Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

2015 Search for Excellence Awards – Innovative Projects — 1st Place Winner

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Plant Problem Scenario Training

It takes a while for many Master Gardeners to become comfortable and proficient in face-to-face dealings with clients.  Some never do.  We recognized the need for improved training methods in this area and so, in 2011 Benton County (Oregon) Master Gardeners formed the Plant Problem Scenario Committee and developed a creative new program which uses veteran Master Gardeners playing roles as clients with small groups of trainees.

In order to standardize our message and our delivery, the committee developed notebooks  containing 50 scenarios, taken from the most common complaints found in the Benton County Master Gardener records and adapted them as problems that clients would bring to a Master Gardener table in a request for assistance.

In 2014, the fourth year of the Plant Problem Scenario training, we provided 45 minutes of training on seven Master Gardener training days, from January to March.  Each day the class was split into nine groups of four trainees each and two veterans served as their role-playing clients.

Each scenario, as presented by the role-playing veteran, begins with a request for assistance, much like a Master Gardener might receive while seated at a help desk at the Saturday Market.  The veteran will follow with a slightly more involved description to get the trainees started in the right direction.

A series of questions an experienced Master Gardener might ask are provided as a helpful guide for the role-playing veteran, who may not have personal experience with the problem being discussed.  Depending upon the queries posed by the group of trainees, the veteran may offer one or more of the prepared questions to help guide their search. group photo

It is important to emphasize that a correct diagnosis of the problem is not our goal and in fact, we discourage trainees who recognize the problem from sharing their opinions early in the process. The correct conclusion will reveal itself if their questions lead them in the right direction, and if they are successful in using references. We do not allow the use of computers for the first three sessions; forcing the trainees to use and become familiar with the Pacific Northwest reference books. Computers are encouraged in the final four sessions.

In practice, the first couple of sessions only occasionally result in the correct diagnosis and the veterans have to provide the answer, but it is there that the foundation of insightful, deductive questioning is laid. Later in their Master Gardener training, the trainees usually discover the right diagnosis by their own efforts.

Pre and post-training surveys provided quantitative data about the effect of the training program. These data showed significant increases in the subjects’ confidence and personal evaluation of their own competence with regards to dealing face to face with members of the public. While the quantitative results are impressive, even more impressive are the subjective impacts. When given the opportunity to share their feelings of the Plant Problem Scenario training they’d received, every one of the respondents described the training in positive terms and several said it was the most effective part of the entire Master Gardener Training sequence.

In addition, in 2013 and 2014 between one-quarter and one-third of the MG Class participants have signed up to take part in the Plant Problem Scenario Training Committee in future years. They want to help pass on the training which has benefitted them so much.corn II Corn

The PPS Committee has been popular with veteran Master Gardeners because their own knowledge has been enhanced by their participation.

We have developed an on-line location where organizations and individuals can access and download the entire Plant Problem Scenario Training program at no cost. This also allows us to continue making updates or changes. The information is available at:

Researching Biochar

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Now that the Extension Master Gardener biochar demonstration gardens 2014 annual report is finished, what have we learned?


Since 2012, University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners and Iowa State Master Gardeners have been helping researchers answer the question: “Is biochar (charred organic matter) a good soil amendment for home gardens?” To do that, Extension Master Gardener volunteers have been testing the productivity of vegetables and flowers in gardens amended with biochar at four sites in Minnesota and three sites in Iowa.


Each year, the demonstration gardens are planted with common vegetable and bedding plants such as tomatoes, green bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, zinnias, salvia, chrysanthemums and roses. Arb planting day - blogMaster Gardeners and youth volunteers maintain the gardens throughout the season, and Master Gardeners take growth and yield measurements at designated times. Results are compared across sites to help determine the effects of biochar, which was applied to all but each garden’s control plot in the first year of the project. No additional biochar applications have been made, and no additional organic amendments have been used in order to gauge the effect of biochar as a stand-alone additive.




2014 was the third of four years that Master Gardeners will be involved in what is known as the CenUSA Bioenergy project. Led by Ken Moore at Iowa State University, the five-year project includes institutions in several states and is funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. The aim is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, as well as greenhouse gas emissions while increasing local renewable energy. (More information can be found at Iowa State’s website:


Written by Lynne Davenport-Hagen, CenUSA Biochar Research and Display Garden project coordinator, and Julie Weisenhorn, associate extension professor at the University of Minnesota, the 2014 annual report shows mixed three-year results. While there were notable growth differences in some plants, others seemed unaffected by biochar. For example, chrysanthemums appeared more robust in plots amended with biochar while shrub roses showed no significant differences.


