Archive for the ‘Soils’ Category

Almost Wordless Wednesday: World Soil Day, December 5th, 2014

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

On December 20, 2013, the 68th UN General Assembly recognized December 5th, 2014 as World Soil Day and 2015 as the International Year of Soils.  This official recognition emphasizes the importance of soils beyond the soil science community.

The Global Soil Partnership will promote the year long emphasis on International Year of Soils 2015. Their goal is to “make IYS 2015 a memorable year for demonstrating that soils are essential to food security, hunger eradication, climate change adaptation, poverty reduction, sustainable development” and carbon sequestration. Enjoy this official Year of Soils video.

Submitted by Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (Cornell Extension’95) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC

November15, 2014 is America Recycles Day!

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

 America Recycles Day November 15th!

America Recycles Day gives us an opportunity to talk about reducing, reusing, and recycling to keep America beautiful! We can “recycle” our food waste too by keeping it from becoming trash at the landfill or dump! A Washington Post article talks about how: Americans throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, and glass. Our food waste is our biggest “waste” problem.

Food: don't waste it! (poster courtesy USDA)

Food: don’t waste it! (poster courtesy USDA)

Food Waste and Hunger in America:

  • According to figures provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, roughly 70 billion pounds of food is lost in the United States each year.
  • It is estimated that 25 – 40% of food grown, processed and transported in the US will never be consumed.
  • 1 in 6 people in America faces hunger, that’s nearly 49 million people that need the food we haven’t used

Feed People, Not Landfills

As the poster below shows, there are several ways we can stop food waste but one item not on the list is “recycling” our leftover food that would go into the trash by composting it instead. For Master Gardeners, this is a natural and we have lots of places to put that black-gold compost to replenish the soil but, if you haven’t tried composting before, you might want to learn a little more about how to do it by visiting the EPA’s site on composting at home.

A natural way to recycle food waste - give it to the chickens (photo courtesy Connie Schultz)

A natural way to recycle food waste if you’re lucky enough to have chickens (photo courtesy Connie Schultz)


The graphic below contains data presented by Sustainable America and gleaned from the Natural Resources Defense Council report on food waste.

Food Waste America 40% (infographic courtesy of Sustainable America)

Food Waste America 40% (infographic courtesy of Sustainable America)


Cutting food waste is a win, win, win! We can save money on the food we don’t waste. We could save enough food to potentially feed 25 million hungry Americans. We can also save the water & energy used to grow the food we waste. So this Thanksgiving, let’s save money, food, and resources and share our plenty with others!

Submitted by Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (’95 Cornell Extension) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC

Wordless Wednesday: November15, 2014 is America Recycles Day!

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

November15, 2014 is America Recycles Day!

There are many ways to recycle but, because Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, I thought food waste might be the best topic to talk about because, while we feast, someone else is going hungry. Can we help to stop that? Look at the infographics below and let me know what YOU think!


America Recycles Day 11/15/2014 (logo courtesy America Recycles)

America Recycles Day 11/15/2014 (logo courtesy America Recycles)



Pie chart of Food Waste in the U.S. (photo courtesy of National Resources Defense Council)

Pie chart of Food Waste in the U.S. (photo courtesy of National Resources Defense Council)



Americans waste approx. 245 lbs. of food per person per year (infographic courtesy of Tufts University)

Americans waste approx. 245 lbs. of food per person per year (infographic courtesy of Tufts University)



25 million people could be fed if we reduced food waste by 15% (Infographic courtesy National Resources Defense Council)

25 million people could be fed if we reduced food waste by 15% (Infographic courtesy National Resources Defense Council)


Let’s it do better! Recycle your food waste or better yet, compost it yourself and use it in your garden!


Submitted by Connie Schultz Extension Master Gardener/Composter (’95 Cornell Extension) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC

Work With Nature Rather Than Against It – What is Permaculture?

Monday, October 14th, 2013

The term permaculture seems to be bubbling up everywhere these days.  An uptick in interest is being seen in Utah, where new things sometimes seem to take awhile to take hold. Utah State University’s Extension Sustainability recently brought in restoration and permaculture specialist Joel Glanzberg of the Regenesis Group for a workshop to help kickstart a campus permaculture garden.

Permaculture was started in the 1970s by Australian biologist Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It is essentially an applied design method or system that uses an ecological systems and patterns approach to solving environmental problems. The idea is to “design human settlements while preserving and extending natural systems.” (Mollison, 1988, Permaculture:  A Designer’s Manual).

