Thursday, June 30, 2016

Inside the Organic Land Care Industry: An Interview with PJC Organic

A Q&A with Pam Newcombe of PJC Organic and Renaissance All Natural Fertilizers, sponsors of the NOFA OLC Organic Land Care Accreditation Course being held in Maine this August.

Pam and Fred Newcombe began PJC Organic as a full service landscape provider specializing in organic fertilization services and in 2006 purchased Renaissance All Natural Fertilizers. Today the company provides product, support and business tools to landscapers, municipalities and schools that want to develop an organic turf care program that fits their business. They also offer organic fertilization services on Boston's North Shore, giving them the opportunity to continually evaluate the products they manufacture and distribute. 

Fred Newcombe of PJC Organic
Q: What is the state of the organic land care industry? Where do you see the greatest growth and what’s driving it? 

The organic land care industry, as it relates to turf, is growing at a faster rate than the conventional market based on feedback from our customers. We’ve found the greatest areas of interest are in states that have implemented pesticide and fertilizer use restrictions. Because there is often a time of transition between passage of laws and required implementation, this change is often seen 2+ years after legislation is in place. The East coast seems to be a leader in this arena. I think the private sector is growing quicker than municipal because of budget issues with towns. 

Q: What are some of the most common challenges professionals face in caring for the land organically and what approach to you take to solving them?
The biggest challenge in the Northeast is that grass is not native, so there is a time of transition required to bring the soil to the place where grass wants to grow, and people can be impatient. Current soil conditions, turf density and budget will determine how long the transition will take. 

By far the most common questions are – what are you going to do about weeds and grubs? Our standard reply is weeds as an indication of underlying soil conditions. If you simply kill a weed it doesn’t mean grass will grow

We try to keep our approach simple by working in 4 areas:
1) Soil chemistry: meet NPK needs and adjust pH
2) Soil Structure: promote porosity & nutrient holding capacity of the soil by improving OM & CEC
3) Soil Biology: feed the microbes so they can feed the plan. When #1 & 2 are addressed, desirable biology will come out of dormancy. On really bad lawns it may be necessary to apply compost, pelleted compost or compost tea 
4) Cultural practices by far is the most important of the 4 steps - proper mowing, watering, over seeding, etc. By focusing on these 4 areas you can create a dense stand of turf that will outcompete weeds. 

The other challenge for both the professional and homeowner is choosing products. Because this is an emerging industry, the government hasn’t begun to regulate the term “organic” in labeling turf and ag products. Unlike like the food industry, turf products are not “certified” organic by the USDA. There are many products that claim to be “organic” but are not All Natural, which can be misleading.

We have chosen to get our Renaissance 8-1-6 OMRI listed. Which means the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), an independent agency, has determined our fertilizer meets the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Because all our Renaissance formulations are a derivative of our OMRI listed 8-1-6, our Renaissance blends meet the NOP standards. Companies that say their products comply with NOP standards without going through a recognized approval agency are self-certifying and there is no one policing that market right now. Second, we have intentionally kept our Organic Fertilization Service business as a way to test new products coming on the market so we can speak from personal experience when reselling them, and also consider how the products we sell work together. 

Q: What advice do you have for conventional land care professionals who are considering transitioning to organic?
I would say the homeowner demand is growing and eventually legislation will necessitate the change, so be an early adopter and position yourself as a leader in that market. That being said, simply swapping a bag of organic fertilizer for a bag of synthetic fertilizer won’t work. Learning how to take and interpret a soil test is key in determining products and putting together a program. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment - you can have a successful program using granular only and a broadcast spreader, or if you already have the ability to do liquids a granular liquid combination can work as well. Get trained and network. Because there’s no “4 step program” it’s common for us to hear from potential customers that they just finished training and don’t know where to start. This is where we can help, as well as networking organic professionals with one another. Also, don’t fall for the latest products on the market because they might not be there next year. Put together a program that addresses underlying soil conditions and stay the course. 

