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!

Monday, February 23, 2015

AOLCP Zack Kline Quietly Cuts Lawns and Testifies to Ban Lawn Pesticides

“Going Organic in Montgomery County”
AOLCP Zack Kline Quietly Cuts Lawns and Testifies to Ban Lawn Pesticides

By Kathy Litchfield
ROCKVILLE, MD – It was a “code red” day in Montgomery County, Md. – 100 degrees with intense humidity and very poor air quality -- and a teenage Zack Kline was sweating and breathing in smog as his ears drummed along with the loud noise of the string trimmer he utilized on a three-acre property.
           Kline, who had always enjoyed his family chore of lawn mowing from age 11 on, started working for a small landscaping company the summer he graduated from high school.
            What he didn’t bargain for was the loud noise, excessive pollution and large amounts of gasoline the company poured into their machines on a daily basis. Days began at the gas station.
            “I just knew there had to be a better way,” said the now 25-year-old NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional, who founded his company, A.I.R. Lawn Care (A.I.R. stands for Atmosphere Improvement and Renewal) four years ago. Kline focuses on providing clients with natural and organic lawn care, landscape design and environmentally-friendly maintenance services. He found his clients wanted to be educated about alternatives to the loud, polluting engines used by landscape companies as much as he wanted to learn about and eliminate them from his life.
            The enterprising young professional wrote a business plan and, in order to get seed money to start his own company, entered Salisbury University’s Bernstein Business Plan competition in 2010, in which he took honorable mention. In 2011, after honing his plan, he re-entered again and took home the $5,000 first place prize.
            “With that, A.I.R. Lawn Care was born – I put a down payment on a truck, purchased electric lawn equipment and began to get clients for the 2011 season,” he said.
            With his passion ignited, Kline launched into business and started going door to door with his electric equipment, offering lawn cutting. Over time his clients asked if he offered other environmentally friendly services, and he was happy to oblige. He presently has commercial and residential clients and maintains several crews. Last year he downsized the time-consuming residential side of the business and increased the commercial base; he was rewarded with triple growth of the business overall.
Networking has played an essential role in Kline’s early success as well as in his connecting to the movers and shakers of Montgomery County, Md. where he is now embroiled in testifying to help ban lawn pesticides county-wide.
Last fall, the co-founder of the group Bethesda Green and county councilor George Levanthal introduced a bill to ban “non-essential” pesticides from lawns throughout the county, citing cancer and other health concerns. Kline got involved with the group in 2011 at a lunch seminar where he met decision makers within the community’s public and private sectors and formed lasting relationships that have not only led to referrals for his business, but allowed him to stand up and speak his mind not only about the hazards of pesticides but about the business opportunities for landscapers.
On Jan. 15, Kline testified at the bill’s first public hearing, citing examples of successful local organic projects and the growth he has experienced in providing environmentally-friendly services.
“The results I’ve seen in my landscaping business show that lawns can be green and healthy at a reasonable cost while keeping people and pets healthy by avoiding the use of pesticides. I strongly recommend the county council to pass Bill 52-14 so our county can continue to set an example for other counties across the United States and be the safest, cleanest and healthiest community where people want to live and work,” he said during the hearing.
