Out and About with AOLCPs: Hugh Knowlton Transforms Bergen County Community College with Organics

BY KATHY LITCHFIELD

PARAMUS, N.J. – A lack of snow at Bergen Community College this past winter was a blessing for Hugh Knowlton, grounds supervisor at the 110 acre campus with 17,000 commuting students.

            Not only did Knowlton complete the NOFA 5-day accreditation course (CT and RI ’12), but he also took Dr. Elaine Ingham’s three-day “Living Soils” class, Jeff Frank’s two-day course in organics on Long Island, Chip Osborne’s one-day organic sports turf care class, Peter Schmidt’s one-day compost tea workshop and the Organic Turf & Tree Show on Long Island.

“I had vacation time that I had to ‘use or lose’ so I decided to invest in myself in my education on organics,” said Knowlton.

            Although he had heard about the NOFA 5-day course for years from Michael Nadeau at Larry Weaner’s “New Directions in the American Landscape” annual symposium at Connecticut College, Knowlton said he initially viewed the course as a “curiosity,” as well as a huge commitment of time.

“My thinking when first introduced to OLC was that … organic land care is expensive and if it works, is not practical on a large scale like in my situation,” he said.

All that changed after he took the course and was exposed to the immediately applicable information, diversity of speakers, network of professionals practicing organically and the high standards maintained by the organization, he said.

“It is certainly something I am very proud to be a part of and wish I had taken the course sooner!” he said. “I am what I call a ‘newbie’ … full of knowledge with little practice. What is rewarding is the new network of people that I can connect to with similar desires to care for the land holistically. Having this new commitment for OLC is giving me a platform to teach and to share with others, to be a spokesman! Outreach is important since OLC will only grow in popularity and in demand as more evidence comes out to the dangers of toxic, synthetic pesticides.”

For five years, the grounds of Bergen Community College were sprayed with synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. While the scheduling and posting of applications was growing increasingly difficult, a growing number of faculty and students were engaging in “greener” activities such as composting, recycling and growing organic vegetables on campus, said Knowlton.

“I became more conscious that what I was practicing was not best for our planet, our campus or our students. OLC is much more in harmony with my moral obligations to steward the land in a way that is ‘right’,” he said.

Starting with the turf care of 6.25 acres of athletic fields (baseball, softball, soccer and an extensive lawn area), Knowlton said he plans to expand over time to organically care for additional high profile turf areas.

The biggest transition, he said, is to become less dependent on conventional methods.

All the fields have irrigation from an old golf course well; one field has very disturbed soil because of recent construction. He started by soil testing all of the fields using A&L Virginia Labs andthe Soil Foodweb New York (for biology) via Paul Wagner. He did aggressive overseeding on all four fields this spring, working in partnership with contractor Mike Kolenut of Lincoln Landscaping in Franklin Lakes, N.J. and will core aerate this fall. (Dry conditions prevented aerating this spring.) He is also fertilizing with PJC Ecological’s Renaissance fertilizer this spring and consults with Chip Osborne and James Sottilo of Ecological Landscape Management whenever possible.

“Our grass is a bit yellowy now because it was dependent on the ‘quick fix’ for so long, but it doesn’t concern me. It’ll green up over time as we manage it organically,” he said. The first application of organic fertilizer was completed in April.

“One nice thing is people aren’t concerned with how the grass looks; people aren’t complaining about the yellow. At a private school, it would likely be different,” he pointed out.

Previously, Knowlton worked for a Christian ministry in Ohio managing land care with a crew of 14 people, unlimited part-time help and open-ended flow of resources.

At Bergen Community College, he works with a crew of four and has enough work to last “24 hours a day.”

“I work farmer’s hours with limited funds,” he laughed.

Knowlton manages the main campus in Paramus, N.J.as well as the campuses in Hackensack and Lyndhurst. The main campus, formerly an 18-hole golf course, is surrounded by three golf courses today: Orchard Hills Course (owned by the college; leased to Bergen County), Paramus Municipal Course and the Ridgewood Country Club, which has hosted numerous PGA events in late August, and uses the college’s parking lots.

“The college has grown considerably since I came 21 years ago. It is a challenge to care for the place, but I like to think that my greatest asset is that I consider it my home. There are others who are more knowledgeable, more organized but few who can match my commitment and love for the property,” he said.

Knowlton serves as a Horticultural Advisor for the college’s horticultural program as well and is working with the Sustainability Officer, PJ Ricatto,Ph.D. (also the Dean of Math, Science and Technology) to compost food waste from the college cafeteria mixed with shredded woodchips in the “Rocket,” an invessel composter. The compost will be used under trees and in landscape beds with shrubs and perennials, said Knowlton, who is waiting for the results of biology testing to see if the compost is suitable for making compost tea. With the help of the Dean he is purchasing a compost tea brewer for turf and landscape care.

Knowlton is networking with the Rodale Institute in PA and Greg Twehues of Compostwerks (who also oversees the composting at The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture) to expand the college’s compost operation. He plans to develop a larger compost site in a neglected area, near to where students are growing organic vegetables. He plans to plant native shrubs and trees in the peripheral area to support bird and other wildlife for an Audubon sanctuary.

Additionally, two years ago he suggested to the Dean a sustainability project for faculty and students to develop a meadow in an otherwise unattractive detention basin in a high profile area.

“With the help of Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, we seeded this area with forbes and grasses and plan with students’ help, to plant grown plants to further enhance the meadow. This spring two honeybee hives will be added to the site to be maintained by faculty, students and myself. I am sure this area will be a target of future compost tea applications,” he said.

When he’s not working to sustainably beautify the campus, Knowlton enjoys spending time with his family – wife of 37 years, Susan, three children (two married) and four grandsons. Knowlton’s son John is a senior landscape architect for Oehme van Sweden in Washington, D.C. and helps with landscape design at the college.

For more information, contact Knowlton at hknowlton@bergen.edu.

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