Archive for the ‘research’ Category

2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Research — 1st Place Winner

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Researching Biochar

Now that the Extension Master Gardener biochar demonstration gardens 2014 annual report is finished, what have we learned?

Since 2012, University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners and Iowa State Master Gardeners have been helping researchers answer the question: “Is biochar (charred organic matter) a good soil amendment for home gardens?” To do that, Extension Master Gardener volunteers have been testing the productivity of vegetables and flowers in gardens amended with biochar at four sites in Minnesota and three sites in Iowa.

Each year, the demonstration gardens are planted with common vegetable and bedding plants such as tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, zinnias, salvia, chrysanthemums and roses. Master Gardeners and youth volunteers maintain the gardens throughout the season, and Master Gardeners take growth and yield measurements at designated times. Results are compared across sites to help determine the effects of biochar, which was applied to all but each garden’s control plot in the first year of the project. No additional biochar applications have been made, and no additional organic amendments have been used in order to gauge the effect of biochar as a stand-alone additive.

2014 was the third of four years that Master Gardeners will be involved in what is known as the CenUSA Bioenergy project. Led by Ken Moore at Iowa State University, the five-year project includes institutions in several states and is funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. The aim is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, as well as greenhouse gas emissions while increasing local renewable energy. (More information can be found at Iowa State’s website)

Written by Lynne Davenport-Hagen, CenUSA Biochar Research and Display Garden project coordinator, and Julie Weisenhorn, associate extension professor at the University of Minnesota, the 2014 annual report shows mixed three-year results. While there were notable growth differences in some plants, others seemed unaffected by biochar. For example, chrysanthemums appeared more robust in plots amended with biochar while shrub roses showed no significant differences.

One of the things that does seem clear so far is that biochar appears to improve soil texture. Volunteers working in the wet spring soil reported that it was easier to plant in the amended plots than the control plots that contain no biochar. This was consistent across all of the sites, even though soil structure varies by location from sand to silt loam. Read on for a closer look at the results.

a graden using biochar

Variables to Consider

Each of the four demonstration gardens contain the same plants, as well as three plots: one with no biochar; one (TRT1) amended with 1/2 pound of biochar per square foot;  and one (TRT2) amended with 1 pound of biochar per square foot. It appears that soil structure differences and other variables have had an effect on the data. For example, plants growing in the demonstration gardens at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the University’s St. Paul campus were clearly more vigorous than those at the Bunker Hills Park site in Andover, Minnesota, and at the Brookston Community Center, Fond du Lac Tribal Community site in Cloquet, Minnesota.

This is most likely due to the first two sites having silt loam soils that better hold moisture and nutrients than the sandy soil at the other two locations. Nutrient deficiency was also evident at the Andover and Fond du Lac sites, which also may be attributable to sandy soil conditions. At all sites, Master Gardener volunteers worked hard to keep diseases, weeds and pest problems under control. No pesticides have been used at any of the demonstration gardens.

Last year, responding to community needs, the Fond du Lac tribal community Extension Master Gardeners worked with staff at the Brookston Community Center to create a gardening education program for youth. As part of that, youth were invited to help care for the demonstration garden and collect data. Before long, the garden became the focus of a 20-week-long Junior Master Gardener program developed by the Fond du Lac Master Gardeners. Students have enjoyed this change in direction, but because it may affect the research, data from this garden was not collected in the same way it was at the other three Minnesota sites.

A Look At the Results

Since the project aims to determine whether biochar would make a good amendment for home gardens, guidelines for data collection are based on growers’ recommended days-to-maturity. Using these optimal recommendations will make it more likely that data can be reasonably compared across sites.

About 35 Master Gardeners took data and recorded results in 2014, and though training was provided, it’s important to note that there are some inaccuracies due to individual interpretations and opinions. Also contributing to problems with data collection were last year’s unusually cold, wet spring, as well as poor germination of some of the plants chosen for testing.

Tomatoes were the biggest surprise when it came to vegetables. Celebrity hybrid tomatoes in the control plots outperformed those growing in biochar-treated plots. This differs from 2013 data showing that tomatoes did best in the TRT1 plots compared with the control and TRT2 plots. Because of this inconsistency, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether biochar affects tomato productivity.

Basil appeared to grow better in TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum. Overall, though, growth and yields were best in the TRT2 plots, particularly at the Andover site. Blue Lake bush beans did well in the TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum, but yields were highest in the control plot on the St. Paul campus. This could be due to the plot’s location, which provides a warmer microclimate that allowed the beans to mature faster than they did at other locations.

