Thursday, April 16, 2015

`“Going Organic” with Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Conn.

College Preparatory School Embraces Organic Management and Promotes
the Health of Long Island Sound

 By Kathy Litchfield

WESPORT -- Tom Barry used to come home from work with his pants stained blue from the herbicides he had applied on golf courses all day long. The last thing he wanted was for those pants to go into the wash with his family’s clothes.
            “It was always a question mark, whether the pesticides and herbicides would cause health problems,” said the father of two, aged 3-1/2 and 20 months. “I realized I didn’t want that question mark in my life.”
            Barry’s interest in organics was sparked during an innovative research project in the environmental effects of home lawn fertilization he completed during his master’s degree work in turfgrass and soil science at the University of Connecticut. He studied how nitrates leach out of soil to contaminate groundwater and was able to quantify, based on the rate of nitrogen, how much is taken up by the plant, how much stays in the soil and how much leaves the system, he said.
While managing the organic arm of a local landscape company, Barry became NOFA accredited (CT course, 2010) and two years ago, embarked upon a new career as the grounds manager and field care specialist at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Conn., an independent college preparatory day school for grades PreK-12.
            At this forward-thinking school encompassing about 42 acres, the grounds, athletic fields, landscape gardens, building shrubbery, meadows and vegetable garden which helps to supply some vegetables and herbs for the cafeteria, are all managed and maintained using organic methods, a testament to the effectiveness of forgoing synthetic pesticides, Barry said.
            “It was a nice culture to come into because the school had already embraced organic ideology and that was part of why I was hired, so they were willing to support the maintenance team to purchase additional resources necessary when you don’t have the convenience of synthetic pesticides,” he said. 
            Academy Head of School Janet Hartwell said the school had made a commitment to fulfill sustainability initiatives with organic land care before Barry was hired.
“This is very important and we know it is the right thing to do,” Hartwell said. “It is the safer, better way for all children, to be away from pesticides. And we’re fortunate to have Tom who is exceptional and had the experience we sought. He has done a great job. Quite honestly, our fields have never looked better!”       
One of Barry’s first projects was to manage a recent overhaul of the school’s 15 acres of athletic fields. Some were well established with mature soils; others were brand new and extremely compacted.
“They needed some tender loving care,” said Barry, who implemented an aggressive cultural program including aerating three times a year on all the fields, and utilizing a new overseeder  and liquid organic fertilizing equipment.
            “We alternate our aeration practices with core aeration, deep tine aeration and linear decompaction and we treat each field individually in terms of how we approach the fertilizing program, by the age of the fields,” he said. “We also soil test regularly to monitor the effects of our fertilization so we can adjust accordingly.”
            Another 10-15 acres of the grounds are grassy lawns and landscape beds, which receive organic applications once or twice a year. The addition of many annual beds have added color and interest to the grounds, said Barry, who chooses to plant natives as often as possible.
            Last year on Earth Day, the lower school (grades PreK-5) science students and faculty installed 12 native trees including redbud and white spruce.
            Students, parents, faculty and staff also got involved in the planning and installation of a 6,500 sq. ft. butterfly garden/meadow. On a sunny Saturday, about 75 volunteers planted 3,500 plugs of native plants including milkweed, butterfly weed, joe pye weed and native goldenrod. While they are struggling with an overrun of the invasive mugwort, Barry said the meadow is beautifying the area, encouraging birds and beneficial insects and mostly thriving. 
            Lower School (grades PreK-5) Science Teacher Jackie Tran, who recruited volunteers for the school-wide plantings, also integrates curriculum in math, science and writing into the organic vegetable garden she oversees at the Academy. Students start seeds in the greenhouse, transplant them into 15-20 raised beds inside their 32-foot by 40-foot garden, harvest them and deliver the vegetables to the cafeteria where they are used in school lunches. Kitchen waste is also composted on site.
            “Kids are able to study where their food comes from and they’re experiencing food from every aspect of the cycle. We do as many cooking classes as we can. All of this helps them form a connection to their food and food culture, food safety and tasting new things like purple carrots, or red and yellow striped heirloom carrots,” said Tran, who holds a master’s degree in environmental conservation education.
“We use the garden as a place to insert environmental literacy for students. We are giving them the tools to make decisions that are sustainable, and understand their impacts so they can be our great world leaders and think about these types of topics as they’re making environmental decisions.”
            Barry is looking forward to implementing a new planting plan that will surround the construction of a brand new performing arts building on a section of campus bordering the marshlands directly adjacent to the Long Island Sound. Barry and his team were able to work closely with the landscape architect who designed the planting plan, to substitute native plants for the shrubbery and landscaping around the building. For instance, instead of boxwoods they are planting inkberries; instead of Siberian carpet cypress, low bush blueberries; and instead of Korean firs, eastern red cedars.
            “I tried to match the form and function of the plants they had on the original design with a native alternative, working also with a native plant consultant who knew what would work where. The (landscape architect) was very open minded,” said Barry, who also replaced the specification for a Kentucky bluegrass seed mix in the design with a turf type tall fescue that is drought tolerant, requires less nutrient inputs and wears well over time.
            “My plan is to irrigate it until established, then stop, and use minimal fertilization as well,” said Barry, who loves his work and hopes his sharing will help others solidify decisions about organic management.
“The NOFA course, the teachers, other professionals and people I’ve met since, really inspired me and the more I learned about organics, and the questions about pesticides, the more I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said.

