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Be Smart Like Harvard – Have a Pesticide-Free, Organic Lawn

(Beyond Pesticides, October 6, 2009) What started as a one-acre pilot project and grew into a 16-acre test, is now going to be taking over the entire Harvard University campus grounds. Harvard has committed to managing its entire 80-acre campus with pesticide-free, natural, organic lawn and landscape management strategies, all the while saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.

According to the Harvard Yard Soils Restoration Project Summary Report, the pilot project was modeled after New York City’s Battery Park City Parks’ 37-acre organic landscape program that began back in 1989. The goal of the project was simply to improve soil health, develop knowledge base on how to run such programs as well as educate the campus community about the many benefits or organic lawn care.

For eight months, the one-acre test plot was extensively compared to a control plot of conventional management techniques. That one-acre underwent a process that included eliminating all toxic pesticides, testing for soil nutrients and organic material content, and adding compost teas to balance soil nutrients and reduce irrigation and nitrogen applications. The compost tea, a liquid biological amendment from the brewing vat located nearby, is made up of liquid humic acid and North Atlantic kelp as well as granular humate. In the tea are living organisms that will control pests and nourish the soil. In the spring, the turf area is core aerated, over-seeded and ½ inch layer of compost is added. A slow-release organic fertilizer is also added in late spring.

Root measurements, taken bi-weekly, were compared to the control plot. The results show that the organic plot lead to greater vitality of the turf and trees and greater soil nutrients and soil microorganism, improved root growth to five inches, and a reduced need for irrigation.

The success of the one-acre plot showing that halting synthetic toxic pesticide and fertilizer use and using only natural, organic approaches to reinvigorate soil health drew the attention of Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, Ph.D. The one-acre blossomed to 16 acres last year and this past spring about 10 more acres were added. The pilot project and its expansion over the past months has demonstrated that the campus grounds grown organically are self sustaining, lush, and beautiful, despite heavy foot traffic. Now Harvard is calling for a phase-in of the entire campus over the next few years. Part of the campus-wide project success is in Harvard’s own composting facility, which is currently being expanded.

The September 24, 2009 New York Times article, “The Grass Is Greener at Harvard,” states that managing the grounds with an organic management approach saves the school two million gallons of water a year as irrigation needs have been reduced by 30 percent. It cost Harvard $35,000 a year to get rid of “landscape waste” from its campus grounds. Now that cost is gone, now the school keeps all grass clippings, leaves and branches it can for composting and making compost teas, which in turn saves the university an additional $10,000 from having to purchase fertilizers elsewhere.

As a kind of “soil lab,” the brainchild of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) Professor of Landscape Architecture Michael Van Valkenburgh, these pristine plots are managed by GSD Loeb Fellow Eric T. Fleisher and carefully tended by Wayne Carbone, Manager of Harvard’s Landscape Services, and his crew.

“Unlike conventional soil improvement, we are taking a very different approach,” explains Mr. Fleisher. “Instead of applying a topical, chemical fertilizer, our biological approach is to create a chemical change by infusing the soil with biological organisms from the bottom up.”

It all started with a conversation Mr. Van Valkenburgh had with Harvard University President Drew Faust as they walked through the Yard. Asked what one thing he would do to protect the Yard, Mr. Van Valkenburgh recommended soil remediation, pointing to the loss of trees in the Yard due to soil degradation and compaction. Two rows of tulip trees that once graced the area outside Massachusetts Hall died some years ago, and others have also taken the count only 12 years after they were planted due to soil degradation around the root systems. With that, a pilot study was launched.

“Michael has been working for many years on correcting the plant palette and planting conditions at Harvard Yard,” said Mr. Fleisher. “I have been working on building a program at Battery Park City for the past 19 years focusing on managing public space through completely organic means, my main focus being on soil. One of my goals as a Loeb Fellow was to prove the transferability of my program at Battery Park City to another organization.”

Unlike creating a new lawn from scratch, the challenge of remediating established soil is that it cannot be aggressively removed. Instead, the lawn is fed periodically with an “organic tea” that promotes beneficial microbial activity in the soil and promotes growth.

“The lawn takes longer to green up,” said Mr. Fleisher, “but it’s more enduring and resilient with our properly executed organic approach.”

He is often quoted as saying, “It’s not product-based. It’s knowledge-based.” In a Harvard Gazatte article he talks about the fact that “adding chemicals denies the biological, chemical, and structural complexity of soils… and that healthy plants begin with healthy soils.”

You don’t have to go to Harvard to start an organic lawn program at home or in your community. Harvard has developed materials on starting your own organic landscaping program and a calendar of when to do what to your lawn.

The New York Times article also does a good job of explaining the how’s and why’s to managing lawns and landscapes organically.

For more information on being a part of the growing organic lawn care movement, see Beyond Pesticides Lawns and Landscapes program page. For assistance in proposing a policy to your school or city council (or its equivalent), contact Beyond Pesticides at [email protected] or 202-543-5450.


3 Responses to “Be Smart Like Harvard – Have a Pesticide-Free, Organic Lawn”

  1. 1
    John - TitanEnergyWorldwide Says:

    Excellent article! Amazing the amount of $$ that will be saved by the school and the positive environmental impact that this approach is having!

    Thank you for posting the material links and schedule calendar!

    Great post!


  2. 2
    Merrill Clark Says:

    Harvard is doing the right thing, as is Michelle Obama with her organic garden and grounds at the White House!
    Everyone should remember the kill-off of robins on the Michigan State University campus years ago due to chemicals sprayed wantonly across the campus to prevent the Dutch Elm Disease. University of Illinois simply cut down the trees to kill off the insects and planted alternative trees. Michigan State had 100s of dead birds in the beautiful Cedar River that flows through the campus.
    Merrill Clark

  3. 3
    Carr Says:

    Hooray for Harvard! Teh best Ivy League, hands down. Seriously, whoever is behind this movement at the college deserves a huge round of applause and some serious admiration. I am sure he faced resistance and pressure from the groundskeepers, chemical vendors, and local pesticide companies. It takes guts and immense character to stand up to these people. I love you, Harvard!!!

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