Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Going Organic in Springfield, Massachusetts

TURI Grant Funds Municipal Training, Six Pilot Sites & Future Plans

By Kathy Litchfield

SPRINGFIELD, MASS. – Springfield is going organic, thanks in part to a $20,000 community grant from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in Lowell, MA that funded trainings and technical assistance for implementation of organic land care practices at six public pilot sites over the last year and a half.
                The properties include the Frederick Harris School grounds, Sweeny Athletic Field at the High School of Commerce, Forest Park athletic field, Tree Top Park, Camp Wilder and the terrace at Mason Square. The results from these pilot sites have provided the foundation to expand the program to 50 school properties and 900 acres of managed public land, according to Lynn Rose, Project Coordinator.

                In recognition of the City’s efforts, the NOFA Organic Land Care Program will award the City of Springfield with an Organic Leadership Award on Dec. 14 at the NOFA Annual Gathering. Chip Osborne will present the grant project and specifics on the rewards and challenges of how the work in Springfield is progressing.
                “We are extremely proud to accept the $20,000 grant from TURI, which will start the vital process of integrating organic fertilizers in the maintenance practices of our open space across the City. It is time we take the lead in the Pioneer Valley by encouraging both residents and businesses to join us in the protection of our open space and water resources by using organic fertilizers. I am convinced this will have long-term impacts and improve the overall health of our urban environment,” said Mayor Domenic Sarno at the time of the grant award.
                The project came together through a perfect storm of events, according to Lynn Rose, who has worked with the City of Springfield for seven years developing and implementing environmental programs in the City, including integrated pest management (IPM) techniques and laws on public properties. She’s a member of the Northeast IPM School Working Group, and conducted extensive research into pest IPM methods, but over time found herself frustrated with the restrictions of IPM. She had hoped that eliminating all toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers was possible.
At that time, she was approached by Maryanne Jule, a resident, who was interested in helping the city lands become organically managed. Together they pursued additional resources.
                She called the national organization, Beyond Pesticides to identify resources specifically designed for municipal issues. As a result, she enlisted Chip Osborne to teach a municipal training in organic care for athletic fields, city terrace and building grounds.
Springfield then partnered with several citizens, Better Life Whole Foods, and the cities of Northampton and Holyoke, and applied for a TURI community grant to help train employees to implement organic land care practices on six properties in Springfield, and train residents on organic lawn care.
Since the grant award, the Springfield Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management, under the leadership of Executive Director, Patrick Sullivan, has been hard at work testing soil, developing bid specifications for materials and labor, creating a program budget to implement organic land care practices and conduct trainings for staff, community groups, residents and homeowners and the grant’s municipal partners -- all with Chip Osborne at their side.
“Chip Osborne is a force of nature – he has made a pivotal difference in how the staff and administration see and do things,” said Rose. “It was fascinating, at Chip’s very first training, to see how everyone came together. There were people who didn’t realize how willing the administration and the staff were to consider organic management.  Chip brilliantly illustrated how feasible it was and how much sense it made.”
Osborne also outlined how it is possible to save 20 percent of costs in the long run once organic methods are established, said Rose, which will ultimately help the City defend its decision to make this transition to organic.
After Chip’s training, the staff all came away thinking, “Why would we do anything else (but organic)?” said Rose.
Over the last year, Sullivan and Osborne have worked closely to  integrate the “systems approach” to building soil fertility to prevent disease, insect and weed infestations, maintain soil biology, use proper fertilization for optimum plant health, choose the right grasses to thrive in the different conditions of the six pilot sites, and integrate preventative strategies and products for long-term care.
The parks involved in the grant had challenges the program would need to address – bare spots on fields that pose unsafe playing surfaces and encroachment of poison ivy and other weeds that pose life-threatening bee allergic reactions. Rose said the City is committed to choosing organic methods to battle these issues.
Sullivan said, “The green industry now offers organic products that are affordable and will have a long-term impact in improving the overall health of our turf eco systems. We also will be saving money in the long run.”

According to Rose, the City is moving away from using synthetic fertilizers “that can leach into groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes and cause negative health effects in children and pets.” They are basing their fertilization on soil testing results.
She said they have already expanded the number of pilots, and will continue to transition all of the public lands. Future initiatives include writing a grant to the Environmental Protection Agency to identify and address stormwater runoff issues from herbicide and synthetic fertilizer use by residences and businesses in Springfield; and working with the Operational Services Division (the agency that establishes contracts for state agencies and municipalities to purchase products and services from) to source organic products so that they are attainable by municipalities and state agencies.
“Once the products are available on state contract, state agencies can also begin the transition to organic,” she said. “Maybe the transition will take years, but it is doable and we can make changes statewide.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fall Accreditation Course was a Success!

by Jenna Messier
Nancy Dubrule Clemente - Natureworks
In early November, 41 students became Accredited at our Fall Accreditation Course in Organic Land Care at Greenwich Audubon! NOFA OLC offered a new format of two days of instruction one week, and two days of instruction the following week, to allow people to continue working during the busy fall cleanup and planting season.  Students came from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts to learn the nuts and bolts of organic land care from popular NOFA teachers such as Michael Nadeau, Nancy Dubrule-Clemente and Chip Osborne.

Michael Nadeau

Full classroom at Greenwich Audubon

Chip Osborne telling it like it is
Mike Dietz

The course continues to be an intensive learning experience, with 8 or more hours a day of instruction.  After 13 years, the agenda continues to evolve, as we respond to students' interests in learning new subject areas.  An introduction to permaculture has been added for the last three courses, as well as additional case studies on Green Stormwater Infrastructure to challenge the students with the options for removing impervious surfaces and installing rain gardens and other structures to infiltrate water on site.  This year, Dr. Michael Dietz from UCONN taught the GSI sections for the first time, giving the students instruction in using the UCONN Rain Garden App and demonstrating large scale projects across the state.

Some students attended the course in groups, such as 4 students attending from Almstead Shrub and Tree Company, pictured to the right with Dan Dalton in the center. Dan teaches Pest Management and Pests in Shrub and Trees at the course and also in an arborist working for Almstead.  3 students attended who work at The Hickories Farm in Ridgefield, and 2 students from Northeast Horticultural in Stratford. Additional trucks are shown below, as I found them in the parking lot!

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.