Introducing the Nurturecode community series: interview with BioGardener.

I know how much y’all love my terrible jokes and pictures of bugs and flowers and such, but when I started writing stuff on Nurturecode I had big plans. I had always intended to include content on inspiring projects and/or technologies that people I respect are working on, but those bugs just keep comin’. I am finally getting started on my long planned “Nurturecode community series” wherein I interview the aforementioned people and, hopefully, introduce some great artists/businesses/technologists to y’all, my dear readers.

BioGardener is an awesome, inspiring Austin business that proves that you can be a good neighbor and a great steward of the earth while building a thriving, sustainable business. Jeremy Walther is the man in charge of this operation and I recently had the opportunity to ask him some challenging questions about our drought stricken landscapes, building a sustainable business, and bad jokes. Without further ado, I present my BioGardener interview!

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First off, explain what BioGardener does and why you formed this company in the first place.

We are a lawn care and landscaping company who uses reduced emissions equipment and organic approaches to design, build, and maintain landscapes in Austin. I was a full-time biologist for a consulting firm with a new wife, new baby, and new house when I started mowing grass on the weekends for extra cash in 2002. We had one car and a canoe trailer, but I used to push a mower and a gas can around our neighborhood trying to pick up new work, which is how I used to mow Innocente’s on Cesar Chavez (now Counter Culture).

It took off pretty fast, and the deeper I got into the ‘green’ industry, the more I realized what a joke it was. The entire landscaping industry is totally detached from nature, trying to remove as many variables from an ecological system and gain as much control as possible. I wanted to do better than that, and try to bridge the worlds of ecology and landscaping as best I could.

Some of the opinions you share via the BioGardener blog may seem a bit “out there” to some Austin residents, e.g. an appreciation for “weeds” or an acknowledgement that maintaining a manicured lawn of exotic grasses is unsustainable in central Texas. Are you noticing increased awareness of some of the issues that you bring up amongst the broader population, or are you just preaching to the converted?

Nobody is truly converted, if they were, they’d fire BioGardener and stop trying to manipulate their landscape. I just try to help them find a balance that works for them, and that balance is different for everybody. Even the most traditional clients respect the concept of moving away from manicured lawns and appreciate the need to drastically change how we landscape in Austin, and they’re taking really small baby steps towards sustainability.

So generally, both the broader population and the choir are really open to changing their perspectives on what a lawn in Austin, TX should look like in August. But it’s not because of anything I’m telling them, it’s really more of a reaction to the devastation of drought.

Continuing with the previous question, are you seeing neighborhoods that have previously required residents to adhere to specific landscaping requirements and/or city policies changing to reflect the realities we face in central Texas? I think of stories like the controversy last year over an Austin resident’s sunflowers as evidence that we stillt have a long way to go on this front.

HOAs can be dumb dinosaurs. We helped a woman this spring in South Austin fight an HOA rule that requires lawn for 60% of the front yard. The HOA ended up allowing a variance, which was a good move, but its still a rule on their books.

Property managers can be just as oblivious to reality, though they usually have more power to change rules on the fly than HOAs with bylaws and boards and all that. The good ones realize that, and do the best they can. But when one property manager is answering to 85 residents in one condo community with 85 different perspectives, it’s impossible to make everyone happy. So I understand how a property manager might be reluctant to adopt a new landscape policy that promotes weeds and kills traditional turf lawns.

I think the City of Austin is a little more responsive than both HOAs and property managers. Some of the rebate and water conservation programs seem green-washed, but the up to $1/gallon rainwater collection rebate that the Water Utility offers right now seems like a good idea. They also allow a variance to the Stage 2 watering restrictions for veggie gardens, which sends a good message. The City has this impossible and contradictory task to develop water policy that ensures supply to a rapidly growing population in a droughty environment – but still promote food security and local agriculture, which requires lots of water. If a property manager’s job to manage for 85 different perspectives, imagine how hard it would be for close to 1 million. So you’ll always have stories of some code enforcement douche bag writing tickets for sunflowers, but its inevitable. I know some disagree, but I think the City is doing a pretty good job considering the impossible challenges they’re facing.

What are your suggestions for central Texas gardeners with regards to plotting a course forward in the face of our recurring drought conditions? What are the different approaches you recommend for ornamentals vs. food crops?

Gravelled xeriscapes are not the answer. I think building the desert is inappropriate for Austin – it’s just too wet and too fertile for that to be sustainable – we should be building the forest and prairies instead.

