By Janice Christensen, Photo by Vince Bushell
Its 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 doesnt do as much as hed like in Riverwest, but hopes to do more.
Many of his clients are on the East Side. Thats where were heading next.
On the way, we talk about two big pilot projects hes 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 hes doing an area around the Village Hall and some boulevard medians. In Whitefish Bay, hes 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 thats 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 Boards decisions. There are some homeowners who are seeing dandelions in the boulevard medians, and theyre not happy about it, Darryl admits. We try to explain that these areas have been neglected for years, and its going to take a while to get them back under control.
Its amazing how contentious weeds can be.
Next stop is the home of Paul Miller, one of the owners of Alterra Coffee. Were dropping off a white fringe tree and some elderberry bushes. This kind of tree isnt used very often, Darrell remarks. But were 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. Thats unprecedented in an urban setting very cutting edge.
The building is very large, and has very little land between it and the sidewalk. Well 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. Theyre a favorite client. One of the things that I really enjoy about this is that its not just about plants, he points out. Its 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. Theres a financial commitment, but its nice, too, that people who eat there arent sitting in the midst of things being sprayed.
Back to our plant delivery ride on the East Side were now at Mario Costantinis house.
This is a barter job, Darrell explains. Hes trading landscaping work for the use of space in Marios 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 programs 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 theres more to Darrell. Music is another side of my life, he says. I play improv violin and hand drum and do harmony vocals. Im in a band called Embedded Reporter. We played Summerfest this year.
Were 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 dont necessarily want a jungle in their front yard.
He refuses to let himself be a native plant snob, however. Im not convinced were doing a ton of good for the ecological world by using native plants, he admits. Its 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.
Its more about helping people understand that this is where they live. Its 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 www.earthcarelawns.com
Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2007