Why Are We Draining Wetlands and Destroying Peat Bogs to Fill Flower Pots?

Dr. Alan Knight, member of Great Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission and a past Chair of the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ or DEFRA’s Peat Task Force was interviewed in this week’s prestigious Horticulture Week Magazine. He stated that there will soon be a time when “peat is too precious to use in mainstream gardens and horticulture”. Knight postulated that the “Garden and Horticulture Industry is a natural partner to sustainable development” and I think most gardeners would agree with that assumption. There are however fervent pockets of resistance to reducing peat consumption, due in part to the heavy patronage from deep-pocketed peat pushers.

Throughout my PittMoss™ development I’ve been invited to speak directly to garden clubs, civic and fraternal organizations about my peat alternative and the destructiveness of peat extraction. From those personal interactions with home gardeners I understand two important facts about them. They generally do not know the source or origins of peat moss and they are totally amenable to considering alternatives, if performance, price and appearance remained consistent. They also are universally repelled by the idea of wetland habitats being destroyed by their own peat consumption.

One memorable interaction at a Junior League luncheon has stuck with me through the years. An elegantly dressed doyenne of the group step forward after my presentation and expressed deep regret at the idea that all the effort she put forth making her little patch of Indiana countryside perfect was leading to wetland degradation somewhere else in the world. Despite understating her “little patch”, which I knew was more the size of Liechtenstein, her sentiment and those of others gardeners have always encouraged me. The folks whose hands regularly toil in the rich earth of a garden plot get it! They are Dr. Knight’s practitioners of sustainability.

Pitcher plant in a peat bog.  Courtesy of Bangor DailySo why are we still draining wetlands to fill flowerpots when there are numerous alternatives like composts and coir readily available? Garden writers, television presenters and their parent publications and production companies don’t often recommend them. Instead they continue to push the use of peat in articles and television segments about container gardening or soil amending. If Gardening and Horticulture’s Fourth Estate journalists were acting as “natural partners” to sustainability, then I believe there would be more mentions of the alternatives, more coverage of the growing global peat controversy.

The reason they don’t mention any of that is because they don’t dare bite the hand that feeds them. Frankly Peat companies buy their loyalty from industry insiders by renting a lot of industry tradeshow space, funding academic research, and most importantly, advertising in magazines, journals and television productions. In recent years they’ve spent a lot of money on P.R. so that their fantasy narrative of sustainability and bog restoration is spread all over the gardening and horticulture world like manure on a field.

Those of us who can see past the purchased words know that peatlands make up only 3% the earth’s tertiary surface but sequester 30% of the planet’s carbon. We know that peat bogs help regulate climate change, filter and hold back floodwaters. We know that peat bogs generally add only one meter of growth every one thousand years. We know sustainable peat extraction claims to be a total farce. We know peat bog habitats, the world over, nurture unique plants and animals that cannot survive anywhere but perfectly pristine peatland.

If garden writers and television presenters can’t or won’t present those facts in regard to peat consumption, then I believe they will become more and more marginalized. Those of us who can’t be convinced of your peat propaganda are #peatfree now and forever. Producers of peat alternatives like myself will continue to go directly to the gardeners themselves, who, as I mentioned earlier, get it! If you’re free this Saturday come out and get a sample of PittMoss™ at the Garden & Landscape Symposium of Western Pennsylvania.

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Some People Will Help You Raise Your Barn, While Others Will Try To Tear You Down

Nupeat was the original name of our patented peat-free product and apparently the folks running the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) didn’t like that very much. Soon after some successful, well-publicized, growth trials at a major Midwest university and numerous mentions in the National press, a fax arrived from the executive director of the CSPMA implying it would be in my best interest to change my product name.

My understanding of their position was that PEAT was a protected descriptor of Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss and any growing media using a derivative of that four-letter word would trigger legal action. I’ve kept that faded, thermal transfer paper, as a token to remind myself not to allow a cartel of environment destroying peat extractors to dictate the direction of my company. It’s also a badge of honor that my unfunded, pre-commercialization, social enterprise spooked them enough to take notice.

PittMoss™ replaced the earlier name after countless brainstorming sessions with the company’s first employee, Matt Knapp and project friends Vince Angellotto and Dave Miller. Sometime, in the coming months, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will likely issue an official registration for PittMoss™, which I like even better in describing our product and tweaking off the CSPMA. They never said anything about PITT or MOSS.

We’ve achieved our trademark and other legal hurdles through the help of Bruce Knapp, Matt’s dad, and a cadre of his legal colleagues, which he’s reined in to assist us at little or no cost. Many people have thrown in to help us with all aspects of the commercialization. It seems like someone has always been there to assist with accounting, insurance, engineering, public relations, graphic design and even financing, like the generous support of the Idea Foundry of Pittsburgh.

