Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Organic Land Care: The Way to Go!

By Bill Duesing

Our lives are totally dependent on the air, water and food we get from nature, primarily from the plants, soil and oceans that cover our planet.  Left alone, nature produces greater biodiversity, stores more carbon, creates more structural complexity and moves toward metabolic stability. Taken together, these effects lead to more resilience in the face of environmental disaster and to healthy ecosystems and a stable climate. 

Unfortunately, Americans are largely ignorant of this information. And our hubris means that most people don't think this ignorance matters. Otherwise we would reject the commercially based way of caring for the earth with a default landscape of large chemical lawns and a few shrubs (selected for their static appearance) in our yards and public spaces. This landscape is not in accordance with nature's principles.
A default landscape in Woodbridge, CT
NOFA's Organic Land Care

For more than 25 years CT NOFA has been promoting and educating about organic land care (OLC). Organic land care extends the vision, principles and expertise of organic agriculture to the care of the landscapes where people live, work and play. Its methods can be applied anywhere there is landscaping: small urban lots, suburban yards, estates, schools, commercial properties, parks and farms.

(For a brief history of CT NOFA's work with OLC, see Note 1. The internationally-recognized principles of organic care are cited in Note 2.)

Organic land care works with nature to increase biodiversity and store more carbon while avoiding toxic substances and excess nutrients. This is what nature does if left alone. Increasing biodiversity and taking more carbon out of the atmosphere create healthy environments and a livable climate. Our care of the land can participate in this system and benefit from its energy, or it can fight nature using fertilizers, monocultures and toxins. 

From a global perspective, Earth's most serious environmental problems are the quickly-changing climate, excess nitrogen and the rapid loss of biodiversity (all caused by humans-see Note 3). These problems are directly connected with the way we manage the land under our care.  We can work to correct these problems using organic methods. But most garden centers sell huge amounts of high nitrogen fertilizers and poisonous biodiversity killers such as RoundUp, as well as many combinations of fertilizers and pesticides which create two problems with one product. And they all require fossil fuel to produce, package and distribute which causes more climate disruption.
Earth's vital signs

Lots of nitrogen and biodiversity eliminating chemicals

Increasing biodiversity is at the heart of organic land care. A diverse soil ecosystem, with billions of organisms in just a spoonful of soil, is able to support plant health and fight off diseases while helping to pull carbon out of the air and store it in soil organic matter.  A diverse plant community, especially of native plants, provides food and habitat for more birds and beneficial insects (as well as bacteria, fungi and other organisms) which can in turn foster pollination and provide pest control and other services. Caterpillars may eat some leaves, but they are important food for birds. Native trees host many kinds of caterpillars to feed more songbirds. Non-native invasive trees, not so much.  There are 337 species of native bees in Connecticut, all with a role to play in the ecosystem and a need for habitat and food.

Storing Carbon
Plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They incorporate much of it into their leaves, stems and roots. However, 20 percent or more of that carbon is released through the roots to nourish soil organisms. Some of that carbon may be stored long term in the soil under the right conditions. A greater diversity of plants and an undisturbed soil full of life create these conditions. Lawns, that is chemically tended grass monocultures, don't support those conditions. Raking leaves removes carbon that could and should be added to the soil each year.

Many ways to manage landscapes
Working with nature can be done at a variety of scales and in many ways. The NOFA Standards for Organic Land Care provide preferred, allowed and prohibited practices. They can be used for growing flowers, trees, shrubs, lawns or food.  Organic methods make it easier to grow food and flowers together. Growing food is a preferred practice in the NOFA Standards. Working with nature is also the key to successful organic agriculture. The most successful organic farmers have discovered the importance of native plants and pollinators, perennial crops and hedgerows.

See Dr. Sarah Little's article for even more reasons to use organic methods and a convenient checklist of things to do with your yard. Sarah is the author of NOFA OLC's Introduction to Organic Lawns and Yards.  The second edition has just been published.  Learn more here.

The NOFA Organic Land Care Program provides a number of resources and publications through  For homeowners, there is a searchable database of accredited professionals. For professionals, there are courses, including a first ever courses in Maine this summer and on Long Island this fall. 

Be open to what nature has planned for your land.
After 40 years of being mostly left alone (Note 4), our steep, rocky home lot along the Housatonic River has an incredible diversity of plants which grow naturally here: ginseng, Dutchman's britches, aquilegia, Solomon's seal, false Solomon's seal, many kinds of ferns, a nearly five-foot diameter pine tree, hemlocks, white and red oaks, hickories, black birches, a beech, choke cherries and red cedars as well as dozens of other plants (and some years delicious morel mushrooms) all on just a fraction of an acre. What would grow in your yard if you let nature be?

What does your land produce?
Clean air and water and healthy food come from healthy ecosystems and very few other places.  If everyone on the planet managed their piece of Earth the way you do, would the world be a more beautiful place with clean air, water and food?

Note 1. In 1990, the CT NOFA board realized that a number of our members were landscapers who joined the organization to learn organic techniques. As a result, organic landscaping was selected as the theme for the winter conference.  The conference was so successful that for the next two years, CT NOFA held an organic landscaping conference in addition to the regular winter conference (focused on farming and gardening).  These landscaping conferences were well attended as interest in organic land care grew. However, at that time, CT NOFA was an all-volunteer organization which certified organic farms and had its hands full promoting organic agriculture. The board handed the effort off to the Ecological Landscape Association (ELA) which was just forming. It was hoped that ELA would carry on the organic tradition.    But by the late 1990s it was clear that ELA wasn't strictly organic, so in 1999 NOFA members in Massachusetts and Connecticut created the NOFA Organic Land Care Program.  First a committee of landscapers, scientists and activists wrote the Standards for Organic Land Care, and then they created a multi-day course to educate land care professionals in the standards and accredit those who completed the course and passed an exam. Visit thispage for more history.  We all owe a debt to the volunteers who created and guided this program.

ELA provides many valuable educational and networking opportunities for professionals, organic and conventional.

Note 2. The principles of organic agriculture are Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care, as stated by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).  (The NOFA Standards for Organic Land Care are part of the IFOAMFamily of Standards.)  In organic land care, these principles are stated this way:

  • Steward the combined health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet.
  • Emulate living ecological systems and cycles and help sustain them.
  • Build equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world. And
  • Act in a precautionary and responsible manner.

Note 3. Scientists around the world have identified three very serious, global environmental problems: climate change, excess nutrients, especially nitrogen, and the rapid loss of biodiversity. These problems are interrelated. 

Climate change is destroying biodiversity of coral reefs (with warming oceans) and western US forests (with invasive insects and fire). Nitrogen fertilizers release greenhouse gases (nitrates and carbon dioxide) from the soil when they are applied, and then as they leach out of the soil, create dead zones (with very low biodiversity) in places such as the Gulf of Mexico. Loss of biodiversity leads to a loss of resilience in the face of climate change.  Loss of biodiversity in the soil (as a result of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) leads to less carbon being stored to moderate climate.  Climate change's droughts and deluges, with resulting fires and floods, further reduce biodiversity.

Note 4. Now that I understand the effects of invasive plants, I've been working to remove them, by hand, to encourage the aforementioned native plants. I pull out wineberries and garlic mustard, as well as some of the English Ivy, crown vetch and Forsythia (planted many decades ago) which continues trying to take over.


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