Fox Valley: 920-730-3253
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19 Mar 2014
Cover Blog

Nature’s Pathways Cover Article – April 2014

Building a purposeful life from the ground up Todd Rockweit betters his community and the earth through Backyard Organics In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. —Aristotle As they shine between the leaves of a nearby maple tree, the sun’s rays gently warm your skin.

The smell of flowering lilacs drifts upon a light breeze. Soft, plush grass cradles your bare feet as you close your eyes and listen to the birds singing from the nearby shrubs and trees. It’s a perfect, serene, picturesque backyard. But what makes it all the more beautiful is it was made that way by a man who takes doing right by the environment, his community, his clients and his family to heart. Todd Rockweit provides organic and sustainable land and lawn care to Northeast Wisconsin through his business, Backyard Organics. The Oshkosh-based Backyard Organics is much more than a typical landscaping company. It serves residential customers, as well as businesses, gardens, orchards, farms and even small vineyards — and it does so by recognizing the flaws in conventional and often harmful chemical-based methods, and instead using an educated and individualized approach to each client’s needs.Rockweit is easily able to relate to his customers’ needs — perhaps because he himself was one just a few years ago. He and his wife, Tara, both nature lovers to begin with, knew they wanted not only an attractive and inviting yard, but a safe environment. Their main motivation for this came in a tiny, adorable package: their new daughter, Emmaxia.
The Rockweits looked into the services Backyard Organics offered and Todd found himself gravitating to the company’s sustainable, continuous-improvement process. Thanks to this organic and thoughtful approach to their own lawn care, the Rockweits now have peace of mind knowing that their daughter, dogs and even chickens can explore their backyard without encountering harmful chemicals.
A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Five years ago, Rockweit had just sold his custom software distribution company. At age 43, he wasn’t in a position to retire, yet he was comfortable enough to choose what he wanted to do next in life. He and his wife sat down with a whiteboard in their living room and outlined a roadmap for the future. Not surprisingly, family played a major role in the Rockweits’ decision to purchase and operate Backyard Organics.
“Until you actually have one, you don’t know. It’s unreal how much they can change your life,” Rockweit says of having children. Todd and Tara had a bit of a preview through watching friends and family parent before their own daughter entered the picture. “We saw the good and bad,” Todd recalls. “We knew that if we didn’t take best approach to raising our child that we could, that wouldn’t be right. We wanted a better balance personally and professionally.”
Backyard Organics certainly seemed to fit the bill. Tara, a local high school teacher, has more free time to spend with Emmaxia in the summer months than during the school year. The opposite, seasonal nature of lawn care would allow Todd to compliment Tara’s schedule.
“It’s a good fit,” Todd says. “It helps us to always be with our daughter whenever we can.”
What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. —Henry David Thoreau
Another item at the top of Rockweit’s whiteboard list for the future was his goal to enjoy a more meaningful existence.
In the past, Rockweit tried to be as good of a person as possible, though this wasn’t the driving force in his professional life. He focused mainly on making money to support his family as best he could.
But Rockweit was able to shift his priorities, and he recognized that Backyard Organics would allow him to feed his soul, rather than just the bank account. Now, as owner and operator of the company, Todd recognizes that doing the right thing is part of who he is.
“The driving force behind this business or really anything that I do is to be more purposeful,” he explains. “Every time I make a decision, I ask, ‘Is it the right thing to do? Is it the best product I can utilize? Is it the best service I can provide?’ This can be difficult if the majority of your professional life was more profit-driven. It can be difficult, but it is absolutely the driving force behind this business.”
Rockweit’s focus on living a purposeful life has lead him and Backyard Organics to deep community involvement. Through participation in local committees and organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, Rockweit is able to help individuals and groups better understand the environment.
“To me, what’s most important is groundwater understanding,” he explains. “Water is a limited resource, and we really need to do whatever we can to preserve it.” Rockweit hopes that by connecting with community organizations, he will be able to help people build their understanding of how land-care decisions can impact the watershed, as well as the environment as a whole. This will lead individuals and businesses to consider alternatives to synthetic land-care chemicals, Rockweit hopes.
Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher. —William Wordsworth
Since taking on Backyard Organics, Rockweit has done more than his fair share of research. Thanks in part to his prior career in engineering, he takes a “left-brained” approach to lawn and land care. The business owner finds himself naturally craving to understand “how things work,” to identify root causes of problems and to search out the best solutions — strengths he uses to his customers’ advantage.
“In this industry, a passion for understanding how soils work is very unique. Landscapers in general don’t spend a great deal of time understanding soil. Instead, they use products to make grass ‘look’ greener,” Rockweit explains.
Rockweit, on the other hand, has been truly immersed in soil science for the past five years. A regular attendee at organic farm and land-care classes and conferences, he takes time each off-season to further educate himself. Rockweit has primarily attended educational opportunities on the east coast, where the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA, regulates organic land care.
While the east and west coasts have organizations like NOFA that set standards and guidelines related to organic land care, the Midwest does not. Rockweit explains that because of this lack of oversight, a Midwest company could say they are using organic products and approaches, but there is no way to verify this.
Backyard Organics is different. As a NOFA-accredited land care professional, Rockweit has the credentials and knowledge to back up his words. And Backyard Organics, with its purely organic approach to land care, is unique not only in Wisconsin, but the entire Midwest.
Backyard Organics customers know what they’re getting: Todd Rockweit — a man who believes in doing the best thing for his family, his customers, his community and his planet.

