2014 CenUSA Bioenergy Project

Fond du Lac Community Master Gardeners contribute to CenUSA biochar research and teach kids about growing food, too. 

Welcome back for more of our ongoing coverage of how University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners have been helping to support biochar research as part of the CenUSA Bioenergy project. For our last blog post, Extension Master Gardener Meleah Maynard talked with volunteers at Minnesota’s three CenUSA biochar test sites in the Twin Cities metro area: at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus and in Andover at the Extension County and Regional Center, about their experiences working on the project.

This time, you’ll hear what Extension Master Gardener volunteers working on the Fond du Lac tribal community demonstration garden at the Brookston Community Center in Cloquet had to say when Meleah visited last month. To learn more about things like what biochar is and how the test sites were chosen and planted, check out past blog posts written by Extension Master Gardener Lynne Hagen, the project manager for the biochar demonstration gardens in Minnesota. Read on to find out how things are going at the Fond du Lac biochar demonstration garden.

A Community Garden

October 2014

While the Fond du Lac demonstration garden shares the same layout, plants and mission as the three other Minnesota sites, it is different. Instead of being on a campus or other site with ties to the University, it is tucked next to a community center where it can easily be viewed by people of all ages anytime.

Better still, because of its location, children who visit the community center have been able to learn about gardening from Master Gardener volunteers, and find out more about where food comes from in the process. The kids also like eating the vegetables once they’ve been harvested and weighed. Master Gardeners make sure the kids eat only from the control plot that contains no biochar since the soil amendment is still being tested.

Dawn Newman, a Master Gardener and the Fond du Lac site mentor, says the biochar research project has been a positive way to foster a connection between the community and the University. Currently the American Indian Community Vitality Educator for Extension, Newman is an enrolled Ho-Chunk member from Wisconsin and has worked with the Fond du Lac community for years in various roles.

“It takes a long time to build relationships in Indian Country,” she says. “Historically, research has been done on Native Americans without their knowledge and not with true partnership in mind. This project is giving the community a chance to do real research as well as helping to foster healthier eating habits.” Julie Weisenhorn, an associate extension professor in horticulture and Master Gardener who has helped coordinate efforts at the site, agrees.

“Using gardening as a mean of collaboration is a great, fun way to bring the Fond du Lac community and the University together on a project,” she says. “We’ve talked a lot about how to meet community needs while also meeting the needs of Extension education because having a real partnership is so critical.”

Digging In

Newman is one of six Master Gardeners on the Fond du Lac reservation. She started the group four years ago after approaching Weisenhorn, then state program director, with the idea of starting their own community-based group rather than joining the county group. “I explained that we are a sovereign nation so we should be recognized as our own ‘county’,” Newman recalls. Weisenhorn had been looking for the opportunity to pilot a community-based Master Gardener group, so she jumped at the chance to work with Newman on this new way to organize volunteers. Newman and the other five women who wanted to become Master Gardeners took the core course together. Once they completed their volunteer hours, they jumped into projects centered around the Fond du Lac Reservation with Brookston Community Center, one of three centers operated by the Band, being the main volunteer site.

Weisenhorn asked the new Fond du Lac volunteers to become the fourth Minnesota biochar site. Once a sunny site in front of the Center was chosen, the biochar demonstration garden was prepared and planted in 2013, the second year of the research project. At first, the plants seemed to be doing well—or at least as well as expected in the sandy soil the site had to offer. “Plants were small, but the garden looked beautiful,” Master Gardener Danielle Diver remembers. One thing that was obvious, she says, was that the test plot with the most biochar added seemed to be retaining water better than the other two plots.

Soon, though, the deer moved in and started eating the plants to the point where they needed to put up a fence. But as soon as posts started going in, they hit something hard about a foot below the soil. “It was a cement slab,” Newman recalls, “and we found out we were growing a garden where a house used to be.” So Bryan Bosto, the director of the Brookston Community Center, along with Weisenhorn, Newman, Diver and other volunteers, decided to replant in a different location the following spring.

Getting Kids Involved

Planting Day June 10, 2014
Planting Day June 10, 2014

With help from Weisenhorn, who drove up this spring with all the needed plants and supplies to start again, the group tilled and planted a new demonstration garden, this time next to the Center’s playground.

Though the move put them further behind other sites in terms of data collection, the garden was now much more visible to the kids, many of whom were already participating in the Junior Master Gardener program that Newman and the others had started a couple of years earlier. “It’s a great location for a garden, really quite beautiful,” Weisenhorn says. “I’m so proud of these gardeners and their determination to see this project through.”

Diver, who is also the garden program coordinator at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, enjoys working with the kids in the garden. “They help us weed and water, especially early in the season,” she says. “You think they’re not really paying attention when you talk about the plants, but then they’ll ask a question that lets you know they were listening.”

Inspired by the children’s interest in the ripening vegetables in the demonstration garden, Diver and the other Master Gardeners added Food of the Week to their Junior Master Gardener lineup. Each week, kids work together with the Master Gardeners to prepare a dish using fresh vegetables.

Salsa was a big hit recently, even with those who said they don’t like tomatoes. “The impact we’re having doesn’t always show immediately, but when you see the kids in January and they say, ‘Hey, when is Garden Club (the kids’ name for the Junior Master Gardener program) going to start up again?’ you know they’re missing it and they clearly enjoy it,” Diver says.

Gathering Data

October 2014
October 2014

This will be the first full season of data collection at the Fond du Lac demonstration gardens and as with the other three Minnesota sites, there have been some challenges learning how to measure growth and track observations. But overall, the Fond du Lac Master Gardeners are feeling good about their work on the project and are looking forward to participating again next year.

“Seeing how the plants and soil have responded to biochar has been exciting and it’s nice to see that there is an amendment that might work,” says Nikki Crowe, a Master Gardener who also coordinates the Thirteen Moons Program,

October 2014
October 2014

which helps strengthen connections between Fond du Lac Band members and the surrounding community with Ojibwe culture and natural resources.

While the kids aren’t involved in the data collection process at the garden, they have helped out with planting and harvesting, and they’re also asked for their opinions on how things are doing in each of the three test plots. “We like to have them make their own observations on which plot is doing better or which vegetables they think look healthier or larger, and they really like that,” says Master Gardener Shannon Judd, who is also the environmental education and outreach coordinator for the Fond du Lac reservation.

Like Crowe, Judd is enjoying working on the project because it’s been interesting and exciting to be involved with a research endeavor of this magnitude from the start. In July, Judd and Newman, along with 30 other University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners involved in the research at other sites, attended the annual CenUSA conference held at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The meeting’s focus was on the Extension objective of the grant, and Weisenhorn was glad they were able to attend. “The CenUSA attendees recognized the volunteers at the meeting and applauded their important contribution to the project,” she recalls.

Judd is hopeful that the research results will make a meaningful difference for home gardeners, including those facing tough soil conditions like they have on the reservation. “Seeing all of the things that biochar may be useful for has been really motivating,” she says. “Anything that can be done to help people grow food more easily, especially around here, would be great.”

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.