Business blooms for gas-free gardener

Posted by on July 15th, 2008 at 3:11 pm

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David Darby next to
his company vehicle.
(Photos/video © J. Maus)

Portlanders love their gardens, their bikes, and their Mother Earth, so it’s no wonder that David Darby’s new business has taken off.

Darby is the man behind Fossil Fuel Free Lawn and Garden Care, a bike-powered business based in Southeast Portland that he started just four months ago. Darby provides lawn care services using only hand tools and he gets to all his jobs by bike.

Last week, I met up with Darby and his co-worker Prentiss Darden at a warehouse space he rents in the Sellwood neighborhood (just south of Powell Blvd.).

As we rolled out to the day’s job about a mile away, I admired Darby’s custom-made trailer, complete with holsters for the tools of his trade — a broom, a rake, a shovel, and several other gardening implements. I wasn’t surprised he’d made it himself, because Darby (who also goes by “Chops”) is also one of the founding members of the Dropout Bicycle Club, a local group of freak-bike builders.

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Crew member Prentiss Darden hard at work.

As we rode through the neighborhood, Darby told me he was inspired to start his business by a friend who tried something similar a few years ago.

“I’d been thinking about it for a while,” he said, “and I noticed the neighborhood near my warehouse space. It’s pretty liberal and the people care about the environment.” Darby took the plunge and launched his business because he says, “It was the right thing to do at the right time.”

His move has paid off. According to Darby, the business is “way more” than he expected. He’s got several regular customers and word of mouth is spreading all the time. While I was interviewing him for this story, several passersby saw the trailer and yelled out things like, “That’s an awesome idea.”

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On our way to the job.

Besides appealing to the locals’ eco-friendly sensitivities, Darby says his lower overhead means he can compete with larger companies on price:

“Landscaping companies that have a lot of power tools and the big trucks to carry them around in, their overhead is insane. Our overhead isn’t that much and we can charge less than them and still make the same and even more money than they do.”

Darby says using human-powered tools may take longer, but he also charges much less per hour than other companies.

“Most clients are concerned about the environment, they don’t want leaf-blowers out in front of their house.”

Homeowner Brett Bradley says he hired Darby to help transform his corner lot from head-high grass and weeds into a garden that would produce food. He said Darby’s company is perfect, “For people that don’t want to do it themselves, and want to do the right thing.”

Darby says for now, he tries to keep all clients within a bike-able distance of his shop (longer rides require a travel-time fee). He hopes someday to see other gas-free gardening businesses spring up all over the city.

So far, he’s relied on word-of-mouth and a few postcard ads delivered around the neighborhood. But Darby knows he onto something:

“I’ll see a landscaper with a big truck pull by while we’re working and sort of smile and chuckle, but I’m thinking, don’t you laugh man, you’ll be working for us soon.”

Hear more from Darby and see Fossil Fuel Free Lawn and Garden Care in action in the short video below:

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    Pete July 15, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    This is awesome in so many ways. Using more local business, sustainability, not using a diesel F350 Super Cab to haul around three rakes and a shovel… and death to leaf blowers everywhere!!!

    Wish you much success. Keep Portland Progressive!

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    jordan July 15, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    okay this is a perfect opportunity for the bike-mower. this is freak-bike builder and a landscaper and he doesn\’t have one? i\’m looking to you to produce the most rad lawn tool ever. i\’m not sure if the blades should go in the back or the front. i\’ve always thought to remove a wheel, but why not tow some rotating blades behind? i think a mountain bike would work best. keep it up man…this is awesome.

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    Pete July 15, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Totally makes sense jordan!

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    Graham July 15, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Oooo, a bike mower. That\’s got my design gears turning… I\’m picturing two separate chains, with two extremes in gear ratio: one chain drives the front mower really fast, and another drives the back drive wheel really slow. If only I knew how to weld…

    I have another idea for a bike-based business: a veggie stand on wheels. I used to live in a sleepy southern town where a produce truck – a mobile retail operation, complete with a scale hanging off the back – would drive around the \’hood, and the driver would announce his presence with a P.A. system mounted on the roof. Think ice cream truck, but with veggies instead. I think something like that, on a Bakfiet would work great: tool around the quiet neighborhoods with your veggies, and have a wind chime or something nice like that to announce your approach. I\’d shop that, and be willing to pay a little extra for the privilege.

