Thursday, May 28, 2009

A must-see movie for lawn care business owners

You won’t be seeing this movie in the local cinemax, but you might get to see it at a regional or state conference. Or maybe even on PBS, who knows? I’m talking about a 1-hour documentary entitled “Hudson: A Chemical Reaction.”

We haven't seen it yet, but we understand that it chronicles how Hudson, the small town in Quebec Province, successfully implemented restrictions within its jurisdiction on the use of traditional lawn care chemicals. The town cited health and safety concerns in taking the action, and battled several lawn care companies, eventually winning its case in the Supreme Court. That event, occurring a generation ago, has now been committed to legend, and is viewed as a milestone victory by anti-pesticide forces.

Since Hudson’s successful effort to ban pesticides, the Canadian Provinces of Quebec and Ontario have also essentially banned the sale and use of these products, and other provinces are expected to follow their lead.

Paul Tukey, who is emerging as North America’s organic lawn care guru, is the force behind production of the movie. He is the founder and editor of the magazine “People, Place & Plants,” author of the book, “The Organic Lawn Care Manual,” national spokesman for and co-host of a HGTV program . . . and now he’s into cinema.

Tukey collaborated with filmmaker Bett Plymale in making “Hudson: A Chemical Reaction,” which reportedly will be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this coming September. (Plymale is also listed as director of photography on Tukey's "People, Place & Plants," website.)

From a business as well as a health standpoint, Tukey's decision to switch from operating a traditional lawn care company (which he claims seriously harmed his health) to emerging as perhaps the most recognized proponent of organic lawn care in North America, appears to be working out very, very well for him. — Ron Hall

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Electric mowing maybe; push-mowing probably not

I recently read with interest an article in the Aurora Beacon (IL) newspaper about Kevin Franz and his Go Green Mowing Company. Apparently, Frantz has been offering mowing services for the past 10 years, but this year decided to mow only electric and hand-pushed mowers. In the article he describes his concerns about carbon emissions arising from the use of gasoline-powered mowers as the reason for using electric and push mowers.

The article said that Franz had secured “about a half dozen” customers and when he reaches 20 he intends to take on a helper. I’ve read several similar articles this spring in other regional newspapers about start-up lawn service companies that are using electric and push mowers only. These eco-mow professionals make for safe, feel-good copy for local newspapers, but you have to wonder if they can ever generate enough customers and do enough production week in and week out to make a commercial go of it.

Based upon my personal experience (that's me in the image), I don’t see how anyone could do enough production with a push mower to build what can legitimately be described as a growing concern of a company — assuming, that is, that the person doesn't provide any other property services.

For the past 34 years I’ve owned and used a push mower on our 50-ft by 100-ft. property. I started with an old Sears model that I bought at a yard sale, but about five years ago I replaced it with a light-weight Brill mower. My experience has been that a push mower doesn’t mow wet or high grass very well, and it takes longer to mow because sometimes you have to go over the same patch of grass several times with a push mower if grass conditions aren’t just right.

That said, my little green Brill is quiet, never fails to start and is easy to store when I’m done with it. I don’t see any reason to use a gas-powered mower on my small property, but I wouldn’t want to have to depend upon it to build a commercial mowing service; that’s for sure.

Electric-powered equipment is the better alternative for the eco-mow contractor, but the state of battery technology, as it now stands, hinders its adoption by production-oriented service companies. Obviously, the development of better batteries for electric mowers and other lawn service equipment would provide an attractive alternative for lawn service companies that want to serve the “greener” portion of their customer base. Corded electric equipment is just too unhandy for professional users, especially on larger properties.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights writer Gwendolyn “Wendy” Bounds experiences with the latest alternative-energy lawn service equipment, including the new battery-powered AMP Rider from Ariens Co. It's an entertaining article and highlights a trend that will almost certainly grow — quieter, more environmentally acceptable lawn service equipment.

Manufacturers are developing a host of new alternative-energy products to market but, so far, most of them are targeted for consumers. — Ron Hall

Monday, May 18, 2009

Our Memorial Days must always be green

Years ago, a good friend was in charge of the cemetery maintenance in our small town. For some reason he didn’t get the cemetery in the proper condition for Memorial Day. Perhaps the weather didn’t cooperate, or he had staffing issues or maybe he just dropped the ball. I don't recall the details. It doesn't matter. Our town won’t accept excuses for not having its two cemeteries and its public properties green, tidy and mowed for Memorial Day. The city fired my friend within the week.