Q: How has your AOLCP (Accredited Organic Land Care Professional) training and accreditation helped your business?
Fred Newcombe has been an AOLCP since 2005 which has set us apart in the service industry from those just jumping on the wagon. It is also helpful to have the OLC standards to refer to when deciding what things are allowed as a rescue treatment, how often you recommend soil testing, etc. Also being on the NOFA Organic Land Care Approved product list has helped set us apart as a product provider. 

Pam Newcombe of PJC Organic can be reached at, 978-432-1019, or

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Organic Landscaping Course Addresses Growing Need for Chemical-Free Experts

Four Day Course at USM Accredits Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs)

Landscaping professionals transitioning to organic practices, and those already using chemical-free options who want to learn more, are invited to attend a NOFA OLC 30-hour professional training course at the University of Southern Maine, Portland on August 15, 16, 22, & 23, 2016, and sit for the accreditation exam. 

New! 10 Maine Board of Pesticides Control credits available for the Maine Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care. If you are looking for credits to renew your license, you only need 9 every three years for a Commercial Master Applicator License.

Since 2002, The NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care has been the definitive professional training course for landscapers, lawn care specialists, municipal groundskeepers, landscape architects and environmental educators to learn and adopt best practices for caring for the land without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Attendees who pass the accreditation exam on August 23 become Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs), joining over 500 NOFA AOLCPs in 20 states, including 8 in Maine.

Landscaping professionals in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and other New England states increasingly consider this course a savvy investment in distinguishing themselves as highly trained experts in the growing market for non-toxic and organic landscaping services. 

Demand for organic land care professionals is increasing rapidly in Maine due to a growing concern about the hazards of synthetic pesticides and the adoption of ordinances banning or restricting the use of chemical pesticides on town, and sometimes private, land in twenty-seven towns including Ogunquit, Rockland and most recently, South Portland. 

After receiving requests from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Portland Protectors, and many individuals to bring the course to Maine, NOFA is pleased to announce its inaugural course dates and offer early bird registration of $695 until June 30 at

“This dynamic course is packed with an enormous amount of information delivered by some of the organic landscape industry’s most knowledgeable and engaging speakers. Business owners, organizations, and individuals alike, will benefit from this excellent value and keen marketing tool. Whether you are new to the idea of organic land care or are interested in advancing your skills to the next level, this course can meet your needs.” - Jen Dunlap, AOLCP, a Horticulturist with Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens in Boothbay and a February 2016 course graduate.

Local professionals joining the roster of notable Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care instructors include David Melevsky of Go GreenLandscaping Inc. of Scarborough, Maine who will teach “Organic Tick Control” and Paula Kovecses of The Way It Grows, a landscaping company in Eastport, Maine, will teach "Introduction to Permaculture." 

Seasoned instructors include leading organic land care industry experts Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, Michael Nadeau of Wholistic Land Care Consulting, Frank Crandall of Frank Crandall Horticultural Solutions, and Paul Wagner of GreenerPastures Organics. The curriculum includes soil health and proper soil testing, site analysis, green stormwater infrastructure, plant care and organic turf.

The course runs from 8:00am - 5:00pm each day and can accommodate up to 60 students. The early bird registration fee of $695 includes all course materials, lunch, the final exam and 2016 Accreditation. Group discounts and payment plans are available. 

For more details including a course curriculum, and to register, contact the Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA) office at 203-308-2584 or visit

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Guest Post by Sarah Little, Ph.D.: Shinrin-yoku: Landscaping for Personal, Public and Planetary Health

Some people claim that a nice looking lawn adds $10,000 to the value of your home. In fact, your outdoor real estate has a value to you far above this miserly amount. “Health is wealth” and your yard, in addition to looking beautiful, can contribute to the health of yourself, your family, your neighbors, your town, even your planet. To understand how this is done, it helps to look at your yard in a very different way than you are used to. The land, water, air, plants, animals and soil under your care actually comprise an entire living ecosystem. This ecosystem is composed of plants, mammals, amphibians, birds, but also trillions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and a myriad of tiny soil creatures like pill bugs, nematodes and springtails. All these living organisms are linked together in both fierce competition and fantastic cooperation through the complex cycling and recycling of nutrient, waste and energy.

