Dakota Talutto’s business philosophy centers on organic maintenance

Dakota Talutto, owner of Forget Me Not Gardens in central Florida, says what sets his operation apart from others is that “Mother Nature actually comes before our clients.”

Dakota Talutto double-checks an order for pests-none present.

Talutto says, “We actually care about the environment. Other companies will come in and whack things out of balance with a bunch of pesticides and herbicides that kills all the microbodies in the soil and whacks the pH. We try to work with Mother Nature where it’s more of a flow and whatever she wants, we react to that and try to be as proactive as possible.” It’s that philosophy that prompted Talutto to turn down a number of job offers, leading him to start his own business in November 2010.

Talutto studied to become a master gardener through the University of Florida and worked for a large landscaping operation in Gainesville, Fla. When his wife was relocated to the Orlando area, Talutto was offered a number of jobs, but he was not comfortable with the companies’ chemical and pesticide practices. “They’d just go spray a bunch of chemicals and come back in a week to cut it out,” he says. “Nobody was keen on going organic or caring about the environment, so I was left without a choice but to do my own thing.”

Dakota Talutto believes that landscape beds should be incorporated with turf in a landscape design.

The company’s three employees, including Talutto, predominantly service central Florida, but will travel to north and south Florida for work, with the exception of the panhandle region. His clients are primarily in the commercial and high-end residential sector.

Talutto believes the foundation of a good landscape is rooted in the design. “It’s important to design a yard and go from there,” he says. His company also does installation, maintenance, fungicide treatment and organic fertilizer treatment. Talutto also offers consulting for homeowners who don’t employ lawn care services. “For $150, I will walk them through their yard and leave them with a little pamphlet of how I would take care of the yard if my crew was coming and doing the work,” he says.

Design and install services, in- cluding irrigation, are focused on the commercial sector, while those services, as well as maintenance, are offered to the residential sector.

“We’re not a ‘mow and blow’ company,” Talutto says. “We’re much more fine-tuned. We like to take our time. We’re not going to make any money if we’re out there for two days. Most of our clients are well-to-do people. I definitely won’t go to somebody’s house who doesn’t have extra money. Landscaping is something that definitely has been cut back in the last couple of years with the recession.”

Dakota Talutto puts together 3-D blueprint designs for his clients based on their desires for their yards.

Forget Me Not Gardens offers a variety of themed landscapes, such as a patchwork quilt; birds of paradise garden; English gardens; curb appeal; wildflowers; herb gardens; Japanese Zen; xeriscape; Southern living; Gator Nation, orange and blue foliage representing the colors of Talutto’s University of Florida education; and God Bless America, a mix of red, white and blue foliage.

A landscape bed courtesy of Forget Me Not Gardens.

The company website, www.foregetmenotgardensfl.com, features video clips that show how to execute gardening techniques, such as making compost.

Talutto’s approach to fertilizing differs from what he considers an industry standard. “In general, when topdressing a lawn, most landscapers apply about 1 cubic yard of compost per 1,000 square feet, which is 100 pounds of a 40/60 mix of topsoil and compost,” he says. When Talutto works in new gardens, he adds 4 to 6 inches of compost to give it a good start. “If the garden is already established, or in the case of raised beds, I usually add 1 to 2 inches every year, either dumped on top or mixed into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil,” he says. Yet, different types of compost require different use, Talutto says. “If using blood meal, which is a good organic source of readily available nitrogen and minor micro-nutrients, I would apply it at the rate of 10 pounds per 100 square feet. In the case of bone meal that provides phosphorus for blooming and fruit development, I would apply it at the rate of 3 pounds per 100 square feet,” he says. Another compost Talutto favors is cattle manure compost. “It’s a great source of humus for the soil microbes,” he says. “I usually apply it at the rate of 40 pounds per 100 square feet.”

Talutto is also a fan of creating edible landscapes, which he calls “snackscapes.” “That’s my favorite thing to do is to plant organic plants that can be eaten,” he says. He sends out postcards marketing the service by stating that while one must make a lot of compromises in life, one of the compromises should not be health.

Forget Me Not Gardens offers 43 varieties of tomato plants, organic heirlooms predominantly from Sicily. The company also offers organic lettuces, herbs and several banana varieties. “I tell clients [that] for $300 they can have $800 in products in 80 days – you can’t even get that kind of return on the stock market,” Talutto says.

In creating the foundation for a garden through design, Talutto puts together a 3-D blueprint design for the client based on their desires, but he does try to talk them out of putting in plants that just won’t work in the zone, such as coconut palms. “I explain to them I can’t guarantee the plant and would strongly recommend not using it, but sometimes it’s hard to get through to clients,” he says. “I like to use native plants because they need less water to establish. I like to try to use the right plant in the right area. Of course, you’re not going to put grass underneath a tree. I explain to them that they can’t turf their entire backyard and should cut in some beds.”

After the plant and hardscape design work is done, Talutto designs an irrigation system to serve the needs of the landscape. After the design/install is complete, he leaves his clients with a package that tells them how to care for each plant should they choose to do the maintenance on their own.

Some of the trends Talutto notes include requests for Cuban Gold Duranta as a hedge and Knock Out roses, which are selling fast for their easy maintenance qualities.

Talutto says his company’s biggest challenge is “getting people to understand how bad synthetics are for the environment, for their grandkids. There are a lot of misperceptions that organics are expensive and you’re going to have less of a green yard. There are a bunch of ways around that without hurting the environment. There are organic products and fertilizers that get the same results, and it’s cheaper most of the time.”

Water is another concern for this Florida landscape contractor. “Water is going to be a scarce resource sooner or later, and people think the more fertilizer the better the grass is going to grow, which means more nitrogen. The facts are completely the opposite,” he says.

Asian scale on these sago palms were treated organically with neem oil to solve the infestation. Coffee grinds also work as a preventive.

Talutto has learned that between 60 to 120 million tons of fertilizer are used each year in the U.S., with 60 percent of that amount entering runoff. “I live on Lake Mary,” he says. “There are hundreds of lakes here, and if everybody is doing that, you’re going to pollute them at a very fast rate.”

While Talutto says one of his favorite pieces of equipment is the pruner that he carries around in his belt as he works, he’s also partial to his smartphone. He likes that it has a built-in compass and that the Internet access helps him answer clients’ questions when he doesn’t have the answer on hand. Talutto also has an assertive social media presence, which he uses to market and educate. “I’m a gardener by heart, but the marketing guys say you can’t survive in the digital age without an Internet presence,” he says.

Talutto says that five years from now he hopes his company “isn’t leading the pack, but is in line with everybody having the same practices and ideas that I stand true to. I know people think it’s so crazy to be organic, but to me it was really a no-brainer. It’s important that we take care of Mother Nature and take care of our turf, especially when we walk around barefoot,” he says. “Kids and animals are susceptible to all of the pesticides and fertilizers we put in the yard. Most of our clients have dogs, and I explain how important it is that they don’t have their dog running around in fertilizer.”

Alabama sunset coleus and St. Augustine turf grown, treated and fertilized organically-and everything still looks like a million bucks.

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.