Monday, February 23, 2015

AOLCP Zack Kline Quietly Cuts Lawns and Testifies to Ban Lawn Pesticides

“Going Organic in Montgomery County”
AOLCP Zack Kline Quietly Cuts Lawns and Testifies to Ban Lawn Pesticides

By Kathy Litchfield
ROCKVILLE, MD – It was a “code red” day in Montgomery County, Md. – 100 degrees with intense humidity and very poor air quality -- and a teenage Zack Kline was sweating and breathing in smog as his ears drummed along with the loud noise of the string trimmer he utilized on a three-acre property.
           Kline, who had always enjoyed his family chore of lawn mowing from age 11 on, started working for a small landscaping company the summer he graduated from high school.
            What he didn’t bargain for was the loud noise, excessive pollution and large amounts of gasoline the company poured into their machines on a daily basis. Days began at the gas station.
            “I just knew there had to be a better way,” said the now 25-year-old NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional, who founded his company, A.I.R. Lawn Care (A.I.R. stands for Atmosphere Improvement and Renewal) four years ago. Kline focuses on providing clients with natural and organic lawn care, landscape design and environmentally-friendly maintenance services. He found his clients wanted to be educated about alternatives to the loud, polluting engines used by landscape companies as much as he wanted to learn about and eliminate them from his life.
            The enterprising young professional wrote a business plan and, in order to get seed money to start his own company, entered Salisbury University’s Bernstein Business Plan competition in 2010, in which he took honorable mention. In 2011, after honing his plan, he re-entered again and took home the $5,000 first place prize.
            “With that, A.I.R. Lawn Care was born – I put a down payment on a truck, purchased electric lawn equipment and began to get clients for the 2011 season,” he said.
            With his passion ignited, Kline launched into business and started going door to door with his electric equipment, offering lawn cutting. Over time his clients asked if he offered other environmentally friendly services, and he was happy to oblige. He presently has commercial and residential clients and maintains several crews. Last year he downsized the time-consuming residential side of the business and increased the commercial base; he was rewarded with triple growth of the business overall.
Networking has played an essential role in Kline’s early success as well as in his connecting to the movers and shakers of Montgomery County, Md. where he is now embroiled in testifying to help ban lawn pesticides county-wide.
Last fall, the co-founder of the group Bethesda Green and county councilor George Levanthal introduced a bill to ban “non-essential” pesticides from lawns throughout the county, citing cancer and other health concerns. Kline got involved with the group in 2011 at a lunch seminar where he met decision makers within the community’s public and private sectors and formed lasting relationships that have not only led to referrals for his business, but allowed him to stand up and speak his mind not only about the hazards of pesticides but about the business opportunities for landscapers.
On Jan. 15, Kline testified at the bill’s first public hearing, citing examples of successful local organic projects and the growth he has experienced in providing environmentally-friendly services.
“The results I’ve seen in my landscaping business show that lawns can be green and healthy at a reasonable cost while keeping people and pets healthy by avoiding the use of pesticides. I strongly recommend the county council to pass Bill 52-14 so our county can continue to set an example for other counties across the United States and be the safest, cleanest and healthiest community where people want to live and work,” he said during the hearing.
