John Engwer invented FilterMitts, large biodegradable hemp tubes filled with compost mulch that stop erosion without disturbing animals, insects or amphibians.
Outside of John Engwer's Wrentham, Mass., office stand two 300-gallon containers filled with compost tea. The mixture, with ingredients such as molasses, fish, oatmeal, water and nematodes, must brew for 24 hours at 70 degrees F before it can be added to his specially formulated compost recipe.
Since 1998, Engwer has dedicated his career to erosion control and storm-water management. Convinced that there was a better way to stop erosion around construction sites or storm drains than bales of hay and petroleum-based mesh silt fences, which interfere with wildlife, Engwer invented and patented FilterMitts, large biodegradable hemp tubes filled with compost mulch that stop erosion without disturbing animals, insects, or amphibians.
Ranging in diameter from 8 to 18 inches, the tubes may look a little funny, but they're getting the job done and people are noticing.
His invention has been so successful that Engwer was summoned to the set of the PBS television show "This Old House" as the erosion-control specialist for a property in Weston.
He's also taken his work to the streets.
Soon after Engwer's company, Groundscapes Express, worked on a project for the state Highway Department, the agency decided to develop erosion-control protocols that would replace traditional hay bales and silt fences. After a successful two-year test in a laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Engwer's FilterMitt invention has now been put into field trials.
"If all continues to prove positive," said Sumner Martinson, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's composting program, compost tubes "will eventually get written into the state's contract book."
Every year, the DEP hosts a gathering for people and businesses involved with recycling organic materials, with participants including supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, convention centers and big companies such as Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. During last year's "organic recycling summit," a training workshop was held at Engwer's compost farm.
"He's an amazing guy," said Martinson. "I don't know if he sleeps or not, as he has so many things going on in addition to his landscaping business."
Getting sleep has never been high on Engwer's list of priorities. For starters, he wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to do paperwork and feed the animals on his 30-acre farm in Sutton.
Engwer, 47, has kept this schedule since he was a student at Millis High School, when three mornings a week he delivered The Boston Globe, and the other two he played ice hockey before heading to school. As a work-study student, Engwer attended high school in the morning and in the afternoon worked for a landscaper.
"I loved being outside and became interested in the design work," said Engwer.
After graduating in 1979, he opened his own business doing lawn care and maintenance, and installed patios and stone walls. The 1980 housing boom kept him busy with a construction company, spreading soil and designing drainage systems.
In the late 1980s Engwer was drawn to the organic yard-care business. Looking to satisfy his list of clients who all wanted their yards mulched at the same time, he purchased a blower truck. The plus was that he could lay down 10 cubic yards of mulch in an hour, as opposed to 1 yard by hand, but the minus was that the mulching season lasted only three months. Looking to justify the expense of the truck, Engwer started brainstorming for additional uses.
He considered using it to blow sand onto frozen cranberry bogs, part of the standard maintenance for the crop, but realized that it would quickly wear down his equipment. Then he thought of creating compost berms, hill-like structures set up to battle erosion.
"To better control the amount of compost used and its placement, my manager, Butch Goodwin, and I bought a commercial sewing machine in Fall River and began experimenting with burlap to contain it," said Engwer.
The mesh had to be flexible yet strong enough to withstand the force of the mulch-compost being blown into it, and provide effective erosion control, but also be biodegradable.
"We started out making them by hand and showing the idea to various conservation groups," said Engwer. "Now the FilterMitts are manufactured in Ohio, and our cost is the same price as what's currently being used for erosion control - hay bales, silt fences, and other synthetic products."
Inside the FilterMitt is a mix of food waste, cranberry seeds, horse manure from Suffolk Downs, and leaves from Franklin and Framingham's autumn curbside pick-ups. Engwer said he does not take spring yard waste because the grass clippings may contain fertilizers.
Goodwin, a Millis resident, creates the compost recipes and manages the compost farm.
The piles of compost on the company's Wrentham property stand 6 feet high and 500 feet long, and must remain for six months with an average internal temperature of 140 degrees before Engwer will use it; the proper temperature eliminates weed seeds, maintains nutrients, and keeps beneficial microbes alive.
Tom Benjamin, a senior landscape architect at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. in Watertown, met Engwer in 2002 when he attended a conference that Engwer sponsored on compost mulch.
"I was impressed with his commitment to publicizing its benefits for storm-water filtration and increasing the biological health of soils," said Benjamin. Many people, he said, approach landscape work strictly from a vegetation perspective, as they want to see a certain plant palette, but don't put much thought into the soil that's supporting those goals, particularly urban run-off water that needs to be filtered.
Benjamin has worked with Engwer on many occasions and cites one project in particular that has stayed in his memory. In April 2006, as part of a project at the Fresh Pond Reservation in Cambridge, Engwer spread his compost mulch with his blower truck. The degraded slopes being covered were about a half-mile long and 30 feet high.
"Soon after he installed the mulch compost, there was record rainfall that continued on and off for two months," said Benjamin. "The compost never moved, and surrounding plants have done extremely well."
While the initial need was erosion control, Benjamin said, the long-term goal was to restore native ground covers that had been degraded by people and dogs trampling the slope. The project has been a success.
"He's very committed to ecological principals and is a person of very high integrity," said Benjamin. "I really trust him."