Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Organic Landscaping Course Addresses Growing Need for Chemical-Free Experts

Four Day Course at USM Accredits Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs)

Landscaping professionals transitioning to organic practices, and those already using chemical-free options who want to learn more, are invited to attend a NOFA OLC 30-hour professional training course at the University of Southern Maine, Portland on August 15, 16, 22, & 23, 2016, and sit for the accreditation exam. 
Since 2002, The NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care has been the definitive professional training course for landscapers, lawn care specialists, municipal groundskeepers, landscape architects and environmental educators to learn and adopt best practices for caring for the land without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Attendees who pass the accreditation exam on August 23 become Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs), joining over 500 NOFA AOLCPs in 20 states, including 8 in Maine.

Landscaping professionals in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and other New England states increasingly consider this course a savvy investment in distinguishing themselves as highly trained experts in the growing market for non-toxic and organic landscaping services. 

Demand for organic land care professionals is increasing rapidly in Maine due to a growing concern about the hazards of synthetic pesticides and the adoption of ordinances banning or restricting the use of chemical pesticides on town, and sometimes private, land in twenty-seven towns including Ogunquit, Rockland and most recently, South Portland. 

After receiving requests from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Portland Protectors, and many individuals to bring the course to Maine, NOFA is pleased to announce its inaugural course dates and offer early bird registration of $695 until June 30 at

“This dynamic course is packed with an enormous amount of information delivered by some of the organic landscape industry’s most knowledgeable and engaging speakers. Business owners, organizations, and individuals alike, will benefit from this excellent value and keen marketing tool. Whether you are new to the idea of organic land care or are interested in advancing your skills to the next level, this course can meet your needs.” - Jen Dunlap, AOLCP, a Horticulturist with Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens in Boothbay and a February 2016 course graduate.

Local professionals joining the roster of notable Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care instructors include David Melevsky of Go GreenLandscaping Inc. of Scarborough, Maine who will teach “Organic Tick Control” and Paula Kovecses of The Way It Grows, a landscaping company in Eastport, Maine, will teach "Introduction to Permaculture." 

Seasoned instructors include leading organic land care industry experts Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, Michael Nadeau of Wholistic Land Care Consulting, Frank Crandall of Frank Crandall Horticultural Solutions, and Paul Wagner of GreenerPastures Organics. The curriculum includes soil health and proper soil testing, site analysis, green stormwater infrastructure, plant care and organic turf.

The course runs from 8:00am - 5:00pm each day and can accommodate up to 60 students. The early bird registration fee of $695 includes all course materials, lunch, the final exam and 2016 Accreditation. Group discounts and payment plans are available. 

For more details including a course curriculum, and to register, contact the Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA) office at 203-308-2584 or visit

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Guest Post by Sarah Little, Ph.D.: Shinrin-yoku: Landscaping for Personal, Public and Planetary Health

Some people claim that a nice looking lawn adds $10,000 to the value of your home. In fact, your outdoor real estate has a value to you far above this miserly amount. “Health is wealth” and your yard, in addition to looking beautiful, can contribute to the health of yourself, your family, your neighbors, your town, even your planet. To understand how this is done, it helps to look at your yard in a very different way than you are used to. The land, water, air, plants, animals and soil under your care actually comprise an entire living ecosystem. This ecosystem is composed of plants, mammals, amphibians, birds, but also trillions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and a myriad of tiny soil creatures like pill bugs, nematodes and springtails. All these living organisms are linked together in both fierce competition and fantastic cooperation through the complex cycling and recycling of nutrient, waste and energy.

Biodiversity is the variety and spice of life; it is also its bank account and health insurance. It is a measure of how many different interacting species are in an ecosystem. Generally speaking, the more the better. Systems with high biodiversity are more able to withstand outside invaders and environmental insults like drought, flood, and pollution. It is not just rare species that are valuable, every living thing in an ecosystem counts.

Ecological landscapers use the concept of diverse, healthy ecosystems adapted to local climate and soil to manage properties as a whole, giving us the most stable, attractive and useful landscapes with the least amount of maintenance effort, cost, water use and material input. This is an incredibly powerful concept. It differs significantly from the way most suburban landscapes are currently managed, where the focus is on large inputs of fertilizer, pesticide and water to grow a single species (turfgrass), and on continually treating the same individual pests and diseases year after year.