A second hearing was held Feb. 12 and Kline said he has “no doubt” that the bill will pass. He cites issues with the bill however: one is that the ban will exempt playing fields and parks where children play; and that there is a “sunset clause” that the bill will expire in 2019; issues that will hopefully be decided later this summer, he said.
Through his work, Kline has enjoyed getting to know Chip Osborne, who led a series of workshops in nearby Takoma Park, Md. to help educate the public about natural and organic lawn care last fall. Kline also maintains a relationship with Paul Tukey, author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual,” who pointed him to the NOFA Organic Land Care Program for accreditation. Kline was accredited in 2014 at the Philadelphia, Pa. course.
“I like to surround myself with experts,” said Kline. “People say, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know,’ but I believe it’s really ‘who knows you,’” said Kline, who attributes networking as a major key to his success. “I was very gung ho when I started out, always in the streets, introducing myself and letting people know about what I was doing, and becoming part of groups where I could meet influential people.”
            Among these is the president of STIHL Inc. After extensive research into what battery-powered equipment he wanted to purchase for his company, Kline chose STIHL and discovered their president loved to play bagpipes. Kline purchased bagpipe cufflinks on the Internet, hand wrote a letter of introduction explaining his business plan and desire to purchase STIHL equipment, and sent it out. Shortly thereafter he received a personal phone call from company president Fred Whyte, who thanked him for the gift and arranged for a personal meeting with himself and other executives.
“After realizing I was the real deal, they donated equipment that helped get us started,” said Kline. Through other STIHL connections, Kline learned about PLANET, the professional landcare networking group for land care professionals, and STIHL’s Independent We Stand, a movement supporting locally owned businesses.
Kline has been featured in industry magazines such as Turf Magazine and in national STIHL advertisements for battery-powered equipment. Kline’s roommate also runs a video production company, DC Visionaries, and is working on a documentary about the pesticide-banning bill.
            “These relationships have tremendously bumped up my success. Just reaching out to the executives at Stihl for instance has grown my business ten-fold,” he said.
            Using solar, battery-powered equipment has also provided Kline a niche in the ever-changing and growing landscape industry just outside of Washington, D.C., where he says people are progressive and business opportunities are plentiful.
            “The biggest benefit is the noise reduction. The benefits to the business owner are huge – it’s very marketable, it saves money, there are no fuel or maintenance costs for the gas engines, they’re easy to start and operate and there is no pollution – my crews can talk on their cell phones while they’re out in the field,” he said. “And it’s clean for them, they’re not inhaling emissions. For the client, an additional benefit is that a client working remotely from home may be in the middle of a conference call when we show up to mow. The biggest compliment we get from our clients is ‘we didn’t even know you were here’ and then they see the finished cut and love the result. I believe battery-powered equipment will be mainstream within five years, because of these benefits.”
            Kline has a practical and realistic view of the future. “The good thing is the grass is always going to grow and someone will have to cut it. It definitely affects property values. And people are becoming more and more conscientious about the environment. They’re looking at how contractors are handling that. We are setting examples that I believe others will start to follow.”
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Going Organic in Decorah, Iowa

