Back in 2009, Lynda DeWitt left behind a successful career in environmental journalism — she wrote and edited for National Geographic and Discovery as well as penning children’s books — to launch Solar Mowing, a Bethesda, Maryland-based company that runs a fleet of battery-powered mowers, trimmers and blowers fueled 100% by renewable energy (from solar and wind). Customers love using Solar Mowing because not only are they doing the right thing by the environment but the equipment is much quieter than its conventional gas-powered counterparts. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with DeWitt recently in a Bethesda coffee shop to get the low-down on her inspiration, implementation and goals…
EarthTalk: What led you to start a solar mowing company? What concerns and opportunities did you perceive?
Lynda DeWitt: Hi Ethan, thanks for inviting me on Earthtalk. I started solar mowing in 2009. I was a writer and an editor, always working on natural history and environmental issues. So I was always talking about and writing about the environment and finally, in 2009, I decided I wanted to do something about it. I had a gasoline powered mower and every time my husband or I would mow, we would bring in the kids and the dog and shut the windows and mow with our gasoline mower. When I discovered that gasoline mowers pollute more in an hour than a dozen cars pollute in an hour, I thought, this has got to stop. So I got a real mower, one of those bladed push mowers and in our area, you really have to use those about every three days to keep up. So that didn’t quite work. So I got a battery powered mower. We’ve always had renewable energy at our house; we buy wind, we’ve bought it for 20 years. We have energy choice in the mid Atlantic and now, we have solar panels on our roof. So I charged my battery powered mower with renewables and I thought, if this is something that I really love, other people might love it too. So I put a solar panel on a couple of trucks and took it on the road. Again, that was in 2009, so next year will be my tenth year.
E: Great. Strangely enough, I have a similar story because I also had a push mower, switched to an electric, and have solar panels. But how would you describe your business philosophy then, once you got off the ground, other than obviously wanting to help the environment?
DeWitt: Well, that’s pretty much it. I was determined — the premise I made to the customers was that we would use only emission free, low noise equipment when we did their lawn. We’re still driving to our customers in a combustion engine pickup truck and transit, Ford transit; although I’d love to get electric vehicles. But our promise is that we will not use something that’s going to pollute their environment, their yards. It’s not going to add to the soot in their lungs and it’s not going to add carbon to the environment. Nor is it going to harm their ears with the large racket that most equipment, especially blowers, the noise that they emit. When we do our leaf clean ups, we use actually emission free blowers which are very effective, and rakes, old fashioned rakes and they work very well.
E: I use just a rake on my yard which is a small yard. I think you’ve covered most of what makes your equipment so environmentally friendly but anything else about your equipment or your procedures or your solar source?
DeWitt: Sure. The thing I’d like to say is, for those, if there’s anyone out there thinking about getting a battery powered lawn mower to replace their gasoline, that is all well and good but if they’re still charging their batteries from a coal derived kilowatts, then they are still polluting. Maybe not in their own backyard but it’s still emitting carbon into the air, wherever the plant is from. So they need to charge their batteries with renewables to make it 100% emission free. So the other thing we do is that we mow according to the weather and not the calendar. We’re not out there every Friday at ten o’clock, mowing someone’s lawn. Many customers don’t need it every week, even in the spring; some do but not everyone does. So we mow high, we leave the clippings on the grass and those water-based clippings decompose in a matter of weeks and they fertilize the soil. So it’s a win/win for everyone. We don’t mow as often, often as big commercial mowing companies do, and we mow with eco-friendly equipment.
E: And longer grass is actually better for biodiversity too.
DeWitt: Absolutely, yeah. It not only promotes root growth but the longer grass shades the soil and helps prevent weeds from germinating and more lawn care. More animals, earthworms and bees and flowers. We don’t think that clover is a bad thing in our yards. It used to be a part of grass seed. Grass seed used to include seeds of clover. It’s a nitrogen fixing plant; it takes nitrogen out of the air and puts it in the soil. So it’s a very critically good, good so-called weed. When the weed killers came out in the 50s, they killed everything but the grass so it gave clover another beneficial, so called weed, a bad name. But clover is good.
E: And your method also greatly reduces fertilizer and pesticide use, right?
DeWitt: Right. We don’t advocate using any pesticides. We use organic fertilizers if a customer wants that. We also will top dress lawns with a thin layer of compost which is nothing but fertilizer really. So we don’t use chemically based fertilizers, nor do we ever use pesticides.