When we cultivate a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem suited to our own town's local soil and climate, the depth and breadth of services our yard can provide us are truly astonishing. The physical processes alone are invaluable, including carbon sequestration, aquifer replenishment, water purifying, air purifying, nutrient recycling, composting, soil building, and residential home cooling in summer. Even our neighbors and town can benefit from our yard, through cleaner air and water. The value of these services alone far out-weighs the cost a taxpayer would have to fork out for a town’s DPW to do the same. Just ask NYC, who found it cost effective to protect natural land in their watershed rather than build expensive water filtration infrastructure. How about keeping pets? Our little biological friends we enjoy so much, the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bats and pollinator species, now live happily in the shelter that our plants have created, eating the food our ecosystem is generating, managing our pest insects, and being cleaned up after by our tiny composting organisms. All this enjoyment you get for free, compared to the upwards of $3,000 annual cost of owning a dog.

Most importantly perhaps, we ourselves now have an outdoor sanctuary where we can rest, relax, play and experience nature. The Japanese have a word for this, shinrin-yoku, the simple practice of enhancing health by going outside to visualize, touch, listen to, and quite literally inhale nature. It means essentially to bathe in biodiversity. Studies show this to be good for our health in ways we don’t even understand yet. In fact, our yard full of green plants, trees, and grass can help reduce not only our, but our neighbors’ mortality from cancer. A recent national study found that women whose lives are surrounded by greenness from plants, within 250 m of a home, have a 12% reduction in cancer mortality compared to those who live surrounded by man-made structures.

There’s more. Did you know that you are an ecosystem yourself? Your gut is inhabited by hundreds of species of bacteria, your skin by thousands of species. These bacteria are most often in a highly beneficial mutual relationship with us, or are at least living a non-harmful coexistence. Science is just beginning to understand how these microbiota influence our health. As Michael Pollan put it, “the implications of what has already been learned, for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate. Human health should now be thought of… as a function of the community, not the individual.”

This might be hard to take in, but, you are a part of your yard’s ecosystem, and it is part of yours. The microbial life in your soil is related to the microbial life on your skin, the same for your gut. Remarkably, this is an exceptionally good thing; this is how humans evolved to live so successfully in this complex ecosystem we call the world. These tiny cells help protect us from infections, digest our food, influence our appetites and help our immune systems. In fact, new studies have linked higher environmental biodiversity in the surroundings of people’s homes to fewer skin allergies. Your beautiful, biodiverse yard really can make you and your family healthier.

On the dark side, because there always is a dark side, since we are all connected to your yard, it means that the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers you put on your lawn are also in your body, in your family, in your neighbors, and in the town’s air and water. These chemicals don’t just affect the grubs, or the dandelions, or the crab grass, they affect every single one of the trillion organisms that make up your yard’s ecosystem, including you. In humans, these chemicals are carcinogens (EPA lists 70 carcinogenic pesticides, including herbicides, fungicides, pre-emergents and insecticides available to purchase in the U.S.), and reproductive, neural, and developmental toxins. In your yard’s ecosystem, they are a disaster, decimating the microbial, fungal and beneficial insect populations, killing all plants except grass, and disrupting normal soil processes that support plant health. This lifeless yard now needs constant inputs of fertilizers and water in order to support the single species you have left, turfgrass. Instead of having a yard that supports your health and sense of well-being you now have a yard that increases your risk of chronic disease.

Ecological and organic properties come in all styles, from Paul Newman’s exquisitely managed weed-free organic estate in Connecticut to my inexpensive, stress-free, beautiful little organic freedom lawn in Wellesley. What they have in common is summarized below in the “Checklist for an Eco-Friendly Property” below.

And of course, each yard makes a difference to the planet. In the U.S. alone, lawns make up 49,000 sq mi, making it the nation's largest irrigated crop. What we do with our own yards matters a lot. By creating a biodiverse property, or simply helping it to create itself, your ecologically managed yard will make us all healthier. Experience your own shinrin-yoku - step outside onto your lush, green, organic lawn; see the monarch butterfly alight on your milkweed; hear the sparrows chirping in their nest; take a breath of pure, fresh air; feel the sun, feel the connection; and savor a deep sense of satisfaction about your thoughtful care of this small piece of the world under your feet.

