Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Going Organic on Long Island and Beyond

The Perfect Earth Project

By Kathy Litchfield
East Hampton, NY

While perched in her dentist’s chair one morning five years ago, Edwina von Gal realized she didn’t know of a landscaper offering chemical free lawn care to suggest to her dentist, who was concerned about toxins from his waterfront lawn sinking into Long Island sound.
            “I had been a landscape designer for a zillion years and I had always been an organic gardener in my own place. I was gravitating through the years towards more and more natural gardening for my clients too,” said the 67-year-old founder of The Perfect Earth Project (PRFCT Earth PRJCT), a two-year-old non-profit educational organization promoting toxin-free landscape management based in East Hampton, Long Island.
“My basic design concept was always to get people to stop and look at the natural beauty of intrinsic things, like the bark of a tree. But it was always a bit of subtext. Now times have changed and I realized then, that this is a message I could fully embrace. I soon found that more people were asking for chemical free lawns and I needed to learn more about this,” said the Brewster, NY native who grew up in dairy farm country running around outdoors unsupervised and gaining a love and comfort of nature that has been a constant thread throughout her life.
Edwina von Gal asked her some of her clients if they would agree to allowing her to manage their lawns without any toxins. She found that many clients weren’t even aware of how their lawns and landscapes were being managed - whether or not they were being sprayed, how often and with what - by the people they hired, although their vegetable gardens were organic.
“Honestly I never paid much attention to lawn, it wasn’t high on my list of interesting things,” laughed von Gal, “but what we realized is that after a year or so, it really worked. Nobody really noticed a difference and everybody was happy to try it, and when I told them what we were getting rid of, they were ecstatic.”

Sean O’Neill, director of education and outreach for The Perfect Earth Project, put it this way: “It doesn’t make much sense to walk across a chemical lawn to get to your organic tomato garden.”
O’Neill, native to Farmingville, Long Island, grew up fishing with his grandfather every Sunday at Blue Point, became an avid fisherman, and holds a master’s of science in environmental and natural resource economics from the University of Rhode Island (2006) and a bachelor’s of science in natural resource management from the University of Delaware (2004).
He worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a pesticide control specialist where he witnessed firsthand the dangers of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as he visited properties to enforce pesticide laws. While at NYSDEC, Sean created the 2011 Long Island Golf Course Initiative which lead to the successful diversion of thousands of pounds of illegally manufactured “knock off” pesticides products from entering Long Island, and served as a technical adviser on the Long Island Pesticide Use Management Plan focusing on improved human health and water quality in response to the pesticide contamination of Long Island’s vulnerable sole source drinking water aquifer.
 Coupled with a personal desire to protect the environment, he jumped at the opportunity to work with von Gal and joined the team in April of 2014.
The goals of The Perfect Earth Project are to promote toxin-free land management for the benefit of human health and the environment, by helping people to understand the dangers of synthetic lawn and landscape chemicals especially for children and pets, and by educating homeowners and landscape professionals on how to use ‘PRFCT’ practices to achieve great results at no additional cost.
They accomplish this by offering low-cost seminars ($10 to $25) open to professionals, homeowners and community members interested in learning about non-toxic ways to manage land. The first seminar was held in February 2015 and attracted over 150 people, two-thirds of whom were professional landscapers and designers and the other third of whom were homeowners, said O’Neill.
“When people learn that they are affected by what others are putting into the environment we share, they get engaged on a personal level,” he said. “Part of our success to date has been that personal touch where we can really show how this affects everybody. It’s not a polar bear on an iceberg far away. It’s right here in our communities.”
Opening conversations with people, sharing information, educating people and encouraging them to engage in trading stories are really important basic principles for von Gal and O’Neill.
