Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Lawn Guy With a Mission: Out & About with AOLCP Fred Holdsworth

By Kathy Litchfield

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Fred Holdsworth has always been a lawn guy. He also doesn't beat around the bush -- he says what he means and suggests his customers find someone else if they desire the fast effects of chemical weed killers and fertilizers.

“Many clients just don’t have the patience for organics. I’m honest with people and don’t try to fabricate anything or tell them something will work when I know it probably won’t,” he said. “Most clients I work with have mostly green lawns but they haven’t ever done anything. Very rarely do I have chemical lawns transitioning to organic. Depending on their expectations and budget, I tell them it’ll take a couple of years and here’s what we can do.”

Practicality has served Holdsworth well over the years. As a youngster, he worked with his Italian immigrant grandfather in the wealthy Villanova area, landscaping people’s yards and planting vegetable gardens.

“I never knew why, but we did this (organic) stuff. We didn't ever bag up leaves and put them on the side of the road; we got a tarp, raked them up and piled them and spread them out. You should chop them up if you can, shoot them under the trees. Save yourself a couple of weekends of work. It can be so simple,” he said. “My grandfather always called weed killers and herbicides ‘poison.’ We used to shovel horse manure at a friend’s farm. I was probably one of the only 10-year-olds in my town shoveling in horse and cow manure for his gardens. We’d take care of homes and estates in the main line, everything from cutting the lawn to painting, while my grandmother would clean the house and my mother babysat their kids. They’d call on us for everything. We’d do composting for them, control honeysuckle in big wooded areas, and lots of vegetable gardens. Little did I know I was learning most of what I needed to know.”

At the York College of Pennsylvania, Holdsworth earned a bachelor’s degree of science in recreation administration and planned to work on public parks, but struggled to pay back his college loans. He started landscaping for himself on the side. His lawn care and maintenance business quickly grew to include seven guys, two crews and 125 properties, 90 percent of which were residential, he said. He was newly married but didn't have kids yet and often worked until 8 p.m. It was doable back then.

“When my business got bigger I started cutting corners to save time and forgot what I had learned as a kid. People didn't want to hear about compost, so I started using herbicides,” he said.

He never liked spraying weed killers, but with so many clients with raised beds and
cookie cutter homes without ground covers, he felt pressure to keep up with his competition. His daughter was born and life was getting so busy.

“It was like this. I wanted out, I got big too fast, it was a racket. I didn't want my wash (laundry) in with the kid’s wash. And we had a dog who died prematurely. We had this (garden) bed in back that I had no time to care for, so I sprayed it with roundup. I came home one day and remember my beloved old dog laying in that area and thought, no, why did I spray that, and
got him out of there. Well a year later he had . . . cancer of the spine. I believe he died prematurely because of that. So that woke me up too.”

Holdsworth said he realized he was running a product-based business, the opposite of what his grandfather taught him.

“He’d save seeds in the attic every year, make hot beds for tomatoes in April. I look back now and realize I was so lucky to learn all that stuff for what I’m doing now. I’m so convinced this is the right way to go.”

After selling his business, Holdsworth sought out more education. Chip Osborne’s organic lawn course was first, quickly followed by Paul Sachs on compaction and Dr. Elaine Ingham on the soil food web, composting, compost tea and soil biology.

“The final day of class was the microscope. I took one look at that and thought, oh no, how did I sign up for this. But I sat there, listening, and then I’d hear it again, the same information, and it started sinking in. Dr. Ingham was 50 minutes away from me offering a week long workshop so I had to go. It was too good to pass up. Then Eric T. Fleisher and Paul Wagner, then Todd Harrington and the NOFA course. I got accredited and haven’t looked back,” said the 42-year-old father of three (ages 8, 6 and 2) with a 9-year-old boxer named Fudge.

Holdsworth has the flexibility to spend more time with his kids, while doing something for work that he feels passionately about – organic lawn consulting. Who said learning about organics has “changed my life.”

“First we take a soil chemistry test and I also look at the soil under the microscope to see what biology is present to start with. No mowing, no planting, no mulching. What I do now is show up at a property, do site analysis and give suggestions. I walk every lawn; no riding equipment. I pull a 350-foot hose to do a soil drench, and use a push behind spreader. Those guys, they've gotten pretty lazy. I see them show up to fertilize the lawn in the rain with huge machines and rut the lawn.”

Holdsworth uses natural mulch, sometimes gathered from his own property, helps clients with composting and advises them on why grass won’t grow in an area that’s “too wet, too shady, or whatnot.”

He points out trees not planted correctly and spots of diseased grass. He tries to encourage people, suggesting they put leaves back under their trees every year and leave some chopped up in the lawn. When he goes to spray compost tea on their lawn, he’ll happily spray those leaves, too.

“The major problems I deal with are compaction from big mowers on little lawns. They can make or break a situation. I tell people I’m not going to waste their money. They should use a walking mower & change cutting patterns weekly. We need more aspects working to alleviate compaction not contribute to it,” said Holdsworth.

Holdsworth hopes his yard serves as an example of what is possible. He is going to be making beds under his 30-year-old pin oaks with manure, compost tea and a layer of wood chips to encourage the worms to come; hired a landscape designer for suggestions on what natives to plant; and collects 2,000 gallons of water in rain barrels that he uses in his gardens. He is also planting corn along his fence line this year for privacy and has a worm pile out back where his
kids compost.

“It drives my wife crazy sometimes. I've got her and the entire family composting. I try to teach my neighbors and customers. And I've got a niche. I have standards to uphold. If those guys aren't accredited, what are they using? They use tricky language, saying things are environmentally safe. There are some guys doing things slightly better, cutting back on pesticides and choosing some organic methods, but it’s an idea that’s still catching on down here.”

Holdsworth recently took a booth at a garden festival that attracted 15,000 people and talked with people, answering questions and explaining how weeds are messengers and symptoms of a larger problem. Through his work he feels he is a NOFA representative and works to share his knowledge with others. Word of mouth travels fast and he enjoys bumping into guys interested in what he’s doing who might then become accredited themselves.

He suggests, “Do as much as you can to alleviate the problems. Don’t make more problems. Regulate what you can’t control or have very little control over. And be honest with people. They often find it refreshing.”

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