The Fischers’ Commitment to Net Zero Energy, Native Plants & Organic Vegetables

Photo Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange 
Caption: Robert and Julie Fischer are fulfilling their longtime dream of living in an energy-efficient home surrounded by organic gardens, native plants and orchard trees in Decorah, Iowa.
By Kathy Litchfield
DECORAH, IOWA – When asked why she and her husband choose organic methods, Julie Fischer had a question of her own: “Is there any other way?”
            Since the 1970s, Julie and Robert Fischer perked up listening to Rachel Carson and Sandra Steingraber. The more they learned about the broader effects of chemicals put onto lawns and gardens seeping into groundwater and leaving stripped soil and toxins behind, the more convinced they became that they had to choose another, more natural way. 

            “We lived in Kansas for about 30 years and became good friends with The Land Institute. We went to a lot of lectures and gathered lots of information there,” said Julie. “That further convinced us that there were really good ways of living with nature without poisoning ourselves and others including our natural insects that can be helpful in growing our crops naturally.”
            The Fischers moved to Iowa in 2003 and to Decorah in 2010 and embarked upon constructing a nearly net zero energy home complete with passive solar heating, a mini-split-heat pump system, concrete floors that absorb and retain heat and south-facing windows. Rob spent years researching how to build energy efficient homes before they even started looking for a good building site and an architect whose philosophy lined up with their goals and desires.
            “Among our goals were to be in a place where we could walk to most things we wanted to do, close to recreational trails. And to have good southern exposure, a straight roof line for solar panels, south-facing windows . . .” said Julie.
            “We really notice the effects of passive solar on our house in the wintertime, on sunny days when it may be 0° outside but toasty warm in our living room,” said Rob. “Although we have a gas-fired high-efficiency boiler for in-floor heat during very cold weather, we use our mini-split heat pump when it is only moderately cold. It’s 26 degrees outside right now and it’s comfortable in here. We’re using credits we accumulate with our utility for the energy produced from the sun with the aid of our rooftop photovoltaic system!”
            Immediately after constructing their home, the Fischers started thinking about landscaping. Their yard was all torn up and loaded with clay fill. Being just 44 feet wide by 110 feet back, they decided to plant almost all of the available space with vegetables, orchard trees, natives and perennial flowers.
            The Fischers met Jeff Scott of Driftless Gardens, who is a brand new NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (CT course, 2014) at an Iowa home show where he had a booth. Scott had heard about the Fischers’ innovative building and began working with them in February of 2013.
            “As part of their home construction, they were pretty mindful about using net zero
construction practices and they were invested in carrying that same idea to their landscape,” said Scott, whose background includes organic farming and youth education as well as horticulture.
            Working closely with the Fischers, Scott helped them put together a standard site design including food production, native plantings, water management and access and not putting too much into the small space, “so that it still felt and acted like a functional and beautiful space.”
            Scott used pavers to install a long, steady ramp approach up to the house from the city sidewalk, and advised the Fischers on native prairie plants and shrubs they could use in the surrounding area. They purchased some of their plants from Scott, who also maintains a propagation greenhouse.      
            Robert and Julie’s backyard features six espaliered heirloom apple trees with a mix of early, mid-season and late maturing varieties, two pear trees, raspberries, one aronia shrub and a diverse selection of their favorite vegetables including okra, tomatoes, beets, peppers, arugula, eggplant and broccoli. Beans climbed trellises all summer long; they had a wonderful rhubarb patch; shared their overwhelming broccoli harvest with their neighbors; and grew plenty of garlic and onions. Two big rainwater barrels collect roof runoff water they use in the gardens and for houseplants; they have a worm composter for their kitchen scraps; and regularly feed a huge compost pile in the backyard too.
In the front yard, Robert sourced limestone and glacial erratic stones and planted sedums and succulents between the stones, added oregano and other herbs and perennial flowers. He built retaining walls further out along the sides of the ramp for raised beds of kale, basil and other herbs and edibles along with the prairie forbs and greasses.
            “People stopped by and asked what our weird looking palm trees were,” laughedJulie,” well that was our kale, until the deer mowed them down.”
            One day Julie, a retired nurse, came home from work at the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center, where she is volunteer coordinator of special events and “community conversations” on important issues including immigration and urban gardening, to find Rob digging what looked like graves in the backyard.
            “He had decided to dig down to where the good soil was, beneath the hardpan of clay left by the big machinery that had tamped it down. He dug about four feet down and was up to his hips in there,” she laughed.
The Fischers have only a few small strips of lawn left on their property, which they mow using a reel push mower, to the surprise of their neighbors’ little girl who accused them of “not mowing right because there wasn’t any noise.”
            The Fischers’ efforts to convert lawn to gardens were quickly noticed by Seed Savers Exchange, located a few miles away, who took photographs of the Fischers’ property they plan to run in their spring catalogue.
            Rob, who is a German to English translator, serves on the local tree board and at the city’s municipal prairie – river bottom land that had been used for agriculture and was converted into a prairie attracting butterflies, birds and native species. The Fischers formerly used community garden plots before transforming their backyard into gardens and plan to use them again next year for spreading plants like winter squash and sweet potatos.
            “This is a wonderful place to do this kind of gardening. Everyone’s so positive about it and many people have gardens in their front yards now,” said Julie. “This is really a widespread trend, surely influenced in part by Seed Savers Exchange being close by. If you look out our back windows, three of our neighbors have vegetable gardens. There’s a lot going on here!”
            Most rewarding for the Fischers is the feeling of satisfaction knowing they are not contributing to the “culture of poisoning things.” “We’re reacting against that, just growing things the way they should grow and getting joy out of it,” said Rob.
            Julie and Rob love when neighbors pass by and stop to talk and visit; they also love the physical work of getting their hands in the dirt, stretching their backs and inhaling the rich, heady scent of good compost.
            The couple, living what they dreamed about for so long, hopes to be able to sit back and admire their hard work as their plants get more established. “Sometimes I look outside and Rob’s just standing there, looking at things,” said Julie. “Maybe this year we’ll do more of that!”