“We’re here to help people, to provide people with resources to create their own awareness and share it with others. We very much encourage people not to fire the people they’re working with, but to convert them,” she said. “We want our seminars to be pilot programs that can serve as models for anyone who wants to create their own training program. We hope to build a network of experts around the United States that people could call within their own communities, for help in choosing a non-toxic landscape.”
 Edwina Von Gal’s work has been published in major publications and her book “Fresh Cuts” won the Quill and Trowel award for garden writing in 1998. She has served on boards and committees for a number of horticultural organizations, and is currently on the board of “What Is Missing,” Maya Lin’s multifaceted media artwork about the loss of biodiversity. She went to Panama in 2002 to design the park for the Biomuseo, the Frank Gehry designed museum of biodiversity under construction in Panama City, bought some land and stayed on to found the Azuero Earth Project with like-minded friends and scientists.
“The process convinced her to extend the toxin-free message to the United States, and Perfect Earth was launched in 2013 to promote toxin-free landscapes everywhere,” she wrote on the organization’s website.
Since 2014, von Gal and O’Neill have engaged Paul Wagner, of the NY Soil Food Web, to serve as expert and as a speaker at their seminars. They are working collaboratively with the NOFA Organic Land Care Program to promote accredited professionals (see as well as Long Island landscapers offering non-toxic methods.
They’re partnering with the Peconic Land Trust to address private horticultural management and to train future gardeners in least toxic methods. They have received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant and are working with Cornell Cooperative Extension to publish two versions of their landscape manual – one geared to landscape professionals and one to homeowners - already available as a text version on their website,
They are also working not only with individual property owners, but with hospitals, college campuses, real estate developers and municipal parks and lands, to educate all involved about how possible it is to have a “perfectly aesthetically pleasing lawn and landscape without the use of cancer causing chemicals, or fertilizers that pollute our waterways and estuaries,” said O’Neill, adding that on a personal note, he is thrilled that many of the landscapers he worked with over the years in his previous job are becoming interested in learning how to provide the services their clients are requesting.
“From a purely business standpoint, it’s becoming imperative that landscapers learn how to do these things in order to make a living in the future.”
Edwina von Gal emphasized that The Perfect Earth Project isn’t working to reinvent something, but to “engage the existing infrastructure and create a big demand among the population of decision makers and land owners to insist on toxin-free maintenance and to understand that it doesn’t need to cost more and that it is possible.”
“We’re not doing advocacy,” she said. “We feel we can meet our goals simply by creating a consciousness among people who are doing their own lawns or hiring someone to do their landscape.”
Underway is the “PRFCT Places” program, a registration service that recognizes and promotes toxin-free properties by listing them on an interactive map and directory on the website. Von Gal encourages anyone who knows of a toxin-free property that would qualify to get in touch with her. The same goes for professional landscapers interested in registering their businesses as “PRFCT” to promote their services and products. 
“We promote the idea and they can use our brand to promote their projects,” she said. “Since we ourselves cannot be in every community serving the United States, we feel t his is our job, to create materials and packages that we can turn into easily replicable models that others can provide to their communities,” she said, encouraging land care professionals to contact her and share info on the challenges they face and how the Perfect Earth Project could help them. “We would love to create a whole army of ambassadors.”
Von Gal was appointed as a master teacher at the Conway School of Landscape Design for 2015-2016 and looks forward to further building awareness of eliminating toxins from maintenance programs and community projects.
For more information, visit, or engage in social media on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Going Organic in Fairfield, CT

