Last summer I wrote a post about the problem of lawns in America. To recap briefly: The landscapes we have created for most of our built environment in the United States are travesties of nature. Lawns, which occupy 30-40 million acres of land typically suck up 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizer per acre as farmers use, account for five percent of the nation’s air pollution, and are responsible each year for more than 17 million gallons of spilled fuel from the refilling of lawn and garden equipment—more than was lost during the Exxon Valdez spill.
Last but by no means least, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns. Given the growing intensity of the global water crisis, to spend such enormous amounts of water on something that for practical purposes does little more than enslave millions of American homeowners by chaining them to their lawnmowers and sprinklers every Saturday from April through October (or longer) seems nothing short of insane.
Or so I thought. I confess, however, that this issue has grown both more complicated and closer to my heart in recent months, as in August of last year I became one of those lawn-enslaved homeowners.
Of course, it was and is not my intention to keep so much of our yard as turf – the plan at the moment is redesign as much of the space as possible as a multi-functional, edible landscape, particularly in the front, where lawn seems to serve little purpose. However, as the father of three young children who could spend hours each day simply running in circles, it would seem wise to keep at least some space available for Frisbee, baseball and impromptu dance performances. But how to do so without poisoning the earth and water?
Enter the Harvard Yard Soil Restoration Project
In 2007, Harvard University embarked on a project to convert its extensive, heavily trafficked lawns to all-organic management. The project began with a pilot implementation on one acre of Harvard Yard, the 25-acre center of the Harvard University campus; the project was based on the organic landscape maintenance plan that Battery Park City Parks Conservancy (BPCPC) in Lower Manhattan had successfully implemented and maintained since 1989. The project team included Eric T. Fleisher, BPCPC’s director of horticulture along with James Sotillo, an organic plant care specialist and guest lecturer at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.
According to the team’s own report, initial testing revealed a compacted, biologically unbalanced soil, with low organic matter, insufficient protozoa and fungi and low nitrogen creation. Over the course of a season, the team applied compost and compost teas and over seeded with shade and drought tolerant fescue to increase the diversity of grass cultivars.
In the end, the team reported an increased root growth of 3-5 inches over the control plot— a result which improves moisture retention and increases drought tolerance. Irrigation on the test plot was 30 percent less than the control plot, but the team points out that using the same techniques BPCPC routinely save 50 percent of the irrigation needed by Harvard. Finally, the absence of excess nitrogen slowed the growth of the test plot, meaning that it only had to be cut half as often.
The success of the project means that organic management has now been expanded to the rest of Harvard Yard.
The Earth Project
In order to expand awareness of the potential benefits of the project, James Sotillo has now partnered with New York architect Gail Swithenbank, curator Michael Wells and noted soil scientist Elaine Ingham (founder of the Soil Food Web organization) for a public art project to demonstrate the difference between organic and synthetic management. The idea is for artists to create circular patterns of organically managed lawn amidst conventionally managed lawns large enough to be visible from the air. If it works, it could provide a striking example of the difference between the two ways of managing landscape management.
But What About My Lawn?
Alas, if there’s one problem I see with the way with the Harvard Soils Project as it’s presented, it’s that it is information- and attention-intensive – requiring various kinds of soil testing, the making of compost tea, the creation of specialty composts with different feedstock mixes depending on how it will be used, and carefully monitored irrigation.
Given that the lawn is an especially high-traffic areas where aesthetics of primary concern, such a careful approach is no doubt best. For my own purposes, however, I must admit to being drawn to permaculturalist Paul Wheaton’s approach to “Organic Lawn Care For the Cheap and Lazy.” Wheaton’s advice goes something like this:
- Mow high (and don’t use a gas mower!)
- Water only when grass is drought stressed and then water deeply
- Fertilize with organic fertilizer in fall and spring
- Amend pH if needed
- Add top soil if needed
That sounds pretty simple – if it works out, I’ll be left wondering yet again exactly why everyone spends so much time and energy putting things onto the earth that cannot possibly be good for it—or for us.