How I Do It: Offering Only Organic Maintenance Services - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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How I Do It: Offering Only Organic Maintenance Services

Photo: John Granen

Since Nussbaum Group, based in Redmond, Washington, started their maintenance team in 2005, they have only offered 100% organic maintenance services.

“While some companies may offer the choice to be organic, or not, we only allow 100% organic – for the good of our people, clients, the environment, and society,” says Dale Nussbaum, founder and CEO of Nussbaum Group.

Photo: John Granen

Nussbaum says this decision was a no-brainer as being 100% organic felt like the highest and best operating principle.

“It was hard, but I’m glad we did, because it would be impossible to move back and forth between organic and non-organic,” Nussbaum says. “We also have a company principle which is ‘Anything you do is everything you do’ so if we say we focus on sustainability, we must seek the best way in everything we do – and that means 100% organic maintenance.”

In the past, Nussbaum says they had some clients who hesitated about working with the company because they assumed it meant they’d have to tolerate weedy lawns and unkept beds.”

“We now rarely find hesitancy, and in fact people flock to us, because of our consistent results and the fact that organic maintenance and sustainability are more sought after and understandable,” Nussbaum says.

Photo: John Granen

He says often clients expect they’ll have to compromise more on aesthetics than they actually have to.

“The only adjustment, that clients who care about the environment tend to easily understand, is learning to understand the need to be proactive versus reactive,” Nussbaum says. “Weeding a lawn needs to be by hand, but if you stay on top of it, it is much easier than it sounds, and a healthy lawn outcompetes weeds, making it proactively easier.” 

Keys to Success  

One of the main reasons Nussbaum Group’s organic maintenance service is successful is because they seek to only maintain the properties they construct.

“The reason we seek to maintain only what we construct is because organic maintenance is proactive, not reactive, so if we control everything from the subgrade up – and even including the subgrade in many cases – we can be more successful.”

He says that a healthy, self-sustaining landscape begins with an excellent foundation and starts with ensuring the subgrade is properly prepared, the drainage is appropriate and the soil health is exceptional.

Photo: Norman Plate

“We love soil testing, and do it often, so we are applying what the landscape needs, not just dousing it with generic treatments,” Nussbaum says.

They also ensure the irrigation is efficient, the proper plant material is installed and it is healthy from day one.

Nussbaum says they will make exceptions from time to time, but they will discuss this as a team to decide if they can be successful and an appropriate value for the client.

“We have a guiding principle in our company, which is ‘Focusing on the strong fixed center-point,’” Nussbaum says. “We always strive to be consistent in our approach while, from time to time, allowing for, and owning the decisions around, exceptions but then seeking to return to center for long-term progress.”

Historically, landscape architects have chosen to work with Nussbaum Group because of their collaborative approach to constructing landscapes. Nussbaum says they would learn about maintenance more during the construction process. They invite landscape architects back to their projects as they mature to review the design concept, continuing the collaborative process.

Photo: Miranda Estes

Now they are seeing the conversation about organic maintenance take place in the pre-construction phase more and more.

“We are now chosen for construction and maintenance from day one as people continue to understand the benefits of organic maintenance and as the concepts of sustainability become more mainstream,” he says. “Because of our high-quality approach, landscape architects are also realizing that maintaining organically is not a compromise and can, in fact, create better long-term results and, therefore, more referrals for them. This is important for us because we only maintain projects we construct.”

Organic Maintenance Methods and Challenges

Nussbaum Group defines their organic maintenance as using the best horticultural techniques combined with 100% organic products that are based, first and foremost, on developing a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.

Through considerable time and experimentation, they have developed their organic maintenance methods. They use cleaners, soil inoculants, blood meal, macronutrients, fertilizers, mycorrhizae, mulch, insecticidal soaps, vinegar, and much more. Michael Nieves, senior maintenance team lead for Nussbaum Group, says they brew their own compost tea, which promotes a healthy soil structure, improves plant nutrition, progresses plant growth, suppresses diseases and assists suffering plants bounce back from stress.  

“We create the brew using high-quality ingredients that feed the beneficial bacteria, fungi and protozoa,” Nieves says. “We start with pure water, add a number of organic materials and organisms, and then aerate the brew as it matures. We then use it immediately upon completion to assure the best potency. This ensures we provide the highest quality compost tea to improve the soil food web. We continue to evaluate it and improve the recipe regularly.”

Heather Kibler, director of maintenance for Nussbaum Group, says one challenge with providing organic maintenance is there is no one single textbook method for organic maintenance.

Photo: John Granen

“We are constantly seeking, testing, discovering and exploring new methods,” Kibler says. “Each site takes focus and attention and while we seek to systematize as much as possible, no two landscapes can be treated the same. Over time we’ve developed processes, executed new ideas, and constantly evaluate everything to see what works best for us as whole and individual gardens.”

They have also had a handful of instances where organic methods are unable to control a certain pest or disease, though Kibler says this is rare. When there is a situation that requires a non-organic intervention. They meet as a leadership team to decide on and approve the treatment and treat only the necessary plant.

Nussbaum says other landscape companies considering offering organic maintenance services should commit to it 100%.

“Continue to learn, experiment, expect the best, be patient, and share what you do to help make it mainstream. It takes dedication and passion to succeed in organics – don’t flinch, and don’t expect an easy ride, but there is nothing more rewarding and honest at the end of the day,” he says.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.