Organic Maintenance Program

Organic Maintenance Program

Organic Maintenance Program

Restoring and maintaining the natural nutrient cycling system is the heart of any organic landscape program. The benefits of this approach include improved nutrient and moisture availability and retention, disease suppression, aeration, and degradation of harmful pollutants achieved through non-chemical or synthetic methods. Harvard’s Sustainable Landscape Management program encourages the systems created by nature: healthy soils supporting healthy plants. The foundation of a successful sustainable landscape management program requires the plants and soils to be viewed as extensions of one another in a symbiotic relationship. This big picture, holistic, "bottom up" approach, contrasts with the conventional maintenance mindset of treating plant health conditions from the "top down" through the application of synthetic chemicals. 

The program is process driven, not product driven. This is an adaptive approach. First a diagnosis is made and then the proper course of intervention is decided upon. There are amendments, and materials that are utilized in soils and biological infusions to achieve the required results, however this is on a case-by-case basis that changes frequently as environmental conditions change and the program evolves. The one constant in the program is the use of high-quality composts and combinations in biological infusions and soil management.

Bridging from Conventional to Organic Methods

The early phase of our transition efforts focused on reducing or eliminating the use of all inorganic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and significantly reducing the use of organic nitrogen fertilizers in our maintenance programs. Our experience convinced us that chemicals and synthetics can be systematically eliminated and replaced by programmed encouragement of the natural cycles of support. Understanding as much as possible about the environmental conditions within our landscape, including public use patterns as well as aesthetic expectations was vital to creating a successful maintenance program. As you'll see, our programs are continuously adjusted to meet the needs of the various landscape systems, environmental conditions, and public usage.

Our Organic Landscaping Program consists of seven primary components:

Organic Soils Management

Restoring and maintaining the natural nutrient cycling system is the heart of any organic landscape program. The benefits of this approach include improved nutrient and moisture availability and retention, disease suppression, aeration, and degradation of harmful pollutants achieved through non-chemical or synthetic methods.

Nutrient Retention: beneficial microorganisms keep valuable nutrients in the proper root zone. Bacteria and fungi also prevent leaching; a process that removes nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil.  Preventing this material from contaminating the water table is another important benefit.

Nutrient Availability: the symbiotic relationship between fungi and roots helps plants filter needed micronutrients from the soil.  Protozoa feed on bacteria and fungi, excreting nitrogen in a form easily absorbed by plants.  An organic program focuses on building up the components needed for the efficient absorption of macro and micro nutrients by plants, optimizing the natural nutrient cycling system.

Moisture Retention: high quality organic matter, with beneficial biological characteristics, builds an extensive, robust root system which utilizes water much more efficiently, dramatically reducing overall water use.  Irrigation needs were reduced by 33% on our organic test plots in 2008.

Pest and Disease Control: beneficial nematodes and fungi protect the roots of plants from potentially harmful organisms always present in the soil.

Aeration: organisms aerate and give structure to the soil by creating air holes and drain pockets.  This process reduces compaction and maximizes water availability to the root zone.

Degradation of Pollutants: properly managed soil includes organisms that consume a wide-range of pollutants across a variety of environmental conditions.

Soil Testing

Comprehensive soil testing forms the basis of any successful, diagnostic organic maintenance program.  The following three tests are required to fully understand soil conditions:

Biological Analysis: testing for fungi and bacteria as well as beneficial predators (protozoa and nematodes) takes much of the guesswork out of selecting the proper compost/organic matter amendment strategy.  The nutrient cycling systems of different plants may require specific fungal or bacterial dominated soils to function optimally.  Biological testing is not a replacement of standard nutrient, chemical, and textural analyses.  It is simply an additional tool that can help provide a fuller picture of what's going on in our soil.

Some of the specific biological measurements include:

  • Mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic infections between fungi and root. Mycorrhizae enable plants to absorb macro and micro nutrients.
  • Bacteria also play a key role in plant nutrition by immobilizing nutrients in the rhizosphere. These microbes decompose organic matter and ingest root exudates, preventing them from leaching out of the soil. These valuable nutrients are tied up in the bacteria until they are eventually released in the ammonium (NH4+) waste of protozoa predators, for use by the plant.
  • Predators - protozoans (amoebae, flagellates, ciliates), and bacterial feeding nematodes are a very important part of the nutrient cycling system. They feed on bacteria and release Nitrogen in a plant available form

Chemical Analysis: required to determine the following:

  • pH Levels
  • Cation Exchange Capacity (used to measure fertility, nutrient retention capacity, and the capacity to protect groundwater from cation contamination)
  • Individual Nutrients (macro and micro nutrients)
  • Organic %
  • Soluble Salts

Textural Analysis: determines the percentage of sand, silt and clay in a given soil. The ratio of sand, silt, and clay in soil determines its infiltration characteristics.



