Ohio landscaper creates his own organic lawn care system

Alec McClennan started Good Nature Organic Lawn Care in 1999, after creating his own organic system for lawn care using food-grade components.

When Alec McClennan was in high school, he was inspired by a talk given by his biology teacher about the problems that chemicals were causing in trout streams. At the time, McClennan was taking care of his parent’s lawn. “That got me interested in stopping applying chemicals at my parent’s house anymore,” he says. “That got me reading a little bit in high school, and I became convinced that the organic approach was the right approach to maintain plants and grass.”

Although he graduated from college with a civil engineering degree, McClennan concluded that was not a career path in which he was truly interested, so he started to explore a variety of options and zeroed in on organic lawn treatment. “I thought other people might be interested in that kind of a service,” he says.

McClennan created his own organic system using food-grade components and started Good Nature Organic Lawn Care in 1999. The company is based in Cleveland, Ohio, with an office in Columbus, and primarily services the residential sector with 15 employees.

At the time, McClennan was on the cusp of what would become a growing trend, but in the beginning it was a hard sell to convince people they could still attain an attractive landscape without applying chemicals. “People would look at me a little funny when I’d talk about it,” he says. “In Ohio, we’re not necessarily in the forefront of this trend. It was a little foreign for people. I knocked on enough doors and eventually got a few customers; the word spread. The current trend toward environmentally friendly approaches helps.”

It also helps that Cleveland’s proximity to Lake Erie has inspired an increasing awareness among residents of the role that runoff plays in water pollution. McClennan services some homes along the lake. “These people are somewhat aware of the runoff issues because they see it in their backyard,” says McClennan. “But, everything runs to Lake Erie in Cleveland anyway, whether you notice it or not.”

Good Nature Organic Lawn Care focuses solely on organic lawn fertilization, but other contractors will handle other lawn care services as a client desires. “We work with landscapers in a couple of ways,” says McClennan. “One way is they subcontract the fertilizing out to us. Another way [is] a lot of them buy products from us, and we give them advice on how to set up the program.”

He also sells his products to local retailers who in turn sell them to the DIY (do-it-yourself) group. “My thought is the more people who are taking care of their lawns this way, the better,” McClennan. “If we can get more guys out there fertilizing organically, I think we’ll be better off. Some guys will do the fertilizing themselves and contract out some spray-type applications that they are not set up for. But, we can do it a lot of different ways.”

McClennan is seeing more people going the DIY route. “One benefit of using our company is we can help them, especially if they are in our service area,” he says. “We can give them some of the same advice we give people that are getting our service.”

Good Nature Organic Lawn Care also offers programs in tree and shrub maintenance, aerobic root therapy and shrub maintenance. The programs encompass a “health care spray” in early spring, spring and summer to deter disease and insects. The application was designed in conjunction with nursery tree growers to provide the natural nutrients necessary to prevent pests from attacking plants. In the fall, a deep rootzone feeding and mycorrhizae soil injection is conducted to continue to stimulate the health of the trees.

Lawn care problems are divided into two categories – actual problems and symptoms of problems – and the company responds accordingly. For example, Good Nature Organic Lawn Care’s employees execute an aerobic root therapy when premature yellowing and leaf-drop indicate a possible fungus root pathogen. Since disease-causing fungi thrive in compact, anaerobic soil conditions, aerobic root therapy rejuvenates the rootzone with oxygen to reestablish beneficial microbial life for healthy nutrient exchange. That leads full circle to a regular maintenance program.

Clients are offered a choice of services, which include a basic service with organic fertilization; a “plus” program that builds upon fertilization with natural weed suppression; and a combination program that also includes spot chemical weed control. Special services include aeration, natural grub control, laboratory soil analysis and lawn installation, renovation and replacement. Good Nature Organic Lawn Care also offers natural repellants for geese, deer and mole problems.

Two of the objections that McClennan meets when it comes to organic fertilizing is that it can cost more and it can take more time to produce results. “That’s an issue,” he says. “It’s getting easier to maintain lawns organically, but it’s not as easy as spraying chemicals. So while it is an objection, in my mind the extra cost is well worth what you get out of it.

“People pay money for a lot of things, and their lawn care is not the most expensive thing in their life,” McClennan adds. “So a little bit of increase in price in exchange for peace of mind in knowing that your kids and pets and everyone else can play on it without worrying about it is well worth the extra expense.”

McClennan also believes that chemical-based lawn care focuses on plant sickness, while organic-based lawn care focuses on plant health. Chemicals used as a solution to pest problems also can weaken or kill beneficial organisms, he says.

McClennan’s greatest challenge is communicating the benefits of caring for a lawn using an organic approach and setting the right expectations. “Certain types of grass don’t do as well with an organic program,” he says. “We need to recognize that and make them aware of what they can expect and what their options are. The other thing is we’re not going to have a 100 percent weed-free lawn out there, so they need to be ready for that.”

While Good Nature Organic Lawn Care carries a full line of natural treatments, McClennan says, “If our natural treatments aren’t doing the job to someone’s satisfaction for weeds, we can do spot chemical weed control if they ask us to. But even with that, trying to do it with spot applications and not that often and not using a chemical preemergent, people are still going to have more weeds if we do that than if we’re using full chemicals.”

McClennan doesn’t see the use of organics as a “new way” of lawn care. “I think of it as the old way of doing things,” he says. “I look at this chemical revolution as a 50-year blip. I think people are trying to revert back to the natural way of doing things, which is the way we always used to.”

As with any other approach to lawn care, weather can present a challenge in organic lawn care as well. “The hotter and dryer the summer is, the faster the grass goes dormant and the more of a problem there is with weeds and insects,” says McClennan. “We’re not using a chemical preemergent and we’re not using chemical insecticides. We’re trying to get people to seed with insect-resistant grasses and then some of our natural treatments to try to strengthen the grass enough that it resists insect activity. Hot, dry summers are tough for everybody.”

McClennan believes that “sometimes, with all things being equal, when you’re organically fertilizing the lawn, it can survive a little bit better without as much water and with the heat, but on the other hand, there’s no chemical preemergent down there to prevent some of those weeds and our organic versions don’t work quite as well.”

McClennan cannot say what the future holds for organic lawn care in the industry. “I do know that the industry never drives what happens. It’s the consumer that drives what happens,” he says. “It depends on that and I don’t know where that’s going to go. Aside from the green movement, I think the organic approach to lawn care just makes a lot of sense, and if people stop and look at it for awhile, they would agree.”

As for his company, McClennan has positioned it for a path of growth that includes helping to develop his employees and provide an opportunity for career growth within the company. “That means a few more locations and still doing what we’re doing,” he says.

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.