Planting trees is the absolute best way to get started. Appropriately selected shade and ornamental trees helps regulate surface temperatures and moisture, which does all kinds of great things for soil ecology. New trees are also easy to water – all plants need regular water to get established, and its much easier to point source water a few trees than to try to irrigate an entire bed of native perennials or entire lawn of native seeds. That’s especially true during water restrictions, when you could shower with a bucket and then use it to keep your trees alive.

Once those trees are established and the drought lifts, then could be a more appropriate time to start making some more water-intensive changes that can save water in the long-term, like using native seed and plants to start building a short-grass prairie or wildflower meadow in your lawn.

All new food plots should include some kind of rain water collection system to be sustainable, to me that’s the only factor that really matters. Tim Miller in Kyle grows 5 acres of organic veggies with no irrigation, check him out for some serious inspiration.

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Jeremy conducting crew in East Austin
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Crestview Chicken coop built from salvaged materials
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Found materials veggie garden in East Austin
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Gonzalo digging hole for Mountain Laurel in North Austin
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Handcut stone path with shade plantings in East Austin
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Native backyard woodland, 3 years after installation
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Peach tree in East Austin
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Prairie lawn in South Austin
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What has your experience been with the various native seed lawn options on the market? Do these present a practical alternative to monoculture lawns for folks that are used to that type of lawn? How well do they really handle the drought?

This is the email I send people interested in those options.

The drought has shown us that traditional lawns are not a good long term solution. St. Augustine planted in full sun just needs too much water to be sustainable. There are emerging options to traditional turf grass (like St. Augustine) for those who don’t want to stray too far from having a traditional lawn; these options have their strengths and weaknesses.

We have successfully established lawns using a mix of native grasses started from seed, which is now available as a standard mix called Thunder Turf from Native American Seed in Junction. These folks are, to me, the best native seed supplier in the state. Its the exact same seed mix that the Wildflower Center promotes as Habiturf. But, there are two huge hurdles that you’d have to overcome to make this work.

1. Water. Seeds need a constant soil moisture to germinate, which means daily watering for at least 2 weeks in the form of rain or your sprinkler system or garden hose. If you plant in spring, it will take the entire summer under ideal conditions to get the grass to establish. After two weeks of daily (or even twice a day) watering, you can start to back off, but still, you will have to water at least once a week during the entire summer. If you let young grass seedlings dry out once, it’s all over and you have to reseed again, and these seeds aren’t very cheap.

2. Weeds. Even though the Thunder Turf mix can eventually be the turf grass option that requires the least maintenance, it takes literally years for it to become that way. Once its established, it requires very very little water, no fertilizer, and very little mowing to stay happy. But during the first couple of years, and the first 3 months especially, you will have to spend an insane amount of time weeding all of the opportunistic weed seeds that love the freshly prepared soil and constant water that you are giving the native grasses. So weekly weeding all summer will be absolutely mandatory. The amount of effort required will depend on how weeded your current lawn is now, and what the soil is like underneath, but a reasonable expectation is at least 1-2 hours per week through the summer, then gradually tapering off.

Another option is sodding with a variety of Buffalo grass called ‘Density’ grown on a farm south of San Antonio. Because its already in sod form, it requires much less weed maintenance in the beginning. It still goes dormant in drought though, like the native grass mix option, so will need to be watered in summer to keep it from going to sleep. It also needs regular water during the first year to get established, though not necessarily as much as seeds.

The native seed option is generally a good one in the long term, but it requires more dedication than the broader population is willing to commit.

Also, and this is one of the most important conclusions I’ve made as a landscaper – native plants need native conditions to thrive. After decades of soil compaction, soil importation, development that changes the hydrology of a place, and other constant disturbances, soil in most of urban Austin resemble nothing that you’d find in nature. So you can’t just stick a native plant in soil like that and expect it to do well. This is why those pioneer species of weeds do so well in urban environments, and why converting a disturbed space to a native prairie is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Does the BioGardener approach with regards to your use of alternative fuels present any practical problems to your business? Have any of your clients selected BioGardener for projects specifically because of this?

It used to really disappoint me how little our use of alternative fuel mattered to clients. The City of Austin requires this kinds of equipment for all new landscape maintenance contracts, so that’s the one exception. But these bid requirements treat a huge mower that runs on 20% biodiesel the exact same as a totally electric push mower. Nobody really seems to care what fuel the machine is burning, but they do care that we make the effort.

I spend at least 5 hours a week collecting, transferring, and filtering waste vegetable oil, which really is more of a hobby than anything. Our propane mowers cost more than traditional mowers. We had to set up a fueling station at our lot to make use of biodiesel practical. I think most people see that its not easy or simple to use alternative fuels, otherwise, they wouldn’t be alternative. So knowing that we make the effort impresses people, not the fuels themselves.

