Landscapers trained to maintain grounds without chemicals.

Maybe someday, people won’t use fertilizer to grow grass, pesticides to kill bugs and two-stroke engines to blow leaves and trim hedges.

Michael La Casa, a newly certified organic landscaper with the Oregon Tilth program, uses a torch as an alternative to chemical weed-killers.

It might seem unfathomable to the average Joe, but that’s the goal of the Organic Land Care program, a new initiative by Oregon Tilth to extend organic farming practices into home and commercial landscaping.

Oregon Tilth, a national pacesetter in certifying farm products as organic, offered its first landscaper training two months ago, and hopes to conduct similar sessions every January. The Corvallis nonprofit will use the annual five-day trainings to accredit landscapers in sustainable alternatives to traditional yard installation and maintenance.

Portland landscaper Michael LaCasa is one of the first 22 landscapers to gain organic landscaping accreditation from the new program.

 ”I have a lot of faith in Oregon Tilth, because I knew their name with work on organic food,” says LaCasa, owner of Apogee Landscapes. “They have the strictest standards that I know of. With the backing of Oregon Tilth, which has solidified what organic land care is, maybe people will start to believe in it.”

Under the program, the landscaper will enter into an agreement with the client to maintain a greener standard of care for their property, says David Alba, Organic Land Care project manager.

“We are looking toward our accredited practitioners to be in the forefront of the educational process, teaching their clients these methods,” Alba says.

LaCasa, 34, has run his company since 2006 with many of the same standards, so it was a no-brainer for him to get accredited by Oregon Tilth.

What’s involved

Organic land care means looking at land, air and water quality, Alba says. “For some people, it means a new horticulture technique.”

It’s about feeding the soil instead of feeding the plant. It’s about reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and testing the soil before applying organic soil treatments.

There’s a misconception that lawns require chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which are used on more than half of the lawns in the U.S., LaCasa says. “You switch from chemicals to compost, put an eighth of an inch on the lawn and it improves the health of the lawn dramatically.”

Oregon Tilth requires Integrated Pest Management. That involves frequent soil testing and monitoring to define what the problem is (like bugs or fungus). Then treat the problem and don’t “blanket-spray everything,” LaCasa says.

It’s as simple as identifying pests, and perhaps installing plants that attract natural predators. Using compost and compost tea — a liquid solution made by steeping compost in water — is good for planting beds, shrubs and trees, LaCasa says, and bad for pests.

Another issue is rainwater and runoff, as most homes are equipped with downspouts that direct water to the street drainage system. In Portland, heavy rain flowing onto surface streets can stress the area’s sewage treatment plants — sending untreated sewage into the Willamette River. Disconnecting downspouts, and building rain gardens, can contain water in the yard, letting it seep into the ground.

If widely practiced, that could prevent hundreds of thousands of gallons from going into the drainage system, enabling treatment centers to handle mostly sewage.

Oregon Tilth also requires landscapers to refrain from using two-stroke engines, mainly leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, except for chain saws. That reduces emissions and noise.

Oregon Tilth is working on requiring organic feed and plant stock, but availability is spotty, Alba says.

New approach

At the home of Michael and Karen Girard in Southeast Portland, LaCasa built a deck with Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber, disconnected garage downspouts and built a rain garden. He ended the use of chemicals for killing weeds, mended the soil with organic compost and set up a planting plan based on low water use and maintenance. “We love the rain garden,” Karen Girard says. “It’s beautiful year-round, and it’s just a nice way to manage water.”

LaCasa sees less effort is needed to maintain properties, rather than more, with organic land care.

Leaf blowers are a lot easier than raking, he concedes, but you can use fallen leaves as mulch instead of trashing them. Setting up a home compost system alleviates the need to bring in a truckload of compost.

“You can save labor, too, by cutting down mowing. It doesn’t have to be a putting green.”

Mowing when the grass reaches 3 inches instead of 2 inches reduces the time spent mowing, he says, and increases the health of the grass.

Willamette University in Salem also participated in the Oregon Tilth training, and is adopting organic land care on its campus across the street from the state Capitol. The university is incorporating more native plants in its landscapes and encouraging more wildlife, says Jim Andersen, campus grounds manager. It halted chemical spraying of lawns for weeds.

“This makes me sleep better at night knowing that kids who run around and roll all over the lawns are not exposed to anything,” Anderson says. It also made the groundskeeping staff safer, eliminating their exposure to chemicals, he says.

Project by project, landscaper by landscaper, Oregon Tilth hopes to make a difference, inspiring more golf courses, parks and commercial and residential properties to become more sustainable with organic landscaping.