Wordless Wednesday – Research Experience, Wasp Nests, Teamwork and Sprinklers Gone Wild

September 17th, 2014 by Terri James

Yesterday we got an update on the CenUSA biochar test sites in Minnesota today they are the Wordless Wednesday showing what has been happening in their gardens through pictures!


Bio char St. Paul campusBio char  St. Paul Campus plot_planting Bio char first Tomato Harvest Bio char cuke on scale Bio char  cuke harvest Ellen photo Bio char beans6 Bio char  basil harvest 2 Bio char  Basil Harvest 1 Arboretum plot2 Bio char  Arboretum plot Bio char 3rdBeanHarvest Bio Char - _MG_9771To read about the project click here

Research Experience, Wasp Nests, Teamwork and Sprinklers Gone Wild

September 16th, 2014 by Terri James

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.


September is National Mushroom Month!

September 10th, 2014 by Connie Schultz

September is National Mushroom Month and we’re starting it with a TED talk by mycologist Paul Stamets who lists 6 ways the mycelium fungus can help save the universe: cleaning polluted soil, making insecticides, treating smallpox and even flu viruses.

Almost Wordless Wednesday: 2014 National Honey Bee Day

August 19th, 2014 by Connie Schultz

Theme: Sustainable Gardening Begins with Honey Bees

Last Saturday was National Honey Bee Day. I know we already had Pollinator Week and Moth Week but this day is solely for honey bees – and aren’t we glad because honey bees are the ONLY insects that make honey. So next time you stir honey into your tea – thank a little bee.

Bee laden with pollen (photo courtesy Honey Bee Haven)

Bee laden with pollen (photo courtesy Honey Bee Haven)

Bees are hard workers that have to visit 4.5 million flowers to collect enough nectar to make 16 oz. of honey. They travel 112,000 miles to do this. It truly is amazing! But bees need help. There aren’t as many flowers as there used to be.


Plant flowers for bees (photo from Pinterest, photo credit not known)

Plant flowers for bees (photo from Pinterest, photo credit not known)

Bees are such amazing creatures. What can you do to help draw attention to their plight? Get involved! Here’s a short list. Visit these organizations that support honey bees and other pollinators.

National Honey Bee Day:






Long live the Queen Bee! (photo courtesy Center for Honey Bee Research)

Long live the Queen Bee! (photo courtesy Center for Honey Bee Research)


For more information, you can also visit the EPA site to read the most recent update on the Colony Collapse Disorder. If I’ve over looked any group, please contact me below and let me know.  Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (Cornell Extension ’95) now volunteering in Johnston County, NC)

 UPDATE 8/25/2014

Dear Readers, I need to make a correction to my post as I’ve just learned that I may have spoken (or quoted) incorrectly when I said that honey bees are the ONLY insect to make honey. I had an interesting conversation with Amie Newsome, one of my county agents, who was telling me that bumble bees also make a “honey” – not quite the same in all resects as the honey bees.) In the bumble bee life cycle the workers die in the fall and only the queen survives by hibernating through the winter – so they don’t need to store honey to eat over the cold months. She will start a new underground colony again in the spring. The bumble bees collect nectar to feed their new hatchling bumble bees – but only a few ounces or enough for a few days. Bumble bee colonies are also smaller than bee hives with only 50 to 400 bumble bees per colony while honey bees may have as many as 40,000 so they have correspondingly larger stores of honey. For more information on the differences between honey bees and bumble bees, here’s a fun site for kids called BioKids from the University of Michigan and another site which focuses on bumble bees called Bumble Bee Conservation Trust.



Wordless Wednesday – The Beauty of Moths

July 23rd, 2014 by sylviah1


Geometer moth, Erateina sp.

Geometer moth, Erateina sp.


Green-banded Urania, Urania leilus

Green-banded Urania, Urania leilus


Lily moth, Polytela gloriosae

Lily moth, Polytela gloriosae


African Sunset moth, Chrysiridia rhipheus

African Sunset moth, Chrysiridia rhipheus


Scarlet-bodied wasp moth, Cosmosoma myrodora

Scarlet-bodied wasp moth, Cosmosoma myrodora


Snout moth, Pieralid sp.