Yes, coming out of a long, cold winter there's always a lot that needs to be done in our city, which hasn't changed all that much in the 39 years that I've been there. The downtown could use fixing up and the streets are begging for more than a little patching. But these things will have to wait, as they always do, until after Memorial Day, which this year is almost upon us already, a week early it seems.

My town takes Memorial Day seriously, and it always has as far as I can tell, although the significance of the day must have grown enormously here more than a half century ago. This was a long time before I became a member of the community but I've heard the story often enough that it's become more real to me than anything I studied in high school history class.

On Nov. 25, 1940, just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered WWII, a sizable group of local men were inducted into the U.S. Army, proud members of Company C, 192nd Tank Battalion. After training at Fort Knox, KY, and Fort Polk, LA, they were wisked to San Francisco and then to the Phillipines. Within four months of landing in the Phillipines they had been captured by an invading Japanese army. Of the 32 local men captured by the Japanese, only 10 survived the “Bataan Death March” and 3 1/2 years of hard labor and starvation as prisoners of war before being released and returning to our small community.

I’m not sure if any of the men still survives, hopefully so. But other people keep the memory of those soldiers alive, and many years ago supported the naming of a then-new city elementary school Bataan School. That’s appropriate, of course, as is the attention we give to the grass and flowers in our cemeteries and public properties that, in some small way, recognizes the sacrifices of these and others on this one day of the year.

And here we are, just days away from another Memorial Day, and our public officials are making sure everything will be ready, especially the county courthouse property that's in the center of town. It gets special attention.

Two inmates wearing county jumpsuits, are spreading mulch around the trees and in the small gardens that dot the 4-acre property. The courthouse grass is always its darkest green as Memorial Day approaches. One of the inmates, obviously preferring the work and the open air to his jail cell, tells me they he will have opened and spread 488 bags of the mulch prior to this coming Monday morning.

The grassy property, dominated by the handsome 108-year-old sandstone courthouse building, is where the townsfolk will gather this coming Monday morning and line the street to watch the tiny parade pass by — the high school band, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies, the three or four rows of marching veterans, some holding flags, others with rifles at their shoulders and many in uniforms now much too small.

The marchers, with locals following behind the police car that signals the end of the parade, will head north for another two blocks and then turn left to the west and stop and gather at a smallish rectangular Veteran’s Park behind the imposing brick former armory building, which is now an urgent care center. The park's purpose is easy enough to divine, even for a casual visitor. A hulk of a WWII tank and an adjacent “eternal flame" dominate the small area.

Following the script of every Memorial Day that I can recall, a local dignitary will lead a short solemn ceremony and the veterans will aim their rifles skyward and fire several rounds into the quiet morning sky.

This park too, as tiny as it is, will be freshly mowed, there will be flowers and everything will be tidy. Our small town will not look greener and its grounds will not again look so tidy and presentable as it does this and every Memorial Day. — Ron Hall

ASIC gets briefing on the amazing Masdar City project

Abu Dhabi is one of the seven emirates and the second largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the Persian Gulf. Although it averages just 4.2 inches of rain annually, it’s in full blossom thanks to its robust oil production and progressive leaders. Its skyline bristles with new skyscrapers, its streets with retail shops (including some of the most exclusive shops in the world), and its boulevards and parks are awash in greenery and colorful gardens.

Abu Dhabi, with about 900,000 people, is building what it is describing as the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Masdar City is a $28-billion development on a 7-year fast track to become the home of 50,000 people within a decade, and to become “a net carbon waste city.”

The city will be the most visible manifestation of the larger Masdar Initiative, an ambitious program launched by Abu Dhabi in 2006 to become a leader in the development of alternative and sustainable energies.

Jared Thorpe of CH2M Hill, provided details of Masdar City to about 150 people during the recent American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC) Conference in St. Augustine, FL. ASIC members, who design and consult on major irrigation projects, were understandably fascinated by Thorpe’s overview of this visionary, sustainable project in one of the driest regions on earth. As designed, the city will recycle 80% of the water it needs, including capturing the irrigation water in underground pipes after it is used to grow crops.

Thorpe, from New Zealand, has been in the United States since 2001. The firm he works for, CH2M Hill, based near Denver, offers global full-service engineer, consulting and construction services. The company Web site says that CH2M Hill employs about 25,000 and that it had revenues of $5.8 billion in 2007.