    Something like this would work just as well with baked goods too.

    Please steal my idea 🙂

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    chops July 15, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    thank you jonathan
    well done
    if anyone wants to contact fossil fuel free yard and garden care please call 5zero 3 five 2 ate for 2 fore 1
    or email freebeebumble yahoo com
    and contact me if you want to set something like this up in your area (we can help each other)
    currently we only serve a small area,
    sellwood, brookland, west moreland, ladds and other close in areas to where we are located
    -david \”chops\” darby

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    John Reinhold July 15, 2008 at 5:27 pm


    It\’s \”Brooklyn\”. 🙂

    And while your building is officially in Sellwood, it is actually is almost the first building in Sellwood on Milwaukie Ave…

    Brooklyn would be proud to claim you. 😉

    This is a cool business, and I am glad to see it is doing well. Maybe folks can take notice and the concept will spread!

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    Mark C July 15, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    \”… and death to leaf blowers everywhere!!!\”

    I\’ll second that! I was out for a run the other day, and had to pass through the enormous dust cloud produced by one of those infernal machines. Where else can you get away with transferring a bunch of debris to the street or your neighbor\’s yard?

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    chops July 15, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    most the work we get isnt mowing lawns
    if someone wanted us to mow a huge area regularly i would so build something like that
    ive been wanting to ask reed college who mowes the grass there
    that would be worth building a bike mower
    and i would build it so it works just as it would as if you pushed it by hand but as a trailer you pulled

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    Brent July 15, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    One of the best bike mowers I\’ve seen is a convered B.O.B trailer

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    Tamara July 15, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    I\’m pretty sure Reed\’s Facility Plant and their yard crews take care of the mowing. But they are pretty cool there, you should talk to them. They are based in a little building behind the Grey Center (cafeteria/bookstore/student center), near the Amphitheater.

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    Patrick Beart July 15, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    As a landscaper and bike owner/rider, I can confidently say that this guy is naive and it\’s no surprise that he\’s just getting started with his \”business\”. Although some gardening tasks can be performed with only hand tools (that\’s all that I use, btw.), not having a vehicle is completely impractical, overall.

    For one thing, there are MANY things that \”gardeners\” need to haul, that weight much more than can be transported with a bicycle. Sand, rock (gravel and flagstone for paths, boulders for walls, etc.), compost (mulch) and raked up leaves (volume) are very good reasons to use a fuel-powered vehicle. Rock, sand, and earth weigh approx. 2500 lbs. per cubic yard – about a small pick up load. Distances to travel for acquisition of these items is NOT local (try Oregon City, for example!). Some material can be left at curbside (e.g. bags of leaves), but some cannot, and people will hire someone who can do it ALL. Moreover, (wholesale) plant sources are also in the deep \”outskirts\” of town (try Canby or Boring!). I don\’t see any bike rider pedaling that distance to haul heavy pots of plants, a few at a time!

    Although the effort of the subject – as well as the articles focus – is laudable, it\’s also short-sided, limited and smug.

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    Zaphod July 15, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Wow Patrick Beart,
    \”..short-sided, limited and smug\”

    He has found a niche and it\’s working well. Where is this negativity coming from? Sure he won\’t carry a ton of rocks on the bike but there\’s a fair bit that can be done without burning any petrol. I see giant piles of soil dumped in front of homeowner\’s lawns all the time delivered somehow… magic maybe?

    While this does involve someone else burning a bit of fuel to deliver, he doesn\’t have the overhead that goes along with owning hauling equipment.

    I\’m impressed with the effort. I do my own landscaping (including buying 4 big bags of soil at a time on my bike when needed) but if I needed work done and didn\’t want to do it myself, he\’d be the first guy I\’d call.

