Darrell Smith

By Janice Christensen, Photo by Vince Bushell

It’s about 7 pm on a warm summer evening, and Darrell Smith is driving around the East Side, dropping off plants that he just picked up from a nursery in Waukesha. At this time of year, the only way to talk to a landscaper is to ride along in the pickup truck.

First stop is in the 2900 block of Fratney Street. It has the usual “postage stamp” front lawn – Darrell has removed overgrown shrubbery that took up the whole space and created space to set out a couple of lawn chairs with some nice plants along the edges. The back yard is the real gem. It features a patio of recycled stone set in sand. Each piece is unique, and the effect is striking – a real work of art.

Darrell doesn’t do as much as he’d like in Riverwest, but hopes to do more.

Many of his clients are on the East Side. That’s where we’re heading next.

On the way, we talk about two big pilot projects he’s working on in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. They are experimenting with pesticide-free forms of lawn care on public grounds. He uses organic fertilizers like compost tea and corn gluten for weed prevention. In Shorewood he’s doing an area around the Village Hall and some boulevard medians. In Whitefish Bay, he’s doing projects in Big Bay Park overlooking the water, and in Schoolhouse Park, across from the library.

The Whitefish Bay jobs were motivated by the Healthy Communities Project, a citizen advocacy group that’s trying to increase healthy lawn care in public places. He has a three-year commitment from the Whitefish Bay Village Board to work with these methods.

Not everyone is happy about the Board’s decisions. “There are some homeowners who are seeing dandelions in the boulevard medians, and they’re not happy about it,” Darryl admits. “We try to explain that these areas have been neglected for years, and it’s going to take a while to get them back under control.

“It’s amazing how contentious weeds can be.”

Next stop is the home of Paul Miller, one of the owners of Alterra Coffee. We’re dropping off a white fringe tree and some elderberry bushes. “This kind of tree isn’t used very often,” Darrell remarks. “But we’re using a lot of them at the Alterra building on Humboldt Blvd.”

The Alterra project is the one that has Darrell most excited right now. There are going to be lots of native plants around the parking lot on the north side of the building. “About 95% of the landscaping is going to be native plants. That’s unprecedented in an urban setting – very cutting edge.

“The building is very large, and has very little land between it and the sidewalk. We’ll be using lots of climbing plants to soften the lines of the building, plus tall prairie perennials in short boxes filled with a premium custom blended soil mix. We should be starting the project in mid-August.”

Darrell does other work for Alterra as well. They’re a favorite client. “One of the things that I really enjoy about this is that it’s not just about plants,” he points out. “It’s about meeting new people, networking and finding common interests. Alterra has an interest in using ecological methods for their landscaping and lawncare. We do all their weeding at their lakefront store by hand. There’s a financial commitment, but it’s nice, too, that people who eat there aren’t sitting in the midst of things being sprayed.”

Back to our plant delivery ride on the East Side – we’re now at Mario Costantini’s house.

This is a barter job, Darrell explains. He’s trading landscaping work for the use of space in Mario’s Riverwest property to store one of his trucks. “One of the things I like best is collaborating with like-spirited neighbors – people who are fun to work with.”

Darrell has a history of working with like-spirited people. He moved to Milwaukee almost 11 years ago, after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina. His first job was with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. He helped start, then coordinated a youth program on the near south side for about five years. The program’s focus was conflict resolution and the arts.

He continues this interest with his “winter job,” working with the Peace Learning Center. He teaches conflict resolution techniques in an elementary school program.

And there’s more to Darrell. “Music is another side of my life,” he says. “I play improv violin and hand drum and do harmony vocals. I’m in a band called Embedded Reporter. We played Summerfest this year.”

We’re heading back to Riverwest, and Darrell has a few more thoughts. “There are two prongs to my business – natural lawn care and landscape installations.”

He loves to use native plants in landscaping. He was introduced to them at the Urban Ecology Center, where he worked for almost three years as Community Program Coordinator.

“Of course, native plants are perfectly suited for our soil type and climate. They require very low maintenance and little fertilizer or water. Even during a drought summer like this you get beautiful flowers because the root systems go down three feet.

“Not everyone likes a wild look, though. Sometimes we sneak them into designs, while keeping an organized, manicured appearance. People don’t necessarily want a jungle in their front yard.”

He refuses to let himself be a native plant “snob,” however. “I’m not convinced we’re doing a ton of good for the ecological world by using native plants,” he admits. “It’s good if people use less fertilizer and less watering, and rain gardens to absorb water. But as far as restoring the whole ecological system that was here before? The impact is negligible.

“It’s more about helping people understand that this is where they live. It’s about people having a greater connection to the landscape.”

Learn more about Earthcare Natural Lawn and Landscapes at earthcare. com. For more information on natural lawn care strategies and research about pesticides and your health, check out

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2007