A second hearing was held Feb. 12 and Kline said he has “no doubt” that the bill will pass. He cites issues with the bill however: one is that the ban will exempt playing fields and parks where children play; and that there is a “sunset clause” that the bill will expire in 2019; issues that will hopefully be decided later this summer, he said.
Through his work, Kline has enjoyed getting to know Chip Osborne, who led a series of workshops in nearby Takoma Park, Md. to help educate the public about natural and organic lawn care last fall. Kline also maintains a relationship with Paul Tukey, author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual,” who pointed him to the NOFA Organic Land Care Program for accreditation. Kline was accredited in 2014 at the Philadelphia, Pa. course.
“I like to surround myself with experts,” said Kline. “People say, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know,’ but I believe it’s really ‘who knows you,’” said Kline, who attributes networking as a major key to his success. “I was very gung ho when I started out, always in the streets, introducing myself and letting people know about what I was doing, and becoming part of groups where I could meet influential people.”
            Among these is the president of STIHL Inc. After extensive research into what battery-powered equipment he wanted to purchase for his company, Kline chose STIHL and discovered their president loved to play bagpipes. Kline purchased bagpipe cufflinks on the Internet, hand wrote a letter of introduction explaining his business plan and desire to purchase STIHL equipment, and sent it out. Shortly thereafter he received a personal phone call from company president Fred Whyte, who thanked him for the gift and arranged for a personal meeting with himself and other executives.
“After realizing I was the real deal, they donated equipment that helped get us started,” said Kline. Through other STIHL connections, Kline learned about PLANET, the professional landcare networking group for land care professionals, and STIHL’s Independent We Stand, a movement supporting locally owned businesses.
Kline has been featured in industry magazines such as Turf Magazine and in national STIHL advertisements for battery-powered equipment. Kline’s roommate also runs a video production company, DC Visionaries, and is working on a documentary about the pesticide-banning bill.
            “These relationships have tremendously bumped up my success. Just reaching out to the executives at Stihl for instance has grown my business ten-fold,” he said.
            Using solar, battery-powered equipment has also provided Kline a niche in the ever-changing and growing landscape industry just outside of Washington, D.C., where he says people are progressive and business opportunities are plentiful.
            “The biggest benefit is the noise reduction. The benefits to the business owner are huge – it’s very marketable, it saves money, there are no fuel or maintenance costs for the gas engines, they’re easy to start and operate and there is no pollution – my crews can talk on their cell phones while they’re out in the field,” he said. “And it’s clean for them, they’re not inhaling emissions. For the client, an additional benefit is that a client working remotely from home may be in the middle of a conference call when we show up to mow. The biggest compliment we get from our clients is ‘we didn’t even know you were here’ and then they see the finished cut and love the result. I believe battery-powered equipment will be mainstream within five years, because of these benefits.”
            Kline has a practical and realistic view of the future. “The good thing is the grass is always going to grow and someone will have to cut it. It definitely affects property values. And people are becoming more and more conscientious about the environment. They’re looking at how contractors are handling that. We are setting examples that I believe others will start to follow.”
            For more information, visit