With all that help though, I can definitively state that no one, absolutely no one, has offered more “grease up to the elbows” help than Steve Guffey, the fourth generation owner of Johnston The Florist. He’s granted us a two-year comp lease at his greenhouse operation, conducted commercial crop trials, been instrumental in building our facility and been our chief evangelizer. He allows us to use his trucks, tools, equipment and on and on and on. For his efforts we signed an agreement in January making him a partner in PittMoss™ Development Company, LLC.

Johnston the Florist suffered some poly-house damage over the winter that PDC gladly assisted in the repairs.

Johnston the Florist suffered some poly-house damage over the winter that PDC gladly assisted in the repairs.

It’s wonderful to know so many people are in our corner and yet, there are the others. A few months back the Executive Director of the CSPMA left a message in our http://www.pittmoss.com inbox that stated “Your website has come the attention of a member of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA)”. He continued by asking for our location so they could send us some “updated information” about peatlands. I looked at that old thermal fax from years ago and replied with the address of Bruce Knapp’s Law Firm. “Send the information to my attorney” I directed, withholding the choice PEAT-free, four-letter words I had in mind for him.

Nothing has arrived so far but we’ll keep you posted.

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Embrace the Fear or How to Succeed at Business When You’re Terrified

Will unexpected problems emerge during a start-up?  Probably!

Will unexpected problems emerge during a start-up? Probably!

I found myself taking cover in a bunker centered on a green pasture, with dense woods at it’s perimeter once while dreaming. It would have been a beautiful landscape if it weren’t for a barrage of bombs raining down all around me, with fierce explosions and rising fountains of soil and rock. Cowering in the concrete pillbox and being tossed around by one ferocious impact after another, I recall keeping watch out of each of the gun ports between salvos. I knew an enemy lurked in the tree line, ready to advance at any time and it was my duty to resist that surge.

Soldiers never did emerge from those woods and honestly I don’t know how it all ended as I awoke shaking with fear and my heart racing like I’d run a 100-meter dash. I’ve never had the nightmare again, nor would I want it to return, but it did grant me some peace of mind. I have a pretty healthy heart and I am capable of summoning up courage under fire.

I’ve been asked, fairly frequently, if I fear being out on my own, without the security of salaried income or sponsored benefits. My brash response up to this point has been that I’ve been sleeping like a baby since quitting my job to focus on PittMoss™. In truth, I did have a moment a few weeks ago when I awoke, panicked about having enough cash on hand to pay the bills. I reassured myself then that I most certainly had saved enough and drifted back to sleep. Seeing my final VisitPittsburgh paycheck hit my bank ledger tally, however, provided sobering evidence to my finite finances that up to that point had only been a theory. The panic returned.

Since only my savings and some seed funding from the Idea Foundry of Pittsburgh are fueling this PittMoss™ venture, at the moment, I worry I haven’t accounted enough for unforeseen contingency. Have I been overly optimistic in my revenue projections? Will I need to sell my house for additional capital before healthy cash flows emerge? As I stoke this feeble, yet promising, ember I’ll continue to agonize over having enough kindling and firewood on hand to feed the flames of this American Dream. I suspect this will always be one of my principal concerns until it is no longer my responsibility to tend the fire of this business or, of course, we accumulate an immense woodpile.

So what? I’m a little terrified about the limits of my resources and I think it is actually a great thing. It motivates me to wake up at 4 AM and work more cleverly and efficiently than I ever have. Perhaps more importantly, this fear will make me choose wisely, which contingencies I decide to pick off as they emerge unexpectedly from the tree line.

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Celebrating The Last Day On Someone Else’s #Job

So after a couple of decades of getting up to go to work for someone else I find myself at 4:33 AM today, contemplating a future of never working for anyone else but myself, ever again. My remaining obligations to VisitPittsburgh wrapped yesterday and now I’m up early to prepare my first PITTMOSS(TM) Development Company payroll. Oddly enough, the memory of another pre-dawn morning from August 1982 has been elbowing it’s way into my bleary eyed consciousness as I try to focus on work. On that day my dad took this eighteen-year old, smart mouthed, sulking kid to meet a bus. It was the beginning of a journey that would train a new soldier and make new men of us both.

Despite a slight containment issue PittMoss(TM) commercial production is on track.

Despite a slight containment issue PittMoss(TM) commercial production is on track.