Checklist for an eco-friendly property

Keep pesticides off your lawn and gardens. Using only non-toxic materials on your property reduces the health risk to yourself, your family, your neighbors and your local environment.

Use non-synthetic fertilizers from natural sources. Synthetic fertilizers are made in a chemical process that uses fossil fuel and contributes to global warming. Use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer greatly increase the amount of nitrogen entering the global nitrogen cycle which has a serious negative impact on the organization and functioning of the world’s ecosystems, including accelerating the loss of biological diversity and decline of coastal marine ecosystems and fisheries. The use of synthetic phosphorus fertilizers has its own set of problems, in particular its contribution to the growth of pondweeds in fresh water lakes and ponds, and the limited global supply of phosphate rock.

Reduce water use. In many cities in the Northeast, 50% of the drinking water goes to lawns and landscapes. Over 75% of Massachusetts’ rivers are flow stressed during the summer because of water withdrawals for these residential uses.

Increase biodiversity. Biodiversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem on any scale, from backyard to global. Biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystems, reduces the need for intervention, and makes them, from an aesthetic viewpoint, much more interesting. The earth is currently losing species at a rate that rivals mass extinctions in our geologic record.

Care properly for your lawn... Mow high, 3”-4”; leave grass clippings on lawn; water infrequently, if at all; encourage a bit of white clover; fertilize lightly with compost; and seed bares spots in fall and early spring. Rake your lawn, but not your woods: let leaves, nature’s own mulch, stay and compost in place.

Grow food. Organically raised fruits and vegetables, grown close to home, will become more valuable as current trends in climate change, energy cost and availability and human health play out in the future. Organic practices allow edible and decorative plants to be grown together. There are many ways to incorporate food plants and vegetable gardens into your landscape. Blueberry bushes are native, decorative and delicious. Many fancy lettuces are as pretty as annuals.

Make and use compost. Compost has many advantages as a soil amendment and it is less likely to cause pollution of the local and regional environment than fertilizers, even organic ones. Incorporating compost improves turf, shrub and shade tree performance in marginal or poor soils. Good quality compost improves soil structure, reduces runoff and compaction, enhances biodiversity, increases water and nutrient retention, increases microbial activity, supplies nutrients, helps suppress and prevent plant diseases, detoxifies certain pesticides, and inactivates and kills potential human pathogens.

Remove invasive plants. Invasive plants grow quickly and spread easily and often reduce the biodiversity of whole ecosystems. Learn about invasive plants, how to avoid spreading them, and how to remove them from your own property.

Garden with native plants. Native plants are site adapted and usually require little to no watering, fertilizing or pesticides. Stunning gardens can be made from entirely native plants. Since native plants are, well, native, it’s best to find a local conservation group who works with natives.

Test your soil. If you want your property to look its best, to save money, and to protect the environment even more, do an easy soil test before you apply anything at all. A soil-testing lab will help you figure out how much of which fertilizers and nutrients to apply for optimum results.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

by Jenna Messier, NOFA OLC Program Director

Last Spring, NOFA OLC held a Permaculture Design Workshop at my house, since my .1 acre property provided so many common design and landscape challenges for the landscaper to ponder.

Most prominently, we had major stormwater issues, with the concrete driveway falling apart and the basement leaking.  In addition, we had an over abundance of concrete pathways in the yard, taking away valuable growing space. My husband had been parking his truck on 1/4 of the yard space- a practice which I was officially ending on the day of the workshop - which led to compaction and probably small amounts of oil and automotive fluids leaking into the mixture of gravel and sand.

On the more fun and functional side, we were interested in designing the yard to maximize usage of space so humans had a place to lounge and grill, a kid could run through a sprinkler, and ornamental and vegetable plants were well-placed. I also wanted to incorporate the rabbit hutch and future chicken house into the yard, where they would be best suited.

Former parking space now veggie gardens
At this point, I will remind the reader that I am an average homeowner who has very few hours to give to these projects, so I have accepted that all of these modifications will take a few years to complete.  I thought I would share a few of the proposed design changes which students had provided during our workshop to both demonstrate best practices and tell the real story of how practical and costly they really have been.

