Harvard University’s Organic Lawn Care

Harvard University has learned that organic lawn care is not only good for the students, faculty and environment, but good for their bottom line, too.

organic lawn care

Harvard Yard

Harvard University has eliminated the use of ALL synthetic fertilizers and harmful chemicals after a one acre organic experiment yielded astounding results: The soil in that one acre became far healthier than those acres treated with chemicals, and the roots of the organically-treated grass grew deeper than anyone could have imagined. How does Harvard define “healthy” soil? Dark in color, crumbly in texture, and teaming with the microbes which are essential for sustained plant growth.

Harvard Yard gets about 8,000 visitors per day and the soil there had become so compacted that a spade wouldn’t reach more than 3 inches into the earth on the first dig. The trees were suffering from leaf spot and some were dying. Now, after applying organic methods, a spade passes through the soil like a knife through butter and the trees are showing new resistance to pests and diseases. In fact, the roots of the grass growing there are six to eight inches long!

Read the New York Times article “The Grass is Greener at Harvard”

An additional benefit, and one not to be taken lightly is that Harvard now composts 500 tons of grass clippings, pruned branches, leaves and other material which used to cost about $35,000 per year to dispose of off campus. They have also saved an additional $10,000 per year NOT buying synthetic fertilizers or compost made elsewhere. Additionally, Harvard has reduced water use in irrigation by 30 percent, amounting to almost 2 million gallons per year.

The idea for moving to organic lawn care at Harvard’s started in the spring of 2008, when Eric T Fleisher, the director of horticulture at the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy in New York City, teamed up with Wayne Carbone, Harvard’s Manager of landscape services. After extensive soil testing, they started treating one acre of Harvard’s 25 acre campus with regular applications of homemade compost and compost tea, brewed in a garage on the Harvard campus (besides the previously mentioned yard refuse, they also composted food waste from the Harvard kitchen). The experiment was so successful that the program has now been expanded to treat all 80 acres of land under Harvard’s domain (on campus and off).

To paraphrase Mr. Fleisher: “lawn care should be knowledge based, not product based, and a spade is your first diagnostic tool” .  The new science in lawn care is natural science: Encourage the soil to do its work the way nature intended, and you need little else.

Check out these “how-to” tips on Organic lawn care from Harvard’s Landscape Management Department.

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

3 Responses to Harvard University’s Organic Lawn Care

  1. J says:

    Love this quote — Mr. Fleisher: “lawn care should be knowledge based, not product based, and a spade is your first diagnostic tool”. Absolutely.

  2. DaytonRoofersqwc says:

    I really like this website! I love the content.

  3. Rob Wetch says:

    I recently saw a TV program about how the harvard groundskeeping made their own fertilizer, I would like the recipie on how to make it.

    Just in case there is something different for cattle in missouri state grazing on fescue and red clover, I wouldn’t mind any suggestions you might have on fertilizing that type of pasture.