One of the things that does seem clear so far is that biochar appears to improve soil texture. Volunteers working in the wet spring soil reported that it was easier to plant in the amended plots than the control plots that contain no biochar. ARB Garden-blogThis was consistent across all of the sites, even though soil structure varies by location from sand to silt loam. Read on for a closer look at the results.


Variables to Consider

Each of the four demonstration gardens contain the same plants, as well as three plots: one with no biochar; one (TRT1) amended with 1/2 pound of biochar per square foot; and one (TRT2) amended with 1 pound of biochar per square foot. It appears that soil structure differences and other variables have had an effect on the data. For example, plants growing in the demonstration gardens at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the University’s St. Paul campus were clearly more vigorous than those at the Bunker Hills Park site in Andover, Minnesota, and at the Brookston Community Center, Fond du Lac Tribal Community site in Cloquet, Minnesota.


This is most likely due to the first two sites having silt loam soils that better hold moisture and nutrients than the sandy soil at the other two locations. Nutrient deficiency was also evident at the Andover and Fond du Lac sites, which also may be attributable to sandy soil conditions. At all sites, Master Gardener volunteers worked hard to keep diseases, weeds and pest problems under control. No pesticides have been used at any of the demonstration gardens.


Last year, responding to community needs, the Fond du Lac tribal community Extension Master Gardeners worked with staff at the Brookston Community Center to create a gardening education program for youth. As part of that, youth were invited to help care for the demonstration garden and collect data. Before long, the garden became the focus of a 20-week-long Junior Master Gardener program developed by the Fond du Lac Master Gardeners. Students have enjoyed this change in direction, but because it may affect the research, data from this garden was not collected in the same way it was at the other three Minnesota sites.


A Look At the Results

Since the project aims to determine whether biochar would make a good amendment for home gardens, guidelines for data collection are based on growers’ recommended days-to-maturity. Using these optimal recommendations will make it more likely that data can be reasonably compared across sites.


About 35 Master Gardeners took data and recorded results in 2014, and though training was provided, it’s important to note that there are some inaccuracies due to individual interpretations and opinions. basil harvest 3-blogAlso contributing to problems with data collection were last year’s unusually cold, wet spring, as well as poor germination of some of the plants chosen for testing.


Tomatoes were the biggest surprise when it came to vegetables. Celebrity hybrid tomatoes in the control plots outperformed those growing in biochar-treated plots. This differs from 2013 data showing that tomatoes did best in the TRT1 plots compared with the control and TRT2 plots. Because of this inconsistency, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether biochar affects tomato productivity.


Basil appeared to grow better in TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum. Overall, though, growth and yields were best in the TRT2 plots, particularly at the Andover site. Blue Lake bush beans did well in the TRT1 plots at Andover and the Arboretum, but yields were highest in the control plot on the St. Paul campus. This could be due to the plot’s location, which provides a warmer microclimate that allowed the beans to mature faster than they did at other locations.


The hybrid cucumber, Tasty Green, was tested in all four gardens in 2014, but patterns of growth were inconsistent. So the effects of biochar on the crop could not be determined. The soil amendment’s effect on the kale variety, Blue Curled Vates, also could not be determined. Black Seeded Simson lettuce and Sweet Treat carrots did not germinate well and both crops were considered a failure. No significant differences were noted between growth and yield of King Arthur hybrid bell peppers or the University of Minnesota’s new potato variety, ‘Runestone Gold’.


Data collected on ornamentals in the demonstration gardens included information on growth patterns, bloom and leaf color. ‘Victoria’ salvia and ‘Uproar Rose’ hybrid zinnia, for example, both showed better growth and leaf color in the biochar-amended plots at the Andover site. This may indicate biochar’s ability to help sandy soil retain moisture and nutrients.


Similar data is collected on perennials and while ‘Gold Country’ chrysanthemums did not do well at any site, the varieties ‘Betty Lou’ and ‘Maroon Pride’ appeared to do somewhat better in TRT1 plots over others. Inconsistent growth patterns of three varieties of shrub roses made it unclear whether biochar had any effect on those plants. Overall, when comparing data over the past three years, there do not seem to be significant and consistent benefits in yields or growth when plants are grown using biochar as a soil amendment.


Going Forward

Master Gardener engagement with the biochar project has been beneficial in many ways with volunteers getting firsthand experience with data collection, as well as the opportunity to participate in a high-profile research endeavor. Because the demonstration gardens are visible to the public, the project has also created a welcome occasion for talking about biochar, and many other topics, with gardeners and others who are interested in things like plants, food, soil and sustainability. In this last year of the project, the goal is to gather the most reliable data possible. A new online reporting system has already increased reporting accuracy.


