My name is Mykl Nelson, a world citizen intent on feeding the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first distinct connection to food I remember was in the late 90s while living in İzmir, Turkey. We had a large mulberry tree in our yard which bore delicious fruit. I also remember the bazaar in the Buca province. Cart after cart of people selling mounds of all manner of produce. After leaving Turkey, and for maybe half of my childhood summers, I lived on the farm of my paternal grandparents’ in Worland, Wyoming. I saw many aspects of high, dry farming of row crops: sugar beets, alfalfa, barley, and dent corn. I could only catch fleeting glimpses into the life of my grandfather, a commodity farmer. But in my recent years I’ve been openly told that these American farmers vehemently hoped their children were “too smart to get into farming.” Their wish came true. Of four children and nine grandchildren, I’m the only one in agriculture.

I turned on to agriculture when a friend and I built a 400 square-foot poly-tunnel in our backyard in Colorado. We didn’t know anything more than that we wanted to grow our own food. I remember feeling so incredibly accomplished, fulfilled, and validated picking personal salads straight into dinner bowls. I took that inspiration to fuel my travel to the Pacific Northwest, a place I knew I could immerse myself in the world of tending plants. I pushed every aspect of my network to get more involved in farming and to gain space to garden. I’ve worked on three organic urban farms since moving to Oregon. I went back to school and retrained from political science to agricultural science. I continued my education with a graduate project which firmly oriented my interests to the world of urban agriculture.


I am now an instructor of urban agriculture here at Oregon State University. My current duties are to develop new online courses to train and empower new urban growers to produce food within the confines of their modern environment. This work is challenging, as urban agriculture suffers from a distinct lack of focused research. One of the most relevant discoveries from my graduate research project is that nearly all advice extended to urban growers is simply copied from traditional agriculture. Even if suggestions are altered with respect to the scale and local environment of urban growers, the research supporting these suggestions is still wholly based upon traditional agricultural methods of food production. I am developing my courses with this mismatch in mind. I have changed my approach from seeking to broadly support food production and instead specifically analyze and adapt traditional recommendations to work in an urban environment.

I use scientific research to inform my course development on many levels. At the macro-level, articles like one by Oberholtzer, Dimitri, and Pressman (2014) have reported that most farmers, and new farmers especially, struggle with complications in managing the farm’s business much more than the challenge of growing their crops. I used these findings to inform the outline of a new course that I am developing: Introduction to Urban Agriculture. Rather than spending time covering the how or why of plant growth in much detail, I’ve instead focused on how urban growers can adapt agricultural principles to their unique environment. I strive to keep students aware of how these factors should influence their management activities and always keep the concept of ‘value’ in their mind. On a more micro-level, I have built the lectures regarding soil and plant growth with adaptations of my own previous graduate research.

My method of teaching is heavily influenced by a new wave of teaching research which is well represented by James Lang’s book: Small Teaching. Broadly, this approach suggests frequent review of material as well as a more piecemeal and cyclical approach to teaching topics rather than large chunks of lecture punctuated by intermittent exams. Further, I refuse to accept that an online classroom is limiting. Modern students are demanding more than just lectures laid over powerpoint slides. I am exploring numerous avenues to increase engagement and foster social connection, all facilitated by digital platforms. I expect my courses to provide foundational pillars of knowledge for new urban growers as they pursue OSU’s new and entirely online certificate in urban agriculture. I hope to see every student embark on their own path to grow food within their urban environments. I look forward to reports of former pupils starting and operating successful urban farming businesses.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a field update about my native plant – pollinator study, so this post will be a recap of the entire 2018 field season! Sampling this year was successful, though it was a much shorter bloom season for almost all the flowers species, perhaps due to a combination of the heat, low rainfall, and lack of supplemental irrigation. I performed some summary statistics on the data, and there are some intriguing results from this year.

Below is a summary of some of the highlights:

Visitation Data

  • Only two (Gilia capitata and Nepeta cataria) flowers made it into the top-five most attractive in 2017 and 2018. The full results can be visualized in the two histograms below.
  • Three of the non-native garden species were found in the top five in 2018 (though I noted this visitation seemed strongly driven by honey bees).

2017 overall bee abundance by plant species:

2018 overall bee abundance by plant species:

Because of this, I removed honey bees from the dataset and recreated the graphs.

  • The 2017 visitation data is largely unchanged (though Nepeta cataria is less attractive, and Eschscholzia californica jumps into the top-five).
  • When only native bees are considered, the top-five most visited 2018 plants are almost completely different. Eschscholzia californicaAster subspicatus, and Phacelia heterophylla are the three most attractive flowers.
  • It seems like the native wildflowers are being visited more frequently by native bees.