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    SkidMark July 15, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    Speaking of short-sighted, limited, and smug…that\’s a good view of what you think lawn care is. Not everyone has pish-posh flagstone and (currently more expensive) mulch, some people just have some grass and a walkway that needs to be edged, but no time nor the inclination to do it. I think ch()ps can perform that service as well as any \’professional\” landscaper, you know the kind that hires his labor in the Home Depot parking lot, and sits in his truck while they toil away.

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    Emigh July 15, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Patrick Beart, dare I suggest you sound like a killjoy? That\’s rather narrow-minded, to assume that you know why this guy is just getting started in business. Maybe he put some kids through school, or maybe he used to work 60 hours a week and never had the time to explore something more fulfilling to him. You also call him naive, which doens\’t cast you in a very flattering light either.

    I personally enjoy hearing uplifting stories about people making a positive difference in their communities. I don\’t know why people have to cut others down like this, just to make themselves feel better about their own unsatisfactory lives.

    If there is a need in the market place and people are shouting out their car windows what a great idea this guy has, that\’s a pretty clear sign that he\’s going in a good direction. I don\’t understand why some people think there is only one way to do things correctly. If I wanted landscaping done, I know I would rather hire David on his bike than put up with a massive truck and/or trailer in my driveway, full of \”necessary\” equipment and the complete strangers required to operate it.

    And the remark about him being naive, and that his effort is smug, well, what IS lawn care anyway? I mean, it\’s plants. Yes they are complex, but you make it sound like lawncare science is akin to concoting complex chemical compounds. You don\’t need a degree in horticulture or botany or anything else to understand that plants need proper nutrients and aeration and sunlight to survive. Mad scientists and marketing fiends and the shareholders that pay them make people like Patrick Beart believe that you need a smelly truck loaded up with numerous supplies and someone with a Master\’s in Landscape Architecture just to plant some lilac bushes. And you say David\’s business is limited? The sky is the only limit for a small business with the personal touch like this one has. Consumers are sick of big box companies that are selling the same exact goods and services. Personally, I\’d like to know who my gardener is. All it really takes is a green thumb and dedication. Trust me, I have plants that have been alive for 40 years and moved homes with me over a dozen times. I think I\’m doing something right. Not every consumer needs to have the \”Lincoln Navigator\” of landscaping. Some of us like to keep it nice and simple, like pedal-powered transport.

    Let\’s keep thinking outside the garden tool box! And kudos to David!

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    Pete July 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Mark C (#7): only in America, baby!

    As I write this it\’s midnight, yet I\’m kept awake by the sound of its insidious cousin – the giant vacuum cleaner truck – at the strip mall over a half-mile away. So who wants to build human-powered (and quiet) versions of those gawdawful things!?!?

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    Natty July 16, 2008 at 3:11 am

    Jordan #2,

    There is a fellow here in my town who has taken an old cruiser frame and built a modified fork that attaches to a reel mower. He\’s endless neighbourhood entertainment out pedaling around his yard.

    Once, when I stopped to admire his \”ride-on mower\” {what is painted across the top tube} his only lament was that he did not start with a mtn bike so he could run a larger tyre at lower pressure … sometimes when the grass is a little wet or thick he looses traction.

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    toddistic July 16, 2008 at 6:43 am

    Patrick Beart @ 11

    Wow that\’s probably the most asshole post I\’ve seen in a good while (which says something about recent events).

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    chuck July 16, 2008 at 8:41 am

    patrick: aww, you feeling threatened by this little guy?

    go eff yourself. seriously.

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    Graham July 16, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Not to pile on, but…

    Maybe, in the light of sprawling development, an oil war, peak oil, and global climate change, it\’s \”short-sighted\” to have one\’s lawn groomed in a way that requires a big truck to criss-cross the Willamette Valley.

    And \”smug\”? Personally, I\’m sick of that word being applied to anyone who makes the hard choices required to make positive, good-for-the-planet changes, and then has the gall to feel good about it, or talk about it.

