“We aren’t for everybody.”
Hey, at least Alec McClennan is honest about the organic lawn care he provides.
But maybe it’s that type of self-realization that’s kept McClennan in business for 13 years as owner of Good Nature Organic Lawn Care in Cleveland. Not everyone wants to spend the time and money to have a good looking lawn that is environmentally-friendly. But McClennan has been able to grow his business to around $2 million in revenue by opening a Columbus branch five years ago and one in Akron last year.
“There are certain people that appreciate the service and don’t mind a few weeds,” he says. “That’s who we focus on. Don’t get me wrong, you can have a nice lawn organically. And maybe it just costs a little bit more.”
So you can see the quandary for him. You want customers to spend more money to have more weeds? But that’s not exactly a fair statement. McClennan says there will always be weeds in an organically treated lawn, but he can limit them if the customer is willing to take the time and spend the money to do so.
“It’s not just plugging in products. It’s looking at the causes of the problems, not just the symptoms,” he says. “So we’ll get a lot of lawns that get annual weeds and we’ll look at it and it’s full of rough bluegrass or creeping bentgrass – something that struggles in the summer.
“Then the annual weeds fill in because there is no grass to compete. So is the solution to use a chemical pre-emergent, or is the solution to try and get rid of those grasses and replace those with grasses that compete over the summer? And that’s what we try to focus on – the ultimate problem, not the symptom.”
I say "potato." The big question when it comes to organics is what defines organic lawn care.
“Mine is a philosophy,” he says. “The philosophy is two parts. One, stop using the toxic pesticides and two, use things that improve the soil and feed and nurture your soil biology. To me it’s got to be something that’s not going to hurt the soil and people and pets.”
But it can be a challenge to be completely, 100 percent organic.
“There’s organic based, which is like 25 percent chicken manure and/or biosolids in with your regular fertilizer, and then you do your standard pest control,” he says. “So that’s something that is an improvement over the standard way because at least you are getting some organic matter in there. But that’s definitely not what we are trying to do.
“Then there’s other approaches where if you use this certain product you can reduce your chemical use but you still use all the same chemicals, which is an improvement over the traditional, but still not what I’d call organic or environmentally friendly. It’s more environmentally ‘less bad.’”
Plus, as the market gets bigger, there’s more interpretation of the meaning of organic.
“I think it’s up and coming for sure. Since I’ve been doing this in the last 13 years, there’s been more interest in it every year. And the state of the industry, I feel like it’s going to shake out here a bit.
"There are not a whole lot of standards. Now everybody does organic, and what is that? It’s confusing to the marketplace,” he says.
McClennan says he is trying to get away from chemicals all together, but he will do spot treatments of weeds in lawns. He says 75 percent of his clients are all organic, but even some of those clients might request an occasional chemical treatment to clean up an area.
“If someone wants a weed killed, we can spot treat it with a chemical, but we rely less and less and less on that.
We don’t even mention it to our customers that that’s available, unless they ask for it,” he says.
The business of organics. McClennan says his business is growing – not as fast as he’d like, but still growing.
But staying completely organic can be a challenge, especially if your customers’ neighbors all have nice looking lawns, in a shorter amount of time. McClellan says a healthy looking organic lawn doesn’t take as long to achieve as some may think, but the strict process to maintain it with integrity leaves no room, for the most part, for shortcuts.
For example, if you have a tree lawn that has trouble growing grass and the homeowner is mowing too short and scalping edges, a traditional LCO can use preemergents and weed killers, and it won’t be full of crab grass. Organically it will be full of crabgrass.
“With chemicals you can cover up for a lot of mistakes,” he says. “It’s harder to compensate for improper cultural practices with the organic approach.”
And that’s where client education comes into play. McClennan is working on a DIY book for homeowners who want to maintain their lawn organically. He sends what he has so far to customers and trains technicians to make individual observations about what a homeowner can do to help in the process.
“It’s definitely a partnership with a homeowner if they want to have a nice lawn,” he says. “If they’re involved, it makes it so much better. We give them information constantly, generally about mowing and watering practices that are helpful if you are trying to do things organically.”