Also of note, in September, 2015, the Extension Master Gardener teams from Minnesota and Iowa will receive the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award for their work on the biochar project. The award will be presented at the International Master Gardener Conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Though testing biochar for possible use in home gardens is just one small part of the overall USDA-sponsored research project, the results will help determine under what conditions biochar could be recommended as a soil amendment. With one more year to conduct the research, the Master Gardeners hope to see more patterns and consistencies developing.


—by Meleah Maynard, Hennepin County Master Gardener

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.

zinnias and salvia-blogmum-blog

A microcosm of microbes underfoot

Friday, April 10th, 2015

As we celebrate the International Year of Soils, we have to discuss the fact that soil is not just the mineral and organic matter (and air and soil) that we see.  Soil, well at least good soil, is a live and well, filled with all kinds of fauna.  There’s a huge microcosm of life underfoot, namely fungi and bacteria that have evolved over millions of years to live symbiotically with plants.  These microorganisms are necessary to sustain life on the planet- without them organic matter wouldn’t decompose to feed plants.

Rhizobia nodules on a legume root.

One specific set of bacteria live symbiotically with legumes by forming nodules on the legume’s roots.  These Rhizobia benefit from the plant, but also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia that the plant can use.  Its a relationship that has developed over millions of years.  It can be a beneficial one for gardeners who want to add nutrients to the soil.

Read more about these bacteria in an article from blog contributor John Porter.



Contributor John Porter is an agriculture extension agent with West Virginia University Extension in Charleston, WV.  He writes a local weekly garden column called “The Garden Guru.”  You can find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

Wordless Wednesday – Year of Soils

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Terri James, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

ALmost Wordless Wednesday: The Earth Laughs…

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

“The Earth Laughs in Flowers.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Below are just a few of the favorite blooms from gardeners across the country…  The return of spring and nearing arrival of the growing season is cause for much rejoice and laughter.


Climbing Pink Camellia courtesy of Judith Fuselier-Phillips

H.F. Young Clematis courtesy of Cheryl Day Lansdale

Peach Meringue Brugmansia courtesy of Jake Ouellete

Purple Iris courtesy of Judith Fuselier-Phillips

Amethyst Epiphyllum courtesy of Jake Ouellette


Magnolia courtesy of Angela Blue

Gerbera Daisy courtesy of Dorene Lee Harvey

Blood Lily Courtesy of Jan McMahon

Columbine courtesy of Sheila Gilliam-Landreth

Amaryllis courtesy of Eileen Hayzlett


Amaryllis courtesy of Cheryl Day Lansdale

Blooming Nectarine Tree courtesy of Terri Upchurch

Clematis courtesy of Briana Belden

Crocus courtesy of Lois Versaw

Dr. Ruppel Clematis courtesy of Jake Ouelette


 *The above images were shared with this blogger by members of the Facebook community

“The Self-Sustaining Seed Swappers”.



ALmost Wordless Wednesday: Spring!

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

This ALmost Wordless Wednesday brings us only two days away from spring!  A time of rebirth and reawakenings, and a time when all that planning and dreaming can start to take real form in the garden.

"No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow." ~ Proverb

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” ~ Proverb



One of the very first blooms of the season, the Crocus traditionally symbolizes cheerfulness and gladness, and brings both early to the garden; heralding the arrival of the growing season and of spring.


National Seed Swap Day, January 31st, 2015

Friday, February 6th, 2015

In recognition of this year’s National Seed Swap Day, January 31st, 2015, let’s consider the time-honored tradition of sharing seeds at such events because a Seed Swap has vast benefits for gardeners everywhere. Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, has long been known for his glorious gardens at Monticello with over three hundred varieties of more than ninety different plants. Jefferson sought plants and treasured seeds from all over the world and always shared his bounty and his seeds with his friends but thousands of those varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers have been lost in recent times to the growth, popularity and commercial availability of hybrid seeds.

                                                                                  Saving Seeds, an Ancient Tradition

seed swap poster L. Versaw

A recent Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ in Lincoln, Nebraska drew more than 75 people. (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)

Fortunately, long before organized seed exchanges were held, individuals across time and around the globe would harvest, save, and share their seeds. In some cultures, seeds were valued as if they were money, bartered with, traded, and collected. Seeds would be passed down from generation to generation, from one gardener to another. What gardener does not have at least one variety of produce or one favorite flower that he or she grows every year, having been grown by their own grandparent decades ago? Many historic varieties have been preserved in this fashion and are still grown today because someone, at some time, decided to save and share those seeds.