The hybrid cucumber, Tasty Green, was tested in all four gardens in 2014, but patterns of growth were inconsistent. So the effects of biochar on the crop could not be determined. The soil amendment’s effect on the kale variety, Blue Curled Vates, also could not be determined.  Black Seeded Simson lettuce and Sweet Treat carrots did not germinate well and both crops were considered a failure. No significant differences were noted between growth and yield of King Arthur hybrid bell peppers or the University of Minnesota’s new potato variety, ‘Runestone Gold’.

Data collected on ornamentals in the demonstration gardens included information on growth patterns, bloom and leaf color. ‘Victoria’ salvia and ‘Uproar Rose’ hybrid zinnia, for example, both showed better growth and leaf color in the biochar-amended plots at the Andover site. This may indicate biochar’s ability to help sandy soil retain moisture and nutrients.

Similar data is collected on perennials and while ‘Gold Country’ chrysanthemums did not do well at any site, the varieties ‘Betty Lou’ and ‘Maroon Pride’ appeared to do somewhat better in TRT1 plots over others. Inconsistent growth patterns of three varieties of shrub roses made it unclear whether biochar had any effect on those plants. Overall, when comparing data over the past three years, there do not seem to be significant and consistent benefits in yields or growth when plants are grown using biochar as a soil amendment.

Going Forward

EMGs working with reaserches in biochar researchMaster Gardener engagement with the biochar project has been beneficial in many ways with volunteers getting firsthand experience with data collection, as well as the opportunity to participate in a high-profile research endeavor. Because the demonstration gardens are visible to the public, the project has also created a welcome occasion for talking about biochar, and many other topics, with gardeners and others who are interested in things like plants, food, soil and sustainability. In this last year of the project, the goal is to gather the most reliable data possible. A new online reporting system has already increased reporting accuracy.

Also of note, in September, 2015, the Extension Master Gardener teams from Minnesota and Iowa will receive the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award for their work on the biochar project. The award will be presented at the International Master Gardener Conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Though testing biochar for possible use in home gardens is just one small part of the overall USDA-sponsored research project, the results will help determine under what conditions biochar could be recommended as a soil amendment. With one more year to conduct the research, the Master Gardeners hope to see more patterns and consistencies developing.

 

—by Meleah Maynard, Hennepin County Master Gardener

Note: CenUSA Bioenergy is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-30411 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

 

Researching Biochar

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Now that the Extension Master Gardener biochar demonstration gardens 2014 annual report is finished, what have we learned?

 

Since 2012, University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners and Iowa State Master Gardeners have been helping researchers answer the question: “Is biochar (charred organic matter) a good soil amendment for home gardens?” To do that, Extension Master Gardener volunteers have been testing the productivity of vegetables and flowers in gardens amended with biochar at four sites in Minnesota and three sites in Iowa.

 

Each year, the demonstration gardens are planted with common vegetable and bedding plants such as tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, zinnias, salvia, chrysanthemums and roses. Arb planting day - blogMaster Gardeners and youth volunteers maintain the gardens throughout the season, and Master Gardeners take growth and yield measurements at designated times. Results are compared across sites to help determine the effects of biochar, which was applied to all but each garden’s control plot in the first year of the project. No additional biochar applications have been made, and no additional organic amendments have been used in order to gauge the effect of biochar as a stand-alone additive.

 

 

 

2014 was the third of four years that Master Gardeners will be involved in what is known as the CenUSA Bioenergy project. Led by Ken Moore at Iowa State University, the five-year project includes institutions in several states and is funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. The aim is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, as well as greenhouse gas emissions while increasing local renewable energy. (More information can be found at Iowa State’s website: http://cenusa.iastate.edu/.)

 

Written by Lynne Davenport-Hagen, CenUSA Biochar Research and Display Garden project coordinator, and Julie Weisenhorn, associate extension professor at the University of Minnesota, the 2014 annual report shows mixed three-year results. While there were notable growth differences in some plants, others seemed unaffected by biochar. For example, chrysanthemums appeared more robust in plots amended with biochar while shrub roses showed no significant differences.

 

One of the things that does seem clear so far is that biochar appears to improve soil texture. Volunteers working in the wet spring soil reported that it was easier to plant in the amended plots than the control plots that contain no biochar. ARB Garden-blogThis was consistent across all of the sites, even though soil structure varies by location from sand to silt loam. Read on for a closer look at the results.