David Holmgren offers a more updated definition of permaculture. “A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in Permaculture One, is ‘Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.”

Mollison’s Permaculture Design Principles
About Permaculture: Holmgren Design; permaculture vision and innovation

Permaculture principles can be applied to a wide variety of situations and scales using a variety of techniques.These techniques, simulating patterns found in nature, can be used to create self-sustaining gardens, farms, and communities. Some of these patterns include the spiral, using “keyholes” to increase the amount of edge in a garden, and creating “guilds” of plants, animals, and/or people, all of which fulfill different but complimentary roles in the system.

Various vegetables in a permaculture garden

Companion planting techniques are used to get the most out of relationships among edible garden plants.
Photo credit: Milkwoods
Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The spiral is a pattern that occurs frequently in nature and is used here to create a basin for infiltrating stormwater. Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden Photo credit: D. Patrick Lewis, Flickr CC BY 2.o

The spiral is a frequently occurring natural pattern and is used here to create a basin for capturing and  infiltrating stormwater. Scottsdale, AZ Xeriscape Garden
Photo credit: D. Patrick Lewis, Flickr CC BY 2.o

A wealth of information is available online. For more information and in depth discussion of Permaculture Principles and practices please see the following resources.

Pattern Literacy – Toby Hemenway
Permaculture Institute
CRMPI – Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Research Institute



Susan Buffler: Cache County Extension Master Gardeners (Utah)

disclaimer: Extension Master Gardeners does not endorse any of these sites. They are for reference purposes only.

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.”

Planting Day at the Fond du Lac Biochar Demonstration Garden

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

The CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration gardens are now about to embark on year two of the CenUSA Bioenergy project.  This year, the University of Minnesota is adding the Fond du Lac Biochar Demonstration Garden in Brookston, MN to its list of biochar demonstration garden sites.

CenUSA Biochar Demonstration Garden

CenUSA Bioenergy – Fond du Lac Biochar Demonstration Garden site

To be consistent across demonstration garden sites, we prepared biochar gardens in the same manner between all CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration gardens in Minnesota and Iowa. Prior to planting, Josh (seen below) incorporated the biochar throughout the demonstration garden.

Credit goes to Josh who helped prepared the beds with biochar

Credit goes to Josh who helped prepare the garden by incorporating (rototilling) biochar into the soil

Biochar incorporated into Fondulac demonstration gardens

Biochar incorporated into Fond du Lac demonstration garden

UMN Extension’s Dawn Newman (in the white shirt) and volunteers at the Brookston Community Center helped carry plants and planting supplies from the car to gardens.

Volunteers carry plants and planting supplies from cars to garden

Volunteers carry plants and planting supplies from cars to garden

Julie Weisenhorn, UMN Director of the Master Gardener program, orchestrated the planting using a planting plan that has been used at all the other CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration gardens.

Organizing the planting site

Julie Weisenhorn,Director of the UMN Master Gardener Program organizes resources at the Fond du Lac site


Julie explains the CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration garden is  1000 sq ft and is divided into three plots of 300 sq ft each. Each plot has different amounts of biochar that have been added (or not added), as outlined here:

  • a Control (CTRL) plot with no biochar added;
  • a Treatment 1 (TRT1) plot amended with one-half pound of biochar per square foot (150 pounds), and a
  • Treatment 2 plot (TRT2) amended with one pound of biochar per square foot (300 pounds).
CenUSA biochar test plots

The test plot design for CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration gardens

We used soil test recommendations from the UMN soil test report and applied a nitrogen fertilizer and murate of potash to all plots.  This fertilizer will provide the nitrogen and potassium needed to grow plants in the 1000 square foot Fond du Lac Demonstration Garden soils.

Soil test for biochar gardens

Soil test report for biochar gardens

Volunteers gathered to get ready to plant.

Getting ready to plant

Getting gloves and getting ready to plant

Volunteer get ready to dig in the really sandy soil!

Sandy soils at the Fondulac site

Sandy soils at the Fond du Lac site

Planting gets underway in gardens.

Planting gardens

Many hands make light work to plant gardens

We quickly realized our water set-up is not going to cut it all season long.

Watering plants  in newly planted biochar demonstration garden

Watering plants in the newly planted biochar demonstration garden made us realize we need new watering equipment!

Julie writes a list of garden supplies, which includes soaker hoses!