Each Backyard Organics customer benefits the environment. By contacting Todd Rockweit, clients can rest assured knowing that they are making the world a better and more purposeful place. Contact Backyard Organics at 920-730-3253 or email info@backyardorganics.net. To learn more, visit backyardorganics.net or stop by the shop at 5171 Green Valley Road, Oshkosh.]

Backyard Organics is actively involved in the following programs and committees:
• Sustainable Neenah
• Sustainable Fox Valley
• Gardens of the Fox Cities
• Master Gardeners of the Fox Valley
• Community Gardens of the Fox Valley and Oshkosh
• Habitat for Humanity
• Fox Valley Adopt a Garden
• Neenah Historical Society ]

14 Feb 2013
sustainable soils

Sustainable soils Part 2 – How nutrients and soil biology work together to form sustainable soils and healthy plants

To understand how soils work in conjunction with plants, you really need to understand cellular biology; however, in this article, we are going to take a much simpler look at how soil nutrients, plant function and soil biology work together to form a sustainable environment.

As indicated in February’s article, most of us who are trying to “fix” or “maintain” our soils are concerned about the NPK numbers on fertilizer bags; however, knowing the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels of a product is only the start to creating a sustainable soil. “Generations of gardeners have been brought up on 10-10-10 and 39-9-12, but nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are just three of many nutrients that plants need to survive.”

Two additional nutrients to consider when evaluating soil’s sustainability are calcium (which stabilizes pH levels and biological activity, loosens soil, is a major component of plant cell walls and is a key indicator of weed growth) and magnesium (which holds soil particles together and is a major component that promotes plant growth). An equally important factor to consider is the relationship between calcium and magnesium. Evidence shows that soils low in calcium and high in magnesium tend to exhibit greater weed pressure and are prone to compaction. There are additional secondary nutrients and micronutrients to consider, but we’ll address that in future discussions.

A good soil test will provide you with nutrient levels currently in your soil. Here are a few suggestions to assist you:

  • Don’t use a cheap test. Inexpensive tests are likely to paint an inaccurate picture of your soil, which can result in over-fertilization and further damage to your soil.
  • Make sure your test is checking for soluble nutrient values. Our soils in the Midwest are typically heavy in clay, which binds up nutrients and makes them inaccessible to plants. Soluble values tell you the amount of that nutrient that is available for the plant.
  • Make sure your test checks for the pH, organic matter percentage, cation exchange capacity (CEC) and base saturation levels. Ideally you are looking for a pH value of 6-7, 5-15 percent organic matter, CEC of 10-15 and a calcium to magnesium ratio of 7:1. Anything above or below these numbers will likely require inputs to adjust and this could take months or years.

