Archive for the ‘USDA/NIFA’ Category

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.”


Exploring our Roots – A Short History of Extension and the Master Gardener Program

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

(Editor’s note: Exploring our Roots is an excerpt first written by Bob Kellam for the North Carolina Extension Master Gardeners Volunteer Association Newsletter.  His preface is directed at members of the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Association, but has relevance for all programs exploring the roots and connections between Extension and the Master Gardener program.}

Preface:  Those of you who attended last year’s conference in Asheville may remember the lively discussion we had at the membership meeting concerning the addition of “Extension” to the Association’s name.  I was struck by the number of Master Gardeners who wondered aloud why we would want to do that.  What does Extension have to do with the Master Gardeners anyway?  It occurred to me that, beyond the fact that our program is part of Cooperative Extension, my own understanding of how and why Extension came to be was sadly lacking.  So I set out to do some research on the subject.  The results of that effort are below, albeit a bit condensed.  Some of the questions I set out to answer were:  Where did the name Cooperative Extension come from and why do you usually get blank stares when you mention it?, Who was the first Extension agent?, What was the real reason for creating 4H?  and, Where does the EMG program fit in?  I hope you will find the answers as interesting and illuminating as I did. – Bob

The Beginning: Industrial Revolution Brings Progress, Agriculture Struggles

It wasn’t so long ago that about half the U.S. population lived on farms.  Now only about 2% of us do, and only 17% live in what are called “rural areas”.  80 years ago, most of us would have been very familiar with the work of Extension. Now only about 1 in 5 would recognize the name.  And therein lies the rub: Extension has never been just about agriculture, but even most of the 20% would say: “oh, yeah, that’s 4H and the ag agents.”

In the latter part of the 19th century, the industrial revolution is well underway and the cities are growing, but half of us still live on farms, and it has become, for the most part, a hardscrabble life.  Agriculture in America is an unproductive system, built on tradition, superstition, and backbreaking toil.  Families spend as much as 40% of their income on food, and the disparity between the quality of life on the farm and life in the city is getting larger, with a considerable proportion of the former suffering from poverty and illiteracy.  Most farmers are suspicious of the new techniques being developed by the fledgling USDA, referring to them as “book farming.”  As a result, productivity is down, soils are being depleted in as few as 5 years, and food prices are going up.  Something has to give.

By the 1870s America's Cities are bustling with activity

By the 1870s the industrial revolution is in full swing and America’s cities are bustling with activity


Poor crop rotation and lack of contour plowing are depleting soils at an alarming rate

Poor crop rotation and lack of contour plowing are depleting soils at an alarming rate


Life is different on farms

Life is different on farms in late 1800s, where poverty and illiteracy grows

Morrill Act Forms USDA and Land Grant Universities

Early in President Lincoln’s first term, Congress finally gets its act together, despite the fact that there’s a war on, passing in the same year the “Organic Act” which formed USDA and the Morrill Act of 1862.

The Morrill Act establishes “Land Grant” universities in each State to educate citizens in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts, and other practical professions.

Morrill Act

Morrill Act


In the first year as a land grant university (1889), NCSU boasts 72 students and 6 faculty.

The idea of a “land grant” is actually a practice we borrowed from Europe, in which the government provides a grant of federal land to be used for a specific purpose, or which can be sold to raise funds for that purpose.  In this case, the specific purpose is considerably different from the liberal arts curricula of most institutions of higher learning.  The implementation of the law leads to the formation of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in 1887 and it’s first class matriculates in 1889.

Hatch Act Creates Agricultural Experimental Stations

'Father of Extension'?

Seaman Knapp

In 1867, the Hatch Act creates agricultural experimental stations and, in 1890, the second Morrill Act, aimed at the former Confederate states, provides additional funds, but with a catch: the states must demonstrate that race is not a criterion for admission.  In those separate but not so equal times, this leads to the founding of our second land grant university, NCA&T.  But the USDA, charged with raising productivity and bringing down the cost of food, is still grappling with how to get farmers to embrace the new practices being developed.

Enter one Seaman A. Knapp, felt by many to be the father of Extension.  He is a physician by training, a college instructor, and comes to farming late, but is impressed by the new farming techniques being developed in Michigan and Iowa.  In 1902, he’s dispatched to Texas to start a demonstration farm to help combat the cotton boll weevil.  The farm is a successful cooperative venture with local farmers and the idea quickly spreads across the South.

