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Landscape Sustainability: Examples in Three States

On Day 2 of the Mid-Atlantic tour an organic landscape roundtable discussion hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society included PHS project managers Mark Paronish and Julie Snell, along with SafeLawns founder Paul Tukey, Glenstone horticulturist Patricia Manke and organic lawn guru Barry Draycott of New Jersey.

On Day 2 of the Mid-Atlantic tour an organic landscape roundtable discussion hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society included PHS project managers Mark Paronish and Julie Snell, along with SafeLawns founder Paul Tukey, Glenstone horticulturist Patricia Manke and organic lawn guru Barry Draycott of New Jersey.

I just returned fully energized this evening from a whirlwind tour of three Mid-Atlantic states. The topics at each stop were landscape sustainability and safety and the examples, at dozens of locations, were stunning.

Wednesday evening began with an overview of the Delaware Center for Horticulture with Lenny Wilson, Assistant Director of Horticulture and Facilities at the Wilmington location. The DCH has a clear mandate to care for its property without synthetic pesticides and Lenny offered rave reviews of their progress thus far.

The Delaware Center for Horticulture installed a rain garden at the base of a nearby parking lot in Wilmington to reduce runoff into tributaries.

The Delaware Center for Horticulture installed a rain garden at the base of a nearby parking lot in Wilmington to reduce runoff into tributaries.

The occasion for my visit was the organization’s annual Copeland Lecture, an endowed event with the mission of bringing in nationally recognized experts in landscape sustainability to Delaware. The audience included the general public, board members and a surprising number of professional landscapers. The event was even sponsored by the Delaware Grounds Management Association, which invited me back for a roundtable discussion next winter.

I remarked to several members that their openness to organic lawn care would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, but they all commented that their customers were the ones pulling them in the natural direction.

“I don’t want a thing to do with the chemicals anymore,” said one gentleman, who revealed a scar from cancer surgery. “Your book (the Organic Lawn Care Manual) is my bible.”

THE NEXT MORNING BEGAN WITH A MEETING in Philadelphia at the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which also has a mandate to deal with its 80 city garden plots with organic protocols. This is year one, which hasn’t been without its challenges, so PHS asked myself and Barry Draycott of Tech Terra Organics in New Jersey to come by for a consultation. I, in turn, invited Patricia Manke, who is the head horticulturist at Glenstone, the site of our organic lawn research trials in Potomac, Md.

In organic lawn care and gardening, everyone agreed, the issue isn’t getting lawns to be green; that’s easy with organic techniques. The problem can be keeping weeds under control, at least enough to meet aesthetic expectations of an American public that still loathes dandelions. Barry gave PHS an overview of many of the products he carries, including Fiesta weed control — which is made from a naturally occurring iron chelate and sold under various brands. Patricia Manke has been trialing Fiesta at Glenstone and reported good results, especially with dandelions and thistle.

We all reiterated that weeds are messengers sent by Mother Nature to tell us something about the soil. In other words, if you lawn is mostly weeds, it’s because your soil wants to grow weeds and not grass. Weed killers are tools to treat symptoms, but the best way to treat weeds sustainably is to try to manage your lawn’s soil conditions.

PATRICIA WAS THE STAR OF THE SHOW at Penn Hort that day because of the success she is having at Glenstone after 15 months on the SafeLawns program we designed for her.

The lawn at Glenstone, which received its second blanket of compost of the year last week, is magnificently lush and green in its 15th month of the organic transformation. The grounds have only received one pound of organic fertilizer per thousand square feet this season.

The lawn at Glenstone, which received its second blanket of compost of the year last week, is magnificently lush and green in its 15th month of the organic transformation. The grounds have only received one pound of organic fertilizer per thousand square feet this season.

I visited Glenstone this morning. The entire 16 acres of lawn were aerated and coated with a quarter-inch layer of compost just last week, then overseeded. The compost takes the place of synthetic chemical fertilizer and the seed takes place of any weed killer. Patricia and her crew have had to spot apply some natural herbicides this season and hand-pulling has been necessary in a few instances, but overall the weed pressure has been manageable — even at a facility that demands near perfection in its appearance.

The crew did learn one lesson in the compost spreading. Apparently it rained heavily after the compost was put down; the excess moisture caused the compost to seal over the lawn in some areas. When the sun did come out the compost trapped the heat, which began to yellow the lawn in a few spots. The crew quickly took action by using blowers to break the seal of the compost and the affected areas were well on their way to recovery as of this morning. If you look closely at the photo, above, you can see a few impacted spots.

We’ll be sitting down with Patricia and her colleagues in the coming weeks to do a full assessment of the first full year, including the financial impacts to the property. She gave me these general pros and cons of going organic so far:

PROS
Safety — “I feel so much better about coming to work,” she said.
Reduced Watering — About 75 percent less for the season than previous years
Reduced Mowing — About 50 percent less than when the property was maintained chemically.
Pesticide Elimination — Two years ago the facility spend tens of thousands of dollars on a routine pesticide maintenance program on lawns and trees; that’s gone entirely.
Appearance — When a fusarium outbreak threatened to overtake the property, an application of compost tea wiped it out almost instantly. The lawn has looked consistently green, even through the hottest parts of the year.

CONS
Weed Management — Some hand pulling and overseeding is required, rather than blanket spraying of a chemical.
Additional Labor — Spreading the compost over a lawn that had incredibly poor soils (less than 1 percent organic matter) is a lot of work; we estimate that by the end of next year the compost top-dressing will no longer be necessary.

Overall, said Patricia, there’s no turning back to the old ways.

“We spray compost tea everywhere, on the lawns, the trees, the pachysandra,” she said. “The plants are clearly responding. It’s a real story to tell.”

Early in October the University of Maryland researchers will be on site to begin a 30-month research project that we co-designed and Glenstone funded. The goal is to come out with a peer-reviewed research paper that states what the property is already showing us: ORGANIC LAWN CARE WORKS!

This is the compost tea brewing station at Glenstone, which includes a 250-gallon brewer, at right, and totes for fresh water. Keeping the tanks elevated allows the spray truck to back right up to the valve and, once attached, gravity feeds the compost tea into the spray tank.

This is the compost tea brewing station at Glenstone, which includes a 250-gallon brewer, at right, and totes for fresh water. Keeping the tanks elevated allows the spray truck to back right up to the valve and, once attached, gravity feeds the compost tea into the spray tank.

A worker at Glenstone sprays compost tea into trees. At peak season, the crew brews three 250-gallon tank loads per week.

A worker at Glenstone sprays compost tea into trees. At peak season, the crew brews three 250-gallon tank loads per week.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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