Architects of the Outdoors

The sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens

Of course, a beautiful, open landscape requires regular care. Only recently has Harvard moved to make that care truly sustainable, to ensure that Harvard’s landscape can be enjoyed by generations to come.

Beginning with the Yard Soils Restoration Project of 2007, Landscaping Services has worked to make Harvard landscaping an entirely organic process, a goal Carbone believes will be reached within the next year and a half. This will have to be accomplished despite the challenge presented by Landscaping Service’s limited domain over just 65% of Harvard’s landscape; individual departments generally control their own immediate surroundings.

Carbone sees Harvard’s organic initiative as a natural outgrowth of its position as a pioneer in sustainable landscaping. “Harvard has been a leader,” Carbone says. “We started back before organics was the hip thing to do.”


Reaching the goal of 100% organic landscaping will mean that Harvard is fertilized solely by recycled landscape waste. Instead of bringing in synthetic fertilizers and disposing of waste elsewhere, as in the past, Harvard landscaping will become essentially one big cycle. According to Carbone, this cycle is not only good for the environment but actually cost-neutral due to Harvard’s being able to compost its own waste at the nearby Arboretum.

The price of this environmental initiative has been cut further by a reduction in number of floral arrangements, a change that also indicates a return to a more traditional look for campus. The goal, he says, is simple. “We’re trying to make a healthy plant that will be aesthetically pleasing.”


Professor Van Valkenburgh cites Harvard’s growing environmental conscience as the most dramatic shift he’s seen Harvard make in his 28 years on faculty.

“President Faust has been highly committed to sustainability, and thus Harvard’s campus is now not saturated with pesticides and herbicides,” he writes. “Green as the new Crimson is a metaphor for something more than a groundswell; it is darkness turning into light.”


Sculpting a beautiful and inviting landscape calls for a certain degree of  ingenuity. For those involved in the creative process, shaping a landscape can feel like art.

Stephen W. Schneider, the Arboretum’s Manager of Horticulture, cites the work of one of the Arboretum’s horticultural technologists—who each manage 20-30 acres of Arboretum land—as a particularly apt example of landscaping creativity. The technologist was assigned to manage the then-overgrown Oak Path. “He worked to keep a backwoods feel to it, but to make it look cared-for,” Schneider says. In his opinion, projects like these highlight the creative aspect of landscaping.

Carbone agrees. “Creativity always plays a role,” he says, “whether it is selecting the correct tree or shrub or flowers for a planting project, determining the best way to protect the landscape during a construction project, or coming up with a compost tea recipe that will satisfy the biological needs of a soil.”

Despite his many years at Harvard, Carbone’s favorite campus landscape is no other than the favored photo backdrop for the hordes of tourists who roam the Yard in all seasons. But his experience caring for and arranging that landscape lends personal depth to his feelings for the Yard, a depth of sentiment brought about not only by observing but by himself refining the landscape. It is, in a sense, the feeling of an artist for his best work.

“We work very hard to keep the ominous shade tree canopy healthy, whether it’s managing the Elm population from Dutch Elm Disease or structurally pruning the trees planted during the tree restoration project over the past 15 years,” he says.

But all the spent creativity, all the yearlong effort, is worth it, Carbone affirms. “It’s gratifying to walk around the Yard on Commencement day as the sun filters through the canopy on the green grass and chairs.”

—Staff writer Adam T. Horn can be reached at