So, now that we have a basic understanding of nutrients, how do we get the nutrients into the plants? This is where biology plays such a critical role in soil sustainability.

Plants have a symbiotic relationship with their soils. Plants give up nearly 60 percent of their energy to their roots, which release exudates. Exudates are a food source for bacteria and the start of the nutrient cycling process within the soil food web as well as the start of sustainability.

If you are applying a dry fertilizer to your lawn, garden or farm, and you have insufficient biological activity in the soil, there is no way for your grass or other plants to take up those necessary nutrients and very little defense against pests and diseases. If possible, have a bioassay test done on your soil to get a basic understanding of your biological activity.

In an organic environment, soil organisms need to digest the organic material (nutrients) and smaller organisms (soil food web) before any plant can benefit from the micronutrients. This is why synthetic fertilizers are so harmful and why we have become so dependent on them. Once the synthetic nutrient is absorbed into the plant, the runoff leaches into the ground, thus killing off the microorganisms in the soil. Once the organisms are gone, you become dependent on the synthetic fertilizer.

To speed up the nutrient cycling process, many organic farmers and land care professionals create and use custom blended compost teas. By suspending the micronutrients of quality compost in a liquid form, the plants and soil organisms can access the benefits of the compost/nutrients far more quickly and, if the soil is lacking in biodiversity, we can inoculate the soils with the necessary biology to ensure all necessary components are available for a healthy, sustainable soil.

Diversity is important because every soil is different. Having a wide variety of bacteria and fungi handles a wide variety of deficiencies. In order for the bi-products of the microbiology to be of any value, however, the soil food web needs to continue its cycle with the help of arthropods, nematodes and protozoa (the shredders, predators and grazers found in the third trophic level of the soil food web). Backyard Organics provides the necessary predators by using good quality compost, naturally rich with nematodes and protozoa, and extracting them using an actively aerated brew process. We then add a variety of appropriate nutrients that help the microbiology live and prosper until your soil is able to sustain itself.

So, if you are considering taking a healthier, more sustainable approach to maintaining your yard and gardens, consider not only the nutrients the plants need, but also the biology and the whole ecology necessary to sustain that environment.

Todd and Tara Rockweit are owners of Backyard Organics, LLC, Wisconsin’s first organic land care business accredited by NOFA, one of two organizations in the country that accredit Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs). Since 2004, Backyard Organics has been supplying natural and organic products and services for people, pets and property, including a complete do-it-yourself program. To read more about our products and services, or if you would like to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, email info@backyardorganics.net or call 920.730.3253/888.200.0446.

07 Sep 2012
court room gavel

Scotts Miracle Gro Fined $12.5 Million in Pesticide Case

CONTACT:
Enesta Jones
jones.enesta@epa.gov
202-564-7873
202-564-4355

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 7, 2012

Scotts Miracle-Gro Will Pay $12.5 Million in Criminal Fines and Civil Penalties for Violations of Federal Pesticide Laws

WASHINGTON — The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, a producer of pesticides for commercial and consumer lawn and garden uses, was sentenced today in federal district court in Columbus, Ohio, to pay a $4 million fine and perform community service for eleven criminal violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which governs the manufacture, distribution, and sale of pesticides. Scotts pleaded guilty in February 2012 to illegally applying insecticides to its wild bird food products that are toxic to birds, falsifying pesticide registration documents, distributing pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels, and distributing unregistered pesticides. This is the largest criminal penalty under FIFRA to date.

In a separate civil agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scotts agreed to pay more than $6 million in penalties and spend $2 million on environmental projects to resolves additional civil pesticide violations. The violations include distributing or selling unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides, including products with inadequate warnings or cautions. This is the largest civil settlement under FIFRA to date.