My dad, who was the same age I am now, had been laid off like most of the other men in the steel-making region of Northwest Indiana and our family was “making due” with mom’s wages. Still, it surprised me when I was told college was out of the question, unless I had a plan to pay for it myself. It wasn’t long before I was sitting in front of a recruiter. Not long after that I was in the cab of my dad’s pick-up truck, waiting for a Greyhound, bound for an Alabama Army base. I don’t recall that we communicated a great deal that morning, listening to the rain and the slapping of the windshield wipers, but there was definitely an understanding between one another.

He had worked hard for thirty years to provide for his wife and five sons and now found himself unable to do so in the prime of life. Now that the mills and his union livelihood were probably gone for good he would have to evolve in some way and endure a transition to a new, late stage, career. Waiting for that bus, outside of an Indiana donut shop, he somehow expressed his pride and gratitude in a son becoming responsible for him self. As we embraced and said our goodbye I understood that setbacks happen, that only those who quit are ever truly defeated, and, to never expect, but to be grateful to those who provide you assistance.

Progressing through my military and subsequent, G.I. funded, college and occupational careers, I cheered dad’s development of a successful real-estate appraising business that he only recently closed due to retirement. In many respects, dad’s loss of his safety net, union job, was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to him, in hindsight. While his evolution into small business ownership was one of necessity and mine is more self-inflicted, I hope to endure the growing pains of change from employee to employer with as much grace, perseverance and self–reliance. I’m desperately in need another cup of coffee now, but I’m so glad this memory decided to pay me a visit this morning, reminding me to thank a great teacher and mentor. Thanks Dad!

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The Truth Behind “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission”

On an unusually warm day last week a couple of the neighborhood kids set up an iced tea and lemonade stand down the block. Early March weather doesn’t necessitate much thirst quenching by the average suburbanite outside of Pittsburgh. The problem as I saw it was there’s no foot traffic on our unusually quiet block as there are no sidewalks and the grade is too steep for most casual strolling. I don’t think we were expecting a 5K to roll through anytime soon and vehicular traffic is non-existent considering we’re on a cul-de-sac. None of that seemed to dampen the children’s enthusiasm, in the least, for their refreshment concession.

As I pulled out of my driveway and made my way down the hill to their location, under a naked, knotted oak in front of their parent’s house, I watched them jump into service. Upon noticing me, the sister and brother team stopped poking the tree trunk with a stick and promptly took their places behind the card table in a manner of attentive expectation. Both of them folded their hands together on the table as if in contemplative prayer or in eager anticipation of a promising financial transaction. I have to admit it was a bit unsettling watching their little heads swivel in unison, as they followed me come, and go past their burgeoning beverage outlet.

I wish I could tell you that I stopped, drank my fill of their product and contributed to their college funds and their enthusiasm for free enterprise, capitalism but as it turned out, I was running late. I continued past them with little more than a head bob in their direction. The little girl, by far the sweetest child on the block, squinted fiercely and shot me an evil eye. Despite every intention of stopping on my way home they had, unfortunately, closed up shop before my return that evening.

It’s a tough but rewarding experience for kids with entrepreneurial steam in their pipes to encounter a few failures. Pushing lemonade in early March on a quiet dead-end block is a proposition sure to fail and hopefully it will be a cautionary lesson for these kids in the future. Hopefully they’ll remember their stand before they sink their life savings into a restaurant at a location with a permanently installed “leasing now” sign.

I know such an experience taught me a few things about life and business. At age twelve I began working at the all time, most awesome place on the planet for a, husky, Toughskins wearing kid with a sweet tooth, or two or three. Handley’s Hastee Freeze was a local landmark in the small town of Crown Point, Indiana. It was my Grandpa’s Ice Cream Stand and I worked the counter along with my cousins and brothers taking orders, serving up ice cream treats and counting back change to customers. It was great fun because we got paid and we were allowed to eat any of the boo-boos we made by mistake. Funny how we always seemed to have a few during each shift.

While the waistband sizes increased on my Toughskin pants, which I believe were made by NASA for the safe re-entry from space, so too did my bank account. In a few weeks I had saved enough to begin considering a few major purchases. I recall buying a gold and tiger eye necklace for a seventeen year old, fellow employee, named Kathy that my older brother really liked. Trying to keep the peace between us brothers my mom forbade me to give such an extravagant gift and kept the jewelry herself. During those days of frivolous consuming I recall frequenting all the important places like the pet store, the sporting goods store, the record store (yep records and eight tracks was where it was at in 1976) and a tropical plant store. I became a regular in the plant store and the owner taught me all about Dracaena, Ficus, Philodendron, Alocasia and all the other plants that I was buying and dragging home.

