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June 2011
Organic Growth
By Carol Gifford

     “Take a look at our urban landscape,” says Billy Styles. “It may look green and beautiful, but step in and look a little closer. Tree tops are dying. Trunks are discolored with mold or scale infestations. Foliar growth is stunted or non-existent. You can see the decline—and it’s all around us.

     “I call it the ‘Makeover Crisis of the American Landscape.’ Overuse of synthetic fertilizers and irrigation systems can make a landscape look green and beautiful for a brief period of time, but it’s all eye candy. It’s steroidal growth on an IV drip of irrigation.

     “That doesn’t occur in nature. Sure, plants die in the forest, of course they do, but on their natural life cycles—not six months after planting. Grass and plants grow without constant watering or applications of the latest gardening products. Grass is not always perfect.

     “Too much watering and a dependence on chemicals have changed the soil composition in urban areas, making it tougher to grow and sustain a green environment,” continues Styles. “People’s expectations about what they need to do to nurture growth feeds into the problem.”

     “Water and fertilizer is not a cure-all or do-all,” says Styles. “When you cook, there are several ingredients in a recipe. Water and soil are just some components of a healthy landscape.”

     Styles continues, “The forest floor has every component necessary to sustain plant life—a constant supply of diverse organic matter decaying at the soil surface feeding the different beneficial microbes, bacteria and fungi that work together to generate natural fertility for the plants growing in a natural setting. This diversity is the real key to sustainability.

     “Our urban soils don’t have any of this. All of the beneficial components are scraped away when homes and office buildings are built, leaving behind compacted soil that cannot support healthy growth. We need to physically put those diverse components back into the soil if we want to achieve any measure of sustainability.”

 

Organic Roots

     With his ever-present wide-brimmed hat, work shirt, khakis and boots, Styles—soft-spoken and unassuming—is passionate about his life’s mission. He talks about soil and the growing environment with an ease and expertise that has catapulted him to television and radio shows across the country and earned him the respect of horticulturists at colleges and universities.

     “The American landscape is in severe decline,” he says. “We plant the wrong plant in the wrong place. We dig a hole, amend the soil, plop a tree in it, and just expect it to grow. Why do we do that? It’s ridiculous. The hole in our front yard has nothing in common with the soil in a natural setting.

     “This brings me to native planting,” says Styles. “Just because a tree grows well in the forests of North Carolina, doesn’t mean it will grow well in your backyard. There are many factors that affect healthy plant growth: sun, shade, moisture, planting depth, air flow around the plant, proximity to other plants that may be more disease prone.

     Styles’ knowledge about soil and plant health, comes from his background. He is a fifth generation farmer who grew up on a dairy farm in Burnsville, N.C. When he was a teen, his family relocated to the Charlotte area and managed a 1500-acre farm in Denver, where they had cattle, hogs and chicken, and grew a variety of crops.

     After decades in America’s backyard, Styles is now a Certified Master Gardener, Certified Clean Stream Administrator, Certified Turf Grass Professional, and a Certified Professional Applicator, among others.

     His farming and landscape experience was his entry into organic plant management. Styles was couldn’t find suitable products to aid plant growth and soil management in a manner consistent with nature, so he created his own.

     Organic Plant Health, the Matthews-based company formed by Styles and partner Alan Talbert in 2006, offers an exclusive line of organic-based and natural plant care products for homeowners, landscapers, and other greens industry professionals. The product line was developed to promote healthy soil structure and to provide natural fertility as part of a “green” growing environment.

 

A Natural

     “I’ve never met anyone like Billy,” says Sonny Helms, a Cabarrus County farmer, and owner of Coddle Creek Vineyard. “He’s got a world of knowledge and good, down-to-earth common sense.

     “He’s the real thing, he’s genuine,” says Helms. “I’m thankful I got to know him. I first started using his products about four years ago and now I use them religiously.

     “It’s made a world of difference in the quality of our products and the taste.”

     Helms’ garden and farm, part of a state stewardship program, is all organic. His one-acre garden produces hundreds of pounds of vegetables each year.

     “I got Billy to help me figure out where to plant the grapes. It’s important to choose the right pitch of land and grade of slope to successfully establish the vines,” says Helms, who plans to sell wine from Coddle Creek Vineyard when his Concord and Black Noble grapes reach maturity in about two more years.

     “This was my great-grandfather’s farm and it’s located on the Coddle Creek Reservoir,” he says. “It’s another reason why I’m using organics—to be sure there’s no fertilizer run-off of chemicals like nitrogen.”

     “I got into landscaping to help people learn,” says Styles. “I want to help people understand the nuts and bolts of landscaping and gardening so they can enjoy the same results that I have.”