In 1907, the USDA sends Cassius R Hudson to North Carolina to start a similar demonstration program.  Unfortunately, he isn’t received all that warmly by the local farmers who view him as just another Washington bureaucrat who is out of touch with “real agriculture.”

Cassius Hudson

Cassius Hudson

Under the rules of his employment he must be paid by the State, and the only federal support he is given is $1.00 for mailing expenses.  North Carolina grudgingly assigns him office space adjacent to the area where the corn and grain exhibit for the state fair is stored, and numerous, well-fed families of mice from next door visit regularly, much to the distress of the secretaries.

Clubs promote growing and food preservation practices

In 1908, to promote some of the new growing practices, NC State signs a memorandum of understanding with USDA to start Farmers Boys’ Clubs, the forerunner of 4H.  The success of the resulting “Corn Clubs” is still being celebrated 50 years later.  In 1911, Jane S McKimmon is hired to develop girls’ “Canning Clubs” and “Tomato Clubs” in response to an epidemic of food poisoning, due in large part to poor food preservation practices.  This focus on youth is largely motivated by the USDA’s repeated failure to persuade older farmers to adopt better practices.  USDA begins to realize that raising a new generation of farmers more open to improved techniques may be part of the solution.  And the strategy pays off.

Corn Club

Corn Clubs, the forerunner of 4H

Canning Club

Girls canning clubs help to combat food-borne illness

Smith Lever Act Extends Practical Applications of Research to Counties

The growing success (literally) of these programs leads to the passage in 1914 of the Smith-Lever Act, also known as the Extension Agriculture Act. Smith-Lever is designed “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States, useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same.”  The Act forms a partnership between the USDA and the land grant universities to extend the practical applications of research through demonstrations at the county level (e.g. your cooperative extension office), and requires the states to match federal funding on an equal basis.

Smith-Lever is still considered one of the most responsible and ingenious pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress.  It provides the authorizing legislation to create an Extension presence at the county level and does so by shared funding with state and local governments.

Father of Extension?

Squanto, the 1st Extension agent?

There is some dispute about who should be recognized as being the first Extension agent.  Seaman Knapp, of boll weevil fame, is one contender.  But another popular candidate, given the mission of Extension, is Squanto, a member of the Patuxent tribe who, legend has it, helped the Plymouth colonists through their first hard winter in 1621, by teaching them how to grow corn by adding a fish for fertilizer.

Core Principles of Extension Revealed Through Acts

The things that the implementers of the Morrill, Hatch, and Smith-Lever Acts learned in translating these laws into effective programs can be distilled down to a simple statement:

If you want to persuade people to undertake something, the effort needs to be: responsive to a recognized need or issue; cooperative and interactive; practical, well-demonstrated, and service-oriented.  Throw in un-biased, research-based information and include a focus on youth, and you pretty much have the core principles of Extension – and the Extension Master Gardeners.

Extension During the Farm and Great Depression

Over the next several decades, there are several more forces that help to shape Extension.  In the Farm Depression of the 1920’s the focus changes from production to economic concerns and quality of life issues.  Extension’s ranks thin, emergency funds disappear and the program become more dependent on volunteers.  This has the positive benefit of stimulating rural leadership, however, as well as the formation of local cooperatives.

The Great Depression obliges Extension to become more dependent on  volunteers and local cooperatives

The Great Depression obliges Extension to become more dependent on volunteers and local cooperatives

The next major test is the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.  Extension draws farm families into county, state, and national public affairs.  Home economic programs focus on self-sufficiency.  Ultimately, Extension is called on to manage several new agencies: initially the Farm Seed and Loan program and, later, the Soil and Water Conservation Service, Agricultural Adjustment Act, Rural Electrification, and Federal Housing Administration.

Volunteers Become Extension Backbone After World Wars

During and after the World Wars, Extension helps the country focus on food and fiber production for the war effort and volunteer leadership evolves.  It is during this time that volunteers become the backbone of Extension.