Soon, the room I shared with my uber-jock brother began to resemble a place you could only access with a machete by clearing a path for yourself. Potted plants and terrariums hung from the curtain rods and covered every flat surface and most of the floor. The room smelled earthy, like a walk in the woods and not at all like the room of a four sport athlete, with an aversion to showering. Mom, once again, intervened to keep the peace and ordered me to reduce my collection so my brother, who I’d determined was already her favorite, had some space for his bats, balls, gloves, uniforms and trophies.

In an effort to comply I came up with the idea of separating, repotting and selling some of my plants during an upcoming family member’s garage sale. Sales were brisk and after doubling my money and with little overhead I decided this could be a lucrative little business for myself. It became pretty clear that the kid with a sweet tooth, or two, or three also had a head for business and a green thumb or two.

With my early success, I determined that more production space was required to conquer the Tropical Plant Market at a nearby flea market . Independently and without anyone knowing I went to my bank and withdrew all my savings in a cashier’s check. I put it in an envelope with a completed order form and sent away for a lean-to style greenhouse from one of the horticulture catalogues I often received. About a month later, a truck rumbled up to the house and I recall a very animated conversation between my Mom and the driver.

“This is a mistake. No one ordered a greenhouse here”.

“Ma’am, the name on the bill of lading is Mont Handley”, replied the driver. “Is he here”?

“My twelve year old son, Mont Handley?” she questioned pointing her index finger in my direction. “Well he’s a minor, he didn’t have permission to order anything and I won’t pay for it so take it back”.

“Uh, it’s paid in full Ma’am”, and with that he jumped in the trailer and began unloading the crates, later stacking them in our garage.

Wow, wow, wow. I was so excited that my greenhouse had arrived I barely noticed the frighteningly angry glance my mother was casting in my direction. It wasn’t until I saw the truck driver notice, then shot me a pitiful look of sympathy that I became scared shitless. With four brothers I’d seen that look on my mother’s face a few times in my life and it never ended well for anyone, especially after any potential witness had departed. The delivery guy was quickly done unloading and with a signature from me, he wished us well, jumped in his cab and was gone.

I’m pretty sure if you experienced childhood in an era when “time out” meant a break in the action and a huddle around a coach, then you know how the greenhouse delivery day ended for me. In short order, the appeals to build my lean-to greenhouse alongside my parent’s house or garage were denied. To add insult to injury, it was suggested that I sell my possession at the very flea market I planned to start my tropical plant empire. My objections and, by that point, my father’s, were overruled, and the item was eventually sold, at a tag sale and at a significant loss.

Unlike those boo boos at the Hastee Freeze, my greenhouse mistake didn’t go down well at the time, but the lessons learned continue to serve me well to this day. I learned that you should always get stake holder buy-in and whoever coined “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” never met my mom.

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Vast stores of seeds lie dormant beneath our feet in soil seed banks until conditions match those required to take root. Brewing grains and lotus seeds have been found in river banks and cave floors that remain viable after centuries of dormancy. Some species may need a flash fire to crack through a tough outer shell, others may only require increased sunlight or moisture. Whatever the required nurturing conditions, a seed begins the process of germination and growth only after a trigger event signals it to do so.

After some initial and relatively successful peat-free growing media research failed to receive follow-on funding, I scrambled for a job, any job. Luckily, I landed a grant-writing and environmental services position with a municipality on the south shores of Lake Michigan near my hometown. I really began to enjoy not living like a poor grad student and the community bordered the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, my favorite spot on the planet. Over my two year stint with the city, I secured grants for trail and park improvement projects, including a habitat restoration for the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.

Some may find it hard to believe but the highly industrialized region is considered exceptionally bio-diverse. Three distinct habitat biomes from the central plains, eastern deciduous forests and northern coniferous forest all converge and coexist at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Many species from those biomes survived in the region because the sandy soil was unsuitable for most farming and therefore understory plants were never plowed under. Once industrialists arrived, mostly from Pittsburgh and weary of labor strife, they bought vast tracks of the relatively unspoiled and inexpensive dune-land and fenced it to the perimeters.

By the time of my tenure in the late 1990s, those vast stretches of dune-land had been saved from further development in part by the “Save the Dunes” movement. While the region had certainly been degraded in the previous centuries there were still priceless remnants of native habitat awaiting restoration. The Native Americans populating the region before European expansion had tended this land with regular fires. The resulting oak savanna, which early French explores found so easy to traverse, called it their portal through the dense North American forests. While the name has endured in both the city and county of LaPorte, Indiana, much of the native landscape has changed to a tight canopied woodland, due to fire suppression. The shade cast by the expanded canopy has not been kind to native flora and fauna.

