Iowa Master Gardeners participate in CenUSA Biochar project

In Iowa, to help determine biochar’s viability as a soil amendment product for the home garden, Master Gardeners are testing its ability to increase productivity in vegetable and flower gardens. Iowa Master Gardeners assisted with recording crop production and health data from the three test garden sites located across the state.

Iowa State Master Gardeners teaching about biochar research
Iowa State Master Gardeners learned about biochar

These sites, which include the Armstrong Research Farm in Lewis; the Horticulture Station in Ames; and Fruitland Research Farm in Muscatine; are each made up of different soil types and composition.

Ames horticulture research farm
Ames horticulture research farm – good black loam


Armstrong plot (for sure)
Armstrong farm in Lewis – marginal soils


Fruitland in Muscatine – sandy soils

These soil differences will help to provide a broader spectrum of results from our test plot gardens. As sister plots to the biochar test garden plots in Minnesota, Iowa’s test plots included the same crops, as well as the same levels of biochar incorporation at each of the test plot sites in both states. The same crops will be planted for testing again in the 2014 season.

Harvest data was taken in a similar fashion in both Iowa and MN for most crops – however 2013 weather extremes may have skewed the data from “normal” years, due to the late planting dates (due to wet weather); above average rainfall, followed by hot and dry periods.

Harvest weighed
Harvest weighed
Plant growth measured
Leaf color checked
Leaf color checked

Iowa Master Gardeners are gearing up for 2014 – and hope to experience a “normal” growing season – we are due!

If you would like further information becoming a volunteer with the biochar project, contact Yvonne McCormick at

Iowa State Master Gardener Participating in CenUSA Bioenergy project
Stay tuned – Iowa State Master Gardeners are ready to step back in these test gardens in 2014!

“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.”

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

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

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

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

Why consider ‘Northwind’ switchgrass for your landscape?

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

1) Great form, function, structure, winter interest

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

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

Northwind switchgrass in landscape
Northwind switchgrass in landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Switchgrass grown for biofuels in field
Dr. Casler is breeding switchgrass to become a suitable biofuel source someday.

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

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

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

Are you growing switchgrass in your landscape?

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





Southwest Autumns Feature Herbs and Vegetable Transplants and Seeds

While the rest of the nation finishes harvesting summer vegetables, Arizona’s Low Desert region enters its third planting season of the year, following spring (February-April) and summer (May-September). October in the metro-Phoenix area returns to moderate temperatures after triple-digits during the summer.

Pam Perry, curator of the University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Demonstration Vegetable Garden and President, Arizona Herb Association, said:

“I’m looking forward to the promised double digit weather. Not quite time to plant my cilantro, but other fall planted herbs can be seeded for sure. Soil prep and compost enhance any good garden soil for seasonally planted herbs. Most herbs do not require much fertilizer if you keep adding in the compost. Happy planting, happy harvesting!”

Fall Demonstration Garden
University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Demonstration Vegetable Garden

September vegetable gardening began with seed-sowing, including Snap Beans, Beets,  Cabbage, Carrots, Kale, Lettuce (Head & Leaf), Leeks, Mustard, Green Onions, Peas, Radishes, Spinach, Turnips. It also includes transplants of Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, and Cauliflower. Fall soil prep comprises restoring nutrients exhausted by spring and summer crops by applying a light layer of compost or fertilizer.

October Low Desert Gardening Infographic
October Low Desert Gardening Infographic

Due to the Low Desert fall temperature ranges (from 50 nightly to 90 daytime degrees), sugars are produced in corn and carrots to make them sweet and crisp. The first frost dates in the Phoenix area, ranging from late November to mid-December, can improve the taste of parsnips & Jerusalem artichokes.

Falls Veggies Extension
Falls veggies in the Extension demonstration garden show great color

-Eileen Kane
University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener
Maricopa County Master Gardeners