not only for the customer, but for the service provider, he argues. “With synthetics, the turf’s needs will never subside and can actually increase over time,” says Perkins. He says that the opposite is true with effective organic properties as these products improve the overall health of the soil and, thus, can be applied in smaller and smaller quantities.

“On properties where we have contracts in place, we know that our inputs are going to subside over time, therefore increasing our margins while still maintaining the level of green, lush landscaping that the customer wants,” Perkins explains. For lawn service providers, that can boost profitability, he points out.

People are naturally cautious about trying new things that they’re not familiar with, says Perkins. “People like to stay with what they know. I started in this industry in 1986, and for a long time I just didn’t know there was any other way.”

Particularly with ever-increasing regulations impacting fertilizer applications due to leaching and runoff issues, he feels that organic products will become more important as tools for turf managers. “You want to change before you have to change. If you wait until you have to change, it’s too late. You want to be out in front of the issue,” says Perkins. “To look professional and be professional, it’s highly advisable for everyone in the green industry to start getting their mind around what sustainability is and how organics fit into that.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at [email protected].