Out and About with AOLCPs - Priscilla Hutt Williams

Priscilla Hutt Williams, one of OLC's Founding Members, Reflects Upon 10 Years in Business

By Kathy Litchfield

TOWNSEND, MASS. -- As a child growing up in northeastern Connecticut, Priscilla Williams helped her family sell blueberries by the roadside, with the selling pitch of "no sprays." She fondly recalls her childhood in Coventry, surrounded by large organic vegetable and fruit gardens. Her parents let her keep the money she earned selling blueberries, and she showed sheep in the local 4-H program.

"Some of my first memories are of eating peas right off the vine and peeking under large leaves to see the pumpkins turning orange! It just seemed like a miracle to me that they could grow and change so fast. For many years I devoured my salads with my hands - I just loved that fresh lettuce and was too impatient to use a fork," she recalled.

So began a lifetime of chemical-free gardening of vegetables, flowers, herbs and eventually landscapes, through her business Pumpkin Brook Organic Gardening (PBOG), based in Townsend. PBOG celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011.

Williams, who helped found the NOFA Organic Land Care Program in 1999, describes herself as an "avid home gardener, transitioning to professional status in the late 90's, and using all organic methods from the start." Williams is one of a small core group of landscapers who has worked tirelessly for 12 years helping the OLC program to grow and prosper while running her business.

It began in 1999 when she applied for a part-time position with NOFA/Mass, to research the potential for organic landscape services in Massachusetts. At the time, she was growing seedlings in her kitchen and basement and selling them, with help from her late husband Rich, while working full-time as a crew manager for a small Reading-based landscape company.

"Researching the potential for organic land care was a great winter job," she said. "In Connecticut, a group was gathering late in 1999 to explore the same topic in their state. We joined forces, and the rest is history."

Williams helped to author the first NOFA Standards for Organic Land Care, the accreditation examination and curriculum for the first 5-day course. She taught the "Planting and Plant Care" section of the course for four years, served on the committee in various roles for 10 years, and most recently served as co-chair of the program's board nominating committee. She became accredited herself in 2002 and has since paid for the education of over 20 employees to follow in her footsteps.

"We therefore speak a common language on the job, when it comes to methodology and materials," she said. "When you start something, you have a vested interest in seeing it grow and prosper. This work became an integral part of my life in 1999 and I'm still keenly interested in seeing it spread throughout the state, country and world. This will take time of course, and a lot of leading by example."

Leading by example, coupled with steady growth, have proven very successful for Williams, who has grown her business from fine garden maintenance with hand tools and a 1998 green Subaru Outback station wagon to including plant health care, compost tea brewing, a permanent greenhouse and a leased storage space for her equipment, trucks and materials.

She founded PBOG in 2001 with her late husband Rich and a list of 18 clients obtained from the retiring designer Natalie Del Vaille of Reading, where Williams had worked for two years. They built a garden shed at their house to accommodate materials and Rich built a rudimentary website. Each year, she continued to grow, adding trucks, services and employees. In 2003 she hired a part-time office manager and in 2004, added lettering on her vehicles, company T-shirts and job tickets. She spent part of the winters of 2005, 2006 and 2008 in California, visiting gardens, wild areas and studying permaculture design. In 2007 she added plant health care and compost tea brewing to PBOG's services; in 2008 she began leasing her own commercial space for equipment, materials and trucks.

While 2009 was challenging because of the economic downturn, a  highlight was when she began researching and lecturing on the history of the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Design for Women (Groton, 1901-45), upon which she is planning her first book. 

In 2010 Stephanie White Stanton joined PBOG and brought her client base from the Harvard/Bolton/Stow area. Sales rebounded with three to four crews working daily, she wrote in a recent PBOG newsletter, and she purchased a second pickup truck and built the permanent greenhouse. She added nutrient dense soil testing and amending work to services offered.

Last year she expanded the Plant Health Care portion of her business to include natural spraying for ticks and mosquitoes; began her e-newsletter; and hired a new full-time office manager. She also built two bulk storage bins for compost and mulch in West Townsend, and she's looking forward to the growth 2012 will surely hold.

Even while managing four work crews daily and a full-time office manager, Williams still prioritizes working outside alongside her staff, maintaining a presence in the field and working one-on-one with clients.

"My work load has increased significantly since 2006. I can no longer do everything single-handedly," she exclaimed, sharing that growing older and managing her time are among present challenges.

"Our present goals include reaching out to a new generation of clients that are buying older properties," she said. "We rejuvenate the gardens and develop them further with organic methodology. Our use of compost tea, organic plant health care practices and nutrient density soil balancing will help us succeed. Naturally, we aim to increase sales yearly and to pay everyone a living wage. And we don't want to forget about our long-time existing clients - we want to still give them the best possible service."

Earlier in her career, Williams worked in non-profit management and fundraising for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Ballet and First Night Boston. She managed the Bridal Registry for Tiffany & Co. Boston for 11 years in the 80's and 90's, "which taught me all about dealing with a demanding clientele and developed my eye for fine design and color," she said.  She also managed gardens at historic houses in the Townsend area, including the Townsend Historical Society and Historic New England in New Ipswich, N.H.

When she is not working, Williams enjoys reading, studying nature, contra dancing and kayaking, as well as her daily yoga and meditation practice. She presently serves as an advisor to The Underground and on the board of directors of the Northeast Heather Society.

PBOG provides organic land care services to the greater northwest suburban Boston region. For more info check out their new website.

XXX 

"Out & About with AOLCPs" - Priscilla Williams

By Kathy Litchfield

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