The reality is that the landscape market is shifting.With the emerging science, new legislation and awareness from the general public about human and environmental health dangers of synthetic pesticides, municipal staff and landscapers around the nation are scrambling for alternative methods.
It is in the interest of landscapers to get in front of the market and educate themselves about organic landscaping to fill market demand. This could not only benefit the future success of a company, it also sets it apart from the majority with the ability to offer clients an organic alternative.For municipal staff, it makes sense be proactive and initiate organic training for staff, as it provides the ability to switch to organics in advance of pressure to remove synthetic pesticides from public parks, athletic fields and schools.
Landscape contractors and municipal staff have a unique lens when it comes to an organic transition.While advocates and elected officials are mostly concerned with human and environmental health by eliminating synthetic pesticides, contractors and staff have to run a business.Certainly a business cares about how their practices affect human and environmental health, however another primary concern is the fiscal impact of going organic.How do you transition to organic in a way that will make your clients or governing board happy and offer the transition at a price that will be accepted?It is our goal to provide as much information as possible to answer these questions and to inspire you to become part of the organic landscape professional network.
Landscape contractors are in a unique position filled with opportunity
The first step is to understand the guiding principles of organic land care.You can read about them here.
Avoid Organic by Neglect
Organic by neglect is stopping all synthetic pesticides without transitioning to an organic plan.If you are motivated to explore organic because your client or municipality is getting community pressure to stop the use of synthetic pesticides, simply stopping their use without a transition plan can have negative results. The concern of advocates is to protect children, pets and the environment.However, just because advocates are aware of the dangers of synthetic pesticides, they may not be educated on how complete elimination of these products affect the current landscape aesthetics.This is why it is important to be prepared to present an organic transition agronomic plan.
Organic is Not a Product Swap
Organic land care is much more than just a product for product swap. When we look at situations where an organic program has been simply a product swap, we usually see that this method has not resulted in a satisfying level of aesthetic expectations.
There are two identifiable areas in organic landscaping:
1.Hardscapes and Planter Beds This area includes cracks and crevices in hardscapes and around plants in landscaping beds.While all plant health depends on soil health, it would be unrealistic to take soil samples and address soil health in these areas, as it would be too costly and labor intensive.Simple weed abatement through mechanical means like hand-pulling and weed whacking, would be preferred. Using 1-2 inches of mulch should also be considered.However, if a chemical must be used, replacing a synthetic with a 25(b) exempt or a low rated signal word certified organic herbicide is allowed.
2.Turf Conventional turf management programs are generally centered on a synthetic product approach that uses highly water-soluble fertilizers and pesticide control products to continually treat symptoms on an annual basis. In addition to having adverse effects on human health and the environment, pesticides, by definition, kill, repel, or mitigate a pest. They do not grow grass. This is achieved by implementing a strategy that proactively solves problems by creating a healthy soil and turf grass system. Healthy, vigorously growing grass will out-compete most weed pressures, and a healthy soil biomass will assist in the prevention of many insect and disease issues.
The guiding principles of organic land care are based on soil health. Simply swapping out a product like 2,4-D for an organic alternative to eradicate broadleaf clover does not address or improve soil health.Any herbicide, synthetic or organic, harms the soil web.
The United States Department of Agriculture describes the soil food web as, “An incredible diversity of organisms make up the soil food web. They range in size from the tiniest one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to the more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.As these organisms eat, grow, and move through the soil, they make it possible to have clean water, clean air, healthy plants, and moderated water flow. There are many ways that the soil food web is an integral part of landscape processes. Soil organisms decompose organic compounds, including manure, plant residue, preventing them from entering water and becoming pollutants. They sequester nitrogen and other nutrients that might otherwise enter groundwater, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants. Many organisms enhance soil aggregation and porosity, thus increasing infiltration and reducing runoff. Soil organisms prey on pests and are food for above-ground animals.”
The desired high expectation outcome for athletic fields and turf grass will not be met without the system approach of organic land care.It is important first to document the existing physical condition of the turf areas and to establish a baseline soil analysis for chemistry, texture, and nutrient availability. Because every site is treated individually, organic inputs are unique and based on the current conditions of the soil.There is a lot that goes into a natural program, but it does not have to be overly complicated or costly.