 

Variables to Consider

Each of the four demonstration gardens contain the same plants, as well as three plots: one with no biochar; one (TRT1) amended with 1/2 pound of biochar per square foot; and one (TRT2) amended with 1 pound of biochar per square foot. It appears that soil structure differences and other variables have had an effect on the data. For example, plants growing in the demonstration gardens at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the University’s St. Paul campus were clearly more vigorous than those at the Bunker Hills Park site in Andover, Minnesota, and at the Brookston Community Center, Fond du Lac Tribal Community site in Cloquet, Minnesota.

 

This is most likely due to the first two sites having silt loam soils that better hold moisture and nutrients than the sandy soil at the other two locations. Nutrient deficiency was also evident at the Andover and Fond du Lac sites, which also may be attributable to sandy soil conditions. At all sites, Master Gardener volunteers worked hard to keep diseases, weeds and pest problems under control. No pesticides have been used at any of the demonstration gardens.

 

Last year, responding to community needs, the Fond du Lac tribal community Extension Master Gardeners worked with staff at the Brookston Community Center to create a gardening education program for youth. As part of that, youth were invited to help care for the demonstration garden and collect data. Before long, the garden became the focus of a 20-week-long Junior Master Gardener program developed by the Fond du Lac Master Gardeners. Students have enjoyed this change in direction, but because it may affect the research, data from this garden was not collected in the same way it was at the other three Minnesota sites.

 

A Look At the Results

Since the project aims to determine whether biochar would make a good amendment for home gardens, guidelines for data collection are based on growers’ recommended days-to-maturity. Using these optimal recommendations will make it more likely that data can be reasonably compared across sites.

 

About 35 Master Gardeners took data and recorded results in 2014, and though training was provided, it’s important to note that there are some inaccuracies due to individual interpretations and opinions. basil harvest 3-blogAlso contributing to problems with data collection were last year’s unusually cold, wet spring, as well as poor germination of some of the plants chosen for testing.

 

Tomatoes were the biggest surprise when it came to vegetables. Celebrity hybrid tomatoes in the control plots outperformed those growing in biochar-treated plots. This differs from 2013 data showing that tomatoes did best in the TRT1 plots compared with the control and TRT2 plots. Because of this inconsistency, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether biochar affects tomato productivity.

 

Basil appeared to grow better in TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum. Overall, though, growth and yields were best in the TRT2 plots, particularly at the Andover site. Blue Lake bush beans did well in the TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum, but yields were highest in the control plot on the St. Paul campus. This could be due to the plot’s location, which provides a warmer microclimate that allowed the beans to mature faster than they did at other locations.

 

The hybrid cucumber, Tasty Green, was tested in all four gardens in 2014, but patterns of growth were inconsistent. So the effects of biochar on the crop could not be determined. The soil amendment’s effect on the kale variety, Blue Curled Vates, also could not be determined. Black Seeded Simson lettuce and Sweet Treat carrots did not germinate well and both crops were considered a failure. No significant differences were noted between growth and yield of King Arthur hybrid bell peppers or the University of Minnesota’s new potato variety, ‘Runestone Gold’.

 

Data collected on ornamentals in the demonstration gardens included information on growth patterns, bloom and leaf color. ‘Victoria’ salvia and ‘Uproar Rose’ hybrid zinnia, for example, both showed better growth and leaf color in the biochar-amended plots at the Andover site. This may indicate biochar’s ability to help sandy soil retain moisture and nutrients.

 

Similar data is collected on perennials and while ‘Gold Country’ chrysanthemums did not do well at any site, the varieties ‘Betty Lou’ and ‘Maroon Pride’ appeared to do somewhat better in TRT1 plots over others. Inconsistent growth patterns of three varieties of shrub roses made it unclear whether biochar had any effect on those plants. Overall, when comparing data over the past three years, there do not seem to be significant and consistent benefits in yields or growth when plants are grown using biochar as a soil amendment.

 

Going Forward

Master Gardener engagement with the biochar project has been beneficial in many ways with volunteers getting firsthand experience with data collection, as well as the opportunity to participate in a high-profile research endeavor. Because the demonstration gardens are visible to the public, the project has also created a welcome occasion for talking about biochar, and many other topics, with gardeners and others who are interested in things like plants, food, soil and sustainability. In this last year of the project, the goal is to gather the most reliable data possible. A new online reporting system has already increased reporting accuracy.

 

Also of note, in September, 2015, the Extension Master Gardener teams from Minnesota and Iowa will receive the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award for their work on the biochar project. The award will be presented at the International Master Gardener Conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Though testing biochar for possible use in home gardens is just one small part of the overall USDA-sponsored research project, the results will help determine under what conditions biochar could be recommended as a soil amendment. With one more year to conduct the research, the Master Gardeners hope to see more patterns and consistencies developing.