The McKinnis Family Enjoys the Birds and Butterflies

By Kathy Litchfield

FAIRFIELD – David McKinnis is totally ok with birds getting the blueberries before he does.
He looks forward to harvesting onions from the family’s raised beds; and he loves driving his kids to school past the flowering perennial gardens – yellows, reds, purples -- bordering his driveway.
            When he and his wife Elizabeth McKinnis first moved to Fairfield, Conn., he said they knew they wanted a landscaper who was knowledgeable about organic methods and who wouldn’t pollute their property with synthetic chemicals that could be harmful to their children and to their enjoyment of the two-acre yard.
            “I’ve never been one to put a lot of stuff on my yard. We lived in Seattle before, on a lake, and knew we wanted to avoid chemicals. We were very much aware that what we put on our lawn would end up in the lake. We wanted to be good stewards of the land,” said David, a software engineer who grew up in North Carolina.

“Even when I was growing up, having a perfectly lush and groomed lawn wasn’t something you needed to do. I knew when we moved here, that I wanted someone whose ideas and practices would mesh with my own,” said the father of four children, aged 15, 11, 11 and 9.
            David found Michael Nadeau through his website, while searching for an organic landscaper, 12 years ago. He said he was delighted to discover someone he could completely trust with his property.
“Generally, I can turn the yard over to him and good things happen,” said David. “They provide excellent service for landscaping, and also they snowplow us out in the winter and do fall clean ups for my in-laws in Norwalk.”
            At the McKinnis’ Fairfield home, Nadeau and crew have installed almost constantly blooming perennial and native meadows along both sides of their long driveway, planted trees to provide shade in the backyard and installed a beautiful 20-foot by 20-foot rain garden that attracts butterflies and birds as well as collects and helps to divert rainwater from streaming down the hill onto neighbors’ properties.
Now in its eighth year, the rain garden is well established and provides a wonderful habitat for birds and insects, David said.
            Nadeau said the major issues with the lawn were soil compaction (following new construction) and problematic grading, with low spots that held water and weakened the grass.
            We did standard and bioassay soil testing, core-aerated and sliced the soil, applied one-half inch of good compost, overseeded with a low-maintenance fescue seed mix with five percent Dutch white clover, and began applying compost tea (eight applications the first year; four every year after up to now).  We overseed the lawn each fall with a fescue mix to continue to fill in any thin areas.  Because of the clover and compost tea, the lawn receives only two half-rate fertilizer applications – one in late spring and one in early September, and no fungus or insect controls.  The growing family of four plays hard on the lawn and it holds up nicely.”
Choosing deer resistant native plantings was also important, he said.
“The landscape planting was the typical ‘necklace’ of ‘landscape linoleum’ type of plants around the foundation, with very little else. The deer were decimating even those plants so we enclosed the rear yard with deer fencing and re-landscaped the front of the house with deer resistant native plantings and perennial gardens using native meadow grasses and wildflowers. All the plants are regionally native to Connecticut. Up close to the front of the house is a wet spot where we grew the native Hibiscus moscheutos with its huge flowers in mixed colors that sprawls over a low serpentine stone wall, complemented with more ‘wet feet’ plantings, which the kids loved. Another wet spot received a muck soil and bog plants, such as pitcher plants, again for the kids’ enjoyment. On the far side of the driveway there is a mixed blueberry patch and meadow that jumps the driveway in one spot to add a look of authenticity – that the meadow on either side of the driveway allowed the meadow to blend in with the managed landscape instead of being starkly separated by the driveway. The crowning glory was a 35-foot tall, 10-inch caliper, sugar maple planted in front of the breezeway that connects the garage with the colonial house. It is growing strongly after nine years and provides a needed softening of the 2 ½ story house and the quintessential New England fall look that only a sugar maple and a colonial house can,” he said. “The back yard sports a mini-orchard with pears, apples and cherries. Truth be told, the critters get most of the fruit. The trees are managed organically, of course, with compost tea with Neem Oil, kaolin clay, and selected NOFA-approved insecticides and fungicides, but only when and if needed. Besides the vast and very important rain garden and raised bed vegetable garden, the rear yard has three more elements yet to be completed: a stone patio, a grove of gray birch/quaking aspen trees with a living mulch of shade tolerant flowering groundcovers, and rear foundation planting. Also, possibly when the kids move on, some of the large rear lawn can be converted to more meadow or some other ecologically appropriate planting.”
   Thoughtful planning and careful consideration have paid off, said David, who appreciated the comprehensive landscape plan Nadeau provided after their first meeting. He suggested waiting on planting additional trees until home construction on the screened porch was completed, so that heavy machinery wouldn’t compact the soil or damage new tree roots by running over or dislodging them. 
            “I’ve learned a lot in the last 10 years by working with Mike,” he said.         
Nadeau also installed four raised beds where David and his family grow tomatoes, zucchini, basil, strawberries and this year, onions. They compost all of their vegetable scraps from the kitchen as well as weeds from the garden beds, in customized bins along their back fence.
            Nadeau greatly enjoys working with the McKinnis’.
David is a computer genius and Beth, his wife, is a medical doctor – obviously both highly educated and totally devoted to caring for the Creation while providing a safe, functional and educational place for their kids to grow up.  They enjoy participating in creating compost from on-site materials and kitchen scraps, growing some of their own food (and passing this on to their kids), and using their own compost to grow them.  … They were clear that pesticides, invasive plants, and any harmful practices were out.  Together, we dreamed up the landscape and a talented landscape designer, Lois Beardsley and I, put it on paper,” he said.
“David and Beth are in the top handful of clients that I wouldn’t do without.  I have learned so much from them as good people and parents, they allowed me to experiment and make mistakes – with the opportunity to correct them – and sharpen our organic land care skills.  They really care about the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants – human and non-human alike,” he said. “They entrusted me with their piece of the earth and I hope I have not disappointed them.” 
            David and Elizabeth, a physician who also volunteers on the board of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, enjoy teaching their children about slowing down to appreciate the natural world and learn about their environment. They often stop the car while driving to school to admire flowering plants or birds.
David is also involved with the Mill River Wetlands Committee, a non-profit organization that works with Fairfield public schools through their science curriculum to teach kids about the river, water cycles and the river’s productivity. Students in grades three through six study the river through exercises including water sampling and analysis under microscopes, experiments testing the acidity and cloudiness of the river, and erosion, he said.
            “The yard provides a good opportunity for us to appreciate the natural beauty of the world. For a yard our size, and for what’s important to me, it’s nice to be able to have someone who we can trust and who makes it look good. And without using things that scare me,” he said. “Mike is also on top of recent trends and is a good resource as well.”
            Nadeau put David in touch with a local custom wood worker who not only installed a fence but built shelving and will now work on the laundry room.
            “We certainly recommend Mike to friends who have hired him as well and we’re so glad we were able to find someone who takes the right approach,” said David.

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