1. Soil Testing - Prior to the workshop, I was pretty upset to learn that my soil had 900ppm lead, which made it unhealthy to harvest any root veggies or leafy greens from the soil.  However, knowledge is power, so we decided that the most important change we could make was to design raised beds and place them in the old parking space. There is one 15 foot raised bed which cost around $350 to build and fill with soil and compost.  The second set of hoops covers 4 long rectangular planters which offer mobility if I want to move them. I also have cool weather crops like greens and chives in the planters.  The large raised bed produced spinach, arugula and mixed greens all winter.  I planted carrots and potatoes one month ago and just started some tomatoes last weekend.

The old vegetable garden would became lawn, with a few perennials like echinacea, day lillies and rudbeckia "herbstonne" around the outside border. Just this spring, I added a raised bed wooden box and transplanted my black raspberries since they were getting a little unwieldy.  I also have a box of garlic, which I will move someday.  I have to admit, I am pretty impressed with my lawn which I planted with a seed mix called Tuff Turf and microclover from Good Nature Organic Lawn Care. This photograph also shows some of the old concrete pathways which will be removed at a later date. (It's on the list.)
Old veggie garden now lawn, berries on left
Side view, gravel has replaced concrete

Compost Manager 
Worms galore!
2.  Composting and Animals - Go Hand in Hand!  I have one cute angora rabbit named Stephano.  He is an easy pet to take care of, and relatively cheap to feed at about $15 per month. I use sterilized straw to line his cage and all of the straw, manure and urine go into the compost and really get it cooking! 131 degrees for 3 days is easily achieved. I plan on having 4 chickens for eggs and their compost contributions, but the chicken coop is nothing more than a wooden frame and an item on the To-Do list at this time.

The animal cages and outdoor run are situated along the outside edge of the property to maximize space and to utilize the windbreak which the solid fence provides in the winter. The compost bins were moved next to the tunnels last summer, but I think I will be moving them again so I can plant a paw paw tree in the sunny southern corner of the lot.  I figure that by moving the compost, it is improving the soil in multiple places.

To maximize compost production, I collect bags of leaves from my neighbors in the fall, and keep them for shredding and adding to my compost pile all year round.  My newest toy is a paper shredder which allows me to create carbon-rich, shredded paper, made from junk mail and out-of date paperwork, to balance out the kitchen scraps and manure in the piles. You want a 30:1 ratio of browns to greens, on average. Composting is so rewarding: you use your own waste products to create an excellent soil conditioner and fertilizer for your lawn and gardens. I estimate that my two bins create 20, 5 gallon buckets of finished compost per year.  My goal is to not have to buy any bags of soil or compost, but for now I need about 10 bags per year for containers and over-seeding the lawn.

Jenna's House - with New Gravel areas in red
3. Ripping up the driveway - the elephant in the room:  Honestly, I don't think we would have undergone the expense and time of ripping up the driveway if it had not started caving in. Yet, it is a best practice to manage your stormwater on site and allow it to infiltrate on your own property. This is especially true in my neighborhood which is only a mile or so from Long Island Sound, where runoff from our roof, lawn and driveway often go into the street and into the storm drain.  The picture on right is a garden design by one of the groups who attended the Permaculture Design Workshop last year.  I use it here to show in red the area which was concrete and is now gravel.The blue area was previously gravel and the green areas are under demolition this year.

I also wanted to share the costs of such a project.  It cost around $6000 to remove the concrete, haul it away, pay for dumping fees, 3 days labor, gravel and stone dust, and rent the excavator.  I am lucky to have a husband who was willing to take this project on. (Or maybe he just didn't want his trucks falling into the sink hole!)

So I want people to feel empowered to make small, medium and large changes to our landscapes for both personal enjoyment, like having a grape arbor and using it for summer shade, and to benefit the environment, like growing flowers for pollinators.  If all you can do this year, is over-seed your lawn with a packet of microclover to fill in the bare spots, adding a plant that will provide free nitrogen to your lawn, then that is just all you can do and it's good enough!


