About Gail Langellotto

I'm a Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, where I also coordinate the statewide Master Gardener Program.

It has been a busy summer in the Garden Ecology Lab!

  • Mykl Nelson successfully defended his thesis on urban garden soils, and graduated with a M.S. in Horticulture this past June.
  • Gail, Aaron, and Mykl all shared their research results with Master Gardeners, at the recent Growing Gardeners conference.
  • Aaron continues his fieldwork, documenting the attractiveness of several Willamette Valley native plants to pollinators. You can find his full list of plants here.
  • Aaron launched the survey part of his research, to document the attractiveness of these same plants to gardeners. If you would like to participate, you can find our recruitment letter, here.
  • Gail and Isabella continue to sample insects on a monthly basis, from 24 Portland area gardens. Our July sample has been pushed to the week of July 30th, because Gail was invited to serve as a panelist on a USDA grant panel. Sampling takes four long days ~ made all the more difficult by Portland’s heat wave. But, sampling during the heat wave will be interesting. Do garden habitats become even more important to bees, when the heat dries up forage in natural and wild habitats? We shall see.
  • Bees from our 2017 sampling effort have been pinned, labelled, and sent to the American Museum of Natural History for expert identification. Thank you to the Oregon Master Gardener Association for a $500 grant to help pay for the expert bee identification.

Today, I’m packing field supplies and clothes for the July 30-August 2nd garden bee sampling effort. It seemed like a good time to provide an update on our garden soils work. I wrote this article for the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon quarterly magazine. I thought that others who are interested in garden ecology might be interested in seeing an update on this work. We are currently working on a manuscript of Mykl’s research, for submission to the journal Urban Ecosystems. In the meantime, some of the highlights can be found below.

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Despite the popularity of urban agriculture, we know virtually nothing about urban agricultural soils, including residential vegetable gardens. We thus studied urban garden soils to get a sense of the characteristics of residential-scale, urban agricultural soils in western Oregon. Last year, we took soil samples from 27 vegetable gardens in Corvallis and Portland, and tested for differences between garden sites based upon bed-type (e.g. raised beds versus in-ground beds). All gardens were managed by certified Extension Master Gardeners.

If you have taken a Master Gardener soils class, perhaps you have heard the soil management mantra ‘just add organic matter!’. This mantra comes from the idea that adding more organic matter (OM) can improve soil tilth and nutrition. However, this mantra was derived from research in large-scale farming systems, where farmers often struggle to raise their soil OM by even 1%, across tens or hundreds of acres of crop production.

We found that nearly every garden that we sampled had an excess of OM (Table 1). Soil management guidelines suggest that farmers should aim for 3-6% soil OM. Across all of our garden study sites, vegetable garden soils were on average 13% OM, by volume. Raised beds were significantly over-enriched in organic matter (15% OM, on average), compared to in-ground beds (10% OM, on average). To put it another way, Master Gardener-tended vegetable gardens were over-enriched in OM by 2-5 times the recommended level!

This excess in organic matter likely contributed to excessive levels of other soil parameters. For example, most garden study sites were above recommended levels for electrical conductivity (a measure of soil ‘salts’). All gardens were above recommended levels for sulfur (S), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) (Table 1). Only nitrogen (N), potassium (K), and boron (B) were generally within recommended levels (Table 1).

Table 1. Percent of garden study sites that were within, above, and below recommended ranges for various soil parameters. OM: organic matter. EC: electrical conductivity. N: nitrogen. S: sulfur. P: phosphorus. K: potassium. Ca: calcium. Mg: magnesium. B: boron.

Soil Parameter Percent of Garden Study Sites
Within Recommended Range Above Recommended range Below Recommended Range
OM 6% 94% 0%
EC 18% 82% 0%
N 70% 30% 0%
S 0% 100% 0%
P 0% 100% 0%
K 73% 24% 3%
Ca 0% 100% 0%
Mg 0% 100% 0%
B 42% 3% 55%

The excessive organic matter in residential-scale garden soils makes sense, when considered in the context of garden size. In small garden plots, gardeners can easily over-apply products which have been recommended for successful, large-scale, agricultural production. It is easy to imagine that the over-abundance of organic matter in soils results from large amounts of compost added to a relatively small area.

