July 20, 2008

Grosse Pointe Park Lawn Care Company Uses Organic Ingredients

By Kim North Shine, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 20--The flaglike lawn signs are all around, waving warnings to keep children and pets off the just-treated lawns of homes across metro Detroit.

It's enough to make one wonder: What's in that stuff anyway?

Grosse Pointe Park residents Mary Beth Palmer-Gierlinger and Christoph Heinen decided to find out and to come up with a chemical-free way of treating lawns. It's an approach they believe protects people, animals and the Earth while actually returning lawns to a healthier, natural state.

"We believe you can have a beautiful lawn without endangering yourself," said Palmer-Gierlinger, a mother of four. "There is no reason for us to compromise the health and future of our children."

She and Heinen say their company, Eco-Logic Lawn and Landscape based in Grosse Pointe Park, is a solution to chemical-dependent lawns. They believe those chemicals are responsible for high rates of cancer, including a higher incidence of breast cancer in the two zip codes that encompass the Grosse Pointes, water pollution, ground pollution and other illnesses.

What they wanted to do was run a company that would never have to stick dire warning signs in lawns after a treatment.

"Our little lawn signs say safe for children and pets," Palmer-Gierlinger said. "We just feel so good about it and as people are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of these chemicals, we're seeing a much greater interest in what we're doing."

Palmer-Gierlinger wrote the company's business plan, which she calls "as much a business model as it is a philosophical belief," last year.

Heinen, a longtime traditional landscaper and landscape designer, met Palmer-Gierlinger through the elementary school their children attend. He heard about Palmer-Gierlinger's all-organic lawn company idea and by January, they had started the business together.

Heinen has a background in horticulture and has worked on organic farms around the world, but Palmer-Gierlinger has a degree in political science with a minor in Arab-Israeli conflict. "I decided I could probably make a difference in the local population before I could solve an ancient political crisis," she said.

Heinen has worked in traditional landscaping for the last seven years and is relieved to be working with minerals and other natural resources.

"I just had this feeling I can't go on doing this anymore. I had to do something to make my life more worthwhile and make a difference," he said. "I don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings, but people doing these chemical applications, even if they do have degrees or certification, what they're doing is not good for anyone."

Palmer-Gierlinger was motivated by stories of local friends who had been diagnosed with or died from breast cancer, and the studies by the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Karmanos Cancer Institute that found a higher incidence of breast cancer in the Grosse Pointes, compared with the rest of the state.

She got together with Local Motion, a Grosse Pointe-based organization that raises awareness about the connections between environmental toxins and their negative health consequences. The organization was started by the sister of a woman who died from breast cancer. She looked at Karmanos Cancer Institute studies that showed places like the Grosse Pointes may have higher cancer rates "because of affluence, possibly because women stay home and have higher exposure to more household and lawn chemicals. Also more affluent families want more beautiful lawns ... So, after learning all of this, I was driving my husband to work one morning and said you know this might sound crazy, but I'm thinking of starting a company to get these chemicals out of our community."

She said the company has about 50 customers now.

Palmer-Gierlinger said what's different about Eco-Logic is that the fertilizer used is not synthetic, "which comes from an unsustainable source and takes a lot of energy to make." Instead Eco-Logic's fertilizer has trace minerals, and organic, slow-releasing nitrogen and potassium.

"It's the slow releasing element that is really, really good. A synthetic fertilizer is really, really high, unnaturally high in these elements ... What it does is make lawns dependent on chemicals so they always need a fix to survive."

Eco-Logic uses lawn clippings, compost juice, minerals and natural substances to feed and protect lawns from invaders rather than using herbicides.

"When the mower comes over and mows the lawn, those clippings are high in nitrogen," Heinen said. "Nitrogen is like the sugar, the life for the plant, and it's much cheaper and more sustainable. What makes us different is our use of microbiology and the breakdown of natural materials for food."

The Eco-Logic treatment process typically starts in the spring when a nutrient-rich topsoil "that's full of microbial life" is applied.

"Then we over-seed. That's the main thing people are curious about," Heinen said.

The idea is that the more grass that grows the less room there is for weeds to move in.

"Anything you squirt is going to kill the plants, and it's going to kill the good microbial life that's in the topsoil. And that leads to more problems."

Monthly, or depending on the customer's desire, a compost tea is applied to the lawn. The compost tea, or fermented tea, has kelp and loads of trace mineral elements, Heinen said. It also contains bacteria from decomposed organic matter that keeps plants healthy.

Customers are asked to keep grass heights to three inches or more.

"Keeping the grass that high creates the shade so weed seeds don't have a good place to grow," he said. "It also allows grass roots to go deeper down. If roots are deeper, the grass is stronger and you don't have to water as much."

The cost for Eco-Logic's services vary. A typical lawn with over-seeding and four fertilizer applications would cost $200 to $250 a season, Heinen said.

For now, Eco-Logic is focusing on getting customers in the Grosse Pointes "because we live here and our children live here," Palmer-Gierlinger said. "But this is a service we feel needs to be available to anyone. Eventually we want to go everywhere, to the west side, even national."

One of the next projects for the company is to approach local governments and school boards about doing away with their chemical treatments.

"But it's not enough to protect our individual, localized environments," Palmer-Gierlinger said. "It is really our mission to change the way everybody thinks about this."

KIM NORTH SHINE can be reached at 313-223-4557 or at [email protected]


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