It needs to be emphasized that organic is much more than just a product for product swap. When an organic program has been simply a swapping out of products, there are situations that have not resulted in satisfying higher levels of expectations. A successful organic transition is directly correlated to soil health and therefore, product swapping only will lead to failure and an unhappy client or community.
A “feed-the-soil” approach centers on natural, organic fertilization, soil amendments, microbial inoculants, compost teas, microbial food sources, and topdressing as needed with high quality finished compost. It is a program that supports the natural processes that nature has already put in motion. These inputs, along with very specific cultural practices, that include mowing, aeration, irrigation, and over-seeding are the basis of the program.
The goal of an organic landscape program is to create turf that is both aesthetically pleasing and meets site objectives. At the same time, this turf will provide a surface that will be healthy and free from toxic chemicals. The products and program will be designed to utilize materials and adopt cultural practices that will avoid any runoff or leaching of nutrients and control products into the water table or surface waters.
Building a soil environment rich in microbiology will produce strong, healthy turf that will be able to withstand many of the stresses that can affect turf grass. The turf system will be better able to withstand pressures from heavy use, insects, weeds, and disease, as well as drought and heat stress as long as good cultural practices continue to be followed and products are chosen to enhance and continually address the soil biology. While problems can arise in any turf system and may need to be dealt with, they should be easier to alleviate with a soil that is healthy and that has the proper microbiology in place.
The most important thing is communication and a discussion of the different management levels, which refers to the cultural intensity required to maintain an individual turf area to the degree that meets expectations. There is not just one organic program, but rather different programs with different levels of intensity that can be created to meet the needs of an individual site. Recommendations are made based on communicated expectations.
Identify objectives and desired outcomes.Is the objective to remove all synthetic pesticides immediately or transition over time?Warn clients and the community of the pitfall of organic by neglect.Be upfront from the beginning about the costs associated with each and that a transition to organics will take 3-5 years depending on the level of transition and site conditions.
The Truth About Product Labels
One of the arguments against certified organic products is that the signal word could be higher than synthetic pesticides.The signal words DANGER, WARNING or CAUTION describe the acute (short-term) level of toxicity.The signal word does not describe the chronic (long-term) level of toxicity.A DANGER signal word on a certified organic label indicates it could be acutely harmful to the applicator or anyone that comes in direct contact with the product.However, long-term chronic health effects from exposure in the landscape are unlikely to be an issue. Each product will require evaluation individually, and least toxic products should always be chosen based on both acute and chronic effects - not on signal words alone.
The Landscape Contractor and California Schools
In the state of California, any person that applies a pesticide on any K-12 school campus must meet the regulatory guidelines of the Healthy Schools Act (HSA).It is important to be in compliance to avoid disciplinary action.The easiest way to avoid liability and disciplinary action is to avoid synthetic pesticides and adopt an organic land management plan using 25(b) exempt pesticides, which also make your life easier because they do not apply to the posting rules.However, certified organic pesticides do require posting.
Education Code 17610 states,“It is the policy of the state that effective least toxic pest management practices should be the preferred method of managing pests at school sites and that the state, in order to reduce children's exposure to toxic pesticides” and “shall take the necessary steps, to facilitate the adoption of effective least toxic pest management practices at school sites. It is the intent of the Legislature that all school site personnel involved in the application of a pesticide at a school site be trained in integrated pest management and the safe use of pesticides in relation to the unique nature of school sites and children’s health.”
The most important thing is to have the well-being of children’s health in mind.
While the HSA has created strict guidelines about posting and training, there is nothing preventing a landscaper from taking stronger precautions.
It’s also important to keep in mind that any person working for or hired by a school district must complete a “training course provided by the Department of Pesticide Regulation or an agent authorized by the Department of Pesticide Regulation. The training course shall include integrated pest management and the safe use of pesticides in relation to the unique nature of school sites and children’s health.” (Education Code 17614)
To read about the cost of transitioning to organic click here.
To read about the first steps to an organic landscaping program click here.