Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Co. was established more than 40 years ago in Westchester County. But just because they’ve been in business for four decades, that doesn’t mean the company’s employees know everything – especially when it comes to organics. The company has steadily been growing its organic property care business, and CEO Ken Almstead said education is an important part of the growth.
“We have invested in training for many of our employees to learn about the science of soil biology, which forms the foundation of a good organic care program,” Almstead says.
Along with training Almstead gave Lawn & Landscape more tips on creating a successful organic program.
Can you give me a few tips on successfully adding organic services to a company?
First of all, learn the science. Courses that we recommend are with the Northeast Organic Farming Association, which offers certification for Organic Land Care Professionals as well as with Dr. Elaine Ingham at the Rodale Institute, who is a pioneer in organic plant care science. We also make a point of staying up to date on the latest literature on organic care methods for our industry and sometimes invite speakers on the topic to further educate our team of arborists.
One of the first things you learn once you delve into a good training program is that the most effective organic landscape care takes a holistic approach. It’s not just about adding organic services, it’s about changing the way you approach a property. For instance, many of the problems we face in the landscape have to do in part with plant material that has been placed in less than ideal growing conditions, so it is at a disadvantage from the start.
Choosing the right plant for the right spot goes a long way in decreasing the need for human intervention and making a landscape more sustainable. From a maintenance perspective, changing the mulching, mowing, irrigation, and even pruning practices like switching to natural shaping as opposed to shearing of shrubs on a property can all have health benefits. Improving soil conditions is another key element in increasing sustainability, which we can do through soil aeration with a tool like an air spade, adding compost and organic soil amendments and brewing and applying compost teas.
What would a company need to know about implementing a compost tea program?
It’s important to purchase the right equipment. Brewing and transporting compost tea are particularly challenging. An aerator should be bubbling the tea up to the point that it’s applied, including on the truck headed for your client’s property. Plus, any container holding the tea, including hose connections, shouldn’t contain any right angles, as they are likely to develop biofilm that is difficult to clean away. Likewise, materials like high quality compost, soil amendments, and organic controls are critical elements of the services you are offering, so take the time to research what you plan on using and discuss your options with someone more experienced.
Educate your clients. Let them know not just that you are offering organic services, but how those services work.
What is a pitfall to avoid when adding organic services?
There are many organic insect and disease controls on the market that work well, but there aren’t purely organic solutions for absolutely everything – especially when the tree or shrub you are treating is already struggling with an insect or disease problem. Likewise, although most insects and diseases cause serious harm to plants that have poor overall health – organic care can certainly help improve overall health – and some also impact completely healthy plants like the emerald ash borer, in which case organic services aren’t going to work preventatively. Sometimes we need to come in with a traditional product to rescue a particular plant.
It’s important to understand the concept of acceptable thresholds. Rather than striving for a perfect looking plant, with organic care we are trying to limit the amount of inputs to make the environment we care for as natural and sustainable as possible. So as long as a plant isn’t in danger, we tolerate some amount of damage over the course of the season. For instance, we can expect some aphid damage, but as long as their natural predators like ladybugs are also in the environment, it’s not necessarily something we need to treat for.
What are the challenges when adding organic services to an existing lawn care company?
Managing client expectations can be a challenge. When moving directly from a traditionally treated lawn to a pure organic program, it can be particularly difficult for the turf to adjust. Often the soil is pretty lifeless and the plants have been relying solely on chemical fertilizers for their nutrients. We frequently move clients into hybrid programs that combine organic treatments that build up healthy soil biology with traditional treatments to keep weeds and diseases at bay while the organic system grows stronger. A couple of seasons down the line, these properties are in much better condition for pure organic programs.
If you aren’t a full service lawn company, then working with whoever cuts the grass and handles the irrigation for the property can be a challenge. Amending these cultural practices is an important aspect of an organic lawn care program, and it’s essential that you are in communication with anyone else involved in caring for that lawn.