August 22, 2019 | 89° F

Director enriches lecture with benefits of organic landscaping

Photo by Jennifer Miguel-HelLman |

Eric Fleisher, director of Horticulture at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, talks yesterday about maintaining soil organicallly.

Students and faculty gathered yesterday to find ways to produce plants with healthy roots.

The Department of Landscape Architecture hosted the “Harvard Soils Project” at the Douglass Campus Center, yesterday to learn about ways to maintain soil organically while preserving the appearance of the land.

Balancing the soil involves certain planting methods, proper preparation, and pruning techniques, said Eric Fleisher, director of Horticulture at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy.

“We need to find where the balance is and fix it from that perspective — it’s not product-based,” he said. “It’s diagnostic-based, and that’s the key with this process.”

Fleisher said the Conservancy started to implement a method of maintaining public parks differently from its traditional maintenance needs.

“It was an opportunity to really try out organic practices on a very public, high-profile basis,” Fleisher said. “We wanted to prove that high-profile parks with a high number of visitors could be managed organically.”  

He said producing the right compost for landscapes makes up a closed-loop system, creating a balanced soil biology without the use of fertilizers.

Organic compost is made of a combination of nitrogen material such as vegetables from a grocery store, woody material that is fungal by nature such as wood chips, and leaves and green materials like weeds, he said.

“Once the system is in place, the rest is managing that balance,” Fleisher said. “You’re managing an environmental ecological balance.”

He said maintaining soil is like taking care of the body.

“If you need vitamin D, that’s what you take,” Fleisher said. “If there is an imbalance, you need to know what the imbalance is before you can deal with it.”

Combining the nutrients into compost that is rich in bacterial content and green materials allows the nutrients to be distributed back to the plant from which it came, Fleisher said.

“Plants that are more fungal that are generating woody material would go back to more fungal-oriented plants,” he said.

Using a small amount of micronutrients makes the chemical and biological aspects of soil imbalanced, he said.

“I think it’s important for people to realize that there is a viable alternative — an effective alternative — to managing landscapes without using toxic chemicals and high in nitrogen fertilizers,” Fleisher said.

He said it is important for the nutrient cycle system to occur in the root zone and not have the excess amount of nitrogen down in the water supply because that would attract bacteria growth.

“I think we have to utilize the resources of the earth responsibly as we can,” he said. “I think with a better understanding of how those natural systems work and how it naturally produces nutrients for plant growth is key.”

Fleisher brought his work of maintaining soil organically to Harvard after receiving a 2007 Loeb Fellowship.

The Loeb Fellowship offers participants access to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Design, the Graduate School of Education, Harvard Business School, Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School of Government, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote leadership in the natural environment, according to a Harvard website.

Fleisher said he tested the chemical and biological components of the soil and came up with a program to benefit the trees and the turf. He now maintains 80 acres of organically maintained soil. (which now has 80 acres of organically maintained soil.)

During the project, he used various plants that are resistant to diseases with the right soil mixture to balance the soil.

Holly Nelson, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, said she wanted to organize the “Harvard Soils Project” event because she thought it would be a good way to introduce to the University to organic landscape practices.

She said organic composting is a beneficial method to maintain soil from harmful chemicals.

“The chemicals have affected the landscaping inversely,” Nelson said. “You see a lot of runoff going into the water, it’s going to degrade our water supply.”

Richard Bartolone, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, said utilizing organic composting has proven to grow roots and help make up the soil structure.

“It’s all about ... not what we see but what we don’t see,” he said.

He said organic composting would be a better way to maintain soil, a process he is interested in applying at the Rutgers Gardens on Cook campus.

“[We need to study] the more technical aspects of how to do it, what’s it all about,” Bartolone said. “We need to understand the whole process of how it works, there are [soil] mixes we need to understand and soil biology.”

John Ireland, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior, said he felt attending the event was an informative and helpful way to learn about soil and its influence on the environment.

“We just started doing soils with my major so it opened up my perspective into a new part of that and a new way to do things,” he said.

He said learning about organic composting made him think about how he may use it for future projects.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s sustainable and it’s going to keep us here longer,” he said.

By Yashmin Patel

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