Some landscape contractors want pristine properties that are meticulously maintained. But James Sottilo would rather see landscapes full of life – being enjoyed by people, pollinators, beneficial pests and, most importantly, all the right soil microbes.
“There’s nothing worse than perfectly crisp hedges and quiet green lawns. And there’s nothing better than seeing a kid walk into a landscape and be mesmerized by bees buzzing or butterflies flying. That’s the exciting part; that’s a living landscape,” says Sottilo, who founded Ecological Landscape Management (ELM) in 2010. “We’re looking to build a thriving ecology on these landscapes, not make them sterile environments.”
With that focus, ELM offers organic lawn, shrub and plant maintenance services that reduce input requirements over time. By focusing on each site’s health from the soil up, Sottilo and his team build strong foundations for more sustainable landscapes.
Sottilo entered the field in high school, spending spring and summer breaks working for a tree care company his friend’s father owned. After studying horticulture in college, Sottilo worked for several companies, initially as an arborist.
In the early ’90s, the company where he worked began focusing on integrated pest management and plant health care, so Sottilo started thinking about ways to reduce chemical inputs. But then, a personal health scare made him get serious about organic living.
“In the mid-90s, I was diagnosed with a bizarre bone cancer. I was one of only 10 people in the world with that specific cancer,” says Sottilo, who has completely recovered since a surgery replaced his upper jaw with prosthetics 21 years ago. “Looking at me now, you’d never know what I went through, but that really pushed me to find more organic ways of working with the landscape to minimize inputs. I made a decision to live a healthier, more holistic lifestyle.”
That cemented Sottilo’s focus on sustainable landscaping. As plant health care manager, Sottilo helped the company adopt an organic approach during the 90s – then grew the division by 25-30 percent annually.
Sottilo later partnered with the owner of that company to run a sustainable landscaping firm in the Hamptons from 2001 until 2009, where he honed his expertise in soil management. When the recession struck their high-end residential clients, Sottilo gravitated back into urban landscapes and started his own company.
“When I opened Ecological Landscape Management in 2010, the goal was to understand how to optimize the urban landscape,” he says. “A lot of these public projects were built on waterfronts, so fertilizers and pesticides were not allowed. So the question was: How do we build a better ecology without the use of any inputs, or only with organic inputs? It forced us to understand the foundation by looking at soil from a different point of view.”
From compost to consultant.
ELM begins by carefully analyzing a site’s soil profile. Then, based on the nutrients needed to support the plant palette (which is usually determined by the architect or designer), Sottilo concocts a customized compost tea for each landscape.
ELM spends eight months adding specific food sources to each project’s compost pile to build the ideal microbial balance. For example, “compost piles for Memorial Park in Houston are going to be grown out with rudbeckia on them, because rudbeckia are incredible mycorrhizal colonizers. So, when they add the compost to the soil, it already has the exact microbial components we want,” Sottilo says. “There’s more of a science to it than just throwing fertilizer on a landscape.”
With this approach to manipulating soil nutrients, ELM reports an average plant loss of half a percent – compared to the industry average of 8 percent. The firm carefully tracks microbial increase over time so clients can see results, in the landscape and in the metrics.
During restoration of Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza, for example, project delays kept nursery stock above ground too long before planting, and the newly installed London Plane trees showed signs of stress. Sottilo’s soil tests revealed low microbial carbon and nitrogen content and weak mycorrhizal colonization rates. He prescribed a sorghum cover crop to break up compacted soil while releasing carbon and producing mycorrhizal spores. Within six months, the microbial biomass grew 67 percent while mycorrhizal colonization rate increased from 6 to 14 percent.
Sometimes, ELM’s role is concentrated during the capital phase of a project. Other times, the firm may provide ongoing maintenance – including organic soil amendment applications, soil moisture management programs, pruning or other services. ELM also releases beneficial pests like lacewings, ladybugs, scale destroyers and predator mites to combat pests and disease naturally.
Compost teas composed the bulk of ELM’s work when the firm first started. Then the firm transitioned from services into sustainability consulting, with a focus on “increasing the acclimation of the landscape and the overall ecology of the site.” Sottilo says consulting now constitutes a quarter of his business, and he plans to keep growing in that direction.
To influence a site’s ecology from the ground up, ELM has to get involved in large-scale landscape projects early on – which requires constant collaboration with other firms. Over time, Sottilo has built a reputation and relationship with other landscape contractors, landscape architects and property managers. As these partners have grown and expanded across the country, they’ve taken ELM with them.
“They see the value, not just in our service but also in our creative ideas for making projects more sustainable,” Sottilo says. “They bring us in on the front end of projects and integrate us into the overall process, so we’re part of the design or engineering team’s presentation to project owners.”
To build on ELM’s experience, Sottilo also pulls independent experts into projects. He may involve a soil scientist, agronomist or mycologist specialized in mycorrhizal fungi – like the one who recommended rudbeckia for Memorial Park.
“We’re bringing in perspectives outside the traditional landscape realm to figure out the best way to approach projects,” Sottilo says.
This kind of collaboration isn’t common in the industry, and Sottilo doesn’t want local contractors to feel threatened – he wants to partner with them.
“I wish there was more peer collaboration in the industry,” Sottilo says. “The most important thing is for everyone to understand their niche, because nobody can be an expert in everything. Collaborating with a team of experts provides a better end product, and also gives project owners more confidence that you’re looking out for the best interests of the project more than your own personal best interests.”
Partnerships have expanded ELM’s reach beyond its headquarters in Smithtown, New York. The firm works on high-profile projects coast to coast, including Central Park, Harvard Business School and the St. Louis Gateway Arch. ELM’s business is 60 percent commercial work, 30 percent government and municipal, and 10 percent high-end residential.
“At any given time, we’ll have anywhere from four to eight projects going on out of state,” says Sottilo, who travels every couple weeks, visiting each site about once a month.
With annual revenue near $1.4 million, ELM maintains about 12 percent annual growth and 24 percent profit margins with only seven employees. Sottilo says the movement to green up urban spaces will continue to catapult the firm’s growth.
“In high-end public and commercial campuses, sustainability is the primary driving force over project design. The residential market wants it too, but there’s still a learning curve until the maintenance industry can provide organic landscaping beautifully and affordably,” says Sottilo, noting that ELM is working to develop residential programs that offer sustainable landscape management at the right price. “As science continues to move forward at a rapid pace, the materials will become available to maintain that aesthetic at a lower cost. It will only be a couple of years before it’s all in place.”