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  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Tom Kelly, of Fire Belly Lawn Care sprays an organic fertilizer into the air at Holland Farm in Milford Tuesday afternoon. Holland Farm has been using the fertilizer on its grass making it a rich green color early in the Spring.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    The organic fertilizer that Tom Kelly sells is seen here pouring slowly from a pint glass. It's dark brown in color.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    The system that Kelly is selling is six installments and is applied to the lawn from early spring through around Thanksgiving.
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Doubts led to formation

MILFORD – When Tom Kelly talks about organic lawn care, he points to Harvard.

“Harvard University made a commitment a few years ago to eliminate pesticides completely from the campus,” said the owner of a new company called Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care on Elm Street. “So the most famous yard, Harvard Yard, in the world is completely pesticide free.”

That’s a big deal for Kelly, of Mont Vernon, who doesn’t want his children to play on lawns loaded with chemicals.

“Really, it was when my (now) 3-year-old was born that I began to think hard about letting him go play on the lawn,” Kelly said. “It was a turning point for me.”

He’d been in the lawn care business for 20 years, every since graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in English. He moved to Nashua and eventually became an owner of Lawn Dog lawn care, but sold his shares last year.

In January, he started Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care.

“I began to research methods, became more familiar with them,” Kelly said, and he found that it could be done – lawns and plants could be maintained without chemicals, he said.

“It’s not just grass. It’s anything that’s growing from soil,” Kelly said.

The problem for many people, though, is confusion, particularly with the profusion of natural plant care companies.

“I guess one of the side effects of research and development is all of a sudden there are a million products out there,” he said. “If you Google ‘organic lawn care,’ you’re going to get lots of companies that offer one stand-alone product. For instance, there’s a company that processes sea water down to the minerals – when you remove the salt, it’s great for soil.”

But, he said, for the average homeowner who wants to switch from chemicals to natural products, confusion can reign.

“I saw an absolute need for there to be simplification,” said Kelly, “so we created a step program in which we pick the products for you, we tell you what to do, and when to do it. We simplify it.”

People who sign on for his program – for a 4,000-square-foot lawn, the cost is about $200 – get three shipments of two containers each: spring, summer and fall.

In the spring, for instance, they get a “growth activator” that includes a lot of natural things, including kelp, to “stimulate microbial activity in the soil.” Also shipped then is a natural fertilizer. There’s also a spring weed preventer that is made from a liquid corn gluten. While it won’t kill dandelions that are already up, it will “prevent any weed seed from germinating,” Kelly said.

Then come the midseason products and then those in fall which include a winterizing mix.

“We don’t want you to have to store the products,” Kelly said, “and we want to remind you when it’s time to do the application.”

It works, he says, but he quickly points out that it won’t be instantaneous.

“It’s a little different in the way it works as opposed to the chemical truck that shows up. You know, you can smell them two miles away and then within 12 hours, your lawn is beaming nuclear green,” he said. “That’s not very natural. This takes a little longer to kick in. I’m not talking months; maybe a week or so.”

Kelly started this company, he said, somewhat out of a sense of guilt.

“I spent a long time being responsible for the application of things I’m not sure I support any more,” he said. “In the beginning, I believed in what I was doing, but I did begin to have some guilt associated with the application of something that could be potentially dangerous to people and kids and pets.”

So he got out of that end, and Fire Belly was born.

He even sells his products in bulk to other lawn care companies that, he believes, are getting more and more inquiries from customers about going natural.