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Fight Against Artificial Turf in Middletown, CT

By: Thomas Christopher
Middletown, CT

It was a rare success, notes Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc.: While synthetic turf fields are popping up all over Connecticut, residents of Middletown turned back a proposal by their city to create 9 synthetic turf playing fields.  As such, it’s worth studying how the Middletown activists mounted their campaign.

Alderman’s organization, a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harms, has been raising the alarm about the recycling of tires as play surfaces for several years.  As Alderman points out, in some states, used and discarded tires are regulated as a hazardous waste; in Connecticut, they are treated as a “special waste” that, by law, cannot be disposed of in landfills.  That’s just common sense, because as they decompose tires release heavy metals such as lead and zinc, a variety of carcinogens such as carbon black and benzene, and other toxic compounds that are as yet poorly understood.

Yet grind these same tires  up into fine crumbs – enhancing the rate at which they release their toxic contents -- and they can be used as in-fill for the synthetic turf fields on which your children play sports.    Indeed, such fields have in recent years been popping up all over Connecticut, despite the resistance of local environmental groups.
The struggle in Middletown began with a largely uncontroversial parks bond referendum.  This was to be placed before the voters in November on 2015 and was to secure funding for 10 years worth of improvements to recreational spaces, including a new pool, new exercise and walking trails, bike paths, a splash pad-spray park and playground, and a dog park.  But even before the text of the referendum was officially released for public scrutiny in early August, 2015, environmental watchdogs had learned that it would include funds to install nine synthetic turf fields.

These activists were unusually well organized thanks to an environmentally oriented local 501(c)(3) non-profit, the Jonah Center.  In 2011, with a $1,000 grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, it had founded ECoIN – the Environmental Collective Impact Network – to serve as a clearing house for Middletown’s environmental organizations.  Currently, it includes some eleven such groups, ranging from the local garden club to the city of Middletown’s Recycling Commission, and the representatives of each meet once a month to discuss common concerns.  Thanks to members from the city government, EcoIN had an early warning of the proposal to install the synthetic turf fields.  Opposition began immediately, with ECoIN members coordinating so that there would be minimal duplication of efforts and a systematic strategy.

The activists recognized that education would be the key to a successful campaign.  Initially they had to educate themselves and for this they turned to a number of sources, in particular Environment and Human Health, Inc. which has been collecting information about the dangers of synthetic turf fields for a number of years. 

After educating themselves, the ECoIN members began meeting privately with members of the Middletown Common Council to share their concerns with them.   The activists also created fact sheets about synthetic turf targeted at different groups; on a sports night meeting at the local high school, for example, they distributed a fact sheet especially aimed at the parents of student athletes.  Eventually they addressed the general public, sponsoring a booth at an outdoor festival and collecting signatures on a petition requesting that the city eliminate the synthetic turf fields from the referendum.  Three hundred signatures were collected in a single day. representing a number of voters sufficient to sway a local election and proof to the Common Council members that interest in the issue was intense.

Defenders of synthetic turf insist that while the crumb rubber typically used as infill in synthetic turf is contaminated with a variety of toxins, no definitive studies have as yet proven that the resulting risk to children through inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion is at an unacceptable level.  The response of the Middletown activists was to ask parents and the city government if they wanted to make their children the subjects of a toxicology experiment.  In addition, using data taken from synthetic turf industry websites, the activists called into question the economics of the artificial fields, which would cost $850,000 to $1,000,000 each to install, and which would require extensive specialized maintenance and replacement typically after just 10 years of use.

Despite opposition from Middletown sports clubs, this lobbying paid off.  First the Common Council agreed (in a tie vote with the city’s mayor serving as the tie-breaker) to rewrite the referendum and substitute natural turf fields for the synthetic versions.  The environmentalists then rallied to the support of the referendum, which synthetic turf supporters tried to keep off the ballot.  Finally, on election day, the environmentalists handed out fact sheets outside the polling places, persuading voters to support the referendum.   Thanks in part to these efforts, the referendum passed and the city won funding for the parks and public spaces upgrades it was seeking – at a better price, due to the elimination of the costly synthetic turf.

Grassroots activism is a learning process, with practitioners constantly improving and updating strategies and skills.  What brought success in the campaign against synthetic turf will undoubtedly be re-applied to other, future campaigns.