“The misuse or mislabeling of pesticide products can cause serious illness in humans and be toxic to wildlife,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s sentence and unprecedented civil settlement hold Scotts accountable for widespread company noncompliance with pesticide laws, which put products into the hands of consumers without the proper authorization or warning labels.”

“As the world’s largest marketer of residential use pesticides, Scotts has a special obligation to make certain that it observes the laws governing the sale and use of its products. For having failed to do so, Scotts has been sentenced to pay the largest fine in the history of FIFRA enforcement,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with EPA to assure that pesticides applied in homes and on lawns and food are sold and used in compliance with the laws intended to assure their safety.”

In the plea agreement, Scotts admitted that it applied the pesticides Actellic 5E and Storcide II to its bird food products even though EPA had prohibited this use. Scotts had done so to protect its bird foods from insect infestation during storage. Scotts admitted that it used these pesticides contrary to EPA directives and in spite of the warning label appearing on all Storicide II containers stating, “Storcide II is extremely toxic to fish and toxic to birds and other wildlife.” Scotts sold this illegally treated bird food for two years after it began marketing its bird food line and for six months after employees specifically warned Scotts management of the dangers of these pesticides. By the time it voluntarily recalled these products in March 2008, Scotts had sold more than 70 million units of bird food illegally treated with pesticide that is toxic to birds.

Scotts also pleaded guilty to submitting false documents to EPA and to state regulatory agencies in an effort to deceive them into believing that numerous pesticides were registered with EPA when in fact they were not. The company also pleaded guilty to having illegally sold the unregistered pesticides and to marketing pesticides bearing labels containing false and misleading claims not approved by EPA. The falsified documents submitted to EPA and states were attributed to a federal product manager at Scotts.

In addition to the $4 million criminal fine, Scotts will contribute $500,000 to organizations that protect bird habitat, including $100,000 each to the Ohio Audubon’s Important Bird Area Program, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Urban Forestry Program, the Columbus Metro-Parks Bird Habitat Enhancement Program, the Cornell University Ornithology Laboratory, and The Nature Conservancy of Ohio to support the protection of bird populations and habitats through conservation, research, and education.

At the time the criminal violations were discovered, EPA also began a civil investigation that uncovered numerous civil violations spanning five years. Scotts’ FIFRA civil violations included the nationwide distribution or sale of unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides, including products with inadequate warnings or cautions. As a result, EPA issued more than 40 Stop Sale, Use or Removal Orders to Scotts to address more than 100 pesticide products.

In addition to the $6 million civil penalty, Scotts will complete environmental projects, valued at $2 million, to acquire, restore and protect 300 acres of land to prevent runoff of agricultural chemicals into nearby waterways.

The criminal case was investigated by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Environmental Enforcement Unit of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. It was prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Jeremy F. Korzenik of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, by Michael J. McClary, EPA Criminal Enforcement Counsel and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and by Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Marous.

The civil case was investigated by U.S. EPA Region 5’s Land and Chemicals Division and Office of Regional Counsel, and the U.S. EPA Headquarters Office of Civil Enforcement, assisted by the Office of Pesticides Program.

More information about the civil settlement and recalled products: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/civil/fifra/scottsmiraclegro.html

28 Feb 2012
habitat for humanity fox cities

Building Successful Homeowners through Education

Providing low-income families with an affordable home addresses only part of the issue of poverty; in addition to building houses, Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity works to ensure that our first-time homebuyers become knowledgeable homeowners.

Families that partner must demonstrate that they have a genuine need for decent, safe and affordable housing, that they have the ability to pay a 0% mortgage, and that they are willing to partner with Habitat by committing to 300-500 hours of ‘sweat equity’.  Sweat equity hours can be met by working on their home, volunteering on the homes of other Habitat families and attending workshops and education sessions.  As a part of their sweat equity, all the adults in our partner families are required to complete over 55 hours of homeowner education.

