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Building Healthy Soils at Harvard Yard

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Eric ‘T’ Fleisher is no stranger to organic landscaping projects. Since 1989, he has served as the Director of Horticulture at New York City’s Battery Park City Parks (BPCP). During his tenure, he and his colleagues have developed an organic landscaping program that has successfully reduced the park’s water usage and improved the overall health of the park’s grounds. So, in 2008, when Fleisher received a Harvard Loeb Fellowship to apply the BPCP program to Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, he was up to the challenge.

Working with Wayne Carbone, Harvard’s Manager of Landscape Services, Fleisher set up a one-acre test plot at the entrance to the campus, just off of Massachusetts Avenue. One of the most heavily trafficked areas on the Harvard campus, this plot contained a wide variety of technical landscaping challenges. Not only was it regularly torn up by people passing through the campus, it was also shady and suffered from extensive drainage problems. In addition, the plot housed a large number of new and mature trees, creating a complex root system with which Fleisher and his colleagues had to contend.

The Harvard Yard Soils Restoration Project, as it came to be known, lasted eight months, running from March until November 2008. Initially, Fleisher worked with members of Harvard’s Facilities Maintenance Operations (FMO) Landscape Services team to conduct field and lab analyses of the soil. These tests revealed that the soil in the test plot was significantly compacted, had elevated bacteria levels, and that it was low in organic matter content. In short, Fleisher says, “The tests made clear the need to re-think the way the soil was being managed.”

In response, Fleisher and FMO applied a series of compost tea formulations as well as solid compost designed to improve the soil’s biological activity. Additionally, they aerated and seeded the test plot in the hopes of reducing soil compaction and minimizing weed growth. 

The results of these efforts were “nothing short of remarkable,” Fleisher says. “Before we began this project, the landscape managers could barely get a shovel in the ground. After only six weeks under organic management, we could dig below the area that had previously been compacted.”

Fleisher also witnessed a dramatic improvement in the area’s root growth. In the past, the roots tended to grow two to three inches. Measurements taken after the area had been managed organically showed root growth of six to eight inches. Plus, Fleisher says, the land was noticeably more resilient in the face of heavy use.

“Every year, some ten thousand people come to this area for Harvard’s commencement. Normally this results in the complete destruction of the grass and a slow recovery. We were thrilled to see, then, that the grass we’d been treating with compost and aeration was less affected by the heavy foot traffic, and that it grew back very quickly.”

Thanks to improved root growth and mass, Fleisher and his team also saw a drop in the level of irrigation needed to keep the test plot moist. On average, 30 percent less water was used in this area.

The benefits of organic management have not stopped there, according to Carbone. “We have also been able to eliminate costs related to its turf management contractor and landscape waste hauler.” Additionally, he says, the new management practices have pleased Harvard students and administrators alike. “The entire Harvard community can utilize our landscape knowing that there are no harmful chemicals being used.”

Today, 25 acres of the Harvard University campus are managed organically. Plans are in place to convert all 80 acres for which FMO is responsible to organic management over the next two years. 

“The [Soil Restoration] project has in many ways evolved just as we had hoped,” Fleisher says. “The lessons learned through our test plot have been successfully applied to other parts of the campus, and the knowledge and momentum are there for this success to continue.”

Carbone agrees. “We wanted to go to the next level after a decade of minimizing our environmental impacts by in other ways.  Using fully organic management practices has helped us to do just that.”