Research Experience, Wasp Nests, Teamwork and Sprinklers Gone Wild

Three years on, Master Gardeners talk about the rewards and challenges of volunteering at Minnesota’s three CenUSA biochar test sites

It’s been a while since we offered an update on the CenUSA biochar demonstration gardens. As you may already know, there are four sites in Minnesota: at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus, in Andover at the Extension regional center, and at the Brookston Community Center in the Fond du Lac tribal community (Cloquet).

Bio char  Arboretum plot3
U of MN Extension BioChar Project

Extension Master Gardeners have been helping support biochar research at each site since 2012 as part of the larger CenUSA Bioenergy project. Ken Moore at Iowa State University and staff are leading a team of eight institutions that are participating in the five-year, USDA-sponsored CenUSA project. The goal is to investigate the creation of a Midwestern sustainable biofuels and bioenergy products system. (To learn more, check out the 2012 CenUSA Bioenergy Overview YouTube video.)

For this post, we asked Extension Master Gardener Meleah Maynard to write about what it’s been like to volunteer at the metro sites for the past three seasons. In her next post, she’ll turn the spotlight on the Fond du Lac volunteers. Meleah talked with Lynne Hagen, project coordinator for the University of Minnesota Extension biochar demonstration gardens, and Master Gardener volunteers who are currently serving as leaders at each of the sites about their experiences—positive, negative and everything in between. Here’s what they had to say.

Trial and Error

Lynne had never heard of biochar when she went to the initial CenUSA Bioenergy Project meeting at Iowa State University. But once she saw the depth of the project, she remembers thinking that it seemed like an exciting research project to be involved with. “So I put my Extension hat on and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m in!’” Three years later, she feels even more passionate about the project, which focuses on helping to answer the question of whether biochar could be a good soil amendment for use in home gardens.

Lynne has also learned, through trial and error, what it takes to engage and motivate 50 frontline volunteers. And she does that while working closely with everyone to ensure the gardens’ success and the collection of the most accurate data possible “Our project is not hard science,” she told me. “It’s more observational, and instructions for planting, maintaining plants and collecting data can be subjective in terms of how things are interpreted. Kind of like judging an art show.”

By that she means Master Gardeners must do their best to record their observations of the three plots at each site: the control plot with no biochar added, treatment plot 1 with ½ pound of biochar per square foot added and treatment plot 2 with 1 pound of biochar per square foot added. How much did the biochar appear to improve soil structure? Did the vegetables and flowers in the biochar plots do better or worse than those in the control plot? What impact could the weather be having on the data? What differences can be seen between the sites with silt loam soil and those with sandy soil?

Working Out the Details

Data collection processes have been continually streamlined throughout the project, and things are running more and more smoothly over time. Sandra Shill, who co-leads the Arboretum site with Mary Burchette, remembers the first year was especially difficult because everyone was trying to understand how to do everything and do it in the same ways. “Measuring plants sounds simple, but measurements have to be taken in specific ways so there were a lot of nuances to work out,” Sandra says.

For example, she recalls her husband, who went with her to tend to the plot one day, wondering aloud whether she was really supposed to stretch the prickly cucumber vines out straight when taking measurements. She was. But were volunteers supposed to flatten plant leaves out completely when measuring leaf width? Yes. Thankfully, it’s much easier to determine the color of leaves (one of several indicators of plant health) thanks to a color guide that was introduced last season.

Challenges and Rewards

Sandra says she got involved with the biochar project because she grew up in Iowa and “things that make use of crops always attract my attention.” The possibility of using switch grass, corn stalks and leaves and other charred biomass as a soil amendment intrigued her. And like her co-leader, she’s enjoying the research aspect of the project, especially one that could potentially make a difference.

“It’s been rewarding to be involved in every stage of the project,” says Mary, who signed on because she’s always enjoyed science. “In the largest sense, every aspect of this project could have a positive impact on the environment and that’s been extremely rewarding.” That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges. Scheduling and coordinating volunteers is no easy job, and it’s hard to keep people motivated to continue weeding and picking insect pests off plants once the season starts winding down in August.

And yes, a volunteer once stepped in an anthill and got ants all over her feet and was hopping around until another quick-thinking volunteer turned the hose on her shoes. But, really, the Arboretum site is largely ideal—except for watering. Unlike other sites that have easy access to sprinklers, volunteers have to use a brass key to hook up to a nearby water source to get their sprinklers going. “If you don’t do it right, you get totally soaked,” Mary says, laughing.

U of MN BioChar Project - First Tomato Harvest
U of MN BioChar Project – First Tomato Harvest

Over at the St. Paul campus site, watering couldn’t be easier because the demonstration garden is equipped with programmable irrigation, says site leader Carol Skalko. Better still, because they’re on campus, they were fortunate the first year because University of Minnesota Extension Plant Pathologist Michelle Grabowski had a research plot right next to the test plot. “It was great because we could ask her questions about plant diseases whenever we needed to,” Carol recalls.

One of the things Carol likes best about being a Master Gardener volunteer is the social interaction with others who share her love of gardening. So she’s especially glad that scheduling has often worked out so that volunteers could work together as a group. “There’s a real sense of community at our site and that’s been significant for me,” she says, adding that everyone has particularly enjoyed getting to know Master Gardeners from other counties.

Like other site leaders, she appreciates how things have gotten easier and more understandable over time. But she continues to worry about making mistakes that could throw off the data: Like this year, when the lettuce crop was considered a failure because it didn’t germinate. “We ignored it because we thought it wasn’t being counted, but it turned out they did want us to collect data on that and I misunderstood,” Carol says.

Everybody Wins

Jeff Stahmann, who co-leads the Andover site with Dave Knapp, is a scientist and engineer who develops medical devices like pacemakers. It was the research aspect of the biochar project that drew him in. While most Master Gardeners are taking knowledge from University-based research and applying it, he likes that in this case, Master Gardeners are providing data for researchers to us. “It would be great if Master Gardeners could get involved in some way with more University-based research projects like this because everybody wins,” he says.
At the same time, as a scientist, he is keenly aware of the “enormous number of variables” that need to be considered when interpreting the data from a project like this: the quality of seeds, the sizes of seedlings, variable weather and different types of soil, to name a few. “It’s a very dynamic environment in which to work for all of us,” as he aptly puts it. And his words sound all the more charitable when you consider what volunteers have faced at the Andover site.
Situated on the Anoka sand plain, the Andover site is by all accounts the most challenging of the three metro-area sites—and not just because of the sandy soil. Unlike the other two metro demonstration gardens, which were established in areas with silt loam soil, this plot had to be carved out of an area of woods filled with underbrush and poison ivy, the latter of which continues to pop up in areas where the volunteers work occasionally. “And then there was the time that wasps got into our supply cabinet and built a nest that we had to get out of there,” Dave says, before adding that gophers have been a problem in past years too.
Even so, he thinks the positives of working on the biochar project always balance out the tough parts. Harvesting the crops is one of the processes Dave likes most because until you actually weigh the kale, Swiss chard, potatoes and other crops, you’ve only got a visual assessment of which crops did better than others in the different plots.
It’s nice too that volunteers get to take home herbs and vegetables once the data has been collected. “For me,” Dave says, “whether what we observe turns out to be of major or minor significance, having the chance to participate in the discovery process has been really rewarding for me.”
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.

 

Using Your Observation Skills for Citizen Science

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: E. Alderson
Photo credit: E. Alderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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