NJLCA 2017 Magazine
Article “What’s up with Organics” by Barry Draycott
First off, I hate the term “organic” because it means different things to different people. Some say anything that contains Carbon is organic. This is true in chemistry but not in agriculture. The USDA National Organic Program sets very strict regulations on what can be claimed organic and farms are overseen by State authorized certifying agents. There are those who claim compost made from poultry manure is only organic if it’s from free range hens. This statement goes beyond NOP regulations and is not accurate.
The landscape industry lacks the clearly defined regulations, policies and procedures that guide organic agriculture. The term organic, as it applies to landscaping generally means: without the use of synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or synthetic soil amendments among other things. There are guidelines set up by non-governmental bodies such as the Rutgers Organic Land Care Certificate Course offered annually for the past 5 years and the NOFA Organic Land Care Accreditation Course which since 2001 has published Standards for Organic Land Care.
While organic lawncare services currently only account for 5% of industry sales, it is considered one of the fastest growing segments of our market. Many companies are now offering or thinking about offering organic options for their clients. So, how do you go about getting started?
First. Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about organic landcare. It’s not all “junk science” and the promotion of magic elixirs made by “voodoo, hippie, witchdoctors”! Yeah, some of that is happening, but there is also a great deal of well documented science behind the organic approach. In fact most successfully implemented organic services rely on current Best Management Practices and Plant Health Care for turf and woody ornamentals. Rutgers has been teaching them for years and if you follow their advice, you will have better results while reducing pesticide and fertilizer usage.
Second. While organic methods rely a lot on sound cultural management, products do come into play. Here’s where you do have to be careful of the “magic elixirs” being sold. And keep in mind that some of the old stand-by organic products have been upgraded or are being replaced with products that are much more effective. Controlling weeds and grubs are much easier to control organically now than ever before.
Third. It has often been said that organic programs cost more. This may be true in the short term, but studies show that the long term costs go down because healthier plants require less water, fertilizer and pesticides. In other words, your job becomes easier with fewer problems to solve. Another snag spoken of is that it takes a while for organic land care to show the benefits. With research and years of trial and error, we now have a better understanding of how to produce faster results.
Fourth. Learn as much as you can about improving the biological aspect of soil health. A good place to start is the USDA Soil Biology Primer which you can download for free online. You will learn the essentials of how soil microbiology improves soil structure, reduces drought tolerance and protects plants from insects and diseases while improving nutrient cycling. The first time someone told me about this, I thought he was crazy! Then I started studying up on it and implementing what I had learned and saw the results. The more I learned, the better the results. Just Google “Benefits of Soil Microbes”. This is the heart of organic land care and really sets it apart from conventional methods. All terrestrial life depends upon the soil food web. We need to pay more attention to keeping it healthy.
Fifth. Find yourself a mentor. Whoa, hold on a minute; make that First on your list! A mentor will help you jump start the process by avoiding many mistakes. This is still a relatively new approach to landscaping and more information is coming in every day. Learn from those who have been doing this well for a while.
Which bring us to why would you want to go through all this trouble? Yes this is a service which will provide another revenue stream for your company. But there is more to it than that. And before I go any farther let me state that I am not an anti-chemical activist. However, I do believe that our industry can do a better job getting results with fewer pesticides. We can do so if we change our focus from just making applications to growing healthy plants in a healthy environment. Best Management and Plant Health Care practices go a long way in that direction and more of us can be following those guidelines. The next big step is to use the science behind improving soil health, especially the biological aspect. When we increase soil organic matter: nutrient cycling improves, irrigation needs drop and plants’ own immune systems improve. In other words; we are better able to maintain healthy, beautiful landscapes. After all, this is what our clients really hire us for.
Pres. Tech Terra Environmental