Writing a supplies list for the Fondulac Biochar Demonstration Gardens

Wrapping up the planting day, Julie writes a  new supplies list for the Fond du Lac Biochar Demonstration Gardens


That’s it for now.  In the next few weeks, we’ll have updates on other biochar demonstration garden sites and biochar information.  In the meantime, you may like to catch up on all  CenUSA Bioenergy biochar demonstration garden blog posts @ . Be sure to let us know if you have questions about this research. The blog comments are open for just this purpose.

-Karen Jeannette


“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.”


Earth Day in the Garden – Be an Earth Friendly Gardener

Monday, April 22nd, 2013
(Photo: Deviantart, v-collins)

(Photo: Deviantart, v-collins)

Today we celebrate Earth Day, where we take a look at the earth and our place in it.  Though we must remember that every day is really an “earth day.”  It is not what we do on one day in April that makes the difference – it is what we do every day that makes the difference.

  We take pause to celebrate the goodness of the earth, the bounty that it provides, and the quality that it brings to our lives.  We celebrate the fertile soil, the life- sustaining waters, the cycle of life and of death, and all the plants, animals, fungi and other life forms that form the webs and networks and cycles that keep us in balance.

Earth Day is also a call to reflect upon our place on earth and our contributions to the goodness of earth and our impacts on the natural resources on which we rely and which make the earth the grand and glorious place of which poets speak and from which artists find their inspiration.  It is also a  call to action to evaluate our activities and practices as gardeners and make sure that we are following best practices that benefit the environment or at least cause the least harm to the earth and the environment.

By being good stewards in the garden, we take care of the resources that have been entrusted to us.  We also invest in the earth and the environment, rather than use or abuse those resources.  We can make a difference in our local environs, which, in turn, are a part of the larger global environment.  We are, afterall, taking care of the place where we live.

So, what are some things that you can do to be an Earth Friendly Gardener?  There are many simple practices to consider in the garden that will either be beneficial or decrease negative impacts or our direct interaction with nature.

1. Compost

By composting our yard wastes and kitchen scraps, we reduce the amount of wastes added to landfills and make one of the best soil amendments you can add to your garden.  Good compost also encourages a thriving micro-ecosystem of fungi, bacteria and other little critters that are good for the soil and the plants.  You can take it one step further and practice vermicomposting- a worm bin in or near the kitchen to eat those veggie scraps.  Cornell has more info than you can digest on composting in this handy guide.

A bee pollinates a flower.  Photo: creative commons via Mauro Moroni

A bee pollinates a flower. (Photo: Photopedia, Mauro Moroni)

2.  Feed the Pollinators

Pollination is vital to the health of the world food supply – estimates show that at least 75% of the food crops in the world require pollination.  As we have seen issues with honeybees in recent years, it is as important as ever to make sure that we have a healthy population of native pollinators (plus we can also help feed honeybees).  Pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and even bats can benefit from a good food source and other needs.  Check out to find a pollinator planting guide for your area.  They even have a pollinator gardening app!

3.  Conserve water

Water is one of our most precious, and most limited, natural resources.  Some areas of the country have water in abundance, while others are severely lacking.  Looking at water consumption in our vegetable gardens, landscapes and lawns is important, no matter where we are.  Some practices like mulching, using native plants, selecting water-wise plants, using drip irrigation instead of sprinklers and collecting irrigation water in rain barrels are all ways to help.  Be sure to find ways to conserve water in your vegetable garden and your landscape.

Teapots and mugs make fun recycled garden containers.  (Photo: Flickr, Vilseskogen)

Teapots and mugs make fun recycled garden containers. (Photo: Flickr, Vilseskogen)

4. Recycle

While composting is nutrient recycling, there’s room for recycling other things in the garden.  My favorite veggie garden mulch is newspaper, and some of my favorite seed starting containers are recycled plastic cups and takeout containers.  There is no limit to recycling in the garden.  There’s lots of garden art that can be made from recycled materials, and you can make a planter out of anything you can drill a hole in.  Check out this nifty list of garden recycling I found from the University of Florida.

5.  Be a Climate Friendly Gardener

There are many steps that we can take that reduce the carbon emissions of our gardens and their potential impact on the climate.  The Union of Concerned Scientists has a nice booklet on practices such as choosing low-impact products, choosing trees and shrubs, proper lawn management and more.  You can download the booklet or read the basics at their site.