 

2017 native bee abundance by plant species:

2018 native bee abundance by plant species:

Sampling Data
I also take vacuum samples from each plot so that we can identify pollinators (and other insects) to species. I’m excited that my 2017 and 2018 bees have been identified by taxonomist Lincoln Best!

​Across those two years, we collected 36 bee species (from 540 samples, which doesn’t include all the honey bee individuals). You might ask – is  this many bees, or only a few? Simply put – we don’t know! Without knowing how many bee species are found at our site at NWREC, its hard to tell what this number means. However, I was excited to find that we collected two bumblebees that are on the IUCN Red List, Bombus fervidus and Bombus calignosus.

Below are a two pollinator interaction matrices to visualize these data, but I should note that these are very preliminary – they are not scaled by number of sampling events but are still a neat way to visualize interactions and richness data.  (Darker squares represent higher abundance; a white square means no bees were collected off that flower).

 

Bumblebee Richness and Abundance:

Other Native Bee Diversity and Abundance:

 

Its obvious from looking at these data that the answer to the question “which plants attract the most pollinators?” isn’t simple! Are we interested in certain suites of bee species – honey bees, or bumblebees? Are we interested in high overall abundance, or high species richness? Some species attract many individuals but few species, while other plants attract a higher species richness but fewer overall individual bees. Additionally, there are also seasonal changes in bee populations to consider, as well as seasonal changes in flower phenology and floral display.

Luckily we’re going to have a 2019 field season, which will help account for this temporal variation and allow us to acquire data for species that didn’t flower in one or both of the previous years.

Our paper on the potential for bee movements between gardens and urban/peri-urban agriculture has been published in a special issue on Agroecology in the City, in the journal Sustainability.

Langellotto, G.A.; Melathopoulos, A.; Messer, I.; Anderson, A.; McClintock, N.; Costner, L. Garden Pollinators and the Potential for Ecosystem Service Flow to Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture.Sustainability 2018, 10, 2047.

In this paper, we estimated how far the bees we collected from our Garden Pollinators Study could move between gardens and pollination-dependent cropland. We found that when pollination-dependent crops (commercial-scale or residential-scale) are nearby, 30–50% of the garden bee community could potentially provide pollination services to adjacent crops.

But, we currently know so little about bee movements in complex landscapes ~ if and how bees move across roads or through gardens embedded in housing developments. This question will be a focus of our future work.

Some of the bees collected from our 2017 Garden Pollinators study.
Western Columbine
California poppy
Oregon Iris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the past year, I have have given many presentations that highlighted the high bee activity at ‘site 51’; a garden that is fairly small (0.1 acre) and in a heavily developed area of East Portland. Despite its size and location, ‘site 51’ had the second highest number of bees from our 2017 collections. I suspect bee diversity will also be high at site 51.

This garden is managed by someone who is an avid Xerces Society member. He gardens specifically for pollinators, and it shows! His garden is a true testament to the idea that ‘if you plant it, they will come’.

So what plants are in this garden? Our preliminary plant list (from a brief 2017 survey) can be found below. I will add Latin names, when I have a moment. For now, I hope that the common name list might introduce you to a new plant or two that might work well in your own garden.

Several of the plants in this garden are native to the Willamette Valley, and are included in Aaron Anderson’s study of native plants. The photos in this post are from Aaron’s field research.

 

 

 

 

  • Iris
  • Nodding onion
  • Yarrow
  • Fescue
  • Milkweed
  • Woodland strawberry
  • Goldenrod
  • Phacelia
  • Borage
  • Douglas Aster
  • Lupine
  • Daisy
  • Mallow
  • Dogwood
  • California poppy
  • Columbine
  • Meadow foam
  • Yellow eyed grass
  • Cinquefoil
  • Blue eyed grass
  • Currant
  • Crabapple
  • Blue elderberry
  • Anise hyssop
  • Coreopsis
  • Spirea
  • Mock orange
  • Serviceberry
  • Trillium
  • Coneflower
  • Snowberry
  • Oregon grape
  • Shore pine
  • Maple
  • Pearly everlasting
  • Globe thistle

 

It’s been a busy month in the Garden Ecology Lab.

  • Gail’s manuscript on bees in home and community gardens has been published in Acta Hort. Briefly, the results of this literature review are that: 213 species of bee have been collected from a garden habitat; gardens have fewer spring-flying and fewer ground-nesting bees, compared to non-garden sites; I suspect that over-mulching might be cutting out habitat for ground-nesting bees in gardens.
  • Aaron presented his first Extension talk to the Marion County Master Gardeners. This 90-minute talk was an overview of using native plants in home gardens.
  • The entire lab is getting ready to present their research results at the 2018 Urban Ecology Research Consortium annual conference, to be held in Portland on February 5th. A few highlights of our presentations, can be found below.

