Staff Spotlight: Anthony Ruggiero
How did your story with the Greenway begin?
It started when I was old enough to hold a shovel. I grew up in Plymouth, MA where my parents had a garden and a good sized yard. I remember my mom used to make baby food for us from vegetables in the garden. I always had to go and help my dad outside. As a kid, I didn’t really appreciate this (I wanted to go play!), but I realize now that it instilled a work ethic in me that I’ve carried throughout my career in horticulture and plant care. It’s funny to look back at it now and think about things like emptying the compost or raking leaves in the yard with dad. It’s really shaped who I am and what I do now.
I worked at a nursery in high school, then went off to UMass Amherst and majored in what I enjoyed and what I was good at – plant and soil sciences. After a year I transferred into Stockbridge School of Agriculture, to pursue turf grass management. I thought I wanted to work on a golf course. I didn’t golf at all but my grandfather did! And with all the golf courses around Plymouth, I figured there would be jobs in the field. In the spring of that year I did my internship at a golf course…where I realized that I didn’t want to limit myself to just turf grass. I often find myself telling the younger volunteers we work with, the most valuable lesson when growing up is figuring out what you don’t want to do! I appreciate nature and value the whole ecosystem, the relationship between plants and landscape, not just turf grass. I still value my background in turf because my current position as Organic Program Manager for The Greenway requires me to oversee the organics system and make educated decisions in each of the fields (plants, trees, and turf) in order to put the whole picture together. After I completed my associates in turf management from Stockbridge, I went on to finish my bachelors at UMass in plant soil science.
Throughout school, I was guided by my passion for the “interconnectedness” within the natural world. Even in school, they didn’t teach organics-there wasn’t an “organic landscaping class”-but you could take certain things from the education and form your own opinions. That’s where I started to refine what I was truly looking for. This was apparent when I graduated and started working for a large-scale commercial landscaping company. I found that there wasn’t a lot of creativity to the work and that doing things “the right way” wasn’t always applicable. My father always taught me “do things once, do them the right way.” People were there to do a job, a job that needed to get done, but I felt the job took me away from my values.
I soon found an opportunity down on the Cape with Talbot Ecological Land Care, doing ecological landscaping and conservation mitigation, and environmentally friendly plant health care. I was there five years and learned so much. In 2008, I decided it was time for a change and to take what I learned about organics to the next level. When I found The Greenway, I was incredibly curious about the concept of a public park managing everything organically. I applied and got a position as a full-time horticulturist.
What have you learned about organics throughout your career and how have you applied it to The Greenway?
The Greenway is such a special place. It was an incredible opportunity to come into a brand new park operating organically. In June 2009, it was myself and the first small crew of three other horticulturists, setting up and developing all the protocols and standards for how The Greenway would be maintained for years on out. The creation was extremely exciting and it still is exciting six years later.
I know I’m biased, but the program has been incredibly successful. There’s still a lot of doubt about the organics industry, people think its some kind of hippie, tree-hugging buzz word. Even when I’m out working in my own yard and need something like fertilizer, I’ll go to a big gardening center and ask for organics. So often the response is them grumbling about how “that stuff” doesn’t work. People’s mindsets in the industry are changing, but changing slowly. People always ask, how do you measure success? I often point to the Urban Arboretum as an example. Take a look at those old pictures from 2008, especially when we were displaying Botanica, a silver sculpture that towered over the ring of trees there. Now, because of the growth, there wouldn’t be any room for that piece. It’s worth noticing.
A few years ago we did a study with Harvard Kennedy School comparing costs of synthetic versus organic approaches to land care. In the end, organics ends up being cheaper.When managing land that is treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, you’re killing off soil biology with salts, which are toxic to life (essentially what these synthetics are). This leads to using an increased amount of synthetics because your natural systems are no longer working. Your soil becomes dependent on the product instead of being able to sustain itself. When transitioning to organics, there’s a lag time and an upfront cost spent on building that biology back into the soil. As soon as that biology is sustained, costs decrease.
I also teach people about the amount of compost tea we’re putting out. We brew our own compost tea and Eric and I are constantly tweaking things to get specific results. It’s not just a carte blanche approach, we’re doing soil tests and looking at the biology. For example, for every tablespoon of soil there’s around 6 million microorganisms to consider, which kinda blows your mind when you consider each one of those microorganisms has a purpose. The protozoa eats the bacteria to create plant-available nitrogen, otherwise known as the soil food web. Beyond the science, organics also makes me think about our history, the fact that humans have used natural systems to grow things for hundreds of years, right up until WWII when pesticides and herbicides were produced as weapons. Compared to the larger timeline, the window of time in which we’ve been doing things synthetically is actually very short. Is it here to stay? I don’t know. It’s cheap and easy – the band-aid approach. We need more places like the Greenway, more places to prove it can be done organically.
What do you like most about The Greenway and your position?
Working on the Greenway is completely different than most of my background. Instead of a commercial or private job tucked away for a single client, hundreds of thousands of people get to witness and be part of what we’re accomplishing. I love interacting with the people that approach us in the park, answering their questions, listening to their stories. It’s the same with volunteer projects. Some days I come in early in the morning and I may be a little grumpy, but there’s something about that interaction, sharing the passion for what I do and seeing their interest, that always transforms my mood into something positive.
All the horticulturists, now and throughout the years, have been incredibly talented and knowledgeable. We spend a lot of time observing and problem solving, driving each other to be better, driving to make the park better. I work closely with Eric DiTommaso on the compost tea brewing and we really geek-out over the science behind everything we’re accomplishing. A great example is in Dewey Square: you’ve got the maple trees out in the lawn and the same maples in the tree pits on the plaza. They were planted at the same time, but the ones in the lawn with more open area for the roots to grow are two or three times bigger. We’re our own worst critics, we see every detail, but that’s also what motivates the drive to keep improving the parks.
I think a lot about how fortunate I was to grow up near the woods. I had the experience of pulling a tomato from the vine and eating it like an apple or wiping dirt off a carrot to have a snack. Sometimes I take a lot of those things for granted. But when I meet people in the city, especially young people, and see them experience the natural world for the first time on the Greenway, I take the time to recognize the value in what we have here. You never know how those first experiences will come back around to shape that person.