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!”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stormwater Management Track for Mid-Atlantic Accreditation Course

Glen Abrams of PHS
For the second year, NOFA OLC offers a 2 track option on the final day of the Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care (http://www.organiclandcare.net/professionals/accreditation) so students can pursue an in-depth study of a topic relevant to their work. Glen Abrams designed this curriculum to offer land care professionals both the GSI big picture and focused sessions applicable to work which can be done for landscaping clients. The other concurrent track offered is Organic Turf Management with Chip Osborne.

Stormwater Managment Track Description - Mid Atlantic Course 2014 Dec 8-11, 2014

Facing difficult decisions regarding compliance with Clean Water Act rules concerning stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows, many communities have opted to pursue green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) strategies over conventional approaches to managing runoff.  GSI is an engineered landscape system that intercepts rainfall, infiltrates a portion of it into the ground, evaporates a portion of it into the air, and in some cases releases a portion of it slowly back into the city's sewer system.  The intention is to design an urban landscape to restore natural hydrologic processes to reduce the volume and water quality impacts of the built environment while achieving additional social and economic benefits.  The Green Stormwater Infrastructure track will explore GSI practices in different contexts, focusing on case studies of institutional, commercial, and residential practices.  Furthermore, we will discuss issues that arise during construction of GSI practices and explore how these systems are maintained.

 Learning Objectives:

  •   Learn the definition of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) and become familiar with different land-water-plant based systems through case studies of GSI practices in several land use contexts
  •  Learn about the regulatory context driving the need for stormwater management and the EPA's growing support for GSI
  • Learn how site characteristics, regulations, and client desires shape GSI design 
  •  Learn about vegetation choices for GSI practices
  • Learn about common challenges when constructing and maintaining GSI practices
  • Learn about how GSI design choices can impact maintenance of these systems

Altje Hoekstra, Meliora Environmental Design
Alden Zove, Cedar Run Landscapes

 Tom Johnston, ThinkGreen
 Jonathan Nuss, David Brothers Landscaping (not-confirmed)

Schedule: Dec 11, 2014
8-8:30              The Regulatory Environment for Stormwater            Glen Abrams
8:30-9:10         Institutional/Commercial GSI Applications                Altje Hoekstra
9:10-10:00       Residential GSI Applications                                       Alden Zove
10:00-10:15     BREAK
10:15-11:05     Construction of GSI                                                     Tom Johnston
11:05-11:55     Maintenance of GSI                                                    Jonathan Nuss (invited