E: If mowing lawns is the heart of your business, what other services do you provide?
DeWitt: We provide to our mowing customers, weeding in their beds, mulching, and pruning. We do reseeding in the spring and in the fall, leaf clean up. So to our mowing customers, we provide a whole range of other services.
E: Great and those are also environmentally friendly.
DeWitt: Yeah, some of them are just neutral; weeding, pruning your shrubs. It’s not good or bad. It’s just something that needs to be done in most landscapes. And we say we mulch and we do put down mulch, but we will also, when we do our leaf cleanups, will mulch the leaves that are on the grass, collect them in a bag and put that bag of mulched leaves and grass on the beds as a mulch. It’s basically what mulch is, it’s just plant parts. So a lot of people have their own mulch, falling from their trees and shrubs already; so we just utilize that and feed the beds, spread the wealth around.
E: I know there are a lot of green businesses in the Bethesda area. But the Federal government is currently not what you would describe as green friendly. So how are kind of larger trends like that affecting your business?
DeWitt: The populous as a whole is becoming more aware. Everyone knows that climate change is a problem, that carbon is bad and we all need to reduce our footprint. Yesterday we should have done it, today is pretty good; tomorrow is a little late. We need to all be doing this. The Federal government isn’t really relevant. Our county in Maryland, Montgomery County. I could have the numbers wrong but they just passed a very progressive — some progressive goals on carbon to be carbon — to get rid of all carbon by 2035, I think, and 80% by 2027. Again, my numbers might be off but it’s very challenging. So more and more people want to do the right thing and I’m hoping that companies like mine will make it easier for them to have some choices.
E: I know the county does have aggressive goals and a lot of local government is working hard and local businesses. What about future plans, like are you delighted with the way your company is going now or where do you see it heading in the next few years?
DeWitt: Truthfully Ethan, I thought by this time that I would be bought out or just pushed out of the way by bigger, more well financed companies. But to my surprise and disappointment, I guess you could say, no one is really doing this. At least very few companies are, so it’s left this big opening for us. We try to keep our customers within a five mile radius of our headquarters and we just have one headquarters at this point, but there’s such demand out there in all parts of the D.C. Metro area where we’re located. I would love to see us have hubs where we can charge our batteries with renewables and try to service all around the beltway and in D.C. We’re in parts of D.C. but not all, so there’s a big demand for this and I’d be happy if other companies jumped in and started doing this. Battery technology is probably part of the problem. We’ve put up with a lot of headaches over these past ten years. It’s come a long way since 2009, I will say that. And my dedication, if I can toot my own horn, I guess; charging batteries late at night when they took 12 hours to charge and getting them right off the charger in the mornings. So it was sort of a lot of upkeep and it took a lot of time in the beginning. And still, there is not a large riding mower that is battery powered. Maybe that’s the hang up for bigger companies, but most of our customers don’t need riding mowers. And I will say one more thing if I may about the big, heavy mowers, including riding and just gasoline. Our mowers are light and most battery powered mowers are lighter in weight than the big gasoline and certain riding mowers, and that is critical to grass and soil health. The big mowers compact the soil; that is death for soil. It’s death for the roots, the grass. So my fear is that as the mowers — as battery power improves, mowers get bigger, we may not be benefitting the lawns as much. Truthfully, most of the lawns in the Metro areas are small, we don’t need riding mowers. So I don’t know why other companies haven’t got on board but…
E: Do you think the profit margins might be smaller, especially if you’re more natural, you don’t mow as often.
DeWitt: That could be. Maybe they think if you’re not going to mow every week and you can get on and off your riding mower in seven minutes, that quite possibly is an issue. We pay our help very well, way above minimum wage. But the profit margin may be a concern.
E: Of course, Patagonia has made a lot of money saying, don’t buy new stuff from us. So maybe it’s just a question of finding a way to change your frame of reference.
DeWitt: Right, and I advise people who are just moving into a place or just building a house in our area what they’re going to plant and if they’re going to have grass. I encourage people to minimize grass. I’m a child of the suburbs, I love my grass because it’s an open space in my lawn. But the beds where there are trees and native plants and undergrowth, where birds and small mammals can thrive. That’s the heart and soul of my property, and while I do have a small lawn and back and front, I would encourage people to keep it small.
E: Great, thank you very much.
DeWitt: Thank you, Ethan, it’s been a pleasure.