Our results point to the importance of conducting periodic soil tests in garden soils. Instead of ‘just adding organic matter’, gardeners need to understand where they are starting from, before adding amendments and fertilizers to their soil. Apply focused applications of specific nutrients (such as boron or nitrogen) to correct nutrient deficiencies, as needed, while avoiding additions of nutrients that are at relatively high levels. For example, nitrogen is extremely mobile in soils, while phosphorus tends to build up over time. Adding focused applications of synthetic (15-0-0) or organic nitrogen (in the form of feather meal) can help meet crop needs without providing excessive amounts of phosphorus, over time. Gardeners who annually apply organic matter to their soils, without the benefit of a soil test, may be unintentionally adding too much phosphorus to their soils. Soils with excessive micronutrients may hinder plant growth. Soils with excessive phosphorus might contribute to water quality issues in their watershed. Excessive phosphorus also harms or kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi.

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

 

garden ecology lab

garden ecology lab

Urban agriculture has received a lot of attention over the past decade, as more folks are looking to localize their food supply, reduce food miles, and/or exert greater control over their food. Urban agriculture, however, brings a distinct set of challenges from farm systems in more rural regions. For example, urban farms tend to be relatively small and diverse (which can make it challenging to rotate crops), and are often close to neighborhoods and housing developments (which may make urban farms more prone to nuisance complaints). Urban farmers tend to be younger and to have less experience in agriculture, compared to rural farmers, and in need to high levels of technical assistance from Extension and other providers (Oberholtzer et al. 2014). However, many of the resources that Extension has to offer are focused on traditional growers, rather than new urban farmers.

Our lab group wanted to examine an issue that is specific to urban growers, and for which we could find very little information: urban agricultural soils. Soil scientists have prioritized research on urban agricultural soils as a key priority for the 21st century (Adewopo et al. 2014). Yet for his thesis work, Mykl Nelson could only find 17 academic papers that looked at urban agricultural soils in the United States. Most of these studies focused on

residential-scale or community-scale urban agriculture (in home or community gardens). Only one paper looked at soils on an urban farm.

Still, residential- and community-scale gardening is an important type of urban agriculture. In Portland, a conservative count of 3,000 home gardens collectively covers more than 20 acres of land (McClintock et al. 2013). In Chicago, residential food gardens cover 29 acres of land, and represent 89% of all urban agriculture (Taylor and Lovell 2012). In Madison, WI, more than 45,000 food gardens cover more than 121 acres of land (Smith et al. 2013).

For Mykl’s thesis, he looked at urban soils from 27 Master Gardener-tended gardens, in Portland and Corvallis, OR. Even though all gardens were tended by OSU Extension trained Master Gardeners, they were incredibly diverse: 74 different annual crops, and 58 different perennial crops were grown across these gardens. Unique crops included kalettes, papalo, thistle, savory, paw paw, quince, sea berry, and service berry, among others.

In terms of the soils, Mykl found that soils were within the recommended range for physical parameters, such as bulk density, wet aggregate stability, and soil compaction. However, home garden soils tended to be over-enriched in soil organic matter. Growers generally aim to foster soils that are between 3-6% organic matter. However, Mykl’s tested soils were on average 13% organic matter! Raised beds were on average 15% organic matter. In ground beds were a bit better: 10% organic matter, on average. So to put this another way, Master Gardener vegetable garden soils had 2-5X the recommended level of organic matter for productive agricultural soils. We suspect that Master Gardeners were annually adding organic matter to their soils, without necessarily knowing the baseline levels in their soils. Adding more organic matter, without knowing where you’re starting from, encourages over-applications.

Does that matter? Afterall, for years, we have been preaching that if you have sub-par soils, ‘just add organic matter’. Biological activity in these soils was great! But, the excess in organic matter promoted excess in several soil nutrients. Garden soils were over-enriched in phosphorus (mean phosphorus across all gardens was 2-3X recommended levels. Potassium in some gardens was 5X recommended levels! Gardens were over-enriched in magnesium and manganese, too. Nutrient excess was worse in raised beds, compared to in-ground gardens.