Biodiversity is the variety and spice of life; it is also its bank account and health insurance. It is a measure of how many different interacting species are in an ecosystem. Generally speaking, the more the better. Systems with high biodiversity are more able to withstand outside invaders and environmental insults like drought, flood, and pollution. It is not just rare species that are valuable, every living thing in an ecosystem counts.

Ecological landscapers use the concept of diverse, healthy ecosystems adapted to local climate and soil to manage properties as a whole, giving us the most stable, attractive and useful landscapes with the least amount of maintenance effort, cost, water use and material input. This is an incredibly powerful concept. It differs significantly from the way most suburban landscapes are currently managed, where the focus is on large inputs of fertilizer, pesticide and water to grow a single species (turfgrass), and on continually treating the same individual pests and diseases year after year.

When we cultivate a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem suited to our own town's local soil and climate, the depth and breadth of services our yard can provide us are truly astonishing. The physical processes alone are invaluable, including carbon sequestration, aquifer replenishment, water purifying, air purifying, nutrient recycling, composting, soil building, and residential home cooling in summer. Even our neighbors and town can benefit from our yard, through cleaner air and water. The value of these services alone far out-weighs the cost a taxpayer would have to fork out for a town’s DPW to do the same. Just ask NYC, who found it cost effective to protect natural land in their watershed rather than build expensive water filtration infrastructure. How about keeping pets? Our little biological friends we enjoy so much, the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bats and pollinator species, now live happily in the shelter that our plants have created, eating the food our ecosystem is generating, managing our pest insects, and being cleaned up after by our tiny composting organisms. All this enjoyment you get for free, compared to the upwards of $3,000 annual cost of owning a dog.

Most importantly perhaps, we ourselves now have an outdoor sanctuary where we can rest, relax, play and experience nature. The Japanese have a word for this, shinrin-yoku, the simple practice of enhancing health by going outside to visualize, touch, listen to, and quite literally inhale nature. It means essentially to bathe in biodiversity. Studies show this to be good for our health in ways we don’t even understand yet. In fact, our yard full of green plants, trees, and grass can help reduce not only our, but our neighbors’ mortality from cancer. A recent national study found that women whose lives are surrounded by greenness from plants, within 250 m of a home, have a 12% reduction in cancer mortality compared to those who live surrounded by man-made structures.

There’s more. Did you know that you are an ecosystem yourself? Your gut is inhabited by hundreds of species of bacteria, your skin by thousands of species. These bacteria are most often in a highly beneficial mutual relationship with us, or are at least living a non-harmful coexistence. Science is just beginning to understand how these microbiota influence our health. As Michael Pollan put it, “the implications of what has already been learned, for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate. Human health should now be thought of… as a function of the community, not the individual.”

This might be hard to take in, but, you are a part of your yard’s ecosystem, and it is part of yours. The microbial life in your soil is related to the microbial life on your skin, the same for your gut. Remarkably, this is an exceptionally good thing; this is how humans evolved to live so successfully in this complex ecosystem we call the world. These tiny cells help protect us from infections, digest our food, influence our appetites and help our immune systems. In fact, new studies have linked higher environmental biodiversity in the surroundings of people’s homes to fewer skin allergies. Your beautiful, biodiverse yard really can make you and your family healthier.

On the dark side, because there always is a dark side, since we are all connected to your yard, it means that the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers you put on your lawn are also in your body, in your family, in your neighbors, and in the town’s air and water. These chemicals don’t just affect the grubs, or the dandelions, or the crab grass, they affect every single one of the trillion organisms that make up your yard’s ecosystem, including you. In humans, these chemicals are carcinogens (EPA lists 70 carcinogenic pesticides, including herbicides, fungicides, pre-emergents and insecticides available to purchase in the U.S.), and reproductive, neural, and developmental toxins. In your yard’s ecosystem, they are a disaster, decimating the microbial, fungal and beneficial insect populations, killing all plants except grass, and disrupting normal soil processes that support plant health. This lifeless yard now needs constant inputs of fertilizers and water in order to support the single species you have left, turfgrass. Instead of having a yard that supports your health and sense of well-being you now have a yard that increases your risk of chronic disease.