     “Styles is to growing as Bob Vila is to home repairs”, says Talbert, Styles’ partner of eight years and co-founder, vice president and COO of the company. Vila, the well-known host of This Old House, an iconic TV home improvement show, later became the spokesperson and recognized expert for home improvement and repair projects.

     Talbert, a former marketing company owner of 17 years in Charlotte, says he was struck by Billy’s passion, knowledge and charisma when the two met in 2003. Talbert’s company had been retained to help Styles’ new company with marketing efforts.

     “I knew immediately that Billy could have influence on the national stage regarding green issues, and now it’s beginning to happen. It’s an exciting time,” says Talbert.

     For over two years Styles has been the resident Organic Gardener on the PBS television series For Your Home, which airs nationwide in 90 million homes. It’s available in the Charlotte area on WTVI-TV. For Your Home is the second most watched home show on cable television, trailing only Martha Stewart.

     Add to that his radio show Backyard Styles, which airs locally Saturdays at 8am on NewsTalk 1110, WBT-AM, and Styles is becoming the go-to organic expert for landscape care and improving sustainability in all growing environments.

     “Billy Styles is a very colorful character,” says Mark Smith, owner of Flatwoods Organics, an organic turf care company based in Locust that uses Organic Plant Health products. “I left the corporate world to start my own business and Billy bent over backwards to help me with my education and understanding the benefits of the using more natural products.”

 

Organic Growth

     Styles and Talbert opened their business in 2007 after months of people asking where they could purchase the products Styles advocated using in the landscape. At that time, organic-based fertilizers and soil conditioners were non-existent in the retail market.

     “Billy had contacts he had developed over the years so we identified key suppliers for raw materials,” says Talbert. “We bought what we needed and then opened the retail store in Matthews.”

     “It was a hectic time,” says Styles. “We were blending one of our products in a concrete mixer. It sounds kind of silly, but it actually did a great job. We sold the product as fast as we could bag it. As the company grew, we added two more cement mixers to keep up with demand. Now we have a 92- foot-long, automated custom blending machine with an eight-hopper conveyor system, and an on-deck computer that holds 99 custom formulas.”

     Organic Health Products offers 23 different products and a variety of different protocols to address specific landscape or garden concerns. To make it simple for customers, they have developed easy-to-use annual programs that tell people what products to apply when in order to improve the overall health of their landscapes: cool season grasses (Tall Fescue), warm season grasses, (Bermuda, Zoysia, Centipede and others), as well as for ornamental trees and shrubs.

     The business has been successful in spite of numerous obstacles over the past few years, such as droughts, the gasoline crisis, extreme cold winters and hot summers, and the worst recession in two generations. Styles explains, “We’re still feeling the effects of the recession, but we’re more efficient than ever because of it and hopeful that our continued efforts will pay dividends down the road.”

     They have recently completed the E-commerce store on the website and are now ready to continue to grow the business. Talbert says that over the next 24 months, they plan to expand throughout the Southeast, gradually moving into 16 major markets. To finance this expansion, they have decided to take the company public in the hopes of providing much easier access to working capital, given the economic climate.

     Organic Plant Health is currently traded on the Over-The-Counter market (OTC) under the symbol OPHI. Talbert says they are working with a securities attorney to file a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but are still searching for the right equity firm. “We’ve met with two New York firms and have a couple of others scheduled, but we’d love to work with a firm that has ties to the Carolinas,” says Talbert.

 

Organic Sense

     “Water is one of our last natural resources. Its use should be regulated more than it is,” says Styles. “The last time I checked, there were 44 ‘water wars’ going on in the country, all the while we are using seven billion gallons each day through irrigation systems—and half of that is evaporating!”

     “Choosing to use organic-based products reduces the need for watering by 75 percent or more over time,” says Styles. We have to focus on saving water and bringing the diversity back to the urban soils if we want to achieve ongoing plant health and save the landscapes of America.”

     Robert Reavis, owner of Green View Lawn and Landscape, decided to do his own comparison of products.

     “When Billy said he was coming out with a line of organics I thought I’d give it a try and run side-by-side comparisons on some of my properties with OPH products and some with the traditional synthetic programs,” says Reavis. “The difference is like night and day.

     “That was four years ago. Since then, I have switched to Organic Plant Health for soil fertility on all 52 of my properties.”

     As their tagline says, “Organic Plant Health is Changing the Way America Grows,” says Styles.

     “We have to. We are headed down a path of decline the likes of which we’ve never seen. And we’re using water like there’s an endless supply. Folks, there isn’t! It’s time to make some changes in how we do things and our company is going to be a resource to help you along the way.”

 

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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