6.  Practice Integrated Pest Management

IPM focuses on reducing or preventing pest problems, rather than reacting to pest problems.  Practices like using row covers to exclude insects, proper plant spacing, reducing overhead watering and using mulch to reduce diseases are great ways to prevent diseases.  IPM uses the least-toxic pesticides as a last-resort for pest control.  The National Pesticide Information Center is a great resource for IPM in the home, garden, lawn and more.

7. Love your soil

 Great gardeners know that you start with the soil – it is one of the most important things in your garden.  The first step is testing your soil, but it doesn’t stop there.  Adding organic matter to improve structure and rotating crops with different root depths and shapes can be great ways to affect the soil.  The Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue has some good background information on what to do.  You can find out more about your soil using the NRCS Web Soil Survey.

8. Use least-toxic or organic pesticides

We know that there are problems that arise that do need treatment from time to time.  When making choices on disease, pest, or weed treatments, gardeners should always make the least-toxic choice to handle the situation.  Many gardeners also choose to select organic controls for pests.  Organics are usually produced from naturally-occurring sources, though safety precautions should always be followed – they can have some of the same impacts on health and the environment as their non-organic cousins.  I found a good list of least-toxic and organic pesticides from Oregon State University.

A wonderful backyard vegetable garden. (Photo: Flickr, Laura K. Gibb)

A wonderful backyard vegetable garden. (Photo: Flickr, Laura K. Gibb)

9. Grow Your Own Food

By growing your own vegetables, not only do you know what you are eating, but it can also reduce the amount of fuel used to get your food from farm to plate.  You can also practice edible landscaping and grow fruits, veggies and other tasty treats among the flowers.  The estimated travel distance for an item on the grocery shelf is 1200 miles, which could vary depending on where you live.  To find info on growing your food, check out the Ready, Set, GROW! section of my county extension webpage.  You’ll also find handouts from some of my workshops, including “The Sustainable Garden,” “Food Among The Flowers,” and more.

10.  Share your love of gardening

There’s nothing better than sharing the joys and benefits of gardening with your friends and neighbors.  Show your neighbors how to grow your favorite plant, adopt a school garden, help patients garden at a nursing home, or just find your own way to share your love of the earth.

John Porter
Extension Agent, WVU Extension Service
Charleston, WV

@WVUgardenguruCreative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


The First Year’s Data from the 2012 CenUSA Biochar Demonstration Garden Report

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

The past few months, we’ve been covering the story of the 2012 CenUSA biochar test or demonstration gardens at three Minnesota sites.

Lynne Hagen has been providing us with the inside scoop on what they are learning about biochar, how they chose the biochar, how they prepared the three MN test garden sites, and most recently, she shared the 2012 challenges of these biochar test gardens.

2012 CenUSA Biochar Demonstration Gardens Report

Biochar as a soil amendment for gardens?

Does biochar make a good soil amendment for gardens?

Wait no more to get the detailed scoop on how the gardens performed with biochar as a soil amendment in 2012, the first year of this research project.

The first year’s data has been gathered and summarized in this 2012 CenUSA Biochar Demonstration Garden Report (PDF).

The report covers project research design details and data collection as it relates to specific annual, vegetables, and shrub roses used in all of the CenUSA biochar demonstration gardens. Overall, the summary emphasizes the need for continual research to best understand how biochar affects these garden soils and crops:

The more we learn about biochar, the more we need to learn. From an overall standpoint, there appeared to be some benefit of using biochar in the nutrient-depleted sandy soils at the Andover site for some crops. Yet, there was a decrease in growth in some plants and higher yield in others. In the Arboretum and St. Paul campus sites, we noted similar results, but more crops seemed to decline with biochar than without it.

In 2013, continual improvements will be made to streamline data collection, making sure volunteers are asked to collect the data most important to research results. Projects leaders will also focus on developing a clearer and easier method for documenting the data to help guarantee more consistency in data reporting.

Data will continue to be collected and analyzed across 4 out of the 5 years of the CenUSA Bioenergy project. One result is clear from the first year’s research: Extension Master Gardener volunteers have been instrumental and valued in their support on this research project.

Biochar Test Gardens in St. Paul

Biochar Test Gardens in St. Paul, MN

Stay Tuned for Biochar Demonstration Garden Updates in 2013!

Stay tuned, in the next couple months, we’ll take you through the events of 2013 as we watch the story of the CenUSA Bioenergy demonstration gardens unfold in the second year of research!

-Karen Jeannette

“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.”





2012 The University of Minnesota Biochar Test Gardens and Challenges (Part 4)

Thursday, February 21st, 2013


In my last few posts, I’ve described how University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners have been involved with the 2012 biochar test gardens with the CenUSA Bioenergy project.  As you’ll see throughout this post, from planting to data collection, we met some challenges with germination, weeds, insects and plant diseases in 2012.

2012- Plans and Design for CenUSA Bioenergy Biochar Test Gardens

What did we decide to grow?

Plants for Biochar Test Gardens

Plants for Biochar Test Gardens

Each site was designed to include basic plants that typical homeowners would grow such as annuals, perennials, vegetables and herbs. The design was laid out with short annual plants in the front and perennials near the back.

Edible crops that were grown included: green beans, tomatoes, green and hot peppers, Swiss chard, leafy kale, cucumbers, lettuce, asparagus, potatoes, and basil.

Ornamental crops included zinnias, petunias, marigolds, MN hardy mums and Ole, Lena and Sven hardy shrub roses.

First Year Test Garden Challenges

Seed and Shade Challenge

Early on we had some germination issues with the beans. Two of the three teams opted to replant, but by the time the second planting germinated, the Swiss chard was so large it shadowed the bean row too much…so no beans.

The potatoes were also spotty. The potato sets were mailed too early from the company we purchased from and even though they were kept under refrigeration, they got moldy and their germination was poor as well.

Pest Challenges: Aster Yellows, Japanese Beetles, and Weeds

Other challenges in the gardens included weeds, Japanese Beetles in two of the tree sites, more weeds, aster yellows disease on marigolds and petunias…and did I mention weeds?

The captioned photograph to the left shows a marigold infected with Aster yellows next to a healthy marigold (however it didn’t stay healthy very long) and embraced by purslane.

Marigold infected by Aster Yellows (yellow arrow), taken over by purlane (orange arrow)

Marigold infected by Aster Yellows (yellow arrow), taken over by purslane (orange arrow)


What to do with Poison Ivy in Andover?

The Andover site as I mentioned, was filled with small trees and underbrush including poison ivy – that also became a challenge to deal with.  However, the Master Gardeners did a great job of keeping it under control by using herbicides only around the exterior perimeter of the garden and hand pulling any sprouts that came up in the garden.

A couple of volunteers were nervous about eating produce that may have poison ivy roots coming into contact with the vegetable roots. Upon researching this concern with the Minnesota Department of Health, they felt the risk was low, but if the poison ivy roots came into contact with root vegetables like the potatoes, it was cautioned to peel the vegetables first.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy - A very undesirable weed to have at the Andover test garden


I then went a little further in my research and learned that the famous naturalist, Euell Gibbons, used to recommend eating poison ivy leaves – just a little a day, to build up a tolerance to the urushiol (the toxins in the poison ivy). I then noticed someone had blogged that they tried that and the only side effect they experienced was a little itchiness in their behind after the poison ivy passed through. YIKES!

End of Season Differences in the 2010 Biochar Test Garden

Comparing Lettuce Between Sites – Difficult Since Japanese Beetles Got Dibb

The lettuce, the earliest season crop, was harvested first. However, the Japanese beetles had such voracious appetites in the St. Paul Campus garden that less than 50% of the plants were left to weigh. The Japanese beetles hit the Arboretum site too, but not as badly. Japanese beetles haven’t found Andover yet (which is farther north than the other two sites), but they have been spotted less than six miles from that test site.  I have a feeling we may see them in 2013.

The gardens did get a little over crowded especially in the nutrient rich St. Paul Campus and Arboretum sites. To ease some of that, the Swiss chard was harvested early which allowed for more room for the kale and other vegetables. I will talk a little more about the harvest under “Collecting Data”.

Differences in Garden Vigor?

Overall the gardens at the St. Paul Campus and the Arboretum have the most vigor. It would be safe to guess that is because the soil was so much better, plus the added nitrogen resulted in heavy plant growth. In Andover, there appeared to be a lot of nutrient deficiency, not surprising considering it is very sandy soil and the 10-10-10 fertilizer,applied only once in the spring and had leeched through the soil early in the season.

Interestingly though, there was a noticeable difference on kale size between the control plots and the biochar treated plots. I believe that may be because of the moisture and/or nutrient holding capabilities of biochar in the poorer soils. However, it will be tough to gain analysis between treatment one and treatment two, because treatment two also has morning shade, which also contributes to the moisture not evaporating as quickly, and it also didn’t suffer from heat stress as much as the other two plots.

Collecting Data Will Lead to a More Comprehensive Report Soon!