Habitat for Humanity makes these classes a requirement because we know that education and preparation is the key to self-sufficiency.  Of the 55 hours, about 30 hours focus on financial literacy and financial preparedness, including understanding their mortgage, establishing monthly budgets, planning for a financial emergency, etc.

Since our families are mostly first-time homebuyers and are often the first in their extended families to live in their own home, we also conduct classes that help them transition into homeownership.  The topics addressed in this track include how to be a good neighbor, community relations, and home maintenance.  It is with the help of our family partners, mentors and class facilitators that Habitat can offer such an extensive range of topics to get our families ready for financial stability, and Habitat is blessed to have so many experts in their fields lend their expertise to our families.

Their new yard is often the first time Habitat families have had a yard, and typically aren’t familiar with lawn maintenance or landscaping.  Backyard Organics has stepped in to help our Habitat homeowners with getting their new lawns established, and is donating their services for all our 2011 families.  The purpose of Backyard Organics is to create a safe environment for families, pets and the planet.  Backyard Organics uses safe, earth-friendly methods for weed control, soil conditioners and also offers soil manipulation and testing services.  Backyard Organics utilizes the principles set forth by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), and was the first organic land care business accredited by NOFA.

For 2011, there are 14 Habitat families, which is an increase from 2010.  Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity would not be able to increase our ability to provide decent homes in a holistic manner without the generosity and support of our wonderful volunteers and partner businesses like Backyard Organics!  

09 Feb 2012
nurturing healthy soils

Healthy Soils with help from Compost Tea

For the past year you have read our articles that described what is happening in the soil and the potential problems that can occur if that “life cycle” is disrupted either chemically or through our own use of the land.  Today I would like to talk to you about a tool that homeowners and gardeners can use to help get back your healthy soil – compost tea.

Brewing high-quality compost tea with consistent results is a challenge (much like brewing good-quality coffee or beer), which is why it’s critical to source the highest-quality compost and nutrients as well as utilize the best equipment and processes that will not harm the biology.  Brewing compost tea can be as simple as a five-gallon bucket and compost processed from home or as complex as a 250-gallon brewer, bio-assay tested compost, and an assortment of nutrients and soil additives, which is the approach that Backyard Organics™ takes.  In addition to the technical design of the equipment and the science behind the formulations, timing of the applications is critical.  Compost tea is a live, active, aerobic blend of microbes, which are rapidly expanding and can become unfavorable if they run out of nutrients and become anaerobic. Applying compost tea with the first 48 of a finished brew cycle is critical to receiving a quality product.

A good-quality compost tea has a quantity and diversity of microbes.  Compost teas that achieve high quantities and a good diversity of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoas are able to combat a larger variety of symptomatic issues.  Each community, each neighborhood and each yard have unique soil needs.  Having a high count and a diverse group of microbes ensures consistent results.  Also, applications within a yard can vary, which is why it’s important to be able to understand the differences between a fungal-dominated need versus a bacterially dominated need.  For example, certain grasses prefer a more bacterially dominated compost whereas certain trees and shrubs prefer more fungal activity. This is why it’s always important to test your soils prior to applying amendments.

Verified benefits of compost tea

  1. Improves soil structure and porosity – creating a better plant root environment
  2. Increases moisture infiltration and permeability, and reduces bulk density of heavy soils – improving moisture infiltration rates and reducing erosion and runoff
  3. Improves the moisture holding capacity of light soils – reducing water loss and nutrient leaching, and improving moisture retention
  4. Improves the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils
  5. Supplies organic matter
  6. Aids the proliferation of soil microbes
  7. Supplies beneficial microorganisms to soils and growing media
  8. Encourages vigorous root growth
  9. Allows plants to more effectively utilize nutrients while reducing nutrient loss by leaching
  10.  Enables soils to retain nutrients longer
  11. Contains humus – assisting in soil aggregation and making nutrients more available for plant uptake
  12. Buffers soil pH

In addition to the numerous biological benefits, compost tea also has a practical side that can greatly benefit the homeowner.  Compost tea, whether you brew it yourself or have someone apply it for you, can be applied as a foliar feeder.  Feeding the leaves of plants, shrubs and trees, efficiently uptakes nutrients, stimulates the plant rhizosphere and acts as a protector against harmful leaf diseases.  Also, compost tea is much easier to spread and faster acting than compost with the same biological benefits of a compost top dressing application (we would still recommend compost application if your soil is lacking organic matter).