 

—by Meleah Maynard, Hennepin County Master Gardener

Note: CenUSA Bioenergy is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-30411 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

zinnias and salvia-blogmum-blog

2013 Search for Excellence Award Winners

Friday, June 27th, 2014
IMG Search for Excellence

International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Awards

On September 7, 2013 twenty one Search for Excellence Awards were presented at the International Master Gardener Conference 2013 (IMGC 2013), Cruise to Alaska Flowers, Fjords & Friends. Search for Excellence (SFE) is the recognition of outstanding projects by Master Gardener volunteers throughout the United States and Canada. 2013 logo for IMGC

SFE Awards are presented every two years at the IMGC conference where Master Gardener volunteers, Extension staff and faculty gather to learn from each other, share projects and to network with their peers from around the world. Twenty one Master Gardener programs were recognized for their outstanding achievement from a field of seventy two applications, submissions from twenty six USA states and two Canadian provinces.

First, second and third place awards were presented in seven categories:

• Community Service
• Demonstration Gardens
• Innovative Projects
• Special Needs Audiences
• Research
• Workshop or Presentation
• Youth Programs

All SFE applications must show that significant learning took place. The SFE projects need to be ongoing projects for at least two years; one of the winners this year has been going on for twenty six years. The IMGC Committee judges the applications. Winning projects were chosen on the basis of their originality and creativity; practicality of the program; simplicity of replication by other Master Gardeners and their significant impact on their communities.

First place winners received a plaque and a small stipend to continue their educational projects. The twenty one awarded projects displayed posters of their projects at the IMGC 2013 conference. Congratulations to all the SFE awardees that are involved in these excellent projects.

Beginning in October and continuing over the next several months, this blog will feature stories and pictures from each 2013 Search for Excellence award winners. Watch for the upcoming postings  and read about these outstanding projects.

The 2015 SFE awards nominations will begin in September – to apply follow the links.

Written by: Patty Driscoll, 2013 SFE Chair

WANTED: Information on Occurrence of Basil Downy Mildew

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
This new disease (first reported in US in fall 2007) I think is occurring every year throughout most of the US. I’m looking for help to see if I’m correct.
Basil Downy Mildew yellow banding (photo courtesy Meg McGrath)

Basil Downy Mildew yellow banding (photo courtesy Meg McGrath)

Turning to Gardeners for Help

 

Since I started monitoring basil downy mildew in 2009, I have gotten reports from 41 states, providing some evidence that I am right, but the number of reports is not enough to confirm this; for some states I have only one report, and sometimes the report was not confirmed.  No reports have come in from IA, ID, NE, NM, NV, OK, SD, UT, and WY – is this because the disease has not occurred there? or no one has reported it?
As an avid gardener I know how popular basil is to grow, which is why I am turning to gardeners for help.  Downy mildew has developed on the few plants in my home garden in NY every summer since 2008. (Am I the only one this unfortunate?!?)

How does this Pathogen Travel so far?

 

The pathogen produces an abundance of spores easily dispersed by wind. A related pathogen causing downy mildew in cucumber is known to move every year throughout the eastern US from south FL where it can survive through winter; both of these pathogens cannot survive in crop debris. But other downy mildew pathogens do not spread so widely. Another way the basil downy mildew pathogen gets around is in seed, which is most likely how it first came to the US. There have been reports of affected plants in stores and garden centers, including this year.  Since this disease is being found in an increasing number of big chain garden stores (reports just in from WI, KY, CT, and NY), would gardeners (when running errands) also be willing to help see how widespread this problem is in big chain stores?
Basil Downy Mildew sporulation (photo courtesy Meg McGrath)

Basil Downy Mildew sporulation (photo courtesy Meg McGrath)

Citizen Science Opportunity!

 

I have photographs and information on my monitoring pages. You can log your information there. (The directions are in the first line of the Google Docs spread sheet.) If you can take photos to confirm your diagnosis, please send them to me via email (link below.) While I am looking for reports of its occurrence, other pathologists working with me on a national project want affected plants for their research on the pathogen. So don’t despair if your basil becomes diseased – look at it as an opportunity to help further science! Thanks for your help! Meg McGrath, Associate Professor,  Cornell University  (mtm3@cornell.edu)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Needs Your Help With A Study

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Have you ever wanted tCornell Lab of Ornithologyo contribute to science? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is now launching a research study about how people observe birds, and we need your help! We’re looking for folks who are willing to watch birds at least a few times over a period of three months and who would be willing to answer a few surveys about their experiences.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit organization and a world leader in the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds. The organization advances the understanding of nature, and engages people of all ages in learning about birds and protecting the planet.

