Recently, I had a chance to reflect on my 30 years in the Green Industry. I was preparing a presentation and intended to speak on the recent passing of two environmental icons (one who coined the term “biodiversity”) and their influence on McCoy Horticultural, and other companies like ours, that hold ecology as a high priority in their design and land care protocols. The crucial component of this talk was to shed light on how far our industry has moved away from nature over the past 50+ years and how critical it is that we find our way back. Essentially, we, the Green Industry can have a significant impact on maintaining or restoring healthy ecosystems within the framework of landscape design.
I spent the first half of my landscape career like most. In the early 1990s, we did our work within the ingrained historical framework of traditional practices for no other reason than we were not aware of alternatives and the reasoning: “Well, we’ve always done it this way. Why change?”
I began as an arborist, spraying trees indiscriminately. The work was carried out as per a job card that read, “Spray the tree canopy for leaf chewing and sucking insects.” At the time, I didn’t know the potential damage it could impose on beneficial insects, the local food webs, and ecology.
After a few years as an arborist and applicator, I moved to a landscape company. At this time, I was still spraying synthetics as before. We also planted non-native and invasive plants with little recognition of soil biology and ecology. We subsequently ran programs at my own company this way until 2005. If not for a chance meeting with Barry Draycott of Tech Terra Environmental, McCoy Horticultural would not be who we are today. That conversation, and my later attendance at a workshop from Organic Land Care Pioneers, Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) created a life-altering, paradigm shift in my philosophy toward the land.
In my opinion, the Landscape Industry has historically treated landscapes as static places—picturesque scenes best viewed through the window of an office or residence. Over the decades, marketing and social signals have told us we are good citizens who care about where we live and work if we have certain aesthetically and culturally acceptable components in our landscape. These traditional landscapes typically include, as I see it: planting beds filled with non-native or invasive plant species; yards of dyed, colored mulch mounded up on trees and shrubs year after year; acres of lawn mowed down within an inch of its life; synthetic chemical dependency; and never-ending irrigation. In these landscapes, care is dictated by one’s perceived pursuit of the “perfect” lawn and landscape. Fittingly, these landscapes tend to provide as much ecological value as a painting of a landscape hung on a wall.
After 2005, I no longer looked at the land this way. Instead, I came to embrace a holistic approach of stewardship where all living things should be considered. I have never looked at the land—and our company’s impact on the land—the same ever again. We then began to transition McCoy Horticultural away from traditional landscapes to more ecological, organic, and sustainable practices. Here are a few insights into our philosophy and its application in daily landscaping tasks.
The Practice Of IPM
To clarify, I’m not anti-pesticide. I am, however, strongly against its indiscriminate use. In a traditional landscape situation, a routine Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach is acceptable over the antiquated blanket sprays mentioned in my work history. However, in a low-impact or organic pro-gram, IPM is used only in dire situations and as a last resort if all organic processes have proven ineffective. Consider ash trees and emerald ash borer: one could make the case that if a tree, or multiple trees, were left untreated, the eventual death and removal of the tree(s) would adversely affect the property. In this case or a similar one, synthetic treatments would be acceptable after consultation with the property owner. In many cases, though, pesticides are not necessary—if a full holistic approach is in place. Our company hasn’t applied grub control to client lawns since 2005. This is true. When a landscape is ecologically balanced with abundant native plants, pesticide use is significantly reduced or eliminated. In our clients’ lawns, beneficial insects like the scoliid wasp parasitize the root damaging grubs.
Simple, but not easy.
Of all the disciplines in low-impact land care, organic turf management is the most challenging to learn and perform well. A balanced ecosystem is a key component to achieving high-quality turf. Another aspect includes reducing problematic grass-growing areas, such as under trees or locations of poor drainage. In these areas, lawn should be removed and appropriate native plants installed. Soil tests should also be performed to assess pH, organic matter, soil biology, and other nutrients. Deficiencies must be addressed by one or a combination of inputs such as lime, organic fertilizer, compost top-dressing, humic acids, compost tea, or other biostimulants just to name a few options.