Compost is the aerobically decomposed remnants of plants and food created through the management of heat, moisture, and aeration. The result is a nutrient-rich environment for beneficial bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that can be applied directly to the soils. These microorganisms control pests (pathogenic organisms) and aerate the soil, providing the opportunity for extended root development. At Harvard, all herbaceous and woody materials - along with a growing portion of food waste from dining halls and cafeterias - are collected for composting. When composting, emphasis should focus on the creation of a high-quality end product and not just a way to get rid unwanted waste. These are precious resources that when handled properly will yield extremely valuable results. At Harvard, we are creating the following three basic types of composts, each used to address particular needs within our landscape systems:

Bacterial Mix compost are more dominant in bacterial feedstocks (hay weeds, coffee grounds, herbaceous material). Common plants that prefer bacterial soils (grasses, annuals, perennials, and vegetables)

Fungal Mix compost are dominant in fungal feedstocks (dry leaves, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper). Common plants that prefer fungal soils (trees and shrubs)

Vermicompost is the product of some species of earthworms as they breakdown organic matter. Most of our vermicompost is used as a solid in planters, but is also an ingredient in many of our compost tea recipes. This compost is generally high in diversity.

Composting must be done carefully and systematically. Here are the keys to successful composting.

Temperature: For best results, temperatures within the entire compost pile must stay between 130-160 degrees F for approximately two weeks. Maintaining this temperature range is critical; warm enough to kill off weed seeds and pathogens yet still allowing for cultivation of beneficial organisms.

Aeration: During the two weeks when temperatures of at least 130 degrees F are required, turn the pile 2-3 times per week to allow air to infiltrate. This step is essential for maintaining proper temperatures and encouraging the development of beneficial soil organisms to breakdown organic material.

Moisture: Too much or too little moisture will negatively impact the quality of the compost. A moisture rate of 35% to 45% is optimum. To determine this, grab a handful of compost from the center of the pile and squeeze it. The material should be moist to the touch but not drip. Too dry: add water and mix thoroughly. Too wet: turn more frequently and cover to protect from rain. The following are two basic compost recipes:

Bacterial Mix - Feedstock Ingredients

  • 45% Bacterial: hay, weeds, coffee grounds, herbaceous material
  • 30% Fungal: dry leaves, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper
  • 25% Nitrogen: grass clippings, vegetable waste, legumes, manure

Fungal Mix - Feedstock Ingredients

  • 45% Fungal: dry leaves, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper
  • 30% Bacterial: hay, weeds, coffee grounds, herbaceous material
  • 25% Nitrogen: grass clippings, vegetable waste, legumes, manure

Important: To select the proper compost, identify the types of plants within your landscape. In general, turf, grasses, and perennials require higher bacterial populations, while more complex landscapes with trees and shrubs benefit from higher fungal populations.

Compost Teas are a specific liquid biological amendment made by coaxing the beneficial organisms from the compost and depositing them into an aerated water solution with various food sources. The advantage of the tea is that recipes can be developed and fine-tuned to target specific conditions and plant needs. Careful application of compost teas can speed up the process of balancing the soil biology... but achieving the proper mix requires time and testing. Remember, that the better the compost, the more effective the tea!

The following are some additional considerations for Compost Tea:

  • During the brewing process bacterial populations, on average, double every half hour.
  • Applications are particularly favorable for trees and lawns which require the beneficial organisms but not necessarily a high percentage of organic matter.

Pest and Disease Control

Our program uses only non-toxic methods for treating and preventing pests and disease by relying on the following processes and techniques:

  • Aerating to reduce plant stress
  • Monitoring moisture because inadequate moisture levels can weaken plants and make them susceptible to pest problems
  • Applying compost teas to suppress powdery mildew
  • Introducing and cultivating beneficial insects which prey on destructive insects
  • Manually removing infected tree and shrub branches
  • Manually removing weeds

Important: Before using the above treatments, verify that pests and/or disease are the problem. Performing a comprehensive soil, plant, and field analysis will help identify the underlying issues and determine the best path forward. Time spent in this early phase will allow you to choose solutions that optimize results and minimize the reoccurrence of pest and disease problems.


Properly managing water consumption is a vital component of sustainable landscape management. The goal of any irrigation program should be to apply the right amount of water in the right locations and at just the right time. Besides being wasteful and expensive, over-watering causes leaching of valuable soil nutrients and will damage plant health. Organic landscaping greatly increases moisture retention by encouraging deeper root growth so that conventional irrigation schedules can be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely. However, during periods of drought and transplanting operations additional water may be required.

Water is most efficiently applied through in-ground irrigation systems. While these systems typically have automated control features, it's important to closely monitor their use to ensure adequate coverage. We have also found that frequent adjustment to the automation schedules in response to changing environmental conditions is still required.

Proper Planting & Pruning Techniques

Proper pruning and installation of any landscape is essential. The following are a few techniques for ensuring the landscape gets a good start.

  • A comprehensive soil analysis is needed to determine the baseline biological requirements.
  • Plants should always be transported and handled carefully to avoid damage.
  • Plants should be installed following the American National Standard for transplanting of trees, also known as ANSI A300.
  • Careful pruning of inner and outer foliage encourages a natural growth pattern, increases photosynthesis, enhances the health of the plant, and reduces wind resistance.

Plant Selection and Placement

Location, location, location! It applies to plant placement as well. Choosing the proper plants and placing them in optimum areas is vital to building a sustainable landscape. Plants need good soils and adequate natural sunlight to flourish. They also need a spot where their natural size and shape will be uninhibited. Considerations of plant size, color, and suitability to the surroundings should include anticipated interaction with people as well as existing and future plants. Always think ahead before planting!



    Department Contact

    Jason MacKay
    Manager, Landscape Services

    Ryan Sweeney
    Supervisor, Landscape Services