You don’t have to be a bird watcher or knowledgeable about birds to participate in this study. In fact, we’re primarily looking for people who are interested in and enjoy nature; no bird watching expertise needed.

If you would like to help us with our study, please fill out the linked survey to see if you qualify. (Unfortunately, we can only take folks who are over 18.) When the study is all over, we’ll give you a small gift card as a token of our appreciation.

We really appreciate your interest!

 

Using Your Observation Skills for Citizen Science

Friday, February 21st, 2014

IMG_0925Ever find yourself immersed in nature marveling, and suddenly questions begin to emerge? That’s the exciting thing about observing and being interested in science. Observations lead to a question, and more questions follow.

Observing is a critical skill to understanding the garden. Master Gardeners have honed observations skills through years of practice. Other skills include understanding life cycle timing, which species use the garden as a diverse ecosystem, scouting for beneficial species and those that are pests.

Your observation skills are valuable to scientists who need help answering research questions. You may be interested to know there are many ways you can apply your skills to benefit ongoing research. We call this “Public Participation in Scientific Research” (PPSR), a fast-growing field. It includes “citizen science, volunteer monitoring and … organized research in which members of the public engage in the process of scientific investigations: asking questions, collecting data, and/or interpreting results” (definition from Citizen Science Central, Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

PPSR and citizen science help create long-term, useable datasets. Having many observation points increases research capacity, depth and accuracy. It links research and community. And allows participants to increase observation and scientific literacy skills.

Photo credit: E. Alderson

Photo credit: E. Alderson

There are many citizen science programs, including everything from food, allergies, climate & weather, space exploration, the ocean, sounds, and transportation. No matter your interest there is likely a citizen science project. Some take a few minutes of time while others are ongoing and offer opportunities to analyze. Local groups may use citizen science to answer regional questions. And many such projects connect people with similar interests.

Some programs have been around for a while. The Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project between the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, began in 1999. It was one of the first online citizen science projects created to record and understand wild bird populations, displaying results in near real-time. http://gbbc.birdcount.org.

natures_notesbook_rgb_tagline_lrg Many projects share information that can help you, or your Extension Agent, answer local science questions. Benefit from using existing data to answer gardening questions and better understand what’s blooming, who is eating your tomatoes and when, and how certain plants respond to seasonal changes. Check out Nature’s Notebook, www.nn.usanpn.org, for examples and learn how scientists use observations to understand species response to climate change.

The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, or MLMP, tracks declining monarch populations by recording density of milkweed and the monarch eggs and larvae. Information collected helps scientists understand how and why monarch populations vary and increases conservation and awareness. www.mlmp.org.

Interested in the night sky? There are a few projects that let you track light pollution (Dark Sky Meter, www.darkskymeter.com) or count the number of meteors (www.meteorcounter.com).

A great place to find projects is SciStarter, www.scistarter.com, with a listing of projects available by activity or topic of interest. The Scientific American website, http://www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science/, has a growing list of projects. A simple Google search on “citizen science” yields many valuable results.

Whether or not you choose to contribute to citizen science, be mindful that any observations you make are valuable. Use those to ask your own questions and make predictions based on evidence. The best thing we can do for ourselves is learning that observing is experiencing, and sharing those observations is even better! — Contributed by LoriAnne Barnett (Education Coordinator, USA-NPN) and Peter Warren (Pima County Arizona Horticulture Agent).

Switchgrass: 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year and A Biofuel?

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Not all varieties of switchgrass were awarded the “Perennial Plant of the Year” designation in 2014.  Just one lucky winner, Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ earned that coveted title.

This is an exciting opportunity for switchgrass or native plant fans to share what they admire about this native grass.

USDA NRCS Map: Panicum virgatum L. switchgrass is native throughout much of the United States.

Panicum virgatum L. switchgrass is native throughout much of the United States.

Why consider ‘Northwind’ switchgrass for your landscape?

Dr. Mary Meyer, Extension horticulture professor and ornamental grass researcher at the University of Minnesota, has evaluated the performance of ‘Northwind’ switchgrass in trials at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum since 2004.  In her Grasstalk blog post ‘Northwind’ 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year, she specifically shares how ‘Northwind’ has performed in her research. Below, we turn to research to provide three reasons you might like to grow ‘Northwind’ switchgrass in your landscape.