Snout moth, Pieralid sp.


Crinum moth, Spodoptera picta

Crinum moth, Spodoptera picta


Brahmin moth, Brahmaea hearseyi

Brahmin moth, Brahmaea hearseyi


Idalus herois

Idalus herois


Zigzag White banded Noctuid, Donuca lanipes

Zigzag White banded Noctuid, Donuca lanipes

All photos found on Pinterest

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. NM EMG




Celebrating the Beauty and Diversity of Moths Around the World

July 21st, 2014 by Connie Schultz


What is National Moth Week?

From Maine to Florida, California to Pennsylvania and in more than 25 countries around the world, citizen scientists will mark the third annual National Moth Week, July 19-27, with moth-watching events and educational programs focused on these amazing creatures so vital to the Earth’s environment and ecosystems.


Started in New Jersey in 2012, National Moth Week celebrates the beauty, life cycles, and habitats of moths, encouraging “moth-ers” of all ages and abilities to learn about, observe, and document moths in their backyards, parks, and neighborhoods.


Moth Sheet used for attracting and identifying moths. (Photo courtesy National Moth Week)

Having a moth-watching event is as easy as turning on a porch light at night and watching what happens, or going outside in daylight to find caterpillars and diurnal moths. (Photo courtesy National Moth Week)

 Global Citizen Science


National Moth Week (NMW) encourages children and adults to become “citizen scientists” and contribute photos and data to online databases. Last year, thousands of photos and pieces of data were submitted by participants. With events already registered in 49 states, the District of Columbia and 35 countries  National Moth Week is again aiming to top last year’s registration. Individuals, groups and organizations are invited to register events on the NMW website free of charge and have them posted on the NMW’s U.S. or international map. (All registrants receive a certificate of participation.) Public event locations this year include the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia; North Cascades National Park, Washington State; Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, Liberty, TX; Museum at Prairie Ridge, Raleigh, NC; Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, FL; Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson; and Jefferson County Park, Fairfield, IA. All events are listed on the NMW website.  


A sheet and a bright light are all you need! (Photo courtesy National Moth Week)

Participants can use ordinary light bulbs, UV lights, or mercury vapor lights to draw moths, or brush sweet moth bait on tree barks for a bigger response. (Photo courtesy National Moth Week)

 2014 the Year of the Silk Moth


NMW 2014 is designated “the year of the silk moth,” to encourage moth-ers to look for and learn about these fascinating moths in the Saturniidae family. National Moth Week’s symbol, the Automeris io, is a colorful silk moth found in the U.S. and Canada. Silk moths are found throughout the world, but their populations recently have shown declines. Some of the largest and most visually striking moths in the world are silk moths. There are about 2,300 species of silk moths worldwide. For more information and photos of North American silk moths, visit the Saturniidae page of Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), a partner of NMW. Through partnerships with major online biological data depositories such as BAMONA, Project Noah, Encyclopedia of Life, Discover Life, and iNaturalist, National Moth Week encourages participants to record moth distribution and to provide information on other aspects of their life cycles and habitats. Show us what you found? Post it on our Facebook page. Happy mothing!

Thank you to the National Moth Week and Liti Haramaty for sharing this information with us!   

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



National Moth Week 2014

July 19th, 2014 by Connie Schultz
National Moth Week 2014 logo

National Moth Week 2014


National Moth Week 2014 is “the year of the silk moth,” to encourage moth-ers to look for and learn about the fascinating members of the Saturniidae family. National Moth Week’s symbol, the Automeris io, is a colorful silk moth found in the U.S. and Canada.

Through partnerships with major online biological data depositories, National Moth Week participants can help map moth distribution and provide needed information on other life history aspects around the globe. Our partners include Project NoahEncyclopedia of Life, Discover Life, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Many partner websites are repositories for data and photos about moths and other organisms. For more information about National Moth Week, visit nationalmothweek.org.

