Going Organic: Making UT the Greenest Landscape in Austin

An organic campus

The University of Texas at Austin’s main campus grounds are now nearly 100% organic. This makes the 431 acres the largest organic landscaping in the Texas capitol, providing visible ecosystem benefits and saving money.

“Well-built soil also holds more water, so we are meeting the long-term water needs of plants and helping manage storm-water runoff into Waller Creek,” says Justin Hayes, landscape supervisor, Dell Medical School Campus. “Also, a solid foundation of healthy, organic soil helps plants to resist disease, pathogens, and drought.”

Soil experts have known for some time that, while judicious use of synthetic fertilizers is critical for feeding the world, over-application of ammonium and nitrates leaches important nutrients from soil. Soil health improves dramatically when a parcel of land is managed organically.

“When you add compost to soil, you build a reservoir of organic matter that supports a larger, more robust microbial community that is essentially an engine of slowly released nutrients for plants,” says Colin Averill, a visiting researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology and postdoctoral fellow at Boston University. “This is especially important on urban land like UT’s campus because dumping a bunch of synthetic fertilizers onto plants is excessive and degrades surface water supplies. Plants need the slow rate of nutrients.”

UT’s switch to organic landscaping began in 2009 when Hayes and his then-supervisor Mike Wallick began experimenting with a section of turf on University Avenue between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Littlefield Fountain. After stopping the application of chemicals to fertilize and control weeds, the landscape crew aerated the soil and applied organic compost. The grass thrived and even decreased its water needs by 50%.

This plot won “Best Turf in Texas” from the Texas Turfgrass Association in 2012—the first time that organically managed turf was awarded this honor—and organic landscaping on campus sprang to life.

After the success of the test plot, additional parts of the campus landscape were brought under organic management, starting with areas like the Turtle Pond, the flag pole near the Main Building, and the South Mall. The change to the South Mall had a larger impact: before organic compost, this heavily-used area received new turf each year after commencement costing about $40,000. But now that organic compost and other amendments have improved soil health, the landscape team has not needed to install new turf in this area for six years.

“We made campus a healthier ecosystem by improving our soils and using native plants, making us better stewards of a vital part of campus that we are striving to rejuvenate: Waller Creek,” says Jim Carse, manager, Landscape Services. “We are also saving money because when you build healthier soils that can retain water, you reduce the need for irrigation.”

The entire landscape on the main campus has been organic for the last four years, although there are some limited chemical treatments to manage some invasive plants and fire ants.

In the spirit of going green, the team is making rather than purchasing organic compost. Hayes collects an average of 2,000 pounds of coffee grounds from campus cafes and combines it with choice leaf and grass material.  Each week, about 250 gallons of compost tea is also made by combining the good compost with rainwater, molasses and seaweed.

“When we apply our compost and compost tea, the soil reacts like it got an influx of personnel on the factory floor,” says Hayes. “This makes our plants stronger. You can tell when a plant is well-fed: to me, it looks almost obese—like when cows are fattened—because it has a glossy layer of protection that shields it from disease.”

A shorter version of this story was published as That's Not Just Grass. That's the Best Turf in Texas.