Most recently CH2M Hill has been working in the UAE on desalination, the main source of the region’s drinking water, which will also supply potable water for Masdar City. Desalination, of course, is a huge consumer of energy. This, and other major energy users, such as the actual construction of the city, will be offset by the city’s greenery and by the production of energy once the city is up and running.

“This will be a brand new city,” said Thorpe. ‘There will be no cars. Private cars will be parked at the perimeter of the city, and there will be light rail to the airport and neighboring cities.” Within the city, people will be whisked from one area to another in what look like pods or something from the movie Blade Runner, the city’s Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system, which will have several hundred locations and stops. The PRT will run on solar cells and batteries.

Electricity for the city will be supplied mostly from photovoltaics with some contribution from wind turbines and a waste-to-energy system, which is under development. “This city is going to be a testing ground for photovoltaics,” said Thorpe. The city will also use geothermal and concentrated solar power to help supply its energy needs.

Thorpe said the key to ultimately making the city function as designed is the comprehensive “integrated resource system modeling” that is being used. This, of course, depends upon tying all of the project’s complex components together with the aid of an incredibly sophisticated information and technology system.

Thorpe said the Masdar Institute of Technology in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be opening by the end of the year.

For more information on Masdar City, visit the Web site www.masdaruae or click on the headline above.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Neat, quick guide to sustainable landscape design

We're in awe of how fast this sustainability movement is taking off.

It appears that it's no longer just a word, but a movement, real. We’re just beginning to see it emerge in the landscape industry. We feel that once it gets rolling full blast it’s going to change the industry in a big hurry — and for the better. It's going to open up service opportunities that none of us imagined previously.

This growing focus on sustainability will broaden the need for the landscape industry’s professional services beyond aesthetics and deeper into ecological remediation and regeneration. Like our nation’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, water plants, etc.), our urban environments (public and private) need help.

Academia can see what’s going on and is there to help. We lifted the information below from a a neat little publication from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Click on the headline for the concisely written 4-pager. A nice introduction to sustainable design.

1 Windbreaks and shelterbelts conserve energy, control drifting snow, provide food and shelter for wildlife, screen unwanted views, filter dust and noise, and create microclimates that benefit plant health.

2 Berms (gradually sloped mounds of soil) help define landscape spaces by creating sloping “walls” along pathways or between different areas, elevating plants for better visibility, and improving drainage and growing conditions for plants in poor soil.

3 Ornamental grasses tolerate a wide variety of conditions, provide food and cover for wildlife and offer year-round visual interest. Many of these ornamental grasses are native to the Great Plains.

4 Groundcover plants used on steep slopes eliminate dangerous turf mowing conditions, lessen precipitation runoff and soil erosion, and provide additional visual interest and biodiversity.

5 Grouping similar plants into masses creates a stronger visual impact and interest in the landscape, copies natural plant community structure, and produces stronger edges in the landscape that are important for both aesthetics and habitat.

6 Selectively use higher maintenance turfgrasses in areas of high visibility, access, and use.

7 Use lower maintenance turfgrasses and prairie or adapted grasses in areas of low use and access (not necessarily low visibility).

8 Use organic mulch in all planting beds to increase soil water retention, reduce weeds, visually strengthen bed lines through the color and texture contrast between the mulch and turf, minimize short-term swings in soil temperatures, and enhance soil structure and organic matter content.

Source: Steven N. Rodie, Extension Landscape Horticulture Specialist and Anne M. Streich, Horticulture Educator, U. of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension

Friday, May 08, 2009

New water meters pose mowing risk for the unaware

If you’re in the mowing business be aware of the new ‘green” water meters that are being installed in some cities. The meters, which are installed flush into the ground, have a plastic transmitter that sticks up about an inch. It allows water department employees to get properties' readings electronically. The meter guy or gal doesn’t even have to leave their truck to find out how much water has been used on the property for the month.

Television station KSWO in Wichita Falls, TX, says that property owners in Lawton, OK, have been accidentally mowing off the transmitters with their mowers, costing the city about $100 per meter to repair, not to mention the waste in time and fuel.

Our guess is that this warning is unnecessary for you professional cutters since you know better than to mow that close to the ground anyway. Higher cut turfgrass is healthier turfgrass and discourages weed competition.