My experience with battery-powered equipment has proven that running full maintenance crews with battery-powered equipment is possible. The availability of battery-powered lawn and garden platforms increases almost daily with constant improvements. Vendors including Husqvarna, STIHL, EGO POWER+, and others carry complete suites of tools. Large commercial mowers include MeanGreen, with mower sizes ranging from a 33″ walk-behind to 74″ Z-turn, and EGO POWER+. I’ve found both have good battery longevity comparably. Toro, Gravely, and Husqvarna have also recently introduced battery-powered mowers in the past year or two. (See a sampling of battery-powered equipment.) Unfortunately, we find battery backpack blowers are twice the cost and half the out-put of their gas equals. Yet it’s the gas leaf blower (GLB) that has drawn particular ire, with many areas imposing bans. I am not for over-regulating our industry; we have enough compliance issues, and I don’t sup-port a total ban of gas-powered tools by individual municipalities. (For more on this issue, see “Bans, Laws & Legislation.”) However, I do favor a voluntary reduction in gas tools (as we have done). Like many, I believe in prudent reduction over time, government funding to aid the transition, and education on achieving ROI. I also believe in regional and seasonal allowances for gas-power until, if, and when battery-powered backpack blowers equal their gas counterparts. Public pressure will continue, and it’s imperative for our industry to get out in front of these bans and vocalize how the industry is altering our practices.
Charging battery-powered tools should not be a deterrent to begin a transition to electric tools. Putting aside the larger commercial mowers, which get around seven hours of run time on a charge, our experience is that we get a full day on our 33″ and 48″ MeanGreen mowers, and charging overnight works fine for us.
The question then becomes the hand tools, string trimmers, blowers, small mowers, etc. All need multiple batteries for a day’s work. A relatively straightforward and inexpensive solution is to carry two or three batteries and two chargers per tool with a power strip. The batteries not in use can be charged at a client’s property (you may want to ask permission) while you’re on-site performing a maintenance visit. Depending on the amount of kWh and Voltz needed to charge your tools, independent mobile solar charging units and/or a solar charging system added to a covered trailer or box truck can maximize efficiency.
If you’re considering a move to battery-powered equipment, I suggest you start by contacting the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) at agza.net. There are many nuances to this change in strategy. AGZA offers educational platforms and AGZA Field-Tested Certified (AFTC) information on battery-powered tools.
While turfgrass is increasingly under attack, I am not anti-turfgrass. I do advocate for a reduction of problematic or huge expanses of lawn that are not a necessity. Incorporating native plants in these areas can save everyone buckets of money and significantly improve the ecosystem function of client properties. As most know, natives require less or no fertilizer and only limited irrigation to thrive.
Famed author and University of Delaware professor and entomologist, Dr. Doug Tallamy (who contributes the article, “Mighty Oaks”) reveals another quantifiable reason to use native plants: supporting essential birds and insects, which are disappearing at an alarming rate. In particular, the planting of “keystone” plant species is crucial. Thanks to Dr. Tallamy’s research, we know the two top food producers for birds are oaks and goldenrod. One oak will attract over 500 species of Lepidoptera, and goldenrod draws over 100 species, necessary to supporting songbirds.
Using native plants is also the most straightforward transition to make. Put sim-ply: If you’re planting, and most of us do, plant natives. For a list of native plants in your area code, visit www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder.
Soil Health & Planting
Paying attention to soil biology is a significant component of the sustainability puzzle. Do you follow the mantra of “right plant, right place?” We all know that plants have certain conditions that they prefer and will flourish in. Yet many don’t pay attention to this critical step even with this knowledge. Let’s stop with a square peg/round hole approach to plants. Identifying a plant’s culturally appropriate needs and matching those needs to site conditions is a guaranteed way to lower plant mortality and subsequent replacement. Keep in mind that most plants have a range of adaptability.
