What To Look for When Hiring an Organic Landscaper

If you are part of an advocacy group and want to know what defines an organic landscaper, or a concerned citizen looking to enhance your property ecologically, I’d like to offer a few thoughts that may be helpful upon entering the world of organic and ecological land care, including what you might request from an organic practitioner and what you might expect to encounter while in discussions with a conventional landscape contractor that is not willing to change his or her ways.

It is first essential to understand that organic land care methods will not suit everyone’s taste or philosophy. You, as the consumer, need to be honest with yourself and genuinely invested in working towards a more ecologically responsible landscape. The company or practitioner you seek will also need to be 100% invested. Alignment between the consumer and the organic practitioner is vital; without it, the relationship and subsequent transition to an ecological philosophy will fail, leaving both parties feeling unsure about the organic process. The transition process then stops, leaving no other place to turn other than back to an outdated conventional synthetic program.

This list is not solely for homeowners. Environmental advocacy groups of any kind may approach this information as a way to introduce organic and ecological land care to their community members.

1) Soil is key.

If the conversation does not revolve around soil, soil health, and soil biology, look elsewhere, as this is the cornerstone of organic land care. If a contractor can’t explain the importance of the role that soil plays in organic land care and how to address its needs, they simply are not vested in the philosophy and will not provide satisfactory results.

2) Use your power as a customer.

Landscape nurseries, whether wholesale or retail, landscape service companies, and design-build firms will ultimately be influenced by the demands of the general public, our customers, and clients we serve. The louder your voice and the more determined you are to have your projects completed and maintained more sustainably, the sooner the industry will change. Here is a list of expectations you could approach a contractor with:

  • Demand that the conventional landscaper (or local retail nursery) up their game. To do this, you, as the consumer, must resist the easy path of the status quo and educate yourself on these practices.
  • Do not be misinformed by contractors or local nurseries that resist the change to organic, ecological, and sustainable practices. Ultimately, this shift is necessary for health, biodiversity, and sustainability in our communities.
  • Demand that the contractor does not use synthetic chemicals.
  • Demand that the contractor does not use invasive plant species.
  • Demand that the contractor does not over-mulch.
  • Demand that the contractor plants appropriately, meaning that the flare of trees and shrubs should be visible upon completion.

When you meet resistance, educate them on your findings (see some resources below), and if they resist further, reach out to a reputable organic and ecological land care practitioner who has been accredited by NOFA or has a Certificate of Organic Land Care through the Rutgers Cooperative Extensions Organic Land Care Program.

What if your contractor tells you a landscape can’t be maintained with the method you are requesting? The easy answer is that you are now the educated ones and the contractor clearly is uneducated on these practices. Knowledge is power! Like the informed consumer that you now are, you should absolutely continue your search for a company or practitioner that aligns with your new organic and ecologically educated view of the landscape.

3) Ask to see the materials they’ll be using on your property. 

Do your due diligence and research the content of the material and products they’ll be using on your property. By law, anyone applying must disclose all materials that are used on your property. Use the following list as a starting point for where you may decide how to determine substances that would or would not be acceptable in an organically maintained landscape program:

4) Larger companies have a harder time transitioning.

I would suggest looking into smaller, more flexible companies that have transitioned to organic and ecological land care. Longevity and commitment are crucial for a successful conversion, therefore it is essential to consider the length of time that the practitioner has implemented organic strategies. Again, the transition cannot be made overnight. If demand grows, you’ll see larger companies claiming they’ve gone organic or offer organic services, however without the change in perspective and overall approach to the landscape, effective progress will be further delayed. (Note: be wary of terms such as ‘organic-based’ and ‘organic bridge’ products as these products will contain components of both organic/natural materials and synthetic chemicals.)

5) The organic approach is all-encompassing.

The scope of organic land care should cover all aspects including true organic turf management, infrastructure (irrigation, stormwater management, etc.) and, of course, native plants. Like a food chain, one broken link could negatively impact the whole system. 

As a quick aside, what is ‘true’ organic turf management, for example? We won’t go into detail here, but here are a couple of thoughts that will help in judging the validity of an organic turf program.

  • Again, it all starts with the soil (see above).
  • If your turf application provider is only applying “organic” fertilizer in the form of Milorganite or biosolids, pasteurized poultry manure, or corn gluten, this by NO means constitutes an organic turf program. Nothing here as a stand-alone application or in any combination will address and support soil biology. In fact, Milorganite or biosolids are not approved or recommended for use in organic programs.
  • We are working towards enhancing soil systems and biology – it is important to note that any materials that have been pasteurized are void of any biological properties.

6) Be Open to Paying More.

Expect to pay more for these services as change comes at a cost. But with the higher price, you should expect a more excellent value that includes:

  • A higher quality of service and integrity from the provider;
  • Better and longer guarantees of workmanship;
  • More open and honest communication, including conversations about solving problems in difficult areas rather than temporary fixes that are common in conventional landscape practice.
  • Reduction in your carbon footprint and improved carbon sequestration
  • Improved ecological and ecosystem functions
  • The resulting expectation of a long-term ROI with higher upfront cost as your property transitions will be balanced in the long term by:
    • Less plant loss due to improper plant locations, planting, and mulching (cost savings realized by no replacement charges);
    • Lower costs in water bills;
    • Less need for fertilizer and subsequent lower cost for labor and materials to apply;
    • Lower energy costs (pertaining e.g. to large tree plantings as windbreaks and proper siting of deciduous trees to reduced heating and cooling costs)

Here are some educational references to review and pass on to your contractors or sustainability group leaders:

Rutgers Organic Land Care Program: 

  • Four Day Organic Land Care Certificate Course
  • Organic Land Care Best Management Practices Manual

Northeast Organic Farming Association: 

Organic Landscape Association (OLA): 

  • Coming Soon! “A Framework for Change” 

You can also find more information on the organic/ecological services we offer here.

Written by Richard A. McCoy, 2020