WSU Forms the First Extension Master Gardener Program

In 1972, the Washington State Cooperative Extension, in response to a high demand for urban horticulture and gardening advice, forms the first Master Gardener program.  By the end of the decade, the program has spread across the country to North Carolina.  New Hanover county gets bragging rights for creating the first gardening hotline in 1979, but Wake County, NC graduates the first class of Master Gardeners in the same year.  By the 2009 survey, there are more than 95,000 Master Gardeners nationwide, providing 5,000,000 hours of volunteer service annually.

So, How Does the Master Gardener Program Align with Extension?

One of the questions I had posed for myself when I began this research was: where does the Master Gardener program fit in to Extension? The answer I’ve come to understand is: just about everywhere.If you line the Master Gardener programs up against the core principles of Extension the match is clear:

  • We respond to the recognized needs of waterwise strategies, avoiding invasive species, and minimizing fertilizer and pesticide use.
  • We provide cooperative and interactive phone and email support, successful gardening clinics, speakers’ bureaus, farmers’ market assistance, and junior Master Gardener training.
  • We offer practical help in best gardening practices and teaching courses like Vegetables 101.
  • And we are service-oriented through our community gardening, Habitat for Humanity, and horticultural therapy programs.

Cooperative Extension Programs –  Yesterday and Today

And, should you be tempted to subscribe to the notion that Extension has somehow become less relevant as America has become less rural, consider the kinds of programs that Cooperative Extension currently offers to counties.

In Community and Economic Development, Extension offers municipal official development, rural-urban interface studies, land use issues, public policy, and water quality programs.  For families and youth, there are programs on health and food safety, managing family and household resources, strengthening family life, volunteer and leadership development, and improving the life skills of youth. In agriculture and natural resources, Extension manages programs in plant and animal science, fruits and vegetables, turf and gardening, farm management, forestry and forestry products, and marketing agricultural products.

It would appear that Extension’s responsibilities have broadened over the years.  If you focus on what Smith-Lever wanted to happen in the area of food production: greater reliance on research; higher and more efficient production; and cheaper food, you might argue that we have succeeded too well.  As far as the goals for its second century, we do have some hints: promoting local food (the current flagship program in NC), encouraging sustainable production (not depleting our resources faster than we can replenish them), and, at least, recognizing the potential adverse impacts of some of the research inroads we’ve made in the last few decades (pesticide and hormone residues, GMO, mono-cropping, and the narrowing of the gene pool.

Strong Belief in Equality of Individuals, Possibility of Change and Progress, Reliability of Scientific Information, Power of Education

If we focus on the underlying principle of Extension as improving the quality of American life, then the periodic adjustment and re-calibration of our goals is wholly consistent with a research-based organization.  And, throughout its history, the guiding philosophy of Extension has remained unchanged: a strong belief in the equality of individuals, the possibility of change and progress, the reliability of scientific information, and the power of education.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, another of Extension’s founders was a member of the Cornell faculty and dean of the New York College of Agriculture from 1903-13.  He observed:

  “Extension work is not exhortation.  Nor is it exploitation of the people, or advertising of an institution, or publicity work for securing students.  It is a plain, earnest, and continuous effort to meet the needs of the people on their own farms and in their localities.”

And, since he was a teacher, he had the habit of asking his students: “What do you know today that you did not know the last time we met?”


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.”

Planning, Preparing, and Planting Minnesota Biochar Test Gardens (Part 3)

Friday, February 15th, 2013

In two previous blog posts, I gave an overview of what we are seeking to learn through this biochar research project, and how we chose and added biochar to the test gardens.  Early in the planning, we first needed to find three locations to implement the gardens.  Next Extension Master Gardener volunteers needed to be recruited and trained about the project.

As part of this CenUSA Bioenergy project, Master Gardener volunteers completed a specialized training to learn about biochar and the CenUSA grant that supports it.  Each of the three sites in Minnesota has one or two team leaders and approximately 10 other volunteers per site.  Master Gardeners were involved in many facets of the research including planting and maintaining gardens, collecting data measurements and harvesting crops as needed.  They were asked to share their observations at the State or County fairs, horticulture field days or other community events.

How We Selected the Minnesota Biochar Test Garden Sites

All of the sites in Minnesota and Iowa needed to be identical in size because the same number of crops needed to be grown at each site. All of the gardens are 1000 sq ft and each site is divided into three plots of 300 sq ft.  Each site has a control plot with no biochar added, treatment 1 has 150 pounds of biochar and treatment 2 has 300 pounds of biochar.

