Greener pastures

Features - Formulas for Success

We talk to three firms taking an eco-conscious approach in their businesses.

December 4, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

Is “green” the new black?

If you’re talking about industry growth, client demand and profit potential – the answer is yes.

“The only part of the green industry that is expanding in the last five years has been organics,” says Michael Almstead, vice president of Almstead Tree Shrub and Lawn Care Company, with offices in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. “Other (services) are maintaining, and there are some big projects happening, but with more awareness of organics, people are asking for it.”

Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms that have established organic programs to learn how they do it.


Greener roots

These days, if Michael Almstead is giving an industry presentation on tree or lawn care, he starts his talk with organics – and then gets into traditional practices. “I see such amazing results, especially with mature tree preservation,” says Almstead, vice president of Almstead Tree Shrub and Lawn Care Company, based in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Organic services are quickly gaining on the “old way” of doing tree and lawn care at Almstead. About 35 percent of clients opt for organics, and still more choose a combination. “In our marketplace, we work to distinguish ourselves as a company that will help the client both ways,” Almstead says.

So for clients who can’t stand the sight of crabgrass but want an organic fertilizer spread, they can have their green and weed control, too. “I don’t think it’s a war of chemical vs. organic,” Almstead says. “It’s about figuring out what is best for the client and progressing from there.”

That begins with a soil test and some microscope work to determine what lies beneath. “We know that more than 50 percent of a tree is below ground,” Almstead points out, emphasizing soil and root health.

Over the years, Almstead has experimented with approaches for caring for trees and lawns without using “the usual” approaches. The firm began applying biostimulants and started brewing its own compost tea.

Employees are trained to examine and test the tea for temperature and oxygen levels. It is customized to suit a property’s needs.

Also, Almstead engages in tree care practices that focus on long-term results. “If you were to treat the symptoms, you see a 10 to 15 percent decline in the tree,” Almstead says. To be successful at delivering organic services, quality control methods must be in place.

“You have to create a system,” Almstead says. And consistency is key. So is complete understanding from clients of what to expect from an organic program. And, also important is cooperation in how the property is maintained (cutting height, for example). “Setting expectations from the beginning is important,” he says.

The good news is, while clients may notice some weed pressure if they choose to shift to organics, over time those properties tend to have less disease.

“Clients are extremely happy – they’ll call and say, ‘I was worried about going organic because I want my property to still look good,’” Almstead says. “‘But wow – you saved this tree and our yard looks great.’”


Attracting clients that care

Well water is on tap for most of the people in Rick Brosseau’s community in Mansfield Center, Conn. Residents care about its quality, and they are increasingly interested in how their lawn care treatments could impact the H2O they drink. That’s one of the reasons, Brosseau says, “People get excited about organics.”

And that’s why Brosseau, owner of Milrick Lawn Service, committed to establishing a company that’s largely organic in 2006. Of the firm’s 70 customers, 55 choose organic services. “I started with just one client,” he says. “And we just grew, and that has all been through word of mouth.” He can usually convert two out of every three prospects who inquire about organics. “Some may choose to do a program on their own, and I provide them with information on how to do it and I do the soil samples.”

Educating people about organics and soil/turf health is what matters most to Brosseau. “Sure, we are a company that wants to make money, but the other part of our business is we want to be more environmentally friendly,” he says. Plenty of residents in Brosseau’s area agree, which has helped fuel the growth of his company from 2011 revenue of $80,000 to $200,000 in 2012, and $300,000 as of the fourth quarter of 2013.

For Brosseau, being a teacher and problem-solver has earned clients’ trust over the years. That’s the thing about organics: There’s a learning curve, and even Brosseau admits at first he set some lofty expectations he couldn’t meet.

“I wanted to be the hero and make their lawns look perfect (with organics),” he says. “Their properties eventually got there, but there were some tough conversations because progress wasn’t happening as fast as customers wanted.”

Now, Brosseau treats the sales process like an organics tutorial – and in a way, the lawn care program is a sort of lesson plan. He gives clients visuals. When a customer asks about the difference between organics and traditional products, Brosseau explains it like this:

“I always point to the forest and ask, ‘Do you see anyone spreading fertilizer out there?’ They say, ‘No.’ And I follow up, ‘Well, that’s all natural. That is Mother Nature. We are trying to grow a culture of grass, so we have to do some amendments, but we can do that naturally and not have to use synthetics.”

Then, Brosseau brings photographs of properties that are cared for using only organic matter. He explains the organic program, which begins with a soil test, and is always a customized plan.

Typically, a program will include applications of lime, corn gluten and organic fertilizer (along with some beneficial nematodes) before the forsythia blooms. Then in mid-June comes seconds. In fall, the property gets a third round along with aerations and overseeding.

The cost ranges from $1,200 to $3,000 annually, depending on the property size and program. Over time, the cost can decrease. “Because you are creating an environment in the soil that is self-sufficient, less amendments are eventually needed,” Brosseau says.


Green advocate

Bernadette Giblin’s roots are in the landscape industry, her soul is set on advocating sustainability and greening up the industry – and she’s a teacher at heart.

As an organic lawn care consultant and president of her firm Safeground Organic Landcare in Springfield, Mass., Giblin underwrites sustainability best practices for landscape contractors (along with parks, government agencies, nonprofits) and helps others understand and implement organics.

“Sustainability makes you slow down and wake up, because there are choices we can make and behaviors we can change,” says Giblin, who abruptly became owner of her late husband’s landscape company in 1996 when he died of a massive heart attack.

Giblin hesitantly decided to become owner of the businesses, but decided to take a different approach. “I worked on a lot of lawns that were chemically treated and that made me really uncomfortable, largely because I had started to study the brain and human nervous system and how we are like sponges to our environment,” she says.

“That is when I started doing some research … and a client offered me a bigger job.”

That job was the product of Giblin’s first organic proposal, and she won it in 2004. This one project led to others, and soon Giblin was growing a reputation for her environmentally conscious efforts.

She was teaching her clients why native plants are a better choice, why soil health is so important.

“I had been a student for a long time, and I became a teacher to my clients,” she says. Giblin was saying to people, “Don’t forget the ground.”

Then she remarried and moved to Southampton, N.Y., where she served as the municipal sustainability coordinator.

Eventually, she moved back to western Massachusetts and her hometown, and she began helping local parks write grants.

“I greened my own business, I greened an entire municipality and now I’m helping contractors green their businesses so we can green up this industry,” Giblin says.

She says there is economic opportunity for landscapers who offer organic services. It’s a niche market, but a specialty that certain customers today demand. There is value to providing client education and building awareness – and delivering on a promise to care for a lawn without using synthetic products, she says.

More clients are asking – and Giblin encourages landscapers to be the ones to provide safe solutions.

“Moms, teachers, educated folks are thinking about their health and becoming more savvy about how they want to treat their landscapes,” Giblin says. “I wake up every morning and feel good that I’m part of the solution.”