Campus News

Organic tea and compost may be the way to a lush football field.

Story posted June 21, 2002

June 14, 2002

This cloudy, wet Friday in June isn’t ideal weather for those traveling to Maine for vacation bliss, but it’s perfect weather for bacteria and fungi, and that makes it great weather for T Fleisher.

Fleisher is at Bowdoin to help the College get started on a campaign of organic soil management of Whittier Field. Three years ago Bowdoin stopped using chemical pesticides and fertilizers on Whittier after the water district voiced concerns about the use of chemicals on fields in the Brunswick area, also including town parks and public schools. Since that time, only water has nourished the grass, and the condition of the field has deteriorated. Now Bowdoin has turned to Fleisher to help bring it back to health.

Fleisher has spent more than a decade in charge of the gardens of Battery Park City in New York. He’s developed a completely organic system of soil management that helps plants to thrive without putting harmful chemicals into the environment.

Compost is the key to the system. Thermal compost, which has maintained an internal temperature of between 132 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three days, is essential. The heat kills the bad bacteria and naturally builds the nitrogen presence to levels beneficial to the field. The compost is added to worm castings and wood chips. This all provides an optimal breeding ground for fungi and bacteria. Molasses, kelp and fish emulsion provide food for the bacteria and fungi. Soy flour provides a surface for fungi to grow on and vegetable oil keeps the foam down. All of this and water goes into a still designed for this purpose and is brewed into a “tea” that will be spread on the fields.

Careful observation and chemical and biological analysis of the gardens of Battery Park City helped Fleisher find a way to keep plants healthy without chemicals.

“We found more and more as we got into it that the answer to all the issues we were dealing with were in the soil,” Fleisher said. “It’s looking at the source of the problem rather than the effect of the problem.”

He compared it to the use of nutrition to build up immunity in humans. Obviously medicine and antibiotics serve a purpose, as does chemical fertilizer, but if our immune system is healthy there’s less need for medicine. A field dependent on fertilizer doesn’t have healthy soil to help it grow, but if the soil’s nutrition level is built up it can thrive.

The all-important tea is officially known as a “liquid biological amendment” — essentially this means that it’s alive with microorganisms. It smells fresh and earthy as Fleisher releases it from the still and into buckets. Bowdoin’s Tim Carr pours it from the buckets into a sprayer that will be pulled around the field by a tractor. The sprayer has never been used to spray anything else so nothing is left inside that could harm the microorganisms. It’s also possible to adjust it to spray gently.

“For a little bacteria to hit a blade of grass, it’s like us hitting a brick wall,” Fleisher said — at least if it’s sprayed with too much force.

Whittier Field has already been aerated — plugs of earth have been pulled out of the soil to allow room for expansion. At the same time, a pelletized compost with a high bacteria count was spread on the grass. Fleisher measures the compression of the soil, takes soil samples for chemical analysis and checks the condition of the root system. He’s already encouraged. After three years of only water to nourish it, the soil hadn’t been in great shape. In the few weeks since the aerating and the compost was spread there has already been an improvement.

Tim Carr fires up the sprayer and begins circling the fields in ever smaller circles gently spraying the nourishing tea onto the grass of Whittier Field.

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