    Maybe it\’s that, to someone stuck in the morass of oil-burning, the sight of someone making a positive change seems like an accusation – or at the very least, smug.

    To paraphrase Harry Truman: \”I just told them the truth, and they thought it was smug.\” 🙂

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    John Russell July 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Quite interesting that Patrick Beart\’s link is to Elvish Design, a company offering—get this—landscaping and gardening! They offer \”Complete selection, purchasing, delivery and placement of plants\” by large trucks, no doubt. They even purport to use \”all organic\” pest control and fertilization.
    A Hummer running on biodiesel is still a Hummer.

    Please don\’t berate Chops\’s business simply because he\’s your competition serving a market that you are too naive and short-sighted to invest in.

    If anything you\’ve just worsened your business by turning us off to even trying yours. How much does Chops charge, again?

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    Ian July 16, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Seems like a good idea. My only problem is that people should be growing food instead of grass. Sure you save fuel by having a local landscapper but then the food you eat gets shipped in from some place far away… I guess its a start though. There truely are no free lunches.

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    chops July 16, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    most of the clients i have have much food growing
    they pay us to keep the weeds out and in one case to dig up the lawn so they can plant food
    ive ben thinking about a discount to people that want us to put in vegi-gardens (with the idea that we get to eat from the garden on our lunch break)

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    Ian July 16, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Cool man, sounds good… I would call you but I don\’t live close to you and I like to do my own gardening. Anyway, good luck with all your endeavours.

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    revphil July 20, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    huzza chops! i figured there was a good reason I hadn\’t seen you lately.

    I hear North Freak is about to start working on a similar project…

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    Tf July 21, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Mr. Darby has found a niche indeed, and his motivations, whatever they are, seem to serve and support good intentions. In this free market capitalist world, there is a demand for these services, and this guy is addressing that with smart decisions. Yeah, it shows progressiveness, and a hint at fundamental change in the way people look at running their business. But some there is an issue with claiming \”fossil-fuel free\”. What went into making his bike and his tools? Rubber, metals and plastics and hardly fossil fuel free. Cutting out the diesel or gas powered vehicle and the power tools is probably the biggest chunk. Kudos on the giant leap. Keep on with the great efforts to change the way you make your livelihood, and continue to make conscious decisions, but be careful with your labels and what you claim. Be honest with yourself and with your customers about the holistic aspects of your actions. Best wishes with the business, David.

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    SkidMark July 21, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Tf, don\’t forget that electricity often comes from coal, and your keyboard is plastic, we are all a little guilty aren\’t we?

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    chops July 22, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    when i talk with potential clients that dont know what im doing most ask (maybe because everything is \”green\” now) \”what makes you fossil fuel free?\” and i often joke that im not compleatly fossil fuel free because the tires on my bike came from china on a boat or that the breakfast i had to fuel me was shipped or cooked with fossil fuel
    but im hardly a save the planet bumper sticker on a car
    the bike the trailer most the tools all scavenged (not purchased from shelves)
    same with most the paint on the trailer
    and my buisseness cards were shiped from another state (not by bike, not that would matter because that wouldnt be fossil fuel free either)
    and i ride on the pavement that was made with fossil fuels and after work i will sent emails to clients with a computer (more fossil fuels)
    so now that i realize that im just like every other \”green\” lie im going to rename this \”green lie hypocrite and garden care\”
    thanks for reminding me nothing is perfect
    save the planet, kill yourself
    (sweet, im so bitch moan and groan on bike portland)

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    Maculsay July 23, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Mr. Darby is simply using a bike to commute to work. Good on you!

    I see promise in a hybrid business model – I\’ve got 25% of the front yard growing food, expanding to 50% next summer. Add the talent of weekly maintenance and harvest of gardens to your list of services. Lots of folks need help getting started, and some pay a good price to existing enterprises (who shall remain nameless) for the privilege now.

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    ha May 3, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Is Darby still in business? I just called the phone number on the trailer, and the man who answered said I had the wrong number.

    Desperately Seeking Yard Care

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