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Going Organic in Riverside, CT: Worry-Free Status of Yard Pleases Organic-Savvy Homeowner

Going Organic in Riverside, CT
Worry-Free Status of Yard Pleases Organic-Savvy Homeowner
By Kathy Litchfield

            Twenty years ago, Clara Park was in graduate school in California, eating organic eggs and vegetables. She and her husband were studying English and wanted to live what she called “environmentally responsible” lives.
            “We wanted to be environmentally conscious and didn’t even want a house for a long time. We lived in the city without a car and we thought that was a good thing to do,” said Park, an east coast native who lived in Texas, Washington D.C. and New York City before moving to Connecticut. “When we moved here, we thought if we were going to have a house, we wanted to choose responsible methods of caring for it.”

            While her husband began law school at Yale, the first thing she did was to seek out an organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm share.
She then read lots of articles and researched organic lawn care methods. She and her husband wanted to leave grass clippings on the lawn, leave autumn leaves where they fell and take care of stormwater runoff.
            “I talked to the lawn care man who worked here for the previous owner and asked if he could leave the grass clippings but he said their machines weren’t built to do that,” said Park. “I wanted the grass to grow longer and be cut less often as it was better for the soil. So I started looking online.”
            Park found Mike Papa of Artscape Organic-Care, LLC on a google search. She was impressed with his seven-year NOFA accreditation status and appreciated his can-do attitude and commitment to organics from their very first meeting.
            “Mr. Papa is really amazing. He’ll talk to you about anything and has lots of logical things to say,” said Park.
The 20-year previous owner of Park’s property was an avid gardener and perennials flourished and looked perfect , she said. In addition the lawn was green and well-groomed by a conventional lawn care company. 
“It looked really great but there wasn’t enough organic matter in the lawn. Some of the plants were too crowded together and diseases could spread. Mr. Papa had a lot of observations that were really helpful,” she said.  “He told us it was all about the health of the soil and how we could improve that.”
Papa said that a state of the art soil testing program as well as testing of the plant tissue was key, as was selecting appropriate grass seeds for Park’s lawn.
“Clara’s property has many plants  and we did lot of trimming to allow appropriate habitats for turf and ornamentals, following her budget,” said Papa. “I always tell my clients we use some calcium nitrate (in our natural blends) strategically, to provide extra slow release nitrogen in spring to promote growth. Stewardship skills are key to avoiding the use of pesticides.”  
Six years later, Park said the lawn grows lushly in spring and holds its own while the summer sun beats down upon it.
While hot temperatures in August and September challenged the sprinkler system this year, she said Mike and his crew returned as often as necessary to help them work with the sprinkler company to adjust the watering.
“Also they’ve been taking out crabgrass and re-seeding the subsequent bare patches. We have a lot of clover in the back that we don’t mind, but are trying to keep the front clear for the neighbors – though we haven’t weeded much this year!,” she said. “The back was a disaster after Hurricane Sandy, blew over a huge oak that knocked down two others, but my husband dug a pond and Mr. Papa landscaped it for us.” 
The Park’s backyard features a beautiful 30-foot-long pond where goldfish – some five years old and reproducing – swim in the midst of grasses and flowers. Clara’s husband enjoys walking out to the pond at night and feeding the goldfish, and her 10-year-old daughter loves to walk their pet cat, Delphine, on a leash around the backyard.
A cat on a leash? One reason this is important to Clara is that she loves watching and listening to the numerous birds inhabiting their one-third of an acre.
Robins, jays, cardinals, doves, blackbirds and hummingbirds frequent her yard more regularly since she started organic land care and installed the pond, and that makes for a beautiful landscape to gaze at from the windows of  her home.
“I just like Mr. Papa so much. I like how he thinks about the yard. I don’t worry about how it looks. I have total faith in him and he just takes care of everything,” she said.
Papa said he enjoys the peace of mind he is able to bring to clients like Park.      
“The customer likes me so much from the simple fact that we care, are honest, and there is peace of mind (in knowing) that we work in a pesticide free zone,” he said. “My goal is to always work toward a balance in all we do, in addition to our observations and intuitions.”
Park said her yard “doesn’t have to look perfect, because it is healthy.”
“When we moved here I expected more people would be into organic lawn care, but a lot of people just want the service and don’t think about the methods. I know our yard looks great most of the time, and that it stays healthier longer. I’m confident that everything is ok and I don’t have to worry about it. Mr. Papa looks out for the health of everything!”