Thursday, December 19, 2013

Patty Laughlin Integrates Edibles into Every Landscape

Out & About with AOLCPs

Patty Laughlin Integrates Edibles into Every Landscape

 By Kathy Litchfield

EPPING, N.H. – Every landscape Patty Laughlin plants has at least one low-bush blueberry. She considers the blueberry a “gateway fruit” as it is low maintenance, easy to grow and delicious, and seems to quickly lead to a client’s discovery of other wonderful edible plants. 

Even if clients don’t ask for edible landscaping, she finds a way to integrate something low maintenance that will provide food for wildlife as well as the humans inhabiting the land.

“I’ve always focused on edible gardening. My dad was a master gardener when I was growing up and we always had a big vegetable garden and lots of fruit trees and berry bushes. I didn’t know how spoiled I was until I went to college,” she laughed. “Blueberries are native, so easy to grow, and edibles are so engaging for people in a landscape. The level of interaction you create between the humans and animals and landscape itself gets amplified when you bring edibles into the picture.”

Laughlin, a former corporate process improvement specialist (focusing on increasing efficiency) and high school science teacher, named her land care business Lorax Landscaping after the Dr. Seuss character of the same name.  She also has a blueberry incorporated into her logo.

“When I was teaching high school science and started working with kids on the environmental aspects of things, it made sense to bring Dr. Seuss into the classroom. The original cartoon was one I’d play in my science classes on Earth Day,” she said. “So when I started my company and was focusing on organics, edibles and native plants, I bounced around ideas and this is what stuck.”

The blueberry fits with her business focus of using native, perennial and edible plants.  Laughlin shared that she has been known to fall behind while hiking with her family when she spots blueberry bushes. Growing up in Maine, a favorite hiking spot was on Rumford Whitecap, where she still goes every August. “I used to make everyone dump their water bottles so I could fill them with blueberries,” she laughed, “but now I just take extra containers.”

Always a gardener, Laughlin turned her passion into a business and founded Lorax Landscaping in 2009, always focusing on edibles, natives, organic and ecological approaches. She is a New Hampshire Certified Landscape Professional, a New Hampshire Natural Resources Steward, holds a certificate in permaculture design, a degree in horticulture with a concentration on landscape operations from the University of New Hampshire and a bachelor’s degree in physics from Dartmouth College.
Most of her clients are residential or small businesses – she designed and installed landscapes for a the local gym, barber shop, several restaurants, a chiropractor and a salon – who are seeking a creative design focused on health and wellness for their landscapes, far from the cookie cutter commercial types so often seen in public places.

She uses a questionnaire to solicit the desires and ideas of her clients and finds that whether they want to grow vegetables, revitalize perennial beds or landscape their entire property, there is always a place for low maintenance ornamental perennial edibles. In fact, if she has a choice between two plants equally suited for the site conditions, she’ll always choose the edible one.

“Because it raises that level of engagement, and I’ll say, ‘oh by the way, you can eat these’ and it gets people thinking. Often times they call me for the next step, wanting more edibles,” she said. “It’s also a wonderful fit for people wanting to attract more wildlife into their yards, and a good fit with organic landscaping.”

“I think, as garden designers, we easily overlook edibles for ornamental landscaping, just because they’re categorized as edibles.  We need to remember that they can fill any of the niches an ornamental does: shade or flowering trees, shrubs for borders, hedges or screens, perennials, ground covers or vines for climbing.  And, many edibles have valuable features you can take advantage of in the landscape besides being edible.  Be careful though, the fact that a plant has edible parts doesn't excuse you from assessing its characteristics and challenges and putting the right plant in the right place,” she said.
Laughlin’s ten favorite ornamental edibles she suggests land care professionals should consider integrating into their next landscape are:  Blueberry, Beach plum, Sand cherry, Elderberry and Alpine strawberry, Pawpaw, Persimmon, Asparagus, Rhubarb and culinary herbs.

Laughlin, who took the NOFA accreditation course in Worcester, Mass. in 2012, considers herself a lifelong learner. She wanted to further her education and had long been a member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and of NOFA-NH.

“One thing I really liked about the accreditation course was that it helped reinforce things I was trying to do. It filled in the gaps in my knowledge base, exposed me to different resources and connections. And I think it really helped me with finding the right language to use in talking with clients – helping me better communicate with them about what we were trying to accomplish with the ecological approach,” she said.  She also finds the ready-made brochures and handouts helpful tools for providing information to clients.

Education remains first and foremost for Laughlin, who is an adjunct professor at the Thompson School of Applied Science at the University of New Hampshire. She has taught pest management, focused on IPM, and a soils class there, and also gives many community talks for local groups and garden clubs.

“What I enjoy most is educating and developing relationships with my clients. I don’t want to just plop in a landscape. I want them to learn along the way, why I do certain things the way I do them, why it’s important and what they can do to help. I really enjoy what I call garden coaching --- for example, teaching them to prune, why you prune when you do, what you’re looking for, helping people to identify bugs and whether they’re potential problems or being helpful,” she said. “I don’t like to do long term maintenance for my clients, it detracts from their relationship with the landscape. I’d rather teach them the skills they need to be effective.”

Laughlin’s clients hear of her mostly via word of mouth and the only marketing she does is to send an (at-least) seasonal client e-newsletter. She is at an interesting growth point in her business, wanting to expand and determine how many employees she needs and how she can stay small enough to “keep her fingers in the dirt everyday.” She envisions spending time on business growth and development over the winter months in preparation for the 2014 season.

There is no typical week for Laughlin, who keeps herself busy year-round not only with her business, but with volunteer activities including cooking at a weekly church breakfast café and playing the oboe in her local community band. (She jokes with section mates about how it would be nice to find the time to practice!)
She also serves as certification coordinator for the New Hampshire Landscape Association. For many years she volunteered with the Appalachian Mountain Club and while living in North Carolina was chair of the buildings and grounds committee for the Durham County Wildlife Club.

Laughlin’s husband is a reservist with the Marine Corps and she has two nephews, aged 9 and 10, who are often on her mind as she works outside.

“I believe part of what we do with organic land care and ecological approaches is hoping we’re making it better for the next generation; that there is a healthy landscape for them. I think about them a lot when I’m doing design work,” she said, recalling a day she helped them to capture a bug, identify its features and look it up on the computer to learn that it was a little native leaf hopper, not doing anybody any harm, probably will be food for a bird or frog. “Being able to share that kind of thing is really fun for me,” she said.

“Because I have education in my background, a lot of the rewards of this work for me are seeing light bulbs turn on for people, or seeing that they’re making a positive contribution. Knowing we’re improving soil biology or seeing a client’s delight when they suddenly have amphibians in their backyards or turkeys wandering through eating seed heads off the grass we’re no longer mowing.”

“Somewhere along the way, my parents and grandparents instilled in me this idea that we should leave things better than we found them, and I think that is part of our role as land care professionals,” she said.


For more information, contact Laughlin at