Landscaping Harmony Organic Approach Puts Communities in Tune with Nature

For as long as humans have been planting patches of grass around their homes, the most common method of maintaining a landscape has typically been: “mow, apply a generous and regular supply of man-made fertilizers and pesticides to prevent weeds, water and repeat.” But just because that's the way it's been done for generations doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest process for the lawn—or for people, or for the environment.

Excess mowing and water usage, not to mention the cumulative dangers of pesticide exposureto humans and the environment, are all good reasons to consider converting to a more natural, low-maintenance way of taking care of your association’s landscape. One way to reduce the impact of an HOA's landscaping and lawncare regimen is to switch to organic products and processes—or even to just incorporate a few into your current program.

A Growing Trend

As the risks of using harsh, synthetic chemicals to control weeds and insects have become more widely publicized, and the concept of environmental consciousness and "green" living has moved from the fringe into the mainstream, many HOAs are taking a closer look at how they manage their grounds and landscaping projects. Making better use of organic products and processes is one way some communities are lessening their ecological impact.

"Organic landscaping is done without the use of harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers,” says Dan Corra, business manager of Plantscapes Organics Inc., in Fairfield, Connecticut, who explains that organic landscaping consists of many components, such as using only organic materials—including fertilizers, and weed-, insect- and disease-control products—testing the soil, creating a low-maintenance sustainable landscape, composting, aerating, overseeding, managing storm water, choosing the right plants, and mowing properly. “It’s not only about the methods and materials used," says Corra, "but also a mindset on how to approach the care of our landscape and the living systems around us.”

According to Bob Rogers of Taylor Management Company in Cedar Knolls, much of the interest in greener landscaping practices is attributable to the proliferation of information about more traditional methods and materials.

"It has to do with the knowledge that people are gaining on the subject," he says. Sometimes it just takes one committed resident to help change an entire community's practices for the better. "I have one resident in one of the communities I manage who continues to provide educational material to myself and even to our landscaping company," Rogers continues. "He was one of the original voices in this community and encouraged the board to look into any steps they can take to become more environmentally-friendly.He has young children, and he expressed his concerns to the board about the chemicals that were being put down."

Getting Started

So if you're one of those concerned residents, or a forward-looking board member or manager interested in implementing organic landscaping practices in your HOA, where do you start? The first step in going organic is to understand what's involved, and get the community to buy into the process, says Rogers.

"Initially, it can be a tough sell," he says, "because of the many misconceptions out there about organic landscaping.Once the board has a clear understanding and appreciation of the issue however, it’s a much easier sell to the community."

One of the main issues, Rogers continues, is the belief on the part of many boards and residents that "organic" is synonymous with "expensive." "I address that issue by bringing professionals in to explain what it means financially to stay the same versus going fully organic, or perhaps creating a 'hybrid' system that doesn’t really change the cost too much.The hybrid system basically means that the landscaping companies use an organic fertilizer, mixed in with some crabgrass herbicides earlier in the season."

Every HOA is an individual entity, with different expectations and tastes, says Rogers, so it's important for administrators to work with landscaping experts to get a very clear picture of what it will take to go organic, and what can be expected during the transition process.

"Each situation is different," he says. "A few years ago, we asked our current landscaping firm to provide us with some estimated prices that ranged from doing nothing at all, just changing to an organic fertilizer, or going fully organic. We took those estimated prices and put them into a survey form that was sent out to all the residents of the community, explaining the pros and cons and asking them to choose what type of service they would want.We included over seven pages of literature on the subject and did our best to give them as much information as we could to help them make an informed decision."

However, sometimes even an exhaustive explanation of organic landscaping isn't enough to sway HOA residents stuck in their ways. Rogers goes on to say that over half of the community returned the survey, and he was surprised to see that over 70 percent of the respondents preferred to leave the association's landscaping program as it was. "That result was quite telling to the board," says Rogers, "however it also meant that over 25 percent of the community did have some concerns and were willing to move to some type of organic treatment.Those unit owners deserve to be heard as well."

"In the end, says Rogers, "we found a landscaping company that was willing to include organic fertilizer treatment for the same cost that we had been paying, so everybody was happy."

Pros and Cons

Few would disagree that organic landscaping is generally a healthier, less-toxic approach to maintaining an association's grounds—indeed, non-toxicity and reduced environmental impact are the method's key selling points.

According to Bryce L. Davis, Sr. of Davis Florist & Garden Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, "Healthy soil, treated organically, is so alive with microorganisms, it's incredible.In contrast, soil that has been treated with chemical pesticides looks like a dead zone.With organic methods, we can add more bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms known as protozoa to soil.There is an old saying, “you are what you eat.” The same can be said of soil.If you feed the soil a good, natural diet, good things start to happen."

Organics are also easier on larger organisms as well—like people, and pets. When chemicals are applied in synthetic landscaping, residents and their pets must stay off the lawn for a period of time to avoid ingesting or absorbing toxic chemicals through their skin.