Gail’s Poster on Urban Bees: we sampled bees from 24 gardens in the Portland Metro area (co-authored with Isabella and Lucas)

  • Langellotto and Messer UERC 2018 Poster: click to see preliminary results
  • Most of the bees that we collected await identification. We did find a moderate relationship between lot size and bee abundance: larger yards hosted more bees. But, we also found evidence that suggests that intentional design can influence bee abundance: one of our smallest gardens (site 56 = 0.1 acre), located in the Portland urban core (surrounded by lots of urban development) had the second largest number of bees (42), of the 24 gardens sampled. This garden was focused, first and foremost, on gardening for pollinators. The plant list for this garden (photos, below) includes: borage, big-leaf maple, anise hyssop, globe thistle, California poppy, nodding onion, yarrow, fescue, goldenrod, Phacelia, Douglas aster, lupine, mallow, columbine, meadow foam, yellow-eyed grass, blue-eyed grass, coreopsis, snowberry, Oregon grape, trillium, mock orange, pearly-everlasting, serviceberry, coneflower, blue elderberry, currant, milkweed, dogwood, shore pine, crabapple, cinquefoil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mykl’s Poster on Urban Soils: we sampled soils from 33 vegetable beds across Corvallis and in Portland (co-authored with Gail)

  • All gardens were tended by OSU Extension Master Gardeners.
  • Gardens were over-enriched in several soil nutrients. For example, the recommended range for Phosphorus (ppm in soil) is 20-100 ppm. Garden soils averaged 227 ppm. The recommended range for Calcium is 1,000-2,000 ppm, but the mean value for sampled beds was 4,344 ppm.
  • Recommended ranges gleaned from OSU Extension Publication EC1478.
  • There was a tendency for soils in raised beds to be over-enriched, compared to vegetables grown on in-ground beds.
  • Data suggests that gardeners are annually adding additional soil amendments or compost, and that there has a build up of certain elements in the soil.

Aaron’s Talk on Native Plants: measured bee visitation to 23 species of native and 4 species of non-native garden plants (co-authored with Lucas)

  • Field plots established at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center
  • In the first year of establishment, of the 27 flowering plants that were the focus of this study, seven natives (lotus, milkweed, camas, strawberry, iris, sedum, blue-eyed grass) one non-native (Lavender) did not bloom, or else did not establish
  • Several natives attracted more bees than even the most attractive non-native (Nepeta cataria, or catmint). These include:
    • Gilia capitata: Globe Gilia
    • Madia elegans: Common Madia
    • Aster subspicatus: Douglas’ Aster
    • Solidago candensis: Goldenrod

All bees have been pinned, labelled, and data-based. Now we’re (and when I say ‘we’re’, I’m mostly referring to Lucas and Isabella) are going through the painstaking process of photographing all specimens: head on, from the top, and from each side. We’ll then start sorting them by morphotype (how they look), and working to identify them. Some of the bees are very common, and fairly easy to identify (like Anthidum manicatum, Bombus vosnesenskii, Apis meliifera). Others will take a bit more time and expertise to get to species.

You can take a look at the entire album, representing about 150 of the nearly 700 collected bees. We’ll be adding the rest of the bees, as we can.

We collect and pin the bees, because most are difficult to identify, without getting them under a microscope, and without the help of a museum-level bee specialist. For those bees that are easy to identify by site (such as the ones listed above), we only collect one per garden (so that we have a record of its presence). We don’t collect multiple specimens of the same species, if we can identify it in the field. And, we don’t collect obvious queens (larger, reproductive bees).

We collect using a combination of water pan traps and hand collection. For hand collection, we use a pooter (an insect aspirator) for the smaller bees and baby food jars for the larger bees.

Water pan traps. We buy plastic bowls from the dollar store, prime them, and paint them with UV paint that is optimized for the wavelengths that bees see.
Here, I’m holding an insect aspirator, otherwise known as a pooter. You can suck insects off of flower heads without damaging blossoms, by carefully placing the metal part of the pooter, over the bee. It is then sucked into a small plastic vial, which I’m holding in my right hand.

This is such an exciting part of the research for me. I find myself obsessing over the photos, trying to organize them in my mind, and to at least get them to genus. Grouping them by genus makes it easier for an expert to sort through and identify them. And, I’m so grateful for their assistance, that I want to make it as easy as possible for them!

We’ve collected bees from gardens near Forest Park, in Portland’s city center, and in outlying suburbs. We’ll analyze the data to see if there are any patterns associated with garden location (forest, city, suburbs), or to see if there are specific bees that are only found in forest gardens, for example.

#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.

 

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.

References

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.

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, Spring 2019. (L-R): Isabella Messer, Angelee Calder, Gail Langellotto, Aaron Anderson, Signe Danler, Mykl Nelson.

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