It was also important to have locations with different types of soil to see how the biochar would react with the crops.  All three sites in Minnesota had to be developed from its original condition, meaning two of them had turf that needed to be removed and one was actually in an area filled with underbrush, small trees and weeds.  Soil tests were also conducted at each site and the gardens were amended with fertilizer based on the recommendations of the soil tests.

Biochar Test Gardens and MN Landscape Arboretum

Biochar Test Gardens at the MN Landscape Arboretum

Each site had its own unique issues with watering.  While we tried to replicate what a typical homeowner would do,the Arboretum site became the most labor intensive.  There was a sprinkler head close by, but the Master Gardener volunteers needed to run hoses and water by hand. The other two sites had irrigation that was scheduled by timers.

1) The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Test Garden

Selecting the Arboretum as a site for this project was a no-brainer.  The Arboretum gets well over a quarter million visitors per year.  It was a great location to showcase this research project.  A couple of site locations at the Arboretum were considered.  Ultimately, the final decision was made and the biochar test garden is located on the 3-mile drive next to the Dahlia Trial Gardens.

Thankfully, the Arboretum staff removed the sod and tilled the soil to loosen it before we began.  One of our fabulous Master Gardener volunteers also offered to install deer proof fencing…a must have.  My colleague Julie, and I, amended the soil with fertilizer and biochar on May 18th.  It also happened to be a 97 degree day with high humidity to-boot. Ugh! Our soil test recommended that we use a nitrogen-only fertilizer with a ratio of 23-0-0.  The soil at the Arboretum site is loamy clay – not too terrible to work in.  The biochar arrived in 50 pound bags, so we just opened the end of the bags and slowly dragged the biochar over the areas of the garden where we needed it, and then my colleague tilled the biochar and the nitrogen fertilizer into the soil at the same time.

2) The St. Paul Campus Test Garden

The garden at the St. Paul Campus located at the intersections of Gortner and Folwell Avenues, was another great location. It is in close proximity to the Display and Trial Gardens and is visited regularly by students, staff, faculty and visitors.   The actual site was a former low-mow turf trial plot.  The sod was not removed but instead was tilled into the soil, which in hindsight we should have asked that it be removed.  The soil also has a fair amount of clay in it.  Because this site was irrigated regularly and wet when we started, it was challenging to work in.

The soil test in this garden also recommended a nitrogen only fertilizer of 23-0-0, the same as the Arboretum site.  The tiller got its workout that morning when trying to mix in the biochar and the fertilizer in the lumpy wet clay mess.  Deer isn’t a problem at this site, but rabbits are so a short fence was installed.

Biochar Test Gardens in St. Paul, MN

3) Bunker Hills Park in Andover Test Garden

The Andover site was a last minute surprise and a very exciting prospect. We originally had a site selected at UMore Park in Dakota County which is on the south end of the Twin Cities.  A new mining operation expanded in that area and there was uncertainty about whether the biochar research garden could remain in the same location for four years.

All along I had my eyes on the Regional and County Extension office location in the Anoka County Bunker Hills Park in Andover as a potential site for the biochar project.  The reason I was hoping for this site is because it is on the north end of the Twin Cities and in the middle of the Anoka sand plain.  Since biochar is known to have positive benefits in nutrient depleted soils, this sandy site was a good option. When I explained the issues about the Dakota County site to the Anoka County Parks Department staff, they were more than willing to accommodate the needs of the project.  Not only did they bring in a Bobcat and clear out an existing area of small trees and underbrush, they also enhanced their irrigation system to allow us to set a sprinkler that was set-up on a timer.  In addition, they brought in a couple of loads of mulch to help beautify and complete the project.  Since this garden is in a large suburban park, a deer fence needed to be constructed there as well.

Biochar Test Gardens at Andover

Biochar Test Gardens at Andover

The soil test recommended a well-rounded fertilizer with a 10-10-10 ratio. One variable in this garden, that presumably will affect the research, and that isn’t present in the other sites, is that one end of the garden gets shade in the morning hours, but full sun the rest of the day. Because of this, it was anticipated that crops would not get as much heat stress as the rest of the garden and the water would not evaporate as quickly, so there was a good chance those plants would be healthier overall from the other two treatments.