And its actually justified. I had an engineer review the real impact that that our use of these fuels makes on reducing air pollution – the numbers were less than impressive. The emissions reductions are the equivalent to not burning 5 gallons of gasoline per day.

So we’re doing what we can, and I think people respect that. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do more. There’s a lawn care company in Austin using all electric equipment, Chris Carter took over the local Clean Air Lawn Care franchise from someone else a few years back. She’s convinced me to try out some electric equipment on some of our smaller maintenance accounts, which would make a far greater impact than the propane and biodiesel we currently use in our mowers. I think Chris is doing great work.

I love that BioGardener offers assistance with DIY projects rather than strictly providing full service landscaping services. Are most of your jobs towards the DIY or full service end of the spectrum?

Most people like the idea of DIY, and some take full advantage of our encouragement to take on at least part of the landscaping project themselves. But in the end, its alot of hot sweaty work that takes time more easily spent doing other stuff. We do have alot of gardener clients though, who enjoy spending time in the garden but keep us around to help with the heavy lifting every once in a while.

How did you get involved in Fonda San Miguel’s garden? How does that project in particular reflect what BioGardener has set out to do?

The Fonda garden was designed and installed by Randy at Resolution Gardens in 2008. Scott Dubois was in charge of maintenance the first 2 years, then approached me when he decided to take a full time teaching job and leave the garden. I was all over it. My specific interests in work tend to float around year to year, and at the time, I was really into food production. So Fonda was a great way to get experience tending a large food garden, and give me a very small taste of what farming might be like. The guys like it too – its hard to get excited about weedeating Asiatic Jasmine, but something entirely different when you’re weeding a bed of strawberries or caging cherry tomato plants. It’s a really pleasant setting to work in.

The lessons learned at Fonda have been surprising. The purpose of the garden is to support the restaurant, not to just blindly grow food, and its an important concept to remember for every garden. It’s easy to get swept up by the romance of growing food, but if that food isn’t being used to its fullest potential, love for the garden grows cold pretty quickly. So we’ve shifted towards herbs and more drought tolerant flowering plants, which can be used in drinks or as a garnish or to decorate tables inside the restaurant. It just made more sense for the restaurant, so that’s the direction we took.

Give us your top 10 plants/trees and tell us why they hold a special place in your heart.

This list changes every season, but these plants are the ones who helped heal the deep scars of last summer.

Mexican White Oak – Shade Tree – Native to Mexico, faster growing than any other oak, fewer pests/diesease problems, drought tolerant and new growth in the spring is kinda pink, which is pretty.

Montezuma Cypress – Shade Tree – Also native to Mexico, fast growing and can take the drought. Grows relatively symmetrical and doesn’t drop many limbs so arborists like them too.

Mexican Buckeye – Small Tree – Native to Austin, when these start blooming, along with Redbuds, its always the sign that spring has started in Austin. And they held up last summer like champs.

Palo Verde ‘Desert Museum’ – Small Tree Native to Austin but nursery in AZ cultivated one without thorns. This tree can be planted in a swamp or on the moon, it really doesn’t care.

Heartleaf Skullcap and Tropical Sage – Perennials – Dry shade is a hard one to make fun, but these offer rare shade color. They go away in drought, but as soon as it rains a little, they bounce right back.

Pine Muhly and New Mexican Feathergrass – Ornamental Grasses – Super tough, smaller, well behaved. They don’t spread like Mexican Feathergrass and aren’t as ubiquitous in Austin landscapes. But they will be someday cuz they’re awesome.

Datura – Perennial – I don’t remember planting this in my yard, but there it is, growing over the sidewalk to keep the hookers from hanging out in front of our house. Huge white flowers that bloom at night all spring and most of summer, attract night-flying pollinators.

I have to respect my blog’s traditions- please tell my readers a bad joke to end this interview.

An arborist, who used to spend alot of time at the old Cafe Mundi after work, telling about a job he didn’t get earlier that week. His story went something like this:

“Had this old lady who called me out this week wanting a bid. Her crappy little dog kept chasing squirrels up this massive oak in her yard, and would go ape shit as the squirrels jumped around the limbs, safely out of reach. The yipping of the dog was driving the old lady crazy, so she wanted me to cut down her tree.

So I went to the tree, eyeballed the trunk diameter and the upper canopy, then looked over at the dog, who was rubbing its ass in circles on the lawn. I told her, ‘Lady, I’ll cut down this tree for a million dollars, but I’ll shoot your dog for a thousand.’

I didn’t get either job.”