1) Great form, function, structure, winter interest

For many across the U.S., ‘Northwind’ switchgrass might be a good fit to grow in the landscape, offering vertical form, fine texture, and winter interest. Dr. Mary Meyer shares just why this plant can be valuable to many as a landscape plant:

As a screen, background plant, or in combination with other perennials, ‘Northwind’ is an attractive and showy grass. It is easy to grow and has no pests or disease problems. It stands up well in winter and provides cover and food for birds and other wildlife. Deer do not eat switchgrass, so it is good to use where deer have been a problem. And, as a dense bunchgrass, ‘Northwind’ will not spread underground, since it has minimal or no rhizomes and forms a dense clump. Self-seeding is often seen in switchgrass, however, ‘Northwind’ is not known for heavy seed set and has not been a problem self-seeder in our trials.

Northwind switchgrass in landscape

Northwind switchgrass in landscape

2) Well-adapted to many soil types and winter hardy

Another great reason to consider growing ‘Northwind’ switchgrass,  is that it has been shown to be adapted to many soils and hardiness zones. As Dr. Meyer’s ‘Northwind’ 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year blog posts states:

‘Northwind’ grows between 4-6 feet in height in Minnesota. It grows well in many soil types, including heavy clay and sandy soils. Soils with more moisture will mean a taller plant. Full sun is preferred, at least 6 hours daily. Fall color is beige. Some reports of winter loss have been noted, however plants at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, USDA Zone 4a (-200F to -250F) had not been lost since planting in 2004. ‘Northwind’ is also one of 17 selections of switchgrass in the National Grass Trials which are planted in 11 states, including the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, see  grasstrials.com for more information.

3) Tell your neighbor, switchgrass may someday fuel your car!

OK, I bet you weren’t expecting this last reason to grow ‘Northwind’ switchgrass. Dr. Meyer isn’t selecting new varieties of switchgrass for biofuel, but did you know there are researchers studying and breeding switchgrass for biofuel production?

Switchgrass grown for biofuels in field

Dr. Casler is breeding switchgrass to become a suitable biofuel source someday.

As part of this research,  Extension Master Gardeners in Minnesota and Iowa are involved in CenUSA Bioenergy research to see if biochar, a by-product of coverting switchgrass to biofuel, might make a suitable soil amendment for home gardens (read more about this on-going research in these CenUSA Bioenergy EMG  blog posts). By growing common vegetables and flowers that homeowners often plant, such as tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias, Extension Master Gardeners are exploring whether the plants grown in plots amended with biochar will grow more vigorously or produce higher yields.

Northwinds switchgrass in research plots at the U of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

‘Northwind’ switchgrass in research plots at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

It’s very unlikely homeowners will be growing switchgrass for biofuel (farmers and landowners who aren’t able to grow typical crops, very likely will) and you won’t see switchgrass-based  biochar as a commercial soil amendment in the immediate future. However, in the meantime, consider following this research to learn about the possibilities. Plant some ‘Northwind’ switchgrass around your patio and invite your friends over for a barbeque. This will make for some interesting discussion around the grill next summer! 

Are you growing switchgrass in your landscape?

-Karen Jeannette
Research Associate, University of Minnesota
CenUSA Bioenergy project

 

 

 

 

Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth-Almost Wordless Wednesday

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

 

Kerri Wilson, WSU Pierce County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator planting strawberries with second grade student at Fern Hill Elementary School in the Tacoma School District.  Photo by Steve Balles

Photo by Steve Balles

 

 

 

 

Kerri Wilson, WSU Pierce County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator planting strawberries with second grade student at Fern Hill Elementary School in the Tacoma School District.

 

 

 

Kerri Wilson, WSU Pierce County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator helping a fifth grader thin radishes at Mary Lyon Elementary School in the Tacoma School District. Photo by Kristen Peterson

Photo by Kristen Peterson

 

 

 

Kerri Wilson, WSU Pierce County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator helping a fifth grader thin radishes at Mary Lyon Elementary School in the Tacoma School District.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Kerri Wilson

Photo by Kerri Wilson

 

 

The Daffodil Valley Elementary School Garden under construction in the Spring of 2013.
Sumner WA School District

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Linda Mathews

Photo by Linda Mathews

 

In the background you can see the completed fence and raised beds installed by Sumner High School Students.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Linda Mathews

Photo by Linda Mathews

 

 

In the background you can see the completed greenhouse and raised beds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Daffodil Valley Elementary School Garden in summer 2013.

Photo by Linda Mathews

Photo by Linda Mathews

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth – Can we prove the benefits of school gardens?

