A new Boston Tea Party is brewing

For the past couple of years, a different kind of Tea Party is taking place centuries later thanks to Wayne Carbone, Harvard University’s Landscape Services manager and his staff.

It’s an “underground” tea party involving Harvard Yard’s grass roots benefiting from the cultivation of beneficial microbes, fungi and bacteria nurtured by a special concoction of tea-brewed compost.

The Harvard University’s Landscape Services green crew show their “crimson” in front of their fleet.

Harvard Yard, one of America’s most hallowed public lawns in the center of Harvard University, is a 25-acre expansion of turf, towering elms and some of the oldest academic brick buildings in the U.S., dating back to the 1700s. It averages about 8,000 visitors per day, taking quite a pounding.

According to Todd Heft, author of The Big Blog of Gardening, “The soil there used to be so compacted that a spade wouldn’t reach more than 3 inches into the earth on the first dig, and the trees planted there 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.”

The roots of the grass growing in Harvard Yard are now a good 6 to 8 inches long, and the deep, lush green color has returned. The old days of using commercial synthetic herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides are gone.

“Compost tea is all the rage,” says Kevin O’Connor, host of the popular Boston-based PBS series “This Old House,” who interviewed Carbone about Harvard’s organic program on a recent segment. Carbone gave away Harvard’s home-brewed compost tea recipe on the show: The compost is placed in a 400 micron mesh giant tea bag and dropped into a 250-gallon brewing vat where air, ground-up seaweed, fish emulsion and molasses are added to coax beneficial bacterial activity. It’s then churned on average for 18 to 24 hours. When the final brew is ready, it’s extracted into sprayers, loaded on trucks and administered to the lawn.

Carbone’s goal is to expand Harvard’s organic program from its current 25 acres to 80 acres within the next growing season. He is right on track to do just that, despite the challenge presented by the Landscape Service’s limited domain over Harvard’s landscape.

“We are a decentralized division, with every school in the university system maintaining its own jurisdiction over its landscape,” explains Carbone. “The 80 acres we manage throughout the university system represents just 65 percent of the university’s land area.”

A Harvard University’s Landscape Services operator installs an area storm drain at the Blackstone Building (LEED E.B. Platinum Certified).

With 21 years of experience in Harvard’s Landscape Services under his belt, Carbone has experienced firsthand the university’s commitment to maintain a full sustainable landscape. And, he’s proud to say that he oversees more than 20 full-time horticulturalists and property maintenance workers that are committed to making it happen.

Besides administering the organic program, Carbone’s department is also busy with the comprehensive maintenance of campus landscape and hardscape, including historic elm preservation, conventional turf and tree care, snow removal, trash hauling and emergency response. It operates with a full complement of maintenance vehicles and landscaping equipment from bucket trucks to loaders to mulching mowers. The only outsourcing conducted lately was crane work for mature tree removal from the recent spate of storms.

Harvard’s organic program has been integrated into the existing landscape. “The university has been proactively planting trees, shrubs and grasses sustainable for the landscapes in all new construction projects,” says Carbone. “Harvard is not relandscaping the entire plant population. We’re still maintaining the traditional expansive lawns and tree canopies that we are known for.”

Particularly over the past 10 years, Harvard has been moving in the direction of sustainable landscaping, easing into this new method of organics slowly. “We didn’t have to jump into it head over heels,” says Carbone. “We took small steps. There wasn’t any resistance to the organic program. It was just a change of mindset for us all.”

The real kick start came in the spring of 2008, when Eric T. Fleisher, director of horticulture at New York City’s Battery Park, took a one-year fellowship at Harvard to assist Carbone with regular applications of home-brewed compost tea on a single acre of poor soil in Harvard Yard that demonstrated dramatic improvements in the soil and quality of the turf.

When asked about the benefits of the organic program, Carbone has an endless list. “We haven’t seen an increase in costs with the direction we headed. We haven’t had to add to our labor force. It’s all about educating and reallocating work priorities,” he says.

A Harvard University’s Landscape Services organics technician applies a compost tea with a boom sprayer in front of undergraduate dorms.

“We used to truck in nearly 500 tons of compost per year,” says Carbone. “Now that we operate our own compost facility, we reduced our transportation costs by eliminating the need to truck all of our compost off-site.” By producing its own compost at the nearby arboretum, Harvard speculates it will produce enough mulch to cover its landscape.

Irrigation has also been minimized. “We reduced irrigation by 30 percent, saving us nearly 2 million gallons of water per year in Harvard Yard,” says Carbone. “We also eliminated the need to pay for fertility contractors. We used to cut the grass more often – at least twice a week at the peak of the growing season.” With the introduction of organics, Harvard hasn’t experienced any decline in the aesthetic value of its lawns, and the plants are growing much slower, cutting the amount of mowing down considerably.

The price of this environmental initiative has been cut further by a reduction in the number of floral arrangements, a change that also indicates a return to a more traditional look for the campus.

Harvard still maintains the traditional lawn and the majestic oaks, but in addition to going organic, it’s also striving to create a more user-friendly landscape. “We want to make Harvard Yard more synonymous with Central Park, a fun and fantastic common space known for public events,” explains Carbone. “We are adding elements to the public spaces to make them more user-friendly, such as placing conspicuous colorful lawn chairs around, and setting up small performing stages for entertainment events and student gatherings.”

Harvard’s organic program featuring compost tea is a good example of just how much of a pioneer it has always been in sustainable landscaping. “We are a leader in this particular organic technique amongst the largest universities,” Carbone says. He also wants to use what his landscaping division has learned to introduce it to others, whether landscape students, homeowners or other universities. To do that, Harvard provides online reports, instructions and details about DIY.

Blackstone is a LEED Platinum-certified building at Harvard University. Sustainable landscape elements include permeable pavers, a bioswale, bicycle racks and low-maintenance, drought-resistant native plant species including fescue and bird’s-foot trefoil.

“The university’s goal is to have a good share of its new or renovated buildings LEED-certified at the gold or platinum level,” Carbone says. “Sustainable landscaping is an important part of that formula.”

Adjacent to Harvard Square, the 40-year-old orchards at Elmwood, the university president’s home, and the newly planted oaks outside Massachusetts Hall, the office of the president, have also been treated with compost tea. The old trees, which had been afflicted with leaf spot and apple scab, are recovering, and the new trees are thriving.

Because of the early success of the organic program, the Harvard campus banners stating “Green is the New Crimson” should continue to fly high for quite some time.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.