EcoVillage students use campus turf to research compost benefits

Compost tea was applied weekly during the study.
Compost tea was applied weekly during the study.

For NC State student Andrew Harrell, spring break kickstarted an opportunity to think and do on campus.

During a March 2014 sustainable planning and urban development exploratory trip to Boston with the university’s EcoVillage living and learning community, Harrell learned about Harvard University’s organic lawn management program. If Harvard could successfully fertilize its turf with compost, then Harrell wanted NC State to try it, too.

As part of the sustainability capstone project required of all second-year EcoVillage residents, Harrell teamed up this past spring with fellow EcoVillage residents Ben Sterling and Greg Sheets to research the viability of organic lawn management on campus.

The trio partnered with NC State Grounds Management to build an aerated compost tea brewer and conduct comparison testing on the front lawn of Bragaw Residence Hall, where EcoVillage is based and the project was well-noticed.

“All of the students that knew about the project or stopped to ask were really excited about the study,” Harrell said.

Throughout April and May 2015, the students applied compost tea weekly to the lawn, which was divided into three sections: one area receiving compost tea, one area receiving traditional fertilizer and one area serving as the experiment’s control.

Unlike compost, compost tea is easier to apply and can be applied to the leaves of plants. Plus, limited research suggests that compost tea reduces soil compaction and improves plant growth — all without the harmful chemicals associated with traditional fertilizers. At periodic intervals, the students conducted soil tests to gauge success.

Samples from each section of the study were compared to determine whether compost tea is a viable alternative to traditional fertilizer.
Samples from each section of the study were compared to determine whether compost tea is a viable campus alternative to traditional fertilizer.

“Shovel-sized soil chunks were extracted from the site and showed that root development in the tea-treated areas appeared significantly better than the untreated area,” said Whitney Stevens, an NC State grounds maintenance planner.

The project has convinced both Grounds Management and the student researchers that compost tea, in combination with other organic soil amendments, is viable on campus though more trial studies are needed to learn more about cost and best practices.

“Both compost and compost tea have ideal places for use and we look forward to future campus trials on different types of campus plants such as trees, shrubs, groundcover and annual flowers,” Stevens said.

A biological engineering major minoring in landscape architecture, Harrell wants to continue studying the effects of compost tea on soil infiltration rates through more research projects.

“It is a tribute to the opportunities offered by our university that a student can be inspired by something they learned on a spring break trip, come back to campus, investigate the right contacts and channels to work through, and apply what they have learned to their own college campus,” said EcoVillage director Meghan Lobsinger.

“I am sincerely pleased that EcoVillage students are contributing to the ongoing sustainability initiatives of our campus and gaining valuable work experience through such hands-on engagement. They truly think and do.”