Nutri-Lawn takes “re:nourish” to a new level to create positive change in the world

Canadian lawn care company Nutri-Lawn really knows what it means to nourish. Their charitable effort "re:nourish" has taken them all the way to the Dominican Republic where they put their horticultural skills to use.

Credit: Jordan Lavin

The Dominican Republic

Despite having the second-largest economy in Central America/Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is relatively well known for high unemployment rates and a deeply engrained income inequality. San Pedro de Macorís, or San Pedro for short, is a city in the southeastern region of this developing nation. San Pedro has approximately 217,000 inhabitants, almost 194,000 of which live in the city itself and the other 23,000 in its rural districts.
Batey Vasca, Dominican Republic. Background: Rob Bourne giving a Batey Vascan mother her first glimpse at a picture of her daughter.

Caring for “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”

Approximately 20 minutes west of San Pedro, near the town of Don Juan, is the location of the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos project (translating to Our Little Brothers and Sisters). Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (or NPH) is an organization that provides housing, food, clothing, shelter and education to orphaned or abandoned children in several locations across Latin America. It is run almost entirely by nuns, with generous assistance from various organizations.

NPH nun enjoying Nutri-Lawn hosted BBQ with young resident, 2010. 

Nutri-Lawn takes “re:nourish” to a global level

In 2009, the Canadian lawn-care company Nutri-Lawn, with almost 40 locations across the country, decided they could help. Rob Bourne, President and GM of Nutri-Lawn Vancouver, explains: “At Nutri-Lawn we are proud to say ‘we nourish lawns and lives’. We do this by not only providing organic and organic-based products to lawns here in the Lower Mainland, but also by reaching out and helping those in need anywhere in the world.” On the home front, the Nutri-Lawn re:nourish program encourages its franchises to participate in an annual re:nourish food drive – and in just two years, the Vancouver group has donated 7,500 pounds of food for local food banks. But the Nutri-Lawn re:nourish volunteers are also active overseas . . .

2009 re:nourish team

Making a difference in the Dominican Republic

For the last three years, the re:nourish volunteers have visited the NPH orphanage in the Dominican Republic annually. In their three visits, the Nutri-Lawn re:nourish volunteers have drastically improved the quality of life for the people at NPH and also those in the village of Don Juan. In 2009, the re:nourish team built a soccer field – complete with irrigation system – on top of the dirt lot previously used for soccer.

Newly built soccer field on the NPH grounds

In addition, they developed an irrigation system for the orphanage’s existing garden. The 2010 re:nourish volunteer group returned to extend the irrigation system installed by the previous year’s volunteers, as well as to develop a brand-new garden and irrigation system at the community outreach centre in Don Juan. The 2010 group was able to donate over 100 fruit trees.

Beginnings of irrigated garden. Orphanage pictured in background.

Meeting irrigation challenges

The irrigation systems are built from a series of tubing comprised of a main line and a drip line. The drip line runs along the ground at the base of the plants. Water is pumped from the main holding tank into the main line. When it reaches the drip line, it is emitted through a series of holes (approximately every 6 inches) in the line. The system is designed to let out a very slow, continuous amount of water so as to keep the soil moist in the hot Dominican climate.

Rob Bourne, President and GM of Nutri-Lawn Vancouver, installing irrigation system in tree grove.

Planting 100 food trees at the community outreach centre

The 100 fruit trees the re:nourish 2010 volunteers planted at the outreach garden in Don Juan included avocado, mango, citrus, mandarin, lemon and, perhaps most importantly, buen pan trees. The term buen pan actually translates to “breadfruit,” as it is known in English. Its fruit can be baked, boiled or cooked over a fire, and has a starchy quality and a fragrance like that of fresh-baked bread.

Site of fruit tree grove

Bountiful breadfruit – the answer to alleviating hunger? 

The buen pan or breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) is praised by many for its nutritional value, high yield and low maintenance. Rob Bourne reflects on his last visit to the Dominican Republic and his experience with the breadfruit tree: “The buen pain tree produces melon-sized fruit that is cooked and eaten in a way similar to potatoes. A ‘melon’ per day can feed an entire family”. “These trees are very tall, so transporting them was a challenge. But we hired a large truck in order to move them out to the village. The locals were familiar with the trees and helped us plant them.”  Breadfruit trees are in fact quite popular throughout South America, but are not native to the area. It is commonly noted that Captain Bligh and French voyagers were the first to successfully transport a few seedless varieties of breadfruit from Polynesia to the Caribbean in the late 1700s. These gradually spread to other tropical regions.
Breadfruit, Photo: Flickr

“. . . one of the biggest food-security issues in the world . . .”