What’s next?

We learned a lot the first year (2012) about the sites themselves, how the biochar interacted with the soils, and how data is best collected.  Next week, we’ll share what we learned from our 2012 data collection and research with 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.”

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.”

CenUSA Bioenergy Project: What Master Gardeners are learning about biochar, soils, and bioenergy (Part 1)

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013


As part of the CenUSA Bioenergy research project, Extension Master Gardeners in Iowa and Minnesota are doing research to explore to see if biochar makes a good soil amendment for growing flowers and vegetables in the home garden.


What is biochar?  In a nutshell it is a new term for an old product…charcoal.  The soil scientists working on the CenUSA Bioenergy project are really good about explaining the differences between biochar based on the type of biomass it’s processed from or the way it is actually processed.

All Biochar is Not Created Equal, Which is Why We are Researching Its Use in Gardens

Because not all biochar is created equal,  when people get excited about wanting to add biochar to their gardens (or garden soils, technically), I try to encourage them to wait until there is more research and some credible labeling and standardization of biochar products before diving in.  There is a lot of  hype and misinformation that’s out there.  I can’t imagine what would happen if people started adding biochar to their soil every year much like fertilizer…if too much is added, it could prove to be pretty negative on the soil (with long term consequences).

Different materials and processing lead to variable biochar outcomes

Since biochar is a form of carbon, it can last in the soil for decades (depending on how it’s processed). Biochar is a complicated product. It can be processed from many materials.  There are many ways of processing it which also produces differing results.  When those variables are combined with a variety of soils, it results in many different outcomes. I have learned that in current research projects, there are some plants that have shown beneficial results from using biochar such as flowers or leafy kale and in other cases there were negative results such as tomatoes and in some trials, adding biochar as a soil amendment made no substantial difference in plant growth.

With that said, there is still a lot of research that needs to take place before using biochar to grow flowers and vegetables in the home garden.  Some careful research has shown that in some soils, especially sandy or nutrient-depleted soils, biochar has shown improved plant yields on select crops.  This may be due to better soil structure and improved moisture and nutrient retention from the use of biochar. On the flip side, there are some biochars that have been tested and had some negative results  – showing that it may actually rob the nutrients from already healthy soils, and some biochars may actually possess potentially toxic chemicals. Researchers on our project and elsewhere are also trying to measure if there is a net benefit of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide when it’s weighed against the amount of carbon needed to produce it.

In closing my thoughts on biochar, I would encourage people to do their homework and search credible sources for research that has been conducted.  The use of biochar seems to raise more questions than answers. I believe it will take more time and research before “designer” biochars can be regulated and sold for the home gardener.

The Story of Extension Master Gardeners Researching Biochar Has Just Begun

In 2012, Extension Master Gardeners were asked to help support biochar research for this Cenusa Bioenergy project by planning, preparing, and ultimately planting test plots in concert with University of Minnesota and Iowa State University. I have been the project coordinator on this project for the past year for the University of Minnesota test plots.  It has been a year of learning and trial and error (which is really what is so fun and rewarding about this project)!

In the next couple weeks, I’ll get a chance to tell more about our research story on this blog, including how we selected our biochar, what safety recommendations we used, how we chose our test plots, what we planted, how it grew the first year and what we learned in our first season that will help us in the coming year’s research.

In the meantime, you can begin to see how Master Gardeners are involved in this much bigger project to create a midwestern regional system for producing advanced biofuels in this 2012 CenUSA Bioenergy Overview YouTube video


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.”




Get 23+ people on bikes and more in cars on a Saturday morning and what do you have?

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

The Garden Ride, a tour of five community gardens.

community garden
The tour was put together by the Ames Community Garden Coalition and promoted by local bike shops, an organic grocery store, a CSA (community supported agriculture) and probably others.

The tour was led by a group of high school students from AgCulture, a program that provides youth experiences and information about growing and cooking fresh food. The group has more photos of the garden tour on their Facebook page.

