Landscaping the natural way

After retirement, Mark Gathman found a new calling: providing area residents with 100 percent organic lawn care services

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By MELISSA LOU

As Oak Park and River Forest shake off their winter wardrobe of snowy streets and chilly days, and frosted-over lawns give way to spring-like weather, budding trees and green lawns, planting and lawn care become a top priority for homeowners.

This year, the changing weather also brings with it a new business that promises to solve the spring-cleaning, lawn-mowing choresâ€"with a natural twist.

The business, Gathman Natural Lawn Care, is a family-owned and operated, 100 percent organic lawn care service located at 409 Beloit Ave. in Forest Park.

Its owner, Mark Gathman, is a middle-aged man who has turned his love of lawn care into a successful business with an already growing and loyal following in Oak Park.

"It is a ma' and pa' landscaping business," jokes Gathman. "Our mission is to use only 100 percent organic fertilizer on people's lawns."

Gathman's new business is truly family operated, as each customer's lawn is serviced by a team that includes at least one of the owners. This "ensures more personalized service, higher satisfaction and more affordable prices," writes Gathman in his brochure.

To care for an average 5,000-square-foot lot, using the company's signature five-step processes, Gathman said, will cost approximately $250, depending on the conditions of the lot.

Seeding a new business

Gathman started out in the retail and automotive industry, but said he always loved working on his lawn. Upon retirement, he decided to turn his hobby into a business.

"All middle-aged guys at this point want to start their own small company, doing things you like to do," he said, smiling in his office, surrounded by his natural products.

The products he uses contain no herbicides or pesticides. Instead, the program relies on making the soil healthy as "healthy lawns grow on healthy soil," he said.

The five-step program uses proper soil preparation and lawn maintenance to build healthy soil and deep-rooted lawns that are "more resistant to disease, tolerate some insect and drought damage, and will out-compete many weeds."

The process, however, takes longer and customers shouldn't expect the "instant-death in 60 seconds" that chemical weed killers advertise on television, he warned.

"It does take longer for this to get what you want from your lawn," Gathman said. "It's almost like when you stop smokingâ€"it takes a while for all the bad chemicals to get out of your system."

The problem with the chemical solutions, Gathman added, is that they're dangerous and can be poisonous.

For example, he noted, one of his current customers told him her cat got sick from eating grass that had chemical fertilizers in it. In fact, a lot of his customers had stopped using fertilizers at all, until Gathman Natural Lawn Care came around.

Unlike the chemical counterparts, "this is safe for pets, children and wildlife," he said.

Gathman's devotion to natural lawn care is not new. "I always tried to do things at homeâ€"recycle, etc.," he said. He always used natural products on his lawn. From this environmentalist bent in his own personal life came the inspiration to use these products in his business.

"What I'm trying to do is to educate people that by using 100 percent natural products, you're not going to hurt the environment, children, pets or wildlife," he said. "We were going to use a product from a company that sells to golf courses, but I subscribe to a lawn care magazine [and] every week we get a new product,"

The new product, it turns out, was from a company out of Londonberry, N.H., and is a fertilizer you can buy only from a seed distributor.

Gathman did his research and said he was impressed with the product, but getting it here turned out to be a problem. First he contacted distributors in the area that were listed by the company as authorized dealers. But none of them had ever sought the product. After much searching, he finally found a distributor who agreed to order the fertilizers for him and Gathman Lawn Care was born.

Environmentally safe products, however, are not just hard to get, but they can be a hard sell to new customersâ€"especially in this fast-paced world.

"Not everyone is going to relate to it," he admitted, adding that the majority of his customers come from Oak Park. He hopes to build up his clientele in surrounding towns, though, and has begun advertising in Forest Park.

Lawn care options

Gathman provides several packages to potential customers. One program is the spring clean-up program in which the Gathman team removes leaves and other winter debris from lawn areas and shrubs, then mows the lawn.

Another possibility is the power aeration program, which "does for the soil under turf what tilling does for other garden soils."

Gathman and his team lighten the soil by extracting 2-inch to 4-inch plugs from the lawn, making space for the roots to get air, water and nutrients, he explained.

They also provide de-thatching, using a power rake. In his pamphlet, Gathman explains that the thatchâ€"a dense layer of non-decomposing grass clippings, roots and stems formed between the soil and base of the grass plantâ€"reduce pesticide effectiveness and provide safe havens for insects and lawn disease.

Gathman and his team will use a power rake to limit the size of the thatch to half an inch, twice a year, in the spring and in the fall.

In addition, Gathman provides power seeding and weekly mowing services, trimming, and removal of grass clippings.

The company's signature program, though, is the five-step fertilization process, called the five-step organic lawn care program. For this, Gathman and his team will use a spring fertilizer that contains "heavy rates of balanced pellet fertilizers with nitrogen."

The fertilizer, he writes, "inhibits the germination of crabgrass, creeping bentgrass, dandelion, smart weed, redroot, pigweed purslane, lambsquarter, foxtail, barnyard grass and Bermuda grass."

In the summer, the team returns with their early summer fertilizer. Mid-summer, they come back for a summer inspection, followed by a late summer fertilizer.

Finally, at the beginning of the fall, they apply a fertilizer that contains "heavy rates of balanced fertilizer to prepare the lawn for winter."

Gathman has a four-man crew and will work up to eight hours on a single house. "You're working 12-hour days, five days a week," he said.

As for the winter, he plans to do residential snow removal and natural ice control, but said he hopes to continue working on lawn care through Thanksgiving this year.

The new career, he said, also provides more free time with his family, as his down time coincides with Christmas.

"December is a good time to take off," he said.

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