As a landscape professional, you may already agree with, and even employ, some of the principles of eco-green sustainable (also known as organic) landscape work.
But one important hesitation remains. How do you fight the aphids, grubs and chinch bugs that suck the life out of ornamental plants and grasses—and can ultimately kill them—without resorting to chemical pesticides? Not to mention the mosquitoes, ticks and fleas that mar people’s enjoyment of their yards and gardens and spread diseases.
You’re not an exterminator, but your customers expect you to control or eliminate these pests. Can you really fight them effectively, and to your clients’ satisfaction, without using every weapon available?
This article started out to be about eco-green pest control—and only eco-green pest control. However, as the writing progressed, it became clear that considering organic pest control in isolation is impossible.
The one consistent message that every single expert interviewed for this story had is that environmentally safe pest control is only one facet of a complete, holistic approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
That’s the method advocated by Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Their mission is “to provide the public with useful information on pesticides and alternatives to their use.”
IPM, as defined by them, includes using tools such as “pest population monitoring and living biological controls, and then, only if nontoxic options are unreasonable and have been exhausted, [using] the least toxic pesticides.”
“We call the old, conventional approach ‘S.A.S.—See’em and Spray- ’em,’” said Philip Catron, president and CEO of NaturaLawn, a chain of eco-green lawn care franchises. “Unfortunately, many companies still practice that as opposed to doing IPM.”
The organic philosophy has paid off for Natura Lawn.
Started in Catron’s basement in 1986, the Frederick, Maryland-based company now has 24 locations across the U.S.
IPM was a concept also touted by Thomas Kelly, co-owner of Natural Technologies, an Auburn, New Hampshire-based company that makes organic soil amendments.
The firm also distributes natural pest control products exclusively to landscape companies that are members of its “BeeSafe” network.
“When you’re using organic practices, insect control products are seldom necessary,” says Kelly. “When soil biology is very active, the plants that grow from that very healthy soil are strengthened by it. When you use fertilizers and pesticides, you’re sterilizing the environment that you are growing from.”
“You’re killing the biology of the soil and all the beneficial bacteria in it. This opens you up to all kinds of problems, and allows insects to be much more damaging,” he added.
When you’re thinking about eco-green pest control, these professionals stress that you don’t just look at the bugs, but look at the soil first. Organic practices build stronger plants, according to them. And stronger plants stand up to the attack of insects, weeds, and disease much better.
Kelly uses an illustration from his New England region to explain. “When you’re driving down those rolling hills in Vermont, there’s all this pasture that’s the greenest green you’ve ever seen in your life. There’s no chinch bug or grub damage visible. Why? Because it’s been pooped on by cows for 200 years. Nobody’s fertilizing it or spraying it. It’s biologically active.”
“When you’re taking a more holistic approach to growing turf and plants in general, the idea is to keep them healthy,” said Catron. “You don’t need to apply what I call the ‘systemic antibiotics’ (which includes pesticides.)” Just as a doctor starts a physical with a blood test to get a baseline, NaturaLawn begins their program with a “soil blood test,” to see what amendments are needed, if any. This test is repeated throughout the year.
“The most important thing to know is that when you’re taking the organic road, it’s not a simple product-for-product swap-out,” says Chip Osborne, owner of Osborne Organics, LLC in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
A horticulturalist for 40 years, he used to run a commercial greenhouse and was “a frequent pesticide user.” Fifteen years ago, while still in the greenhouse industry, he taught himself how to grow organically after suffering headaches, dizzy spells and shortness of breath from pesticide exposure.
Now he does eco-green turf management and consulting for large estates, horse pastures and football fields.
Through Beyond Pesticides, Osborne teaches workshops for other green industry professionals making the transition to eco-friendly.
“It’s very common for someone who hasn’t been trained in these methods to say, ‘Okay, I’ve used this product to kill a bug, this one to kill a weed, this one to fertilize—what are my organic alternatives?’ That’s a recipe for immediate failure.” You can’t simply plug green solutions into the conventional ones, he says. Instead, one needs to get a complete education and training in organic practices.
Osborne said that in his pre-green days, he would “pump plants up with synthetic fertilizer. They would get soft and lush, and then insects and diseases would move in. Then I needed to constantly apply pesticides to control that. It sets up a vicious cycle. The more synthetic fertilizer you put in, the weaker the plants get, and the more you need the pesticides.”
“Weeds, insects and diseases are all symptoms of systemic problems,” said Bob Dahm, an environmentally-friendly landscape contractor, and owner of Organic Bob, LLC in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “They’re like wolves around a buffalo herd, going after the weakest member. If you’ve got a bug attacking a particular plant, you have to look at the microbiology of the soil and treat the underlying problem, not the symptom.”
Dahm grew up on a farm in Iowa. He embraced the organic method after watching his father, grandfather and several other relatives— farmers all—succumb to cancer. He believes their cancers resulted from their lifelong exposure to farm chemicals, especially pesticides.
If you want to do eco-green pest control, you’ll have to change your mindset, not necessarily your customers.’ They may be ahead of you.
Catron’s NaturaLawn franchises span the country from the East Coast to California, and he’s seen “no pushback” from any particular region. “I [started the business] because I figured that there was a big niche market out there. But you have to be honest with people and tell them the truth.”
And that, according to Catron, means debunking the “green myth”—that lawns will always be absolutely weed-free and constantly green, all year ’round. It includes the notion that there’s a chemical answer to every problem.
“About ten percent of people don’t care if you use a nuclear cocktail on their lawns if it keeps away things that they perceive to be “bad,” weeds and insects,” says Catron. “But the vast majority, 80 percent, want reasonably nice-looking lawns, and are willing to understand and live with a few problems. They understand that a lawn is a living system.”
You can find a list of the least toxic pesticides on the Beyond Pesticides website at www.beyondpesticides.org. It includes boric acid, dessicant dusts such as diatomaceous earth and silica gel, microbe-based pesticides and pesticides made with essential oils (not including pyrethrums).
However, we’re not going to conclude this article by giving you a list of eco-friendly substitutions for chemical pesticides.
Yes, you can use nematodes and milky spore to kill grubs, boric acid to kill chinch bugs and citrus extracts to kill fleas. There’s also neem oil, orange oil and others. But remember what Osborne said. To institute an organic pest control system successfully, you have to educate yourself about the entire holistic method. And that starts, literally, from the ground up.
It’s about building better plants, not bigger biological bombs to nuke the bugs with.