The variety of community gardens was inspiring.
•    One was on the land of the local Boys and Girls Club. The produce is used for cooking lessons for kids who attend the club.
•    The only traditional community garden was one on land owned by the city. Residents can rent 10 foot by 50 foot plots; plots are $20 for the season with water access.
•    The Service Patch is a 50 foot by 50 foot garden on the grounds of a church. All the food is donated to food pantries and service organizations. The Service Patch was the subject of an April news story: Community garden ‘grows more than food’.
•    One garden was owned by a couple who opened up the space to five neighboring households. They too have been the subject of a news story: Urban garden makes big difference in small space.
•    The final garden on the tour was a learning garden on the grounds of Lutheran Services in Iowa’s Beloit Residential Treatment Center (for children ages 5 to 15). The garden helps children enjoy a hands-on learning experience centered on food and the environment. The produce from the garden is used in the Beloit kitchen and also donated to the Bethesda Lutheran Church’s food pantry. The church is adjacent to the Beloit campus. The garden is a USDA People’s Garden.

The garden tour of community gardens is one worth repeating all across the country.

P.S. Here’s a great story about a community garden creating memories for a grandma and her grandson.

A note to EMG coordinators

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Extension Master Gardener (EMG) volunteers, please excuse this post geared exclusively for state/regional/county coordinators. The post is regarding a system like Facebook for professional extension workers. If you’re a volunteer who’s interested in such things, check out the actual Facebook fan page for master gardeners.

Based on feedback and ideas we received at the national EMG coordinators conference at UC-Davis, the consumer horticulture national committee is working to improve communications and resource sharing across the national Extension Master Gardener (EMG) family. An important step in this process is for ALL EMG coordinators to join the “Extension Master Gardener Coordinator” community in eXtension.

An early product of this community will be two new listserves:

1) State Coordinators Listserve – We are migrating the state Master Gardener Coordinators USDA/NIFA based listserve over to the eXtension ‘Extension Master Gardener Coordinators’ community and listserve.

2) ALL EMG program coordinators listserve (includes county/regional/other & state coordinators) – We are adding a listserve to provide messaging for ALL EMG program coordinators.

We’ll also be able to use the community for webinars, file sharing, and other ways to cooperate.

Karen Jeannette has povided simple directions and a slideshow you can share with your fellow coordinators to help them join and become acquainted with this new EMG community and listserve. If you have any trouble seeing the slides, send me an e-mail (click on my name below to reach my bio page) and I’ll send it to you “the old fashioned way.”

Best, Bill Hoffman – USDA/NIFA

Extension MasterBloggers

Monday, June 14th, 2010

While the national Extension Master Gardener blog is off to a good start, it’s far from the start of Extension Master Gardener blogging.

A number of state (and many more county!) programs  have been publishing master gardener blogs for awhile. If you are thinking of beginning a blog or are looking for posting ideas for an existing blog, check out the wonderful resources from:







These are only the statewide blogs that:

  1. Come up on the first few pages of my search engine of choice, or
  2. Are promoted on the front page of the statewide master gardener website, and importantly
  3. Have been recently updated.

Does your state or county master gardener program have a pretty good blog, too? Please share it by leaving a reply to this post (don’t forget the link!). Feel free to tell us about other cooperative extension blogs that master gardeners might find interesting.

Best, Bill Hoffman

Extension Master Gardeners: A Valuable National Resource

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

You make a valuable contribution to your community and your nation as an Extension Master Gardener. The 2009 national Extension Master Gardener survey points out the magnitude of that value, including:

  • Total number of extension master gardeners in good standing: 94,895.
  • Total annual volunteer hours: 5,000,000+
  • Value of volunteer efforts: $100 Million+
  • Pounds of produce donated to local food banks and pantries: 685,554
  • Personal contacts (e.g. hotline calls, e-mails returned, live audience presentations, site visits): 4,850,285

As you talk about your local or state Extension Master Gardener program, please remind folks that you’re a part of something big. When you do, I encourage you to share these impressive numbers to back up your point.

However, I’m sure that many people would be interested in some of the ways that you communicate the value of the time you invest in your local or state master gardener program (I know that I would!). When you have an opportunity to speak to elected officials, the media, or even relatives at a family reunion about the great work that you do in your communities, what do you tell people?   

I would appreciate you taking a moment to click on the comment link below (near “tags” and “posted in”) and jotting a few notes about how you value the program. Tell me what you’re most proud of regarding the contribution you and your colleagues make as extension master gardeners.


Bill Hoffman, National Program Leader, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture