We study gardens: the plants, insects, animals, people, decisions and management practices that either improve or degrade a garden’s ability to promote environmental and human health.

An underlying premise of our work is that gardens are important and understudied systems, that are key to building more sustainable, healthy and just communities.  

Garden Ecology Lab, Fall 2017: (left to right) Signe Danler, Gail Langellotto, Lucas Johnston, Isabella Messer, Michael Nelson, Aaron Anderson

Our garden pollinator work is supported by a generous donation from Spike Wadsworth and Y. Sherry Sheng.

#OverlyHonestMethods is a hashtag that is trending on Twitter.  With this hashtag (which is simply an easy way to sort and find posts), scientists share the honest, ugly truth behind research.  Some examples:

  • “Data was not recorded on Sundays because I didn’t feel like coming in, and not recorded on this day because spiders”
  • “Got a random number by asking my mom for a 3 digit number b/c I was too lazy to use an actual random number generator”
  • “Only read the abstract of the paper cited because I don’t have any money to pay for the full paper.”

This past week, I felt like I was swimming in my own #OverlyHonestMethods research sorrow.

For starters, my particular project in the Garden Ecology Lab is to document pollinator biodiversity within 24 Portland-area gardens.  I LOVE this project.  It’s the project I’ve wanted to do since I arrived at OSU, in 2007.  But, there are two minor issues with this project.

Distribution of 24 gardens, being sampled for insect pollinators, 2017-2019.
Blue, yellow, and white pan traps ~ placed into home gardens to passively sample insect pollinators.
One of our beautiful, Portland-area garden study sites.

First, it takes me 6.5 hours to drive to all sites, in one day.  This is without doing any of the actual research.  I had originally planned to sample all gardens June 21-23 ~ but this plan was quickly scrapped when I realized that there would be no way that we could physically drive to all gardens, set traps, sample for 10 minutes, and then return to pick up all traps the next day.

Working dawn to dusk, we were only able to sample 13 of our 24 gardens, June 21-22.  So, we pushed our second set of garden samples (the remaining 11 gardens) to June 29-30.  Not ideal ~ but this is why we are replicating our study across three years, and will be sampling gardens once a month, for 3-5 months, within each year.

The other major issue with this study, this month, is that I am chairing the International Master Gardener Conference.

In less than one week, I’ll be welcoming nearly 1,300 Master Gardeners to Portland ~ for a conference that begins on July 9th (pre-tours), and ends on July 17th (post-tours).  That means that my crew and I have been stuffing 1,300 envelopes and bags.  We’ve printed and are putting 3,900 meal tickets into 1,300 badges.  I can’t over-emphasize how much work this conference has been (and continues to be!).  On the one hand, sampling pollinators just before this conference is the LAST thing I needed to do.  On the other hand . . . after spending too many late nights in a hot room, filled with boxes and boxes of conference envelopes, sampling garden pollinators is exactly what I needed.

Of course, when it rains, it pours.  Last week, we also had issues with our Native Plant study.  On Tuesday, I get a call from Aaron, who tells me that:  (1) someone trespassed onto our plots, and sprayed herbicide, and (2) someone pulled our plants up, by the roots, in one of our study blocks (replicates).

Native plant plot. This poor plant was ripped out of the ground, and/or had herbicide applied in the vicinity.
Native plant plot. This one was spared the wrath of wreckless weeders and herbicide applicators.

It’s a long (and enraging) story.  But, long story short ~ we lost all of the plants in our fifth study block.  We only have five blocks / replicates in this study (with 24 plant species ~ it is both expensive and expansive to include more blocks).  So, in one sad, sad day ~ we lost 20% of our replication, which will have negative impacts on our statistical power.

How will we cope?  We’ll regroup and replant.  We were already planning on repeating this study in 2018. Now, it seems like we’ll have to repeat in 2018 AND 2019 ~ which is a bummer . . . because this will extend Aaron’s time in grad school, will cost me 50% more to get him through grad school, and generally makes a sad, sad day for all.