On a bigger scale, going organic also prevents these toxins from getting into the water supply. According to Corra, “It keeps our water safe by limiting hazardous runoff (of pesticides) and seepage into our lakes, streams, and rivers, preserving the health of soil and the soil food web, and helps to protect the health of the wildlife and living ecosystems around us."

Like anything though, organic landscaping isn't without its drawbacks.

"There are definite downsides to going organic," says Rogers. "In my opinion, the main issue is that there is still no proven organic treatment for really killing weeds.So, unless you don’t mind looking at some weeds, you will need to compromise and allow some synthetic treatment to the community.

Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual, agrees weed control can be an issue. “There is no such thing as selective organic herbicides that can kill the dandelions, etc. but allow the grass to live," he says. "It doesn’t exist yet. So if you have the expectation that your condo grounds need to be weed-free, that’s challenging in the first year or two of organics."

Another possible drawback with organic landscaping is the initial investment, which can be higher than synthetic methods—though the experts contend that chemical-free trees, shrubs, and lawns will tend to do better on their own than chemically treated ones, requiring less water and fewer service calls from landscape crews. That can save money in the long run.

However, “Depending on the intensity of the organic program, there are services that will result in higher costs if consumers elect to have those services performed,” says Corra. “In some cases, depending on the type of services offered, the material cost is higher than that of conventional landscaping. The cost of an organic program will be mainly determined by which services the community wants done and the overall size and scale of the property.”

Among those services, says Aaron Kurdyla of High Tech Landscaping in Martinsville, is good old-fashioned weed-pulling. Because the success rate of eliminating weeds is not as high as with traditional chemicals, "You sometimes have to use mechanical means—hand pulling, in other words.” That extra labor, as well as the potential need for multiple applications of the organic products, can increase the cost of going organic.

"One of the other downsides is that going organic takes time," says Rogers."In some cases, a few years of organic treatments will need to be in place before results happen. During that time, the community doesn’t always look its best. Unit owners aren’t always willing to wait for that."

How it's Done

Before your landscaping professional finalizes an organic game-plan for your association, he or she will likely have a sample of your property’s soil tested by a local lab or cooperative extension. Tukey also recommends performing a bioassay—a sort of “blood count” and “CAT scan” of the soil—which inventories the bacteria and fungi in the soil and how to improve it, especially if your association is planning a substantial renovation or construction.

The pros also stress the importance of proper aeration, fertilizing and mowing, which means keeping the grass at around three inches tall. “Make sure you water deeply once a week and spread a thin layer of compost on top of the grass,” Tukey says. This could be as simple as just leaving the grass clippings behind, which saves the time and money of disposing of them. Clippings all but disappear within a couple of days, leaving their nutrients to enrich the soil.

If you're installing new plantings, it's very important that whatever is being planted is the right species and size for the area, says Corra. “Conventional landscaping tends to gravitate toward the more popular nursery-[raised], maintenance-driven and industrial plants. If the soil and climate does not support them, then we alter the conditions by removing existing soil, bringing in new untested soil, often adding unnecessary irrigation, top dressing with ornamental mulches, and introducing the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to maintain them." In addition to adding to costs and maintenance, says Corra, "At times, it can result in a mundane and boring landscape.”

Instead, Corra suggests using plants that are indigenous to the area. “Native plants grow under local conditions and do not require that the site be changed,” he says. “They do not need the life support of watering (except during establishment or severe drought) or regular synthetic chemicals. They do not require fertilizer beyond that provided naturally, and they're not prone to the diseases of many industrial plants.”

There are no shortcuts to creating the right organically-landscaped property, Corra continues. “However, by simply replacing some synthetic materials with organic materials and practices, you are on your way to adopting an organic program. You could take on a transitional program where all organic materials and methods will be used unless a problem arises that simply cannot be corrected without the use of chemicals. After the problem is corrected, the landscaping reverts to organic materials and methods.”

Finding the Right People

Of course, all the discussion and research in the world is of questionable worth if it's not backed up and carried out by a competent, cooperative landscaping firm whose principals and employees are knowledgeable about organic materials and methods and experienced in their use.

Corra urges that associations check references of landscapers who say they are using organic methods and contact the Northeast Organic Farming Association Organization (NOFA) found online at www.nofa.org to verify their accreditation. “I would be wary of any landscaping company offering an organic program who is not accredited under NOFA,” he says. NOFA offers a five-day course on all areas of organic land care that landscaping pros can take for accreditation. Students must pass a test to become accredited and are required to take continuing education credits to keep the accreditation. The organization also promotes organic farming and gardening with summer farm and garden tours, fall and spring workshops, an annual winter conference, and a quarterly chapter newsletter, among other activities and programs.

Rogers says that it can sometimes be a challenge to adopt an organic landscaping program in condominium communities and HOAs because the values and needs of individual unit owners tend to differ. “Some see the value in it while others aren’t as concerned,” he says, "but I think if you can offer an organic program that falls in line with the cost of a conventional program, it’s easy to go in that direction and is always recommended. In the end, we're teaching our children at an early age about taking care of the environment."

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.

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