We all have a predisposition to amending soil—in many cases, even without soil tests. Soil testing is imperative to plant success and should be included in your project proposals. Your outcome will be more successful and it adds another layer of professionalism and credibility.
We can make some general presumptions though: for example, woodland plants may need a boost of organic matter (OM). Think in terms of nature. Most woodland plants benefit from seasonal leaf fall so they prefer soils with a higher percentage of OM relative to prairie plants. A typical 5% to 8% OM range is acceptable for woodland planting and increased percentages can be achieved by adding local leaf or manure compost. (We don’t recommend peat moss as there are carbon dioxide release issues with peat harvesting.)
When planting meadow or prairie-type plants, resist the temptation of adding soil amendments. Most of these plants prefer more lean or even depleted soils. Ever wonder why your prairie plants flop? Soil test. If your organic matter is over 3%, there’s your reason. These plants tend to flop if OM is elevated.
Lastly, plant and mulch properly. Whether or not you are a proponent of removing metal cages and burlap on trees, we must at least remove excess soil to expose the root flare before planting to ensure the correct planting height.
Companies like ours are successful and making year-over-year profits of 20-30%, and the growth potential of our segment is astronomical. The possibilities of regenerative and organic lawn care, green infrastructure, native plantings, battery-powered electric fleets, and even robotics are just scratching the surface. This market encompasses residential properties of all sizes (from modest to estates), commercial, and schools and municipal work.
Tackling this transition takes full-on commitment. There are large investments in both time to work through new systems and money for training and infrastructure. Making the financial decision to move forward can be daunting, especially when talking about a battery-powered maintenance setup. (This is part of the reason why having a dead-stop ban on gas tools is a horrible idea and will be a hardship for those who run on super thin margins.) Yet once battery charging infrastructures are in place, profits will only increase so ROI is achieved in two to five years.
The early adopters of this battery tech who are in a position to shoulder the upfront cost and start transitioning teams will be in a “gravy period” by year three to five. We call it the “gravy period” because there will be virtually no cost for equipment or maintenance. In most cases, battery tools outlast gas tools for the simple fact that there are fewer moving parts to wear out or break down.
The societal norms mentioned previously regarding traditional landscapes are changing—and we, the Green Industry, have an emerging market to capitalize on. There is an opportunity placed right in front of us—if we only embrace it and not resist it. I consider myself amazingly fortunate to be working in this field with incredibly talented, hardworking, and dedicated people. There is not one day that I wish I had chosen another path. The Green Industry is a fantastic place to make a career. I just know we can do better if we put down the old habits and think of the alternatives. ■
McCoy is a 30-year green industry professional and the President/Principal Owner of Richard A. McCoy Horticultural Services Inc. based in Ringoes, NJ. Named the 2021 New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Associations (NJNLA) Horticultural Professional of the Year, McCoy also serves as the Northeast Regional Director of the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) and is an acting advisor to the Organic Landscape Association and Non-Toxic Communities. McCoy Horticultural has offered environmentally responsible, fine-gardening design, installations, maintenance, and organic lawn care since 2005. In 2020, McCoy Horticultural began its Sustainable Energy Transition Initiative Program, which started their changeover from gas-powered equipment to battery-powered equipment. In 2021, they became New Jersey’s first AGZA Certified Service Pro company.
McCoy’s work at Stony Wood Garden, a 3.5-acre private woodland garden in Princeton, NJ, has been recognized by The Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Gardens. Richard is a co-contributor of the Rutgers Organic Land Care Best Management Practices Manual and a returning instructor for the Rutgers Organic Land Care Certificate program. He holds a Certificate of Organic Land Care through the Rutgers Organic Land Care Program, is a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (AOLCP), an Organic Lawn Care Accredited Professional (OLCAP).
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