Breadfruit is gaining the attention of the scientific community as well. The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) organization in Maui, Hawaii, states: “These multipurpose trees are easy to grow, beneficial to the environment, and produce an abundance of nutritious, tasty fruit. They also provide construction materials, medicine, fabric, glue, insect repellent, animal feed, and more. The trees begin bearing in three to five years and are productive for many decades. This ‘tree of bread’ has the potential to play a significant role in alleviating hunger in the tropics.”

Breadfruit tree, Photo: Flickr

Susan Murch is the Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry at UBC Okanagan. She emphasizes the value of the breadfruit tree on the UBC Public Affairs website, stating, “every four seconds someone in the tropics dies of hunger. It is one of the biggest food-security issues in the world at the moment. Breadfruit is a tree that most people in North America have not heard of, but has huge value for food security. A single tree can produce 150- to 200-kilograms of food per year. But distribution of breadfruit to feed people who are starving has been limited by difficulties propagating and transporting the trees.”

Nutri-Lawn volunteer planting tree

Hunger encourages tree theft

As mentioned earlier, the 2010 volunteers planted 100 trees at the Don Juan community outreach centre to produce food to be shared with the local community. When the 2011 re:nourish group arrived, they discovered that 30 of the 100 trees had been stolen. The re:nourish blog quotes one of the nuns as saying, “Well, obviously someone needed them more than us.” The blog continues, “Idalina, one of the Brazilian Nuns who runs the community centre, said that the trees were most likely taken by the very poorest families who were too embarrassed to ask for help feeding their children.” But “on a positive note, a number of the trees planted last year have grown well and will be ready for fruit production next year.” Since then, the Nutri-Lawn re:nourish group has replaced the stolen trees.

Nutri-Lawn volunteers and NPH facilitator celebrating the good work at the NPH. L to R: Shawn Karn, Jody Macinnis, Mark Lange, Jordan Lavin, Kalon Fairclough, Nun, Steve Smith, Ryan Vincent,
Jesse Montpellier, Rob Bourne.

Community gardening on a global level

In addition, the 2011 re:nourish volunteers fulfilled their own goals. They maintained the existing work done by previous groups (soccer field, agricultural fields), built a designated butchery area for harvesting livestock at the orphanage, and planted a community garden with a living fence in the small village of batey Vasca. A batey refers to a small village developed to house sugarcane workers. Most bateys were built in the 1970s by the Dominican government. They typically consist of barracks and a few houses, and are mostly inhabited by Haitian immigrants. The Nutri-Lawn re:nourish blog explains that “while the government is responsible for maintaining these buildings, most of them are in very poor condition with up to 12 family members living, sleeping and eating in rooms no larger than a small living room.”
Family home in Batey Vasca

Living fence

Planting the garden in batey Vasca, the re:nourish volunteers, with the help of local villagers, created a living fence. A living fence uses branches cut from a live tree. The branches are planted around the perimeter of the garden, take root and become new trees – all without cutting down even one tree. Barbed wire is used around the perimeter of the trees to keep out any animals (livestock or otherwise) that may try to eat the produce. Living fences are extremely low cost, sustainable and supposedly last longer than traditional fences. Rob Bourne elaborates on the unique allowances of the living fence: “living fences allow impoverished areas to build many fences from the same branch. As the branch grows, they cut off the growth and use it for another fence. No need to create actual fence poles or pay money.”

Protecting the garden from animals by building a living fence

Rob Bourne and the Nutri-Lawn re:nourish team are looking forward to future re:nourish events, including more visits to the Dominican Republic. The re:nourish volunteers are simply doing what they do best –using their horticultural knowledge to help those in need and expand the traditional understanding of what it truly means to nourish.

Rob Bourne taking a playful time out

Author Alyssa McLeod is yet another Ontarian turned British Columbian. She is also a Master’s of Publishing candidate and Teaching Assistant at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She survives solely on humour and sunshine.