Green Gardener Spotlight
Lalo Mora - Enviroscaping
Lalo Mora, owner of Enviroscaping Inc., was among the first to complete the Green Gardener program and has put most of his 33 employees through the training. Here, he pauses during construction of the West Goleta Slough Restoration Project.
The sun was yawning an hour or so above the horizon. It cast long shadows and shot streams of light in the avocado orchard through which Lalo Mora was walking. He was on a routine inspection to check for insect pests, expecting to also see predator insects like lacewings fluttering in the light. Instead he saw silken strings that twinkled from branch to branch, signs of the destructive spider mite.
The time was more than 25 years ago, when it began to dawn on Mora that green gardening was the way to go. The presence of the spider mite was due to the extermination of its natural predators, which was the result of earlier helicopter spraying to rid the orchard of the avocado thrip, Mora said.
Since then, Mora, of Goleta, has become among the first of those to be trained as Green Gardeners in the 10-year-old Santa Barbara County Green Gardener program, and is also on the list of those trained as Advanced Green Gardeners.
The son of Mexican immigrants and father of two sons, he is also president of Enviroscaping, Inc., a successful landscape construction and maintenance operation. At 53, he is a family man whose work has filled his life. He doesn't go fishing. He doesn't watch soccer. But get him talking about his business or green gardening, and, as he confessed, he could go on and on. He likes to emphasize the limited use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers.
"I think being a Green Gardener is a very helpful tool to keep everyone safe. We've been misusing chemicals for so many years.
"One gardener could poison a lot of people."
Mora credits his father with teaching him elements of green gardening before green gardening became avant-garde.
When he was in his early to mid 20s, Mora worked as the foreman on Las Varas Ranch north of Goleta, a progressive operation. He had grown up on the neighboring El Capitan Ranch, where his father worked as a traditional foreman.
One year late in winter, workers on both ranches noticed that thrips were attacking the avocadoes.
Mora's ranch employed consultants to evaluate the infestation. Mora's father, meanwhile, walked through the orchard of his ranch, hand-spraying trouble spots.
By the time spring rolled around, Mora's ranch was spraying pesticides by helicopter in accordance with the consultants' advice.
At the next ranch, Mora's father had cut back on his hand-spraying as natural predators made their springtime appearances.
At Mora's ranch, the natural predators were among those killed by the helicopter spray. A couple of months later, the thrips were gone, but spider mites had become a problem, so the helicopters sprayed again. "You see, the bad bugs always come back first," Mora said. A single mature female can spawn a population of a million mites in a month or less. This accelerated reproductive rate allows spider mite populations to adapt quickly to resist pesticides, according to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia.
The ranch was compelled to spray a third time, again killing all species of insect.
At Mora's father's ranch, the natural predators and spot spraying had prevented a mite population from getting out of control.
At Mora's ranch, the trees had already been stressed. They had lost a significant amount of foliage. He remembers that it took years for the trees to recover, while at his father's ranch, the trees were healthy and green the very next year and years to come.
The experience taught Mora the benefit of limiting pesticide use: You don't want to kill the beneficial insects with the bad, a maxim cited today in Integrated Pest Management.
In that same time period, Mora learned another green lesson from his father, this one in irrigation.
In its ongoing efforts at a progressive approach, Las Varas Ranch switched from sprinklers to drip irrigation in its orchards, following the advice of consultants. Several other ranches in the area also converted to drip, but not the ranch where Mora's father worked. As expected, the drip irrigation systems saved water and consequently money for the ranches. Yet, after the drip system had been in place for a couple of years, Mora's orchard had begun to show signs of stress, he said. Production had dropped significantly.
Not so at Mora's father's ranch.
Mora uncovered the source of the problem while trenching as part of the routine maintenance of irrigation lines. "Every time we ran into a dripper, there was a ball of roots underneath," Mora recalled. The crew came to realize that the trees had tiny roots growing close to the surface, and those feeder roots weren't getting enough water from the drip irrigation, designed to slowly add water to reach the bottom of root systems.
"With sprinklers, the water was more evenly distributed over the roots," Mora said.
The ranch then converted to micro sprays, which still used less water than conventional spray heads but fed the roots that had spread out. Even his father's ranch went to micro sprays.
The green lesson here is that not all irrigation systems work for every plant. "You have to sometimes look at plants and what they need," Mora said, citing a maxim in efficient irrigation.
Mora worked at the ranch for about 10 years, then at a local landscaping company for more than a dozen years, until he started his own company in 2001, about the same time that the Green Gardener Program came to be.
That time of his life was a struggle but he still made time to attend the first Green Gardener class and teach one of the 10 sessions in a couple of following years.
The struggle began when he was laid off by his 13-year employer, a landscaping firm. Even though several of the landscaping clients were willing to patronize Mora if he opened a new business, he had to get it established first. He obtained a business license, but he had no trucks. No equipment. No money for salaries. He needed seed money.
Even though he had significant equity built up in his house, his bank wouldn't give him a loan because he was unemployed. He couldn't draw unemployment benefits, because he had a business license. "At that point, I got a little worried," Mora said. To stave off the worry, he worked that much harder, often into the 10 p.m. hour.
He passed the test for his landscape contractor's license, and convinced a couple of relatives to give him loans. Little by little, the building blocks fell in place. He obtained his pesticide license. He could now afford the required liability insurance. A contractor friend of his carried the loan on a truck that Mora bought from him. Car dealers wanted him to be in business for two years before they'd consider a loan. The contractor gave Mora another loan on a second truck. Then, in his third year in business, he was finally able to get a bank loan, and it was for $90,000. In his fifth year, he paid it off.
Today he has 33 employees, all but a half dozen with Green Gardener certificates, and 17 trucks earning more than $2 million in sales. Enviroscaping has grown into a family-owned and operated business with Mora's wife Vicki serving as vice president, brother Joe as general manager, son Phil as project manager, son Nick as yard manager, daughter-in-law Elisabeth as office manager and father-in-law Neil doing the bookkeeping.
These days, Mora can go home at noon.
"During high school, I thought I would be pushing a lawn mower forever," he said.
He has spent too much time working in his life to develop hobbies or pastimes, although he does like to piddle with a '47 Willis Jeep that he'd like to restore. He's never had much in the way of vacations until recently, when he's had time to see Mexico and Hawaii.
In the house that he shares with his wife Vicki, his high school sweetheart, and son Nick, family photos line the stairway hall. Prodded to pick one that means a lot to him, Mora chose a photo of himself as a malnourished 2 1/2 -year-old with a sister. His sister, one of eight siblings, was 6. She had to borrow shoes from a neighbor to hide her bare feet in the photo. In those days in Mexico, his family rented a cardboard shack.
"It's a reminder that at the time we had nothing," Mora said.
That sister, by the way, went on to earn a Ph.D., spent 20 years teaching, and now works as director of Faculty Affairs with the chancellor at California State University, Northridge.