Thursday, July 16, 2015

Going Organic In West Hartford



Homeowners Ann Reynolds and Doug Rankin Encourage Neighbors to “Kiss My Grass” - Dream Clients not only Chose an Organic Lawn, but Started a Movement
By Kathy Litchfield

WEST HARTFORD, CONN. – Ann Reynolds and Doug Rankin, with their two babies in tow, clearly remember the day they showed up at the state’s capital to lobby for the preservation of the K-8 school grounds pesticide ban in 2010.
            “People looked cross eyed at us, like how out of place. We were the only family there,” said Reynolds, “but we were so invigorated by it, with a sense of wow, there’s so much going on. As parents it was so in our best interest to have a bigger say. It was eye opening.”
            Over the last 10 years or so, the couple found themselves “hyper aggravated” by all of the little pesticide spraying signs they spotted. So, they decided to counter these signs by creating one of their own. It reads “Kiss My Grass” and “Pesticide Free” and is available via the website they designed to promote “Grass Roots West Hartford, a movement among residents to reclaim control over the livability of our town,” they said. 
“While there are many things outside of our control, we can most definitely choose not to pollute our neighborhoods with pesticides and herbicides.  And so starts a grassroots effort among neighbors to make our lawns, parks and schools once again safe places for all of us to roam, play, walk, breath, drink, and care for our families, children and pets,” they wrote, and the idea is catching on.
            Co-founded in March 2015 with friend Kim Hughes, they held a kick-off event that drew over 50 local residents and their state representative, Joe Verrengia.  Grass Roots West Hartford invites people to get involved, choose a pesticide free lawn and spread the word. They already have over 325 Facebook fans, many of whom write supportive comments and share photos of their lawns with the signs.
So far, purely on a volunteer basis, the three have distributed 250 lawn signs, placed an order for 500 more, and also offer T-shirts. They’ve marketed the movement at local events including “Celebrate West Hartford” and through the NOFA Organic Land Care Program.
To further show their commitment to organic lawns, they also hired Todd Harrington of Harrington’s Organic Land Care in Bloomfield, Conn. to manage their own half-acre lawn at their suburban home.
            “Ann and Doug are dream clients, of course,” said Harrington. “They are really concerned citizens and activists when it comes to pesticides. You don’t often find people so passionate about wanting to get people in the region away from pesticides.  But they have children and are educated consumers who understand plants, and are fully committed to their mission.”
            Harrington began working on the Reynolds/Rankin lawn this year and so far has applied corn gluten, aerated and activated compost teas and custom blended fertilizers. He plans to seed this fall with appropriate drought-tolerant grasses.
“(Doug and Ann) have a much higher threshold than most people when it comes to weeds. We’re building up the fertility of their soil following soil test recommendations. They had never treated their lawn before this so anything we do will be a benefit,” said Harrington, who always promotes food gardens over lawns, and delivered a yard of his “super soil” - a soil mix generated at his lab that grows “phenomenal nutrient dense food” - to the couple’s vegetable garden beds where they grow lettuce, nasturtiums, peas, kale and even native corn.
“We toured Todd’s facility and learned about the super soil to enhance our garden. We’re pleased with his work and happy that we can support a local business that is doing the right thing,” said Rankin, who originally met Todd through Bill Duesing, former executive director of CT NOFA.
Rankin has been volunteering at CT NOFA conferences for years and even took the Organic Land Care Accreditation Course in 2005 to educate himself. He remembers leaving and feeling incredibly inspired by Todd Harrington’s and Chip Osborne’s presentations in particular.
            He grew up in West Hartford and remembers his father, a physician and naturalist, being a “late adaptor” to modern medicines.
“He believed real health came from your diet, your sleep, not smoking, basic things. His holistic view of the world, unbeknownst to me, probably rubbed off on me,” he said.
            Reynolds, native to Wethersfield, recalled attending “Fashion Week” in Manhattan one week and the next week, being invited by Doug to volunteer at a NOFA organic farming conference.
“So I went, and then I thought everybody should come to this. It moved my world,” she said. “Doug’s always been way ahead of the curve. As a single guy in his 30s he bought into the CSA thing before it was common vernacular. On his own he bought a farm share meant to feed four!”
            When they’re not hosting gatherings, distributing lawn signs and organizing for GMO labeling, organic lawns and Grass Roots, the couple operates their own small business as wine importers and wholesalers. They work with as many wineries as they can that “practice legitimate organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming practices in their wine making,” said Rankin, and distribute the wine to retail stores and restaurants in Connecticut.
            Along with raising their two children, now aged 6 and 7, the couple is hard at work promoting and hoping that their message, through the “Kiss My Grass” lawn signs and outreach efforts, will spread far and wide.
“The chemical industry in the United States is really an unregulated free for all,” said Rankin. “We’re trying to get people to make smart decisions voluntarily now. There is a lot of work that has to be done. The chemical companies are strong.  We have to build a legitimate grassroots movement.  The choice of the word ‘grassroots’ is the operative word. The way to make a permanent change here is to change people’s attitudes and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
            For more info or to get involved, visit www.grassrootswesthartford.org.

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 www.gfacademy.org. You can also read Tom’s blog on pesticide free grounds maintenance at www.fromthegfafields.wordpress.com.