They wanted to start a landscape business that would use organic gardening methods, work with nature rather than fighting it, Gile said. It was a novel concept: The conventional wisdom then and today is synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are cheaper and more effective than natural products. Few in the industry thought it would last.
"Quite a few people didn't think it would be viable," he said.
But it was. More than a decade later, In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes' revenue is growing 20 percent annually. About 1,800 clients use the company's routine lawn, tree and shrub care and the company's database of clients who purchased design and installation services numbers in the thousands.
Part of the company's success is credited to a growing awareness among consumers about the benefits of organic gardening, Gile said. Few homeowners used organic products or practices in 1994 when the company started. Today, it's a different story, particularly in the Northwest where people tend to be greener than the rest of the country, he said.
Sales of organic lawn and garden products are growing at a rate of 27 percent per year, according to the National Gardening Association. The demand for earth-friendly products could quadruple in the next few years, predicted the association's director of research, Bruce Butterfield.
In the last few years, conventional lawn care giants such as TruGreen ChemLawn, the largest professional lawn care provider in the country, have added pesticide-free programs. TruGreen's Natural Nutrient Program includes applications of all-natural fertilizers. It doesn't include weed removal, since no all-natural weed control products exist, according to the company's Web site.
In Harmony isn't the company for homeowners who expect a lawn like a country club golf course. In Harmony landscapes contain plenty of bugs, longer grass and grass clippings on the lawn. A few weeds are tolerated.
Many yards are sterile, devoid of beneficial bugs and the birds that eat them, Gile said. The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides strips the soil of vital nutrients and micro-organisms necessary for healthy, vibrant plants. He said the use of chemical pesticides weakens land and plants over time.
Rather than only treating problems, the company tries to prevent them by emphasizing soil health and putting the right plant in the right place in the landscape, Gile said. Healthier plants are better equipped to fight off diseases and insect damage and healthy lawns will out-compete weeds, he said.
"Traditional landscape companies don't pay attention to soils," Gile said. "They use soils that are inferior quality or not enough soil. They might add two or three inches on top of hardpan and plant in that."
Typically, In Harmony performs a soil test to detect deficiencies and adds organic matter such as compost to improve the soil. Healthy soils are maintained with the use of compost tea, beneficial fungi, nutrients and organic fertilizers.
In established landscapes, plants may need to be moved and drainage problems corrected. They may choose to remove a problem plant or treat plant diseases with "soft" pesticides such as neem oil, a less toxic fungicide made from a tropical tree. The company uses corn gluten meal to control weeds in lawns.
These solutions take time and sometimes can be more expensive. Gile estimates the company's prices are comparable in some cases and about 10 percent to 15 percent higher than a conventional service in others. The lawn care service, which includes seven visits in a year, cost $50 a visit. He said customers receive one-on-one service tailored to their landscapes.
"It's so much more involved than a one time spray from a tank mix of chemicals," he said.
Part of the service is educating the customer on how to care for the landscape after the company is through and that might include cutting the grass higher than most homeowners are used to, as high as 2 to 3 inches, or watering less often but more deeply.
The company's earth-friendly focus extends to other parts of the business. The trucks run on biodiesel. Gile said they opt for recycled products as much as possible, for instance, using wood from forests managed sustainably.
The same approach is applied to employees, and that's a significant reason Bryan LaComa, a garden designer for the company, said he stays.
"Working in a clean and healthy environment in this business is huge," he said.
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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