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Organic: The old college try

Nicole Selby vividly remembers the first time she saw the fuzzy yellow larvae of the Mexican bean beetle, a sight that would send most folks screaming to the sidelines.

Nicole Selby vividly remembers the first time she saw the fuzzy yellow larvae of the Mexican bean beetle, a sight that would send most folks screaming to the sidelines.

"It was so interesting," she says, eyes wide.

No wonder, then, that this urban-farmer-turned-lawn-alchemist can't wait to show off some fungi and nematodes "rockin' and rollin' " under a microscope. They live in Selby's compost, a key ingredient in the organic experiment she's conducting on the lawn at Swarthmore College.

For the last year, Selby has been putting down that campus-generated nutrient-rich compost; spraying its microbe-rich liquid counterpart, compost tea; aerating or making small holes in the lawn to let it breathe, and planting vigorous new grass seed, as needed, on five acres of the 25-acre rolling landscape in front of Parrish Hall, the college's signature building.

The Ultimate Frisbee team practices on this lawn. Students cross it with varying degrees of speed and intensity on their way to the dining hall. And from the bottom of the hill, this is the postcard view of what originally was called College Hall.

Later named for Edward Parrish, Swarthmore's first president, it now houses administrative offices, the student newspaper, the campus post office, and dorm rooms.

In other words, Selby's experiment has nowhere to hide, which explains why people are forever asking, "Is your experiment working?"

Her truthful, if uneasy, response: "I don't know."

The 2011 growing season has been extreme - hot and dry, then wet and wetter - making it difficult to know. At the moment, the conventional and organic lawns all look the same - green.

Selby, 31, a Swarthmore alum and full-time campus gardener since 2006, is eager to know, too: "Will the organic lawn live up to the beautiful image of the rest of the campus?

"There has to be some allowance for the expectation of the visitor," she explains.

Jeff Jabco, Swarthmore's grounds director and horticulture coordinator, thinks another season or two will provide answers.

"We really need to see some stress, see how the organic lawn looks compared to the turf around it," he says, "but since August, all it's done is rain. Nothing's under stress."

So bring on the stress! Meanwhile, the soil is definitely healthier, "teeming with microbes," as Selby puts it, in ways lawns treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be.

Swarthmore is not the first college to experiment with organic lawns; in fact, two pilot projects at the University of Pennsylvania were so successful in 2010, the program is now campuswide.

But Selby's inspiration was Harvard University, which three years ago tried organic care on heavily trafficked Harvard Yard, the 25-acre lawn in the center of campus. All the lawns, excluding the athletic fields, are organically maintained now.

"We're not weed-free, though. That's the most challenging thing," says Paul Smith, associate landscape manager.

College lawns pose special challenges, according to Paul Tukey, founder of and author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. They are heavily used and generate that pesky "visitor expectation," that they be forever green and weed-free.

"You need to take a higher level of management than you might take with a home lawn, where the homeowner is satisfied with average appearance," he says, "but for that homeowner to make compost tea out of a five-gallon drywall bucket? That is eminently doable."

The beneficial microorganisms found in compost and compost tea - things like fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and protozoa - improve soil quality, health, composition, and drainage, a process Jeff Lowenfels describes as "teaming with microbes" in his book of the same name.

"People think going organic is so complicated, but, once you get started, it's actually so much less work. Microbes do all these great things," says Lowenfels, the Anchorage Daily News garden columnist since 1977.

During a hiatus in her studies at Swarthmore, Selby learned about beneficial microbes and organic techniques as an intern at Maysie's Farm in Glenmoore and as manager of a farm in Washington, D.C., that did nutrition programming and health education with low-income residents.

The lessons from those experiences were many:

It's hard to make a living as a farmer. It's important to focus on a mission, be patient about the pace of change, and have a plan before "making a vigorous assault on a cause."

And so, after several years of farming and related activism during which she married and had a daughter named Maysie, Selby returned to Swarthmore, "as an adult," to get a degree in sociology and education. Not long after graduating, she took a job with the college's grounds staff.

She was still thinking about being a farmer, but "I needed stability and practicality in my life," she says. The opportunity to do meaningful work in such an environment - "it's beautiful and fun here" - sealed the deal.

Selby recently remarried after a divorce. Her daughter is 8. And while her mission has morphed away from urban farming, she is enmeshed in a related buzzword of a field: sustainability.

"I'm happy and accomplishing a lot of my goals here," she says. They include inspiring students, and studying - and spreading the word about - organic techniques, an area she knows from a conventional perspective, too.

Selby is certified as a pesticide applicator. "It's important to see things from both sides," she says.

Of her lawn experiment, which cost $10,000 in new equipment and involves time over and above her regular duties, "I don't know if there will ever be a moment of 'answer,' " she says.

And that is OK.

"To me, this is not just about the ecological value of what I'm doing," she says. "It's about people being able to touch the grass."

Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at


See Nicole Selby talk about her lawn experiment at