Thursday, November 21, 2013

Out & About with AOLCPs

Feature on Mike McCleese

By Kathy Litchfield

For Mike McCleese, finding NOFA was like “fitting into an old shoe.” His Cincinnati-based landscaping company was non-chemical but all of the pieces weren’t coming together until he found himself ensconced in the Rhode Island accreditation course in 2006.

“I can’t tell you how happy I was. In some ways it was like winning the lottery,” he said, admitting his reservations. “I’d been in the business for several years at that point and realized that sometimes there’s a big difference between lofty goals and making a living. But what I found at NOFA was a whole lot of people just like me, trying to make organics work for their businesses. Spending a week with people at an OLC workshop was like slipping into an old pair of comfortable shoes.”

McCleese, a self-described “stressed out social worker” in the 90’s, discovered his passion for plants while working part-time for a woman’s landscaping company. Three days a week, he listened intently and learned about plants as living organisms. Over a few years, he realized his true passion was landscape design and he asked himself a question that changed his life.

“What would make me happiest in life?” he asked himself, and decided, “a dog, a shovel and a truck.” McCleese founded his business, A Guy & His Dog Landscaping, in 1996. After feeling his skin itching from spreading chemical pre-emergents all day he gradually stopped using chemicals and by 2001 was completely chemical-free.  Attending the NOFA OLC course in 2006 was the next big step for McCleese.

“Incorporating organic land care principles into my operation was an awesome feeling. I felt like I was doing the right thing for the environment, my clients, my employees, pets, and myself. I started to advertise as chemical-free and got people who were interested in that. Some were fully on board with organics, knowing that that was what they wanted and others were at least interested in the idea,” he said.

After the NOFA accreditation course, McCleese returned to Ohio refreshed and ready to further incorporate organics into his offerings. “I was so inspired when I came back that I couldn’t wait to integrate some of what I’d learned,” he said. “I wasted no time getting NOFA materials together, changed the way I did consultations and started really sharing what I’d learned with my clients. Now I won’t do a job with someone unless they have a consultation with me first, half of which is about organic principles. As far as making a living, it’s working out.”

At the height of his business, McCleese employed seven people and over the last 17 years, established meaningful relationships and partnerships with many people and organizations in the industry. At one point he tried to start an OLC program in Ohio and although he met some resistance and discovered that many weren’t ready for a completely organic program, he is hopeful that organics will continue to grow in the Midwest.  

Today he is operating a solo practice in landscape design, focusing on sustainability. He has won awards for his gardens, especially at the Cincinnati Flower and Garden show and is one of the editors of a sustainable landscaping book that will include principles of organic land care. He designs master plans for properties, working closely with clients, and integrates a specialized team of professionals including an award winning master stone mason who uses local materials, an eco-friendly irrigation specialist, a contractor who specializes in hardscaping and finish carpentry, and an organic CSA farmer who helps him source edibles into his designs. McCleese works on a lot of urban sites with tight spacing and is into succession planting, rainwater harvesting, edible landscapes, water features, dry laid stone masonry, and native plantings.

McCleese grew up in Southern Ohio, where “everyone had a garden, usually the typical square rectangle in the backyard.” He graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts degree in the social and biological sciences and served in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic before beginning a social services career. Later he studied landscape horticulture at Cincinnati State College and attended workshops and seminars around the country including with British garden designer Robin Templar Williams, Julie Moir Messervy and Mike Linn, landscape architect. He loves to travel and visit gardens around the world. McCleese has a passion for landscape design and loves to find inspiration in unlikely places.

“I’m also inspired by the permaculture movement. I think when all of these disciplines come together (sustainability, organics, permaculture, good design) we’re going to see fantastic changes in the American landscape,” he said. “I see it happening now, even here in the Midwest. Most of the calls I get are people who know about sustainable initiatives or are interested in what I have to say.”

McCleese’s voice saddens as he talks about leaving Ohio for his beloved 20 acres of land north of Montpelier, Vt., where he relocated last month. His house, constructed mostly from trees cleared on site, is off-the-grid, and powered by solar and wind. The property is located on a trail and only accessible by snowmobile in the winter.  McCleese says he is up to the challenge even though Cincinnati receives an average of 24 inches of snow annually as opposed to 140 inches in the mountains of Central Vermont!

“I spent nearly 20 years collaborating and building an awesome landscape team here in Cincinnati but I’m ready for a new adventure.  I’m very fortunate. I’m looking forward to sitting on the back of my property and staring out at Hunger Mountain for hours on end. While I’m contemplating the universe, I’ll definitely be spending time thinking about how to build a sustainable design practice in Vermont,” he laughed. “I built a real niche business in Cincinnati and things are starting to happen at a rapid pace here. . . turning away from that and embracing Vermont has definitely been bittersweet.  But, I am reminded of the movie ‘Field of Dreams’.  If we build sustainable businesses based on NOFA principles, people will find us and trust our leadership. They will come!”

McCleese hopes to work with other AOLCPs and NOFA Vermont once established in the Green Mountain State and he’d like to offer educational presentations on organic land care.
He has progressed from a truck, shovel and one dog to a well-established business and three dogs: 15-year-old Gabe, Lucy-Lou Ricardo and a rescue, Sheamus O’Keefe, who will keep him company as he plans his next steps.

Traveling and experiencing other cultures is a passion for him - last year in Cuba he studied urban organic agriculture and next summer he is planning a trip to France where he and a friend will explore gardens and the chateaus of the Loire Valley.

“I think that NOFA and the OLC program are one vital piece of a large puzzle which is shaping our planet’s future,” he said. “...some of the NOFA principles I’ve studied, especially fairness and ecology, will change the way human beings live on the planet and I’m grateful for getting to be a part of the shift.”

For more info, contact McCleese at