Unexpectedly, Mylk found the highest lead levels in raised beds. Often, we tell gardeners to grow their food in raised beds, to avoid heavy metal contaminants. Why would there be high lead in raised beds, if we weren’t finding elevated lead levels in nearby in-ground beds? We suspect that the lead might be coming in from compost waste that can be purchased on the retail market. If a compost product makes no nutritional claim, then it is exempt from analysis and contamination limits.

We can’t wait to finalize this work for publication. In the meantime, I wanted to share a brief update on this work.

Mykl will be defending his thesis on May 31st. We’re trying to arrange an online broadcast of the public portion of his thesis defense (1pm-2pm, May 31st). I will update this post, if we are able to get an online link for his presentation.

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.

Getting ready to install plants at our field site.

The post below comes from Aaron Anderson, a M.S. student in the OSU Department of Horticulture, and a member of the Garden Ecology Lab.

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This past summer, we conducted the first field season of a study screening native plants for their attractiveness to pollinators and natural enemies. We selected 23 native Willamette Valley wildflower species based on drought tolerance, as well as four exotic garden species known to be attractive to bees: Nepeta cataria ‘Catnip’; Salvia elegans ‘Pineapple Sage’; Origanum vulgare ‘Italian’; Lavandula intermedia ‘Grosso’.

Table 1.  Native plants selected for this study.

Plant Species Common Name Life History Bloom Color
Clarkia amoena Farewell-to-spring Annual Pink
Collinsia grandiflora Giant blue eyed Mary Annual Blue
Gilia capitata Globe gilia Annual Blue
Lupinus polycarpus Miniature lupine Annual Purple/Blue
Madia elegans Common madia Annual Yellow
Nemophila menziesii Baby blue eyes Annual Blue/White
Eschscholzia californica California Poppy Annual Orange
Helianthus annuus Common sunflower Annual Yellow
Phacelia heterophylla Varied-leaf phacelia Annual White
Acmispon (Lotus) parviflorus Annual White/Pink
Achillea millefolium Yarrow Perennial White
Anaphalis margaritacea Pearly everlasting Perennial White
Asclepias speciosa Showy milkweed Perennial Pink/White
Aquilegia formosa Western red columbine Perennial Red
Aster subspicatus Douglas’ aster Perennial Purple
Camassia leichtlinii Common camas Perennial Purple/White
Eriophyllum lanatum Oregon sunshine Perennial Yellow
Fragaria vesca Wild strawberry Perennial White
Iris tenax Oregon iris Perennial Purple
Sedum oregonense Cream Stonecrop Perennial Yellow
Sidalcea virgata Rose Checkermallow Perennial Pink
Sisyrinchium idahoense Blue-eyed grass Perennial Blue/Purple
Solidago canadensis Goldenrod Perennial Yellow

We planted them in meter squared plots at OSU’s North Willamette Research Center. Between April and October, we monitored floral visitation, sampled visiting insects using an “insect vacuum”, and tracked floral bloom.

With one season in the books, we have some purely anecdotal impressions of which wildflower species are the most attractive to bees. Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Douglas aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum) were both highly attractive to a wide diversity of native bees, as well as to a variety of beetles, bugs, and syrphid flies. As an added bonus, both these species had long bloom durations, providing habitat and colorful displays for significant portions of the summer. Annual flowers Clarkia amoena and Gilia capitata attracted a range of native bees; Clarkia was also visited by leafcutter bees for a different purpose – cutting circular petal slices to build nest cells with.

Bumblebee on Clarkia.
Syrphid fly on Goldenrod.

Results from this year need to be analyzed, and further research is needed to account for seasonal variability and to gather more data on floral visitors.

Additionally, w e will ask the public to rate the attractiveness of each of our study flower species in an effort to determine the best candidates for garden use. After a few more field seasons (and sorting lots of frozen insect samples!), the result of this study will be a pollinator planting list for home gardeners, as well as a pollinator and natural enemy friendly plant list for agricultural areas. These will help inform deliberate plantings that increase the habitat value of planted areas.