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

All over the country, gardens are increasing access to fresh and healthy foods and promoting exercise.  But is there evidence to show that gardening—particularly school gardening—can lead to improved eating and other health benefits?  That’s what the People’s Garden School Pilot Project, “Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth” (HGHY) is trying to find out.

More than 4,000 students in low-income communities have taken part in this four-state research project funded by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, and part of the national Peoples Garden program.  Co-led by Washington State University Extension and Cornell University Cooperative Extension-NYC, with partners Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and the University of Arkansas Extension, HGHY has followed students in 54 elementary schools for the past two years. Data collection was completed in June of 2013 and analysis by the researchers is underway with results expected in spring of 2014.

As part of the project, gardens were installed at half of the schools and students participated in gardening lessons. The other half of the schools served as a control group, receiving no gardens or lessons until the project concluded. After waiting two long years for their gardens, the control schools could hardly wait to get their gardens started – especially Daffodil Valley Elementary.

Daffodil Valley Elementary School in Sumner, Washington is a great example of how community makes a garden successful! When it came time to build the garden, the school formed a garden committee consisting of the school’s librarian, science teacher, after school program coordinator, a parent volunteer, the Sumner High School Agriculture and Future Farmers of America (FFA) Faculty and a Pierce County Master Garden plans to join this committee soon! The committee decided the school would most benefit from a tilled, in-ground garden utilizing the rich soils of the Puyallup Valley, home to many berry and former bulb farms. The committee quickly got to work designing the garden, recruiting youth and community volunteers, and donations from local businesses. Within a few months the garden plot was tilled, a shed and green house were installed, and a fence was raised.  On a sunny day in late May, Daffodil students came out to the garden to plant seeds and transplants. The Sumner High School FFA members participated in each step of the garden installation, from planning meetings to building the fence. Several FFA students completed social science projects inspired by the garden. One Sumner High student completed his Eagle Scout Project by building three wheel chair accessible beds so that all students can garden.

With all the care and attention from the school community, the Daffodil garden produced a bountiful harvest by summer. Everyone is planning for next year’s garden when some of the produce will be sold at a Junior Farmer’s Market – a joint Daffodil Elementary and Sumner High School project to help teach students math and business skills.

Many schools across the country in Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth benefited from the guidance and expertise of Master Gardener volunteers. Master Gardeners taught gardening lessons, provided guidance in garden installation and planting and are now helping with the long term sustainability of the gardens through continual support. A Washington State University Pierce County Master Gardener has been partnered with Daffodil Valley to provide garden education to students and guidance to the garden committee.

To learn more, visit the HGHY website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Enjoy schools’ garden pictures Wed., Oct. 30, as an Almost Wordless Wednesday post.

 

Submitted by Kerri Wilson

WSU Pierce County Extension

CenUSA Annual Meeting Helps Extension Master Gardeners Connect Native Grass, Biochar and Biofuel Research

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

CenUSA Bioenergy annual meeting brings researchers and educators together to discuss multi-state biofuel research project.

We’ve been blogging about the CenUSA Bioenergy project and how Extension Master Gardeners are involved with biochar research at several research demonstration gardens in Iowa and Minnesota.

Extension Master Gardeners are involved in a small part of a large bioenergy project funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (AFRI).  While attending my first annual meeting, I got the opportunity to see first-hand the whole scope of the grant.”

Arriving at the CenUSA Bioenergy annual meeting held at Purdue’s Beck Agricultural Center, we met 75 scientists, graduate students, and extension education professionals who were gathered to share and discuss the last year’s progress related to developing and using native perennial grasses grown in the Midwest to create biofuels through the CenUSA Bioenergy project.

From grasses to biofuel to biochar

Extension Master Gardeners are involved with Objective 9  – Extension and Outreach, one of nine focus areas of the CenUSA Bioenergy project.  Our extension counterparts at Purdue created excellent signage showing what this research project is seeking to accomplish (click images to read more closely).

Why Use Grasses for Bioenergy at Purdue

Why use grasses for bioenergy?

Display: Where will grasses be grown for bioenergy?

Where will grasses be grown?

Native perennial grass displays

3 native perennial grasses

As you can see the goal is to develop high yield native perennial grasses to make biofuels. There are many potential benefits researchers see to producing biofuels from these grasses. For a great diagram of how these grasses are being studied to make biofuels, see: CenUSA Bioenergy’s vision or this YouTube video.

Benefits of growing grasses for biofuels

Since the grasses are also native to our (Midwest) region, many see potential for using these as an energy crop on ‘marginal land’, or places where traditional crops like corn and soybeans do not perform well.