The fire setters had encouraged Karner Blue Butterfly habitat by leaving an oak dominated canopy that allowed Wild Lupine, a Karner host plant, and other nectar sources, to thrive on the open savannas. Once the park restoration project was complete sunlight streamed through the canopy to the ancient sandy dunes below for the first time in decades. The following spring, after intensive clearing, prescribed burning and native seed planting, the landscape was transformed with unexpected surprises. From the dormant soil seed bank, rare native species had emerged on their own.

At about the same time the savanna restoration project was concluding an Indiana congressmen had taken an interest in my recycled, peat free planting media. The congressman’s office investigated my rejected phase two small business innovation research application and learned that the request was denied, despite promising results, primarily because I was not a PhD. As a consolation prize, he arranged for me to be invited to a Clinton, White House, Conference on Recycling. While the kindness and encouragement he extended was definitely appreciated it didn’t soften the blow of rejection and disappointment.

My first steps from naive, enthusiastic, patented inventor to grant funded researcher had been, in hindsight, unrealistically easy. Maybe I’d been blessed or my project hit the right chords but all that seemed to change suddenly and dramatically, oddly, after garnering strong data proving the project’s viability. Perhaps the committee members, worried about their reputations or positions on the panel, didn’t believe a non-academic could deliver on small business innovation. Perhaps they believed only Ph.D. lead projects should be granted federal funding.

Regardless of the reason, this idealistic, Andy Hardy, “Let’s Put On A Show” like kid, now knew how the world really worked. For better or for worse, and without a rich uncle or proper pot to piss in, I decided that it was best for me to put the project on a back burner and concentrate on a career with benefits and a retirement plan. Perhaps a period of reflection would allow me to stew on a new path forward or an innovative funding source. Lingering in that dormancy, I came to realize two things. Habitats aren’t always degraded by savage acts of destruction but often through subtle, benign and ignorant neglect and that restorative trigger events often happen without you knowing it.

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Great Expectations

“Our greatest asset is that people arrive here with no or low expectations and leave thinking; What A Great Town” I’d say, oh, once every few minutes a day prospecting for convention business. Once the client had consented to visit they would inevitably announce that they had a totally different image of Pittsburgh in their mind. Smoky city, rust-belt city, hell with the lid off, are all descriptions that people believed, if they had never actually visited The City of Pittsburgh. I totally get it.

Invited to interview for the National Sales Director position at VisitPittsburgh when I lived outside Chicago, I’d never been to downtown Pittsburgh. Being born in Gary, Indiana and growing up in the shadows of many steel plants there, I thought I knew gritty Pittsburgh. When I got the call, I accepted, thinking that it would be a great “practice interview”. When I tell the story I admit to adding the air quotes and continuing with; “Who wants to hold their convention in a steel mill town”?

Flying to Pittsburgh the evening before my interview in the fall of 2005 I still believed it was only a throw-away research trip. After checking into my hotel I ventured down Penn Avenue through the Cultural District, into Market Square and then to the Point. Well, hell there was barely a smoke stack in sight. There were people rushing here and there and a vibrancy that had not been anticipated. Although no one would ever confuse it with Downtown Disney, Pittsburgh was not a rust belt city from my personal experience. No it was occupied, vibrant and being utilized the way downtowns in other Midwest communities would only know from pictures or memory.

So after interviewing and being offered the job, I did a complete 180 and accepted the National Sales Director position on the spot. My thinking was I’d stay a few years, book some events, pad the resume and when the time was right move on to greener pastures. Ideally my tourism career would wind down in a Mountain Resort, where I could spend my Golden Years working part-time as a ski lift operator, earning my seasonal pass to take the occasional ski run. Talk about low expectations. Apparently, not only had I arrived for my interview with a less than stellar outlook for the City of Pittsburgh, but with rather restricted hopes and dreams for my own future, as well.

Almost immediately, however, as I explored my new environment, the city seemed to be working it’s magic on me the way it does with countless visitors. I watched and read eagerly about all the research and development going on in the city the way a tourist in another country may try to learn the language, sample the cuisine, or explore indigenous art and architecture. Green buildings, sustainable design, innovative technologies were not new concepts to me but the extent and frequency with which they were discussed here was quite new & extraordinary.

It was eye-opening, it was mind altering and somehow I knew, very early on in my personal discovery of Pittsburgh, this tenure would change me for the better. All the buzz about sustainability and innovation made me think of the product I had invented and patented a decade earlier and soon those thoughts would turn to full-blown obsession. Pittsburgh really was a surprise to me and is a Great Town and therefore there really was only one choice in mind when it came to naming my product PITTMOSS(TM). Well, actually it was renamed PITTMOSS(TM) but that is a story for another time.

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