Turf Magazine - August, 2014

CENTRAL FEATURES

The Path Less Travelled

The Pizzo companies fulfill a need for ecological landscape services
By K. Schipper

Jack Pizzo doesn't want to be regarded as your typical "landscaper." Nor does he claim to be a visionary. But a growing number of clients are convinced he is pointing the industry in a better direction in terms of working with the environment.



Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, LLC provides the plants and seed materials necessary to get ecologically based projects completed.
Photo courtesy of Pizzo & Associates Ltd.

Pizzo's first steps into professional landscaping began typically. He started down the conventional path of landscaping after earning a degree in ornamental horticulture. However, he says he frequently felt the industry was not in tune with the environment. It wasn't until he worked with a client who wanted wildflowers returned to his woods that he realized he wanted to go in a different direction than most in the industry. (More on that later.)

Even so, it took another decade before Pizzo began taking a strictly ecological approach to landscaping. Today, he's solving problems involving eroding shorelines, poor water quality and lack of biodiversity for clients as diverse as homeowners and the federal government.

Pizzo says he was born taking a scientific approach to problems. His father was a biology professor, but it was his grandfather (a native of Sicily) who first taught him about horticulture. Initially, he'd thought about going to medical school.

"However, I realized that plants were the things I loved," he says. "But, when I went into landscaping, it seemed the profession was fighting the environment. And, as we know, Mother Nature ultimately wins, no matter what."

Then, in 1988, his employer assigned him to work with the man who wanted wildflowers.

"I got a chance to design and work with the owner on that," he says. "Then, the economy went bad and I was fired from the job I was in. That probably delayed my becoming a full ecologist, but clients started finding me and I decided to go into business for myself."

Even then, Pizzo didn't immediately take the big step of having a totally ecologically based practice.

"I began to go through landscape projects looking at how I could apply the science of ecology," he says. "We started with landscaping that had a lot of native plants in it, and then natural landscaping."

A big problem was getting people to see the value in what he was doing.

"Once people started seeing it as an ecosystem they started to value what we'd planted," Pizzo explains. "They began to see the birds and the bees and everything else in there."

Seeking ecological solutions

Pizzo & Associates Ltd., Native Landscape Contractors, Ecology + Vision, Pizzo Native Plant Nursery

President: Jack Pizzo

Headquarters: Leland, Illinois, with operations in Romeoville and Chicago, Illinois, and Three Oaks, Michigan.

Markets: Northern Illinois and Indiana, Southwest Michigan

Services: A full range of science-based ecological landscape services for residential, commercial and government clients. These include environmental design and installation, native area restorations and other science-based ecologically sustainable solutions.

Employees: Approximately 100

Website: http://nativelc.com

For the past 15 years, Pizzo's four affiliated companies have focused strictly on ecological solutions to people's landscape problems from the Leland, Illinois, headquarters and branches in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Chicago and Romeoville, Illinois.

"Ecology + Vision, LLC is a sustainable landscape architecture and ecological consulting firm," Pizzo explains. "We work alongside traditional landscape architects and engineers to give them field-tested methods for creating ecological solutions."

For example, he says while green roofs are growing in popularity, many of the plants that have proven popular in Europe tend to die on the roofs in the U.S. Midwest. By using native plants instead, the roofs become not only beautiful but hardy living plant communities.

Pizzo also has two contracting companies. Pizzo and Associates, Ltd. does ecological work along with stewardship and prescribed fire.

Native Landscape Contractors, LLC provides sustainable native landscaping and will work on sites requiring labor agreements. Native Landscape Contractors also does similar work as Pizzo and Associates such as stewardship and prescribed fire.

With both Pizzo and Associates and Native Landscape Contractors, "Where there's a project that needs sustainable landscape on it, we give them field-tested methods and we're showing them how a site can be both beautiful and functional," Pizzo says.

Finally, Pizzo Native Plant Nursery, LLC provides the plants and seed materials necessary to get projects completed.

Today, Pizzo is employing almost 100 people who share his vision of working with Mother Nature, individuals he describes as "good, talented people who believe in what they're doing."

And, while it might be easy to dismiss Pizzo and his staff as a bunch of "tree-huggers," he says everything is done based on science backed by facts.

It's an approach that's allowed him to attract a good people. "Some of these people who have been with us for a while; they get it and they want to learn more," says Pizzo. "They've gone from laborers on up in ranks in the company."

Not surprisingly, the company has an extensive employee training program. Education is a daily event for everyone from the top on down.

"We go out and take our experiences and put them into the form of a lesson and document them so we can teach the ecological principals, showing them in the field what this means," Pizzo says. "We also have formalized training programs for maintaining certifications in areas such as prescribed fire."

If anything, the secret to his success, he says, is that nothing is done by accident.

"I don't lay claim to the secrets of Mother Nature," Pizzo says. "I'm just the observer who's documented them."

A good example is his early observation that many attempts at establishing native plants were filled with weeds.

"However, I looked at the specifications, and I realized they were only putting in miniscule amounts of native seeds over an acre," he says. "With a lawn, you may use 150 pounds of seed and you still get some weeds. We began increasing the amount of seed per acre and that was just a basic horticulture principal applied to ecology."

Practicing what he preaches

Not surprisingly, the majority of his clients contact him because they've either heard about what Pizzo offers or someone tells them it's the right thing to do.

One of the big appeals to Pizzo's approach: it typically costs less both initially and with long-term maintenance than more traditional landscaping. On initial construction, Pizzo says the difference may be in thousands of dollars, or it may be in pennies. Maintenance can be another story.

"I have one client who's been with us since the day we went ecological, and we're down to about a third of their original budget to manage the site," he says. "People become my evangelists after that."

Pizzo's greatest pleasure is seeing his ideas in action. He lives on 40 acres of prairie and wetlands that were once farmed for corn and beans, and he says what he has done for himself he enjoys doing for others.

"Where it was eroding, it's now stable, where the water quality was poor, it's now clear, where there was no natural quality to the site, it's now bounding with life," he says. "I get calls and notes for people who say, 'I didn't think you were right, but you were.' I really enjoy that part."

Pizzo's goal is to get the word out to more people. He's recently hired a new marketing coordinator and self-published a book, "Green and Natural Spaces in Your Community: A Guide to Living With and Managing Naturalized Landscapes and Natural Areas." He also enjoys educating people on what he does.

A recent grandfather, he says the addition of his granddaughter makes him even more excited to share his way of looking at exterior spaces with others.

"I'm planning for the future, and excited to be able to pass along what I know to the next generation," he concludes. "I'm anxious to see the world through the eyes of my grandchildren and the children of my employees. I'm trying to make a better world."

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, California. Comment on this article or contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.