Another reason to use native perennial grasses for biofuels is that they may be environmentally friendly companions to traditional agricultural crops because of their ability to filter water and nutrient runoff, and possibly even providing habitat cover for animals.

This native grass is being predominately focused on throughout this research project is switchgrass. Other native grasses being studied include indiangrass, and big bluestem. Miscanthus giganteus, a tall, non-native, grass is also being researched and compared to the native perennial grasses.

Over the years I’ve been a bit captivated by ornamental grasses, so thinking about using these perennials grasses not just for landscaping, but for use as biofuel source that might someday fuel my car was quite intriguing.

Switchgrass on display

Switchgrass grown as an ornamental grass in the landscape (Location: MN Landscape Arboretum)

Switchgrass in tour

Switchgrass grown and bred to be used as a biofuel crop (Location: Research plots,  Purdue University)

What’s needed to become a biofuel source?

During the annual meeting (see more tour photos), we visited research plots where we saw different selections of all these grasses being grown and other ‘energy crops’ that researchers were comparing them to, such as poplar, sorghum,  and corn. I found out the poplar trees (tallest plant shown in the photo below) are likely to be a better candidates for biofuels in northern regions of the country where growing seasons are cooler, shorter, and not suitable for growing native warm season perennial grasses.

Bioenergy crop research plots

Many different bioenergy crops gathered in Purdue University research plots

Researchers are looking to breed grasses that are broadly adaptable in a number of situations so they can tolerate a variety of environmental extremes, diseases, insect pests, and of course, the right makings to produce biofuel. Wimpy plants need not apply!

The following photos are a good comparison and reason why we need plant breeders involved in making new varieties and selections. Would you want to grow a disease prone grass (left photo) when you were depending on it to produce biofuels and part of your income? I would not!

Big bluestem with disease resistance

Big bluestem with poor disease resistance

Big bluestem

Big bluestem with good disease resistance

During the meeting, researchers discussed options for Optimizing Harvest of Perennial Grasses for Biofuel.   Shortly after, there was much talk about how to convert grasses (sometimes called feedstock) to fuel, as well as economics and markets. It was quite interesting,  but we’ll skip to our favorite part of the meeting,  the discussion about Objective 9  – Extension and Outreach!  This is where the Extension Master Gardener and the biochar research fits in….

How our biochar research connects to the bigger pictures of producing biofuels?

The 2013 CenUSA Annual Meeting was an great opportunity to see the big picture of how all the pieces of a large biofuel research project can come together. If perennial grasses become a source of biofuel, it is possible the process that converts the perennial grasses to fuel (called pyrolysis) will create a by-product called biochar.

Extension Master Gardener team observes perennial grasses which may some day be a source of biofuel

Extension Master Gardener team observe perennial grasses which some day may be a source of biofuel and biochar

Research has shown that biochar may hold promise as a soil amendment, offering potential benefits, such as improved water and nutrient capabilities, soil structure, and plant yield, while also reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Conducting research to answer: Should we use biochars in our gardens?

As mentioned before, Extension Master Gardeners  in Iowa and Minnesota are involved with research to ask the question: Is biochar a good soil amendment for gardens?  

Planting day at the MN Landscape Arboretum

Planting day at the MN Landscape Arboretum biochar research demonstration garden.

As urban horticulturist and professor,  Dr. Linda Chalker Scott mentions in her article,   Should we use biochars in our gardens?:

…there is little, if any, research on the use of biochars in non-agricultural situations other than soil remediation. This means no information on how it affects trees, shrubs, home gardens and landscapes, and other urban greenspaces. As readers of this blog should know by now, there are many agricultural production practices that do not translate well to the home garden or landscape.

As some of you may know, there is a lot of information floating around about biochar on the internet with some people claiming they have had great results on their vegetables by using biochar. Can biochar be over applied? Absolutely. Are all biochar created equal? No. That is why we believe there needs to be a lot more research about using biochar as a soil amendment along with safe labeling to determine the best application for the sites that benefit from it the most.

Gradually, our research is helping us develop some clues about biochar’s properties in our seven research demonstration gardens that may someday help researchers be able to make sound recommendations for its use. We’ve shared many of these observations in past CenUSA Bioenergy blog posts, and will continue to share what we are learning from this research project in future posts.

In the meantime, some of us will be thinking about new ways some of our favorite ornamental and prairie grasses may be used as biofuel and biochar in the future, and perhaps you may be too…

-Karen Jeannette
Research Associate, University of Minnesota
CenUSA Bioenergy project

 

“The CenUSA Bioenergy project is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2011-68005-30411 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.”