 

A soil pit is used to understand the nature of subsoil strata.
The Benton County Master Gardener demonstration garden was one of our soil test sites. This site had vegetables growing in raised beds, and in in-ground beds.
The Benton County Master Gardener demonstration garden used intercropping techniques to suppress weed growth in their beds.

This post is modified from a submission from Michael Nelson. It details lessons learned from his survey of garden soils, across Corvallis, Oregon, and the Portland Metropolitan area.  In September 2017, Michael sampled soils from about 25 gardens. These gardens used raised beds and/or in ground gardens to grow a variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. We wanted to study urban garden soils ~ and soils in raised beds versus in ground beds ~ for a few reasons. Specifically, we wanted to look at a few different questions:

  1. Do raised bed gardens offer greater protection from soil contaminants than in-ground gardens? In the Master Gardener Program, we recommend raised beds as a way to work around soils that may have heavy metal contaminants. However, heavy metals can become airborne, and deposited on soils from industrial emissions, traffic, and re-suspension of road dust. If this is the case, then gardening in raised beds might offer a false sense of comfort. We thus chose to sample gardens that are close to, versus further from, major roadways and traffic.
  2. Are garden soils deficient in some nutrients (such as nitrogen), but over-enriched in others (such as phosphorus)? With enthusiasm surrounding organic gardening and composting, we are wondering if repeated applications of compost might be contributing to nitrogen deficiencies, phosphorus leaching, or other soil nutrient issues.
  3. What is the general state of urban garden soils in Oregon? If we had to ‘grade’ soil health, by looking at soil structure, tilth, nutrients, and other biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of soils ~ what would that grade look like?

I asked Michael to write up a short report on his summer work. What did he observe in the gardens? What did he hear from gardeners? Are there initial findings or impressions he could share?  His report is below.

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We began this project to examine differences between raised and in-ground garden beds in urban areas. We conducted a short survey of each site, where we noted weed pressure, garden area (in meters squared), and crops grown. We also noted any concerns voiced by the gardeners, about their vegetable production site. We sampled garden beds and kept samples separate depending on the type of bed (in ground versus raised-bed). We are now processing the soil samples in the Central Analytical Laboratory of OSU, so that we can determine the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of our garden soil samples.

A few initial observations:

  • The most common complaint we heard from gardeners was a lack of space to properly rotate their crops. For example, nearly every site had tomatoes, but many did not have the space to avoid planting in the same ground as the previous season.
  • In the lab, our initial findings are that garden soils do not fit well with traditional soil testing methods. The very high content of organic matter and low incidence of rocks brings immediate problems to the lab testing process. The first step taken when a lab receives a soil sample is to pass the sample media through a sieve. The larger pieces are lightly ground and sieved again. The aim is to isolate the soil from non-soil matter in order to restrict laboratory tests to just the soil content itself. The organic matter is often shredded by this process, which can alter the results of the laboratory tests. The primary problem here is that the organic material in our sampled garden soils is mostly forest by-products: timber waste. This material is generally inert in the garden setting and not accessible to plants. When this organic matter is included in a soils analysis, the organic matter compounds are incorporated into the test results and  skew the report away from the actual state of the garden’s soil.

The next steps in understanding garden soils are in research and application. In research, soil testing should be reconsidered with gardens in mind. There may be alternative processing techniques to reduce variability between test results and garden soil content. Theoretical models may be able to produce a metric which could be used to adjust the results of a standard soil test to reflect garden conditions more accurately.

In application, greater precision of terminology would allow for a more refined view and management of garden systems. In particular, bed-types should be grouped by their method of establishment (i.e. was soil transported to the garden, or not), rather than the presence or lack of a garden border. Additionally, organic mulches and compost should be considered in finer detail. The source of the product is important to determine what chemical content is being applied to the soil top. The physical structure of the product is important to relay the extent to which the mulch content will likely be incorporated into the soil, itself.

We’re still actively working to process and test samples. We look forward to sharing more results, in the near future.