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Going Organic in Decorah, Iowa

The Fischers’ Commitment to Net Zero Energy, Native Plants & Organic Vegetables

Photo Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange 
Caption: Robert and Julie Fischer are fulfilling their longtime dream of living in an energy-efficient home surrounded by organic gardens, native plants and orchard trees in Decorah, Iowa.
By Kathy Litchfield
DECORAH, IOWA – When asked why she and her husband choose organic methods, Julie Fischer had a question of her own: “Is there any other way?”
            Since the 1970s, Julie and Robert Fischer perked up listening to Rachel Carson and Sandra Steingraber. The more they learned about the broader effects of chemicals put onto lawns and gardens seeping into groundwater and leaving stripped soil and toxins behind, the more convinced they became that they had to choose another, more natural way. 

            “We lived in Kansas for about 30 years and became good friends with The Land Institute. We went to a lot of lectures and gathered lots of information there,” said Julie. “That further convinced us that there were really good ways of living with nature without poisoning ourselves and others including our natural insects that can be helpful in growing our crops naturally.”
            The Fischers moved to Iowa in 2003 and to Decorah in 2010 and embarked upon constructing a nearly net zero energy home complete with passive solar heating, a mini-split-heat pump system, concrete floors that absorb and retain heat and south-facing windows. Rob spent years researching how to build energy efficient homes before they even started looking for a good building site and an architect whose philosophy lined up with their goals and desires.
            “Among our goals were to be in a place where we could walk to most things we wanted to do, close to recreational trails. And to have good southern exposure, a straight roof line for solar panels, south-facing windows . . .” said Julie.
            “We really notice the effects of passive solar on our house in the wintertime, on sunny days when it may be 0° outside but toasty warm in our living room,” said Rob. “Although we have a gas-fired high-efficiency boiler for in-floor heat during very cold weather, we use our mini-split heat pump when it is only moderately cold. It’s 26 degrees outside right now and it’s comfortable in here. We’re using credits we accumulate with our utility for the energy produced from the sun with the aid of our rooftop photovoltaic system!”
            Immediately after constructing their home, the Fischers started thinking about landscaping. Their yard was all torn up and loaded with clay fill. Being just 44 feet wide by 110 feet back, they decided to plant almost all of the available space with vegetables, orchard trees, natives and perennial flowers.
            The Fischers met Jeff Scott of Driftless Gardens, who is a brand new NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (CT course, 2014) at an Iowa home show where he had a booth. Scott had heard about the Fischers’ innovative building and began working with them in February of 2013.
            “As part of their home construction, they were pretty mindful about using net zero
construction practices and they were invested in carrying that same idea to their landscape,” said Scott, whose background includes organic farming and youth education as well as horticulture.
            Working closely with the Fischers, Scott helped them put together a standard site design including food production, native plantings, water management and access and not putting too much into the small space, “so that it still felt and acted like a functional and beautiful space.”
            Scott used pavers to install a long, steady ramp approach up to the house from the city sidewalk, and advised the Fischers on native prairie plants and shrubs they could use in the surrounding area. They purchased some of their plants from Scott, who also maintains a propagation greenhouse.      
            Robert and Julie’s backyard features six espaliered heirloom apple trees with a mix of early, mid-season and late maturing varieties, two pear trees, raspberries, one aronia shrub and a diverse selection of their favorite vegetables including okra, tomatoes, beets, peppers, arugula, eggplant and broccoli. Beans climbed trellises all summer long; they had a wonderful rhubarb patch; shared their overwhelming broccoli harvest with their neighbors; and grew plenty of garlic and onions. Two big rainwater barrels collect roof runoff water they use in the gardens and for houseplants; they have a worm composter for their kitchen scraps; and regularly feed a huge compost pile in the backyard too.
In the front yard, Robert sourced limestone and glacial erratic stones and planted sedums and succulents between the stones, added oregano and other herbs and perennial flowers. He built retaining walls further out along the sides of the ramp for raised beds of kale, basil and other herbs and edibles along with the prairie forbs and greasses.
            “People stopped by and asked what our weird looking palm trees were,” laughedJulie,” well that was our kale, until the deer mowed them down.”
            One day Julie, a retired nurse, came home from work at the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center, where she is volunteer coordinator of special events and “community conversations” on important issues including immigration and urban gardening, to find Rob digging what looked like graves in the backyard.
            “He had decided to dig down to where the good soil was, beneath the hardpan of clay left by the big machinery that had tamped it down. He dug about four feet down and was up to his hips in there,” she laughed.
The Fischers have only a few small strips of lawn left on their property, which they mow using a reel push mower, to the surprise of their neighbors’ little girl who accused them of “not mowing right because there wasn’t any noise.”
            The Fischers’ efforts to convert lawn to gardens were quickly noticed by Seed Savers Exchange, located a few miles away, who took photographs of the Fischers’ property they plan to run in their spring catalogue.
            Rob, who is a German to English translator, serves on the local tree board and at the city’s municipal prairie – river bottom land that had been used for agriculture and was converted into a prairie attracting butterflies, birds and native species. The Fischers formerly used community garden plots before transforming their backyard into gardens and plan to use them again next year for spreading plants like winter squash and sweet potatos.
            “This is a wonderful place to do this kind of gardening. Everyone’s so positive about it and many people have gardens in their front yards now,” said Julie. “This is really a widespread trend, surely influenced in part by Seed Savers Exchange being close by. If you look out our back windows, three of our neighbors have vegetable gardens. There’s a lot going on here!”
            Most rewarding for the Fischers is the feeling of satisfaction knowing they are not contributing to the “culture of poisoning things.” “We’re reacting against that, just growing things the way they should grow and getting joy out of it,” said Rob.
            Julie and Rob love when neighbors pass by and stop to talk and visit; they also love the physical work of getting their hands in the dirt, stretching their backs and inhaling the rich, heady scent of good compost.
            The couple, living what they dreamed about for so long, hopes to be able to sit back and admire their hard work as their plants get more established. “Sometimes I look outside and Rob’s just standing there, looking at things,” said Julie. “Maybe this year we’ll do more of that!”