But, the silver linings are: I love working with Aaron, and don’t mind supporting him for an extra year, and Aaron had already mentioned that he might want to stay on for a Ph.D., which would necessarily lengthen and/or expand the scope of his study.

C’est la research.  Perhaps in 2-3 years, we’ll all be able to have a good chuckle about this challenging month.


A monarch butterfly on showy milkweed. Image Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife. Image Source: https://www.fws.gov/pacific/images/feature/2017/highlights/Milkweed.jpg

Now that our lab group is working on native plants and native bees, I thought it would be fun to do a ‘Plant of the Week’ and ‘Bee of the Week’ series.  This second entry is from Lucas Johnston, an undergraduate environmental science major at Oregon State University.  It highlights one of the plants that Aaron Anderson is using in his research.

The showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a perennial forb, native to the western United States and Canada(3).  It is hardy through USDA zones 3a to 9b (1). While the showy milkweed is listed as threatened in Iowa, it can become fairly weedy once introduced to gardens if left unmanaged, due to rhizomatous growth

(3). The plants do best in full-sun, and are an excellent choice for gardeners looking for a low-maintenance, native plant that is very attractive to pollinators (3). In particular, the showy milkweed is known for its attractiveness to the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which utilizes the plant for habitat, as well as a larval host plant and adult nectar source (1,2,3). The monarch butterfly is not alone in its use of the showy milkweed.  Eleven other species of Lepidoptera are known to reproduce on milkweeds (2), and the flowers are frequented by many species of bees and hummingbirds (1). The flowers are an appealing addition to the garden from an aesthetic perspective as well, featuring large, dense umbels of pink star-shaped flowers from May through September (3). The stems can reach heights of up to five feet and

have oppositely spaced, elongate leaves that are gray-green in color and covered in small hairs (3). At the end of the season, the flowers form interestingly shaped fruit pods packed with seeds whose silky white hairs are specially adapted for wind dispersal.

1. ”Showy Milkweed for Western Monarchs.” Monarch Butterfly Garden. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2017. <http://monarchbutterflygarden.net/milkweed-plant-seed-resources/asclepias-speciosa/>.

2. Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 2009. Print.

3. Young-Mathews, Annie, and Eric Eldregde. Plant fact sheet for showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Corvallis: USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service, Aug. 2012. PDF.


Now that our lab group is working on native plants and native bees, I thought it would be fun to do a ‘Plant of the Week’ and ‘Bee of the Week’ series.  This first entry is from Lucas Johnston, an undergraduate environmental science major at Oregon State University.  It highlights one of the plants that Aaron Anderson is using in his research.

Sedum spathulifolium (Broadleaf stonecrop)

  • Wildlife benefits: larval host plant for elfin butterfly larvae; adult butterflies will nectar on blossoms
Broadleaf Stonecrop. Photo by Greg Dahlman. https://www.flickr.com/photos/enkindler/5892806011

The broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium spp. spathulifolium) is a perennial that is native to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (1).  It is hardy throughout USDA zones 4 to 10 (2) and is therefore well-suited to most Oregon gardens. The broadleaf stonecrop performs best in full-sun to part-shade (2), and does well in relatively dry, nutrient poor soils (3). Between the months of May through August, expect yellow star-shaped flowers clustered on stems averaging six inches in height (3). These flowers are purported to be attractive to insect pollinators, in particular butterflies (3). The blue-green leaves of the plant are succulent, develop in a rosette, and often appear waxy or powdery (4). Due its resilient nature and attractive appearance, the broadleaf stonecrop is a popular choice for Oregon gardeners looking to incorporate succulents and native plants into their landscapes. 


1 “Plant Profile for Sedum spathulifolium spathulifolium (broadleaf stonecrop).” Natural Resources Conservation Services. USDA, n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.

2 “Sedum spathulifolium.” Las Pilitas Nursery . N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017. <http://www.laspilitas.com/nature-of-california/plants/629–sedum-spathulifolium>.

