Step 11 - Working with an Organic Landscaper

Our 12-Step series is primarily intended for do-it-yourselfers, but there are reasons to also consider using the services of a professional landscaper. You may want to hire a landscaper to handle a major renovation or installation of a completely new landscape. There may be a particular project that you don't want to - or can't - take on yourself, such as spreading compost on a very large lawn, poison ivy removal, or tree care. You may have a persistent problem with your lawn that an experienced professional will be able to diagnose and solve. If you are transitioning from using chemicals, hiring an organic landscaper for the first two years can get your new organic lawn off to a good start.

One particular service offered by a number of organic landscapers and not generally available to the average homeowner is applying compost tea. Compost tea contains the beneficial microbes found in compost, but not the bulk organic material. It can be sprayed, so it is quicker and easier to apply than compost, and can be used to make foliar applications. Many golf courses and landscapers have had very positive results using compost tea to boost the heath of their turf and to introduce beneficial microbes to outcompete disease organisms.

Of course, some people just prefer to hire someone instead of doing their own lawncare. The good news is, you can hire a professional and still keep your lawn free of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

How to find an organic landscaper
There are several thousand companies and individuals who provide landscaping and lawncare services on Long Island; finding the significantly smaller number that have knowledge and expertise in organic methods could be a difficult task. Luckily, there are three different lists of organic landscapers available to Long Island homeowners. Although all the landscapers on these lists are capable of providing 100% organic service to any client, many offer different services to different clients, and some may also offer conventional chemical-based lawncare. Beware of 'bait and switch' situations, where a landscaper advertises organic service but then tries to talk you into using chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Also beware the uses of terms such as: "natural" or "includes organics." Using chemicals is often less labor intensive and requires less specialized knowledge of workers than organic lawncare, so companies can realize greater profit margins applying pesticides.

The first Long Island organic landscaper list to be established, which has been available for almost 20 years, is compiled annually by the Neighborhood Network, a non-profit environmental group. Landscapers on this list are required to demonstrate that they have education and experience in organic horticulture, and they must sign an agreement to comply with organic lawncare protocols that were developed by the Neighborhood Network in cooperation with experienced organic landscapers. This list shows you the parts of Long Island each company serves, and indicates which of five categories of service they provide. It also identifies companies that provide only 100% organic services to all of their customers, and therefore don't ever use chemical-based methods.

The second list is offered by Grassroots Environmental Education, a non-profit that is well known for providing information on avoiding environmental hazards. Landscapers on this list have completed an course in organic lawncare.

The third list is from the New York State DEC, and includes landscapers who participate in their Be Green Organic Yards NY program. This relatively new program is unfortunately getting mixed reviews.

Step 11 — Working with an Organic LandscaperNone of the organizations that provide these lists can accept liability for the outcomes or business practices of the companies they identify. Always take care when hiring any contractors to provide services to your home.

Not all landscapers provide the same services.
When you contact a landscaping company, ask questions and make sure that they provide the services you are looking for. Some are full-service companies that mow, apply compost and fertilizer, provide pest control, design and install new landscape features, care for trees and bushes, etc. Others may specialize, only providing one or a few of these services. As noted above, the Neighborhood Network list shows you what types of service each company provides. You can also ask what services they offer when you first contact a company.

You may consider hiring a different company, or a local young person to do your mowing, and an organic lawncare company for other services. It may be a good strategy to separate the mowing task from the organic landscaper who is keeping your soil and plants healthy, to give you more flexibility in who you hire, and potentially save money. Be sure the person you hire to mow agrees to raise their blades and mow your lawn high. (See Step 3) Lawn mowing services often have many clients, and have to move quickly between them. Since most clients expect their grass cut short, they may not be willing raise the blades for your lawn andt hen lower them for their next client. However, mowing high is one of the most basic organic lawncare fundamentals that will improve the overall health of your lawn and make organic lawncare more successful. Don't compromise on insisting that your lawn be mowed high.

Some landscapers are willing to work more as a consultant. In this case, you can do some things yourself, such as mowing, or making applications of lime and fertilizer, while the landscaper handles tasks that take greater expertise such as more comprehensive soil testing, diagnosis of problems, and application of compost teas suited to your turf's needs.

How to choose an organic landscaper.
When you are hiring someone to provide lawn care services, you should find out about their qualifications. Ask them about their education in organic lawncare. They should be able to tell you what courses, seminars and programs they have completed (such as: the Neighborhood Network Organic Turf Show, the Nature Lyceum, NOFA and Grassroots Environmental Education). Find out about their experience. How long have they been in the business? How many of their customers are getting 100% organic lawncare? How many of their customers have lawns similar to yours, with the same issues and problems? Ask them about their program. What kind of soil testing will they do on your lawn? (See Step 4.) How will they deal with particular problems that you have with your lawn? How well have those strategies worked for them in the past?

Before you sign a contract with a landscaper, talk about your past experiences with your lawn and your expectations. Rich Staudt of Total Landscape Care and Design recommends that when hiring a landscaper you should "spend time to see if you're comfortable with their experience and passion."

As with any professional you hire, ask for references and examples of their work.

Expectations
Have realistic expectations when working with an organic landscaper. Weeds will not disappear in a few days, as they can if they are sprayed with poisons. You might not achieve 100% eradication of a particular weed or pest, but rather control it to the point where it is no longer a problem. Ask your landscaper to estimate how long a particular strategy will take, and how much control to expect. Actual results on each lawn will be different, depending on the condition it is in to begin with, what has been done to it in the past, and how intensive the effort put into it.

Cost
As we noted above, conventional lawncare often depends on relatively cheap chemicals, which can be applied on a schedule and do not require understanding of a lawn ecosystem or the lifecycles of plants and pests. This means that conventional services are often less expensive in the short term. You may have seen TV news stories about organic landscapers who provide premium service to wealthy customers in the Hamptons. However there are also organic landscapers who provide services that are competitively priced with conventional landscapers.

Since they disrupt and inhibit soil life, chemical methods throw your lawn's ecosystem out of balance, resulting in worse problems if you stop the treatments. This creates a dependence on more and more future treatments. In contrast, an organic program seeks to mimic natural processes and build up the amount and diversity of life in the soil. This can lead to establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem that needs fewer and fewer inputs as time goes on, potentially reducing costs over time.

Long Island Organic Landscaping is Sustainable Business
Although they are greatly outnumbered by conventional lawncare companies, you can find an organic landscaper who can serve you anywhere you live on Long Island. A 2012 report: Organic Landscaping is Sustainable Business published by the Neighborhood Network, and funded by a grant from the Long Island Community Foundation, found that the organic landscaping industry on the Island has weathered the economic downturn well, with many companies expanding their operations, keeping customers satisfied, and taking on new employees.

Long Island Organic Landscapers
Although it's easy for the average homeowner to maintain their lawn organically, some may too busy and wish to hire a professional. In that case there are thousands of landscapers on Long Island to choose from, but only a small but growing number of experts who can maintain your lawn and landscape without the use of chemical pesticides. They can be found here.

To see all the previous steps in the series, please visit 12 Steps to an Organic Lawn