 For more information, visit You can also read Tom’s blog on pesticide free grounds maintenance at

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Report from Permaculture Design Charrette by Jenna Messier

Group assembles in AM
 The Permaculture Design Charrette focused upon my small urban yard in West Haven, CT which has lots of pending issues; crumbling walkways, precious yard space being used for parking, and where to put all the plants and animals to yield the most food, compost and fiber. However, the day and process took some interesting twists.

The workshop was led by Sven Pihl from CT Edible Ecosystems who provided all of the base mapping, learning materials and instruction during the day. Sadly, Sam Billings could not join us due to a family emergency. It was raining in the morning and I realized that we had to truly "go with the flow." We started by looking at the Base Map and Sven explained how it was created. Then I presented my Client Summary to express the clients goals and our intentions for the property which they would be designing later that day. 
Grape arbor looking SW
My biggest surprise was when I received the soil test results stating that my soil had 909 ppm of lead. So as I discussed the property history with the group, I felt the need to announce the test results immediately.  This situation really brought out the best in the talented group of 8 participants, as each person realized that something was going to have to change in the current garden configuration where the vegetables are being grown closest to the house.  We do not want people eating greens or root vegetables from the soil with over 400 ppm of lead, and as we seek to integrate 4 chickens onto the property, we want to avoid them rooting through the same soil as well.

Next, we covered the Permaculture Design Principles. Here is one document which I found online at the Pickards Mountain Eco Institute website to easily describe these principles.
I noted that 2 of the core principles (Care for Earth, Fair Share, and Care for People) are the same as the NOFA OLC principles of Care and Fairness and OLC adds Health and Ecology to describe caring for all of our collective health and respecting our relevance and interconnectedness.  The remaining design principles form a guide by which you would look at a space and see how you can best utilize its strengths while producing the outcome which is sought by the land owner or borrower.

We broke for lunch and enjoyed a communal experience of walking to the restaurant and partaking in Colombian food and music together, allowing us to socialize and learn more about each other's current jobs and experiences.

We returned and broke up into two groups where folks were eager to put their ideas onto paper.  Two unique designs came to fruition from which I have gained a lot of inspiration.

Group 1 Alexis, Josh, Sally and Stesha
Sven Pihl looking at design

 - Landscape Design 1 - click here to download or view
  1. North side along street, meadow in front eastern sidewalk space to be duplicated on left.
  2. In front planting boxes, use vinca groundcover and select from dogwoods, Japanese Maple, Oxydendron or Shad.
  3. Move canoe next to house.
  4. Southeast, former parking space, to become raised garden beds. Use low tunnel tents. Compost bins moved to corner.
  5. Former vegetable garden close to house, to become space for chickens and rabbit hutch. Take another soil test, if lead is highest, cover with thick mulch.
  6. Fireplace in pink to remain, needs some rebuilding.
  7. Re-plant grass under existing pear trees to create fun play space for kids.
  8. Move black raspberries to sunny space along southern fence.
  9. Keep grape vine arbor and existing strawberry bed.
Group 2 Theresa, Leslie, Jay and Shelley

-Landscape Design 2 - click here to download or view
working on design
  1. North side along street, continue prairie-style meadows, add annuals for more color
  2. Along front of house, add a trellis and an Hydrangea Petiolaris
  3. In driveway along house, group suggested using more raised bed boxes and window boxes to capitalize on the full sun. Also using low tunnel structures to extend season.
  4. Add another rain barrel at corner of house next to back door.
  5. Remove concrete on back walkway and install 3/4" gravel to deal with sink hole issues
  6. Move compost bins to old vegetable garden space
  7. Add cold frames low to ground for seed-starting, keep tomatoes in this area
  8. Move rabbit hutch under pear tree and create a rectangular run
  9. Put chicken coop along southern fence and create a run for them along fence line
  10. In old parking space, add decorative raised bed boxes for leafy veggies and root crops
  11. Next to center grape arbor, add a chiminea for more charm, put barbecue along side of arbor

Thanks to all the students for sharing your expertise and enthusiasm. A big thank you to Sven Pihl for leading the workshop and sharing his knowledge and materials, as well!

I think we will do this again. I have already had 3 people ask me to have a charrette on their properties!