Click on the headline if you’re interested in seeing a video of the KSWO newscast about the mowed off water meter sensors.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Green claims alone just won't cut it

Do you want to sell green? Well, green by itself won't cut it with the great majority of consumers, says Honey Rand, Ph.D., APR, an engaging ball of energy with a smiling, here’s-the-real-deal way of making a point.

Rand runs a Florida-based consulting, pr and issues management firm that specializes in environmental issues and was one of the presenters at the recent American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC) conference. Here's what she shared with the irrigation professionals about selling green to today’s consumers — four selling points:

1) An economic reason

2) An environment reason

3) A social reason

4) A political reason

Get any combination of three of these right and — bingo — you’ve got the sale. (Actually, Rand’s phrase was “you’ll change public policy,” which we’re taking as a flashback to her days as director of communication for the South Florida Water Management Agency).

Rand, Environmental PR Group, Lutz, FL, used the example of a swimming pool service to make her point. Apparently, there’s a movement to replace the fresh water in residential swimming pools with salt water. (Since not LM editor owns a swimming pool we'll take her word for it.) Companies are selling this service by providing the following reasons:

1) economic reason — pool treatments are less expensive

2) environmental reason — reduces or eliminates the need for chlorine

3) social reason — less time is spent maintaining the pool

4) political reason — none for this particular example

The take home message: Few consumers select a green service or product solely on green claims. Your product or service will need to be competitively priced, and if it delivers other benefits, you've got a sale.

What consumers really want is “substantive value,” said Rand.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Cocoa (mulch) a no-no for Fido

Apparently, cocoa mulch and dogs don’t go together very well. We just ran across an article in a local newspaper about a man’s dog gulping down an indeterminate amount of cocoa mulch and getting extremely sick as a result. While it would seem that cocoa mulch provides an inordinate amount of roughage for any system, which would create an obvious problem, apparently the veterinarian determined it was the cocoa more than the mulch that caused the pet's near-death experience.

Curious about what effect cocoa mulch might have on a dog, we Googled the subject and came across this information from

Chocolate contains theobromine. A naturally occurring stimulant found in the cocoa bean, theobromine increases urination and affects the central nervous system as well as heart muscle. While amounts vary by type of chocolate, it's the theobromine that is poisonous to dogs.

Not all chocolate is the same. Some has a small amount of theobromine; another type has a large amount and still another contains an amount that is somewhere in between. The quantity has a relationship with the weight of your dog. Small dogs can be poisoned, it is easy to understand, from smaller amounts of theobromine than large dogs.

I’m not sure if landscapers use cocoa mulch anymore, and we wouldn’t recommend it in light of the hazard it might present to the family pet.

If you want to know more about what chocolate can do to a dog, click on the headline.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Groundcovers work when turfgrass won't

We love turfgrass, and nothing comes close to it for beauty and utility on our sports fields, in our parks, in our common areas and for our home lawns. Even so, native and regionally adapted creeping perennials are often a better design choice for some locations within landscapes and also in some regions of the country, where water resources are scarce and/or expensive.

A little research or a trip to a local botanical garden or demonstration garden will usually reveal attractive low-maintenance perennial ground covers that grow in sun or shade, often in locations where turfgrass struggles. Most ground covers, once they're established, require very little water or fertilizer. Most varieties only need one feeding of slow-release fertilizer each year to provide a thick mat of foliage that helps prevent weeds, eliminating the need for chemical control.

Ground covers are especially well suited for small areas that are difficult to maintain — slopes, under trees or in confined landscapes. Many of the varieties will withstand some foot traffic. Varieties such as Platt's Black Brass Buttons, with its wonderfully textured purple-gray leaves, and County Park Pratia with its showy blue blooms above a dense mat of foliage, are perfect varieties to use between stepping-stones or along walkways.

Check out the many varieties of sedums that thrive in sunny, dry areas. Sedums work well on slopes and are a classic rock garden plant filling in between rocks, eliminating a haven for weeds. John Creech Sedum, with it purple-pink flowers and dense foliage, and Angelina Sedum, with its uniquely textured golden-yellow foliage, are star performers in sunny, arid areas.

Some ground covers, such as the Yellow Ripple Ivy, also do very well in patio containers. Ivy and other creeping perennials make great fillers for container gardens, drooping or cascading over the edges of the pots.

(Thanks to Forever and Ever Groundcovers for reminding us of the beauty and utility of these attractive but often-overlooked landscape plants.)