Here is what a few experts in the field have to say about compost tea:

“Aerated compost teas are the latest in scientific organic research today. In many ways, aerated teas offer greater immediate benefits than classic compost, manure or other homemade foliar teas” – The Garden Web

“Good tea is worth the trouble to brew because it can transform your lawn and garden” – Paul Tukey, author of the Organic Lawn Care Manual

“Compost tea is one of the inputs on the horizon that will change the way we deal with several of the management aspects of growing high-quality turfgrass, either in your backyard, on your town’s parks and athletic fields, or on commercial and institutional properties” – Chip Osborne, Osborne Organics

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a leading researcher and founder of the Soil Food Web organization, sums the benefits of compost teas up best … “The use of actively aerated tea, when applied under a proper management regime, returns beneficial biology to the soil.  This in turn rebuilds a soil food weed which, reduced dependency on fertilizers and pesticides, improves plant growth and reduces disease, significantly reduces water use, reduces toxicity and encourages the healthy establishment of healthy biology” – Dr. Elaine Ingham, President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb, Inc.

Backyard Organics™ firmly believes in the benefits of organic land care and agrees with Chip Osborne and experts in the field who believe that compost teas will be one of those “tools” that will change the way we deal with land care in the future.

Todd and Tara Rockweit are owners of Backyard Organics, LLC, Wisconsin’s first organic land care business accredited by NOFA, one of two organizations in the country that accredit Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs). Backyard Organics also supplies a variety of natural and organic products for people, pets and prop­erty. To read more about our products and service, or to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, e-mail us at info@back­yardorganics.net or call us at 920.850.7450.

19 Oct 2011
weed control

Controlling Weeds Organically

Traditional lawn care since the late 1940’s has feasted on a one-size-fits-all approach to weed control that paints every plant with the same broad stroke. However, the EPA estimates that only 2 percent of the active ingredients in synthetic weed killers, called herbicides, ever reach the target plant. The other 98 percent goes into the soil, the ground water, and the atmosphere. Organic land care specialists believe that the best tool against weeds is a healthy grass plant, which can only happen with healthy soils, and that takes time, especially on yards that have an abundance of weeds.

Weeds are telling you something about your yard. Each weed seed is genetically programmed to replace specific deficiencies in the soil. For example, if your lawn is missing nitrogen, nature will often send in clover or one of its cousins in the legume family of plants, which can trap and process nitrogen from the atmosphere. If your lawn conversely, has too much nitrogen, nature will likely give you an abundance of dandelions. Again, our approach to eliminate weeds is to improve your soil through an appropriate balance of biology and nutrients and improving soil texture and structure. This takes time if your soil is out of balance. The organic approach is not a quick fix, it’s a healthy and safe alternative approach (to chemicals) which benefits our family and our environment. Now, having said that, here are some tools to get rid of weeds without chemicals:

* Total eradication using nonselective sprays or solarizing techniques

* Spot weeding with nonselective sprays, flaming or mechanical tools

* Pre-emergent weed control in spring and fall

* Soil modification that gets to the root of the problem

* Overseeding with new grass seed to crowd out weeds

* Mowing at an appropriate height and bagging only occasionally (first cut of the year, right after dandelions go to seed, right before winter)

If all else fails, use a synthetic herbicide that targets the weeds that are taking over your lawn, and then start fresh with an organic approach to achieving a healthy soil.