Ecological and organic properties come in all styles, from Paul Newman’s exquisitely managed weed-free organic estate in Connecticut to my inexpensive, stress-free, beautiful little organic freedom lawn in Wellesley. What they have in common is summarized below in the “Checklist for an Eco-Friendly Property” below.

And of course, each yard makes a difference to the planet. In the U.S. alone, lawns make up 49,000 sq mi, making it the nation's largest irrigated crop. What we do with our own yards matters a lot. By creating a biodiverse property, or simply helping it to create itself, your ecologically managed yard will make us all healthier. Experience your own shinrin-yoku - step outside onto your lush, green, organic lawn; see the monarch butterfly alight on your milkweed; hear the sparrows chirping in their nest; take a breath of pure, fresh air; feel the sun, feel the connection; and savor a deep sense of satisfaction about your thoughtful care of this small piece of the world under your feet.

Checklist for an eco-friendly property

Keep pesticides off your lawn and gardens. Using only non-toxic materials on your property reduces the health risk to yourself, your family, your neighbors and your local environment.

Use non-synthetic fertilizers from natural sources. Synthetic fertilizers are made in a chemical process that uses fossil fuel and contributes to global warming. Use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer greatly increase the amount of nitrogen entering the global nitrogen cycle which has a serious negative impact on the organization and functioning of the world’s ecosystems, including accelerating the loss of biological diversity and decline of coastal marine ecosystems and fisheries. The use of synthetic phosphorus fertilizers has its own set of problems, in particular its contribution to the growth of pondweeds in fresh water lakes and ponds, and the limited global supply of phosphate rock.

Reduce water use. In many cities in the Northeast, 50% of the drinking water goes to lawns and landscapes. Over 75% of Massachusetts’ rivers are flow stressed during the summer because of water withdrawals for these residential uses.

Increase biodiversity. Biodiversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem on any scale, from backyard to global. Biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystems, reduces the need for intervention, and makes them, from an aesthetic viewpoint, much more interesting. The earth is currently losing species at a rate that rivals mass extinctions in our geologic record.

Care properly for your lawn... Mow high, 3”-4”; leave grass clippings on lawn; water infrequently, if at all; encourage a bit of white clover; fertilize lightly with compost; and seed bares spots in fall and early spring. Rake your lawn, but not your woods: let leaves, nature’s own mulch, stay and compost in place.

Grow food. Organically raised fruits and vegetables, grown close to home, will become more valuable as current trends in climate change, energy cost and availability and human health play out in the future. Organic practices allow edible and decorative plants to be grown together. There are many ways to incorporate food plants and vegetable gardens into your landscape. Blueberry bushes are native, decorative and delicious. Many fancy lettuces are as pretty as annuals.

Make and use compost. Compost has many advantages as a soil amendment and it is less likely to cause pollution of the local and regional environment than fertilizers, even organic ones. Incorporating compost improves turf, shrub and shade tree performance in marginal or poor soils. Good quality compost improves soil structure, reduces runoff and compaction, enhances biodiversity, increases water and nutrient retention, increases microbial activity, supplies nutrients, helps suppress and prevent plant diseases, detoxifies certain pesticides, and inactivates and kills potential human pathogens.

Remove invasive plants. Invasive plants grow quickly and spread easily and often reduce the biodiversity of whole ecosystems. Learn about invasive plants, how to avoid spreading them, and how to remove them from your own property.

Garden with native plants. Native plants are site adapted and usually require little to no watering, fertilizing or pesticides. Stunning gardens can be made from entirely native plants. Since native plants are, well, native, it’s best to find a local conservation group who works with natives.

Test your soil. If you want your property to look its best, to save money, and to protect the environment even more, do an easy soil test before you apply anything at all. A soil-testing lab will help you figure out how much of which fertilizers and nutrients to apply for optimum results.