Start your moth week off with these informative videos.




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


Almost Wordless Wednesday – National Moth Week 7/19-27

July 16th, 2014 by Connie Schultz

National Moth Week is coming up this week and 2014 is the Year of the Silk Moth. You can go to the National Moth Week site to sign up to participate in some citizen science or to publicize a mothing event. 

Why Moths?

  • Moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth.
  • Scientists estimate there are 150,000 to more than 500,000 moth species.
  • Their colors and patterns are either dazzling or so cryptic that they define camouflage. Shapes and sizes span the gamut from as small as a pinhead to as large as an adult’s hand.
  • Most moths are nocturnal, and need to be sought at night to be seen – others fly like butterflies during the day.


 Celebrate Moth Week!

Mothing Sheet (photo courtesy National Moth Week)

What can take the place of a child’s excitement at being out after dark with a flashlight? (photo courtesy National Moth Week)

This is”mothing” - an activity designed to help find and identify moths.

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




Escape the Heat by Thinking Fall Gardening

July 15th, 2014 by John Porter

It seems as though the sweltering heat of summer has most of us all in a lazy, hazy fog. I know I certainly avoid being outside as much as I can when the thermometer tops 90 degrees. Just sitting outside in the shade can leave you a sticky, sweaty mess.

There’s one way to beat the sultry summer blues, though. Think ahead to fall! Believe it or not, now is the time to start planning and planting the fall vegetable garden.

I would say that a majority of gardeners in our area are the type that run out and plant everything in May, then harvest through summer, allowing the plants to hang on until they fall to some disease or finally succumb to frost. These gardeners are missing the bounty that comes with the fall garden.

Fall crops extend the harvest well after the heat of summer.

What and when to plant for fall
Some crops, like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts will thrive in the cooler weather of fall and even survive well beyond frost. Other plants like beans, squash, and tomatoes will do well in the fall, but won’t survive frost. Plants like tomatoes and squash that are planted specifically for fall will well outperform those that are left to languish from the spring planting.

Starting plants for the fall is also easier than starting them for the spring. Since the temperatures outside are warm, there’s no need to start plants indoors under light. You can simply start them in pots outside in a place where they are protected from heavy rain.

The first step is to check out the seed packet or the plant label for the maturity date. For example, I have a packet of ‘Mammoth Red Rock’ cabbage seeds that I want to start for the fall. The packet says that it matures in 90 days.

Now, here’s where the math comes in. We need to add some time for the period of harvest. Let’s say that I’m planting cabbage that I want to harvest over a two week period, so I’m going to add 14 days. Since plants grow more slowly in cooler temperatures, I also need to add another 14 days for what we will call the “fall factor”. If we were starting a warm season crop like tomatoes, we would also need to add another two weeks for the possibility of frost. When we add up the days to maturity, the harvest period, and fall factor, we get a total of 118 days, or about 16 weeks.

We then look at a calendar to schedule when to start our cabbage plants. We need to look at a calendar and count backwards from the date in which we think the plant will die from frost or we want to finish harvesting. Cool season crops like cabbage can withstand several frosts, so we can say that we want to finish growing them three or four weeks after the first frost in the fall (which for my area in West Virginia is October 10).  If it is something that is frost tender, then you definitely want to use the first frost date as a hard and fast date for calculations.  To find your first frost date, visit the NOAA National Climactic Data Center.

To get the most out of your fall garden, I would suggest that you plant small plots multiple times throughout the rest of the summer until the last feasible time to plant the crop. You can extend these calendar dates, and even over-winter cold tolerant crops like spinach, kale, and the Cole crops by using a row cover fabric.

Turn Your Zucchini or Summer Squash Into “Pasta”

July 9th, 2014 by sylviah1
Zucchini Spaghetti 2

Julienne slicer



Standard vegetable peeler



Large holed grater or microplane



Wide vegetable peeler



Serve uncooked as a salad….



… lightly sauteed and seasoned…



…or topped with your favorite pasta sauce.



Use your imagination!


Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico EMG