Zinnias and Swiss Chard growing in Biochar Test Gardens

Zinnias and Swiss Chard Growing in Biochar Test Gardens

Most of the data that we wanted to collect had to do with growth and yields. Weights and counts were collected on produce such as potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, plus plant heights, widths, stem strength, bloom production, etc. were also monitored on all of the plants. A comprehensive report with all of the results will be coming soon.

As we prepare for 2013, we are now putting together what we learned from the 2012 growing season so we can improve data collection and improve our research with the  CenUSA Bioenergy project for 2013.

From here on forward, stay tuned, as we begin to blog about our 2013 season as it happens this year!


–Lynne Davenport-Hagen
University of Minnesota Extension
Master Gardener Program Coordinator-Anoka County
CenUSA Biochar Research & Display Garden Project Coordinator-USDA NIFA Grant


“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.”

Choosing and Using Biochar for Research in Biochar Test Gardens (Part 2)

Friday, February 8th, 2013

U of MN Extension Master Gardener applying biochar in test gardens

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Extension Master Gardeners in Minnesota and Iowa are researching whether biochar would be a suitable soil amendment in home gardens.

Biochar can come from many different products, from grasses to hardwoods, and from most anything that can burn.  Before I move forward, I need to back up here a little. In the bigger picture of the CenUSA Bioenergy project, one of the goals is to develop sustainable perennial grasses as primary energy crops for the purpose of developing biofuels. (Learn more in this Harvesting Native Grass for Biofuel Production YouTube video.)

When the time comes that perennial grasses will be used on a regular basis for biofuel production, there will be a lot of byproduct that could be repurposed in the form of granulated biochar, and one way that biochar be can used is as a soil amendment.

What Biochar Are We Using in Test Gardens? Why?

Biochar used in test gardens

Now, you might be thinking there is a twist to this story because the biochar we are using and evaluating in test plot gardens is not from grasses, but actually from hardwood (shrub and tree) species! Why, you ask?

Ideally we were hoping to find biochar that was processed from switchgrass or other perennial grasses.  Since biochar is a relatively new product and very few processing plants are licensed to produce it, especially in the quantities we needed, we welcomed the next best option.

We did find biochar in the granular size that we needed from Royal Oak charcoal company.  The biochar they had was processed from hardwoods. The decision makers at Royal Oak were interested in being part of our research project so they were gracious enough to donate it.

The grass and hardwood biochars may not be the same, but at least they are similar. It’s not like using biochar from feathers, manure or pine needles. And, since there is much we (researchers) do not know about using biochar in gardens, researching one type of biochar across multiple test plots in several states will give us clues to see how the same biochar reacts in different soils and climates.

Remember, our overall objective is to replicate gardens that a typical homeowner would have, so we wanted a variety of soil types to test and while we are testing only one form of biochar, there are other researchers testing many other kinds.

Adding Biochar to Gardens Using Biochar Safety Sheets and Guidelines

Following health and safety guidelines for applying biochar to test gardens

The biochar was shipped in 50 pound bags.  It had a granular texture and was about the size and consistency of course fertilizer.  I have been asked if biochar has an odor…and the answer is YES. It smells like burnt wood but it wasn’t too strong, and the odor doesn’t linger.  You may get an urge to roast some hot dogs and marshmallows initially, but not for long.

Before we could apply the biochar to the test gardens, we asked some of our CenUSA Bioenergy partners to develop safety guidelines for applying it. Since this product is not on the consumer market, those kinds of things had not taken place yet.

We did learn that biochar is considered a combustible material and there are specific guidelines on how best to store anything ignitable.  In addition, biochar can be dusty so it was recommended to not apply it on a windy day. We were also advised to wear dust masks, gloves and protective clothing….mostly to protect from the dust.

Applying the biochar was fairly easy.  We just cut open the end of each bag and carefully dragged them across the areas we wanted it and then rototilled it in to a depth of about 6 inches.  If we were to apply this on a larger plot of land, it could be applied with a fertilizer spreader.  The way we did it had very little dust.   For the purpose of this research, biochar will only be applied the one time.

The next steps past amending the soil with biochar was in prepping, and planting the gardens, but we’ll get to that next week, as we continue to blog about our biochar research story through the CenUSA Bioenergy project.

by Lynne Davenport-Hagen
University of Minnesota Extension
Master Gardener Program Coordinator-Anoka County
CenUSA Biochar Research & Display Garden Project Coordinator-USDA NIFA Grant


“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.”