3 “Sedum spathulifolium.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 25 May 2017. <http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SESP>.

4 “Sedum spathulifolium var. spathulifolium.” Flora of North America . N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017. <http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=250092154>

Gardens are unique and understudied systems that can have multi-faceted and positive impacts on environmental and public health.  But, key to realizing the potential, positive impact of gardens are the decisions that are made when planning, installing and maintaining garden beds and features.  These decisions are especially important, because gardeners manage and maintain a significant amount of land in the United States.  Take lawns, for example.  Studies suggest that lawns represented the single largest irrigated crop in the United States, and that there are more acres of lawn than the combined acreage of corn, alfalfa, soy, orchards and rice1.

Of course, lawns are just one component of a garden ~ perhaps the least interesting component, from an ecological point of view.  Gardens are special, because of their unique levels of plant abundance and diversity2, which in some cases can be considered ‘biodiversity hotspots’3.   In New York, my lab group documented the important role that plant abundance and diversity in urban and suburban gardens can play in conserving pollinator biodiversity4, 5, 6.  Recently, some of the top researchers in the country argued that conservation plans could better harness the positive environmental benefits of gardens and landscapes7.  But, before we can get there, we need to answer some basic questions.

This is where the Garden Ecology Lab comes in.  Our group works at the interface of ecology and sociology, to try and understand the benefits of gardens to the environment and to human health and well-being.  We want to document the biodiversity of plants, pollinators and other organisms in Oregon gardens, and analyze what factors constrain or promote garden biodiversity.  I’ve done this work in New York, but want to repeat these first steps in Oregon.  Ultimately, the goal is to understand how gardens ~ and the decisions we make in our gardens ~ either promotes or constrains ecosystem services, such as pollination, pest control, and more.

Our group is diverse, and includes students interested in ecology, horticultural therapy and urban soils.  Extension and outreach is embedded in all that we do, such that we plan to work closely with gardeners (as citizen scientists) to describe and understand garden biodiversity, and to communicate findings to broader audiences. We’ll be looking for garden study sites and cooperating gardeners in the coming months, and invite you to get to know us, just a bit more.


1Milesi, C., S. W. Running, C. D. Elvidge, J. B. Dietz, B. T. Tuttle, R. R. Nemani. 2005. Mapping and Modeling the Biogeochemical Cycling of Turf Grasses in the United States. Environmental Management 36:426–438.

2Thompson, K. K. C. Austin, R. M. Smith, P. H. Warren, P. G. Angold, K. J. Gaston. 2003. Urban domestic gardens (I): putting small-scale plant diversity in context. Journal of Vegetation Science 14:71-78.

3Gea Galluzzi, G., P. Eyzaguirre, V. Negri. 2010. Home gardens: neglected hotspots of agro-biodiversity and cultural diversity. Biodiversity and Conservation 19: 3635–3654.

4Fetridge, E., J. S. Ascher, G. A. Langellotto.  2008. The bee fauna of residential gardens in a suburb of New York City (Hymenoptera: Apoidea).  Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101:1067-1077.

5Matteson, K. C., G. A. Langellotto. 2010. Determinates of inner city butterfly and bee species richness. Urban Ecosystems 13:333-347.

6Matteson, K. C., J. S. Ascher and G. A. Langellotto. 2008. Richness and composition of the bee fauna of urban gardens in New York City (Hymenoptera: Apoidea). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101:140-150.

7Hall, D. M., G. R. Camilo, R. K. Tonietto, J. Ollerton, K. Ahrne, M. Arduser, J. S. Ascher, K. C. R. Baldock, R. E. Fowler, G. W. Frankie, D. Goulson, B. Gunnarsson, M. E. Hanley, J. I. Jackson, G. Langellotto, D. Lowenstein, E. S. Minor, S. M. Philpott, S. G. Potts, M. H. Sirohi, E. M. Spevak, G. Stone, C. G. Threlfall.  2016. The city as a refuge for insect pollinators: conservation for the city. Conservation Biology. Online First.