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Richard Tighe founded the London, Ont., firm Grass Roots, which markets and distributes a soil-testing kit for homeowners. (unknown)
Richard Tighe founded the London, Ont., firm Grass Roots, which markets and distributes a soil-testing kit for homeowners. (unknown)

Landscaping

Working with nature to grow a healthy lawn Add to ...

Richard Tighe wants to tell people how to grow healthy lawns and gardens without pesticides.

It wasn't always so. As a young man in the 1980s, he trained for a career in the computer field, but then his father bought a Weed Man franchise and asked him to help out during the start-up years. He found the work enjoyable and decided to make a career of it, in 1995 purchasing a lawn-care business servicing more than 10,000 homeowners.

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When pesticides became an issue in 1999, Mr. Tighe realized he would have to shift gears again. "I quickly recognized that pesticides would eventually be removed or restricted, so I looked into all replacement products and services to help secure my future."

His research pointed to soil science. With an understanding of soil's deficiencies and imbalances, one can determine the right mix of fertilizers to apply every six to eight weeks to help the lawn grow thick and healthy roots.

This is the approach used by golf course managers and farmers. "Lawn care professionals and turf experts have long known that thick grass can be both beautiful and a great defence against weeds," Mr. Tighe explains. "Both Health Canada and Landscape Ontario acknowledge that a healthy lawn protects itself from weeds and insects."

Soil testing has a long history but Mr. Tighe found a way to add value. In 2000, he founded Grass Roots, a firm based in London, Ont., that markets and distributes a soil-testing kit that he developed.

Observing that soil-test results tended be difficult for most people to understand, Mr. Tighe co-wrote a software program to translate them into an easy-to-read prescription format.

"I tested this new process directly myself on approximately 200 lawns per year from 2001 to 2009 in London," he adds.

The tests confirmed that he was on the right track, and his customer base has grown. "We have over 8,500 homeowners who have used this service coast-to-coast as do-it-yourself growers, along with more than 400 lawn-care businesses," he says.

Using the postage-paid envelopes, customers mail a soil sample to an accredited laboratory. Within two weeks they receive a custom, two-page report of the soil's nutrient requirements, along with a recommended treatment program.

A&L Canada Laboratories Inc., which has conducted soil, plant, fertilizer and water testing for more than 30 years, is the main laboratory for Grass Roots. The London lab participates in the accreditation programs of the Canadian Association for Environmental Analytical Laboratories, Standards Council of Canada and other organizations.

A team of five runs Grass Roots, with the assistance of individuals working on a contract or advisory basis. "We have a great team of people helping us from scientific to financial to marketing," Mr. Tighe says.

He anticipates about $550,000 in sales for the year. But 2011 and 2012 is when he expects "the real growth" to occur. That's when he plans to expand the reporting tables to address the needs of gardeners and small-acreage farmers interested in growing ornamental plants, vegetable plots and crops.

Grass Roots is also leveraging its relationship with A&L Canada to expand into foreign markets. A&L Canada president Greg Patterson has provided letters of commendation to its affiliates in Britain, the United States and Australia, along with a recommendation to participate in a Grass Roots project to build a mutually beneficial global database of soil conditions. A&L Canada expects to have a Chinese affiliate by January, 2011.

In Canada, do-it-yourself homeowners can purchase the soil-testing kit at participating Wal-Mart and Home Hardware stores. They are also available through the Grass Roots website, www.grass-roots.ca, for $19.99.

To complement the soil-testing kit, and provide further support to homeowners and gardeners, Grass Roots has developed a $9.99 educational compact disc that offers tips on when and how to aerate, fertilize and attend to other lawn and garden maintenance.

The company also provides free advice on lawn-maintenance issues. Questions can be submitted via its website; answers are promised within two business days.

In 2009, Grass Roots also launched a training course targeted to lawn-care professionals and property managers on a global scale. The course is being offered by TS Technical College, an accredited Canadian institution.

"Grass Roots prides itself on the fact that we do not sell fertilizer products, nor do we receive any form of compensation from the products we present as solutions to each homeowner," Mr. Tighe says. "We simply are a resource that earns money from CD and kit sales. We present only factual information and guidance."

According to Mr. Tighe's findings, "over 90 per cent of problems that result in the need for pesticides were reduced simply by properly targeting the plants' nutrient levels." In sum, the way to grow a healthy lawn or garden is to apply readily available fertilizers appropriate to the soil's needs - instead of reactively spraying pesticides on problems as they emerge.

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