 Our Founding Fathers Shared Seeds…

Today, the average home gardener can share their neighbor’s great uncle’s award-winning tomato seed and have the opportunity to purchase (or share!) the very same variety of beautiful black Hollyhock that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. Today the home gardener can either choose to spend a small fortune amassing seeds or plants commercially purchased each year for that season’s garden, or with a little planning, patience and effort; can save the previous season’s seeds for planting the next year. The first seed swap days allowed local gardeners to trade their abundance of a particular seed for other kinds that other gardeners had in their own possession. Seed swaps have begun to sprout up all over the country and enable gardeners of all ages and experience-levels to meet, share seeds (and sometimes plants), advice and ideas, stories, and fellowship.

 Why Save Seeds?

Seeds to swap L. Versaw

Just a few of the variety of seeds that were available to swap and share at a recent Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ in Lincoln, Nebraska (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)

Today most organized seed swaps include seeds native to the area/zone, edibles (fruit and vegetable,) herbs, exotics, annuals, perennials and woody trees and shrubs. Seeds saved and shared are often open-pollinated and heirloom variety, which produce offspring identical to the parent plant (seed.) Seeds saved from a hybrid plant may show traits like its parents, but hybrid varieties do not always promise offspring like the parent as the hybrid is a genetic mingling of two different parent plants and may grow offspring differing in taste, color and growth habit. Bulbs and cuttings may also be shared. Gardeners are encouraged to bring their surplus, highly flavored and/or high-yielding/good-producing seeds to share and exchange with others.

 Going Green…

In an age when “Going Green!” is all the rage, seed swaps are gaining popularity for good reason. Seed swapping continues to promote biodiversity, cultural history, and, in essence, recycling. Gardeners rid themselves of excess seeds without wasting and leave the event(s) able to try many new varieties inexpensively and resourcefully. Jefferson wrote that, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” and every year the National Seed Swap Day embodies both Jefferson’s legacy of seed sharing and his promotion of gardening throughout the Country. Thinking of hosting your own seed swap event?  Find more information here:

Submitted by Lois Versaw (Extension Master Gardener Intern at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

You can search our site for more blogs on seeds by clicking the tag “Seed Saving” below.

Bad Weather didn't keep folks away

Bad weather did not keep gardeners away from a Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ on National Seed Swap Day. (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)


Wordless Wednesday: National Seed Swap Day January 31st!

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

Last Saturday was National Seed Swap Day! Did you attend a Seed Swap event? Lois Versaw shares her Seed Swap Day last Saturday! To learn more about seed saving check out this blog.


National Seed Swap Day L Versaw

Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ in Lincoln, Nebraska recognizing National Seed Swap Day. (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)


Making seed bombs L.Versaw

Attendees enjoyed a activity making seed bombs from water, paper, and, in this case, wildflower seeds, with teacher Eastlyn Wright . (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)


Sumitted by Lois Versaw (EMG in training, Lincoln, NE) Thank you for sharing this exciting day, Lois! Looks like it was FUN!

ALmost Wordless Wednesday: Cyclamen for the Holidays

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Just as poinsettias are a staple for holiday decorating, cyclamen are also a popular floral gift during the holidays. While we may be more familiar with them as a potted plant, they’re also a beautiful and hardy outdoor plant. For more information on growing cyclamen try Clemson University’s informational PDF.


Holiday Cyclamen (photo by Connie Schultz)

Holiday Cyclamen (photo by Connie Schultz)


Cyclamen blooming outdoors (Photo by Connie Schultz)

Cyclamen blooming outdoors (Photo by Connie Schultz)


Beautifully patterned Cyclamen leaves (Photo by Connie Schultz)

Beautifully patterned Cyclamen leaves (Photo by Connie Schultz)


Cyclamen persicum tuber (Photo by  Millie Davenport, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension)

Cyclamen persicum tuber showing new growth. (Photo by Millie Davenport, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension)

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

Almost Wordless Wednesday: World Soil Day, December 5th, 2014

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

On December 20, 2013, the 68th UN General Assembly recognized December 5th, 2014 as World Soil Day and 2015 as the International Year of Soils.  This official recognition emphasizes the importance of soils beyond the soil science community.

The Global Soil Partnership will promote the year long emphasis on International Year of Soils 2015. Their goal is to “make IYS 2015 a memorable year for demonstrating that soils are essential to food security, hunger eradication, climate change adaptation, poverty reduction, sustainable development” and carbon sequestration. Enjoy this official Year of Soils video.

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