Tyler’s Research on Containerized Vegetable Gardens

Today, Tyler successfully defended his undergraduate research thesis, entitled ‘Invest in Vegetables: A Cost and Benefit Analysis of Container Grown Roma Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum cv. ‘Roma’) and Italian Basil (Ocimum basilicum cv. ‘Italian’)‘.

A student in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, wearing a mask, stands in the middle of his containerized tomato garden research plot.
Tyler Spofford, in the middle of his containerized garden research plot, in the summer of 2020.

His research was inspired by the rush to vegetable gardening, that many households made during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown that there are many benefits to vegetable gardening, including social, emotional, physical, and financial. However, those in rental housing, or otherwise without easy access to land, were largely locked out of accessing these benefits.

Although previous research has shown that in-ground and raised bed vegetable gardening can yield positive economic benefits, to date, no studies (that we know of) have quantified the financial costs and benefits of growing vegetables in containers. Tyler thus set up a system of 5-gallon and 3-gallon bucket gardens, planted with Roma tomatoes, or Roma tomatoes plus Italian basil. He kept careful track of the cost of materials, and the time he spent gardening. He also kept careful track of the harvest he pulled off of each container.

Over the course of his study, he successfully learned about and fought back Septoria leaf spot, and blossom end rot. We learned that Roma tomatoes, in particular, are susceptible to blossom end rot. On top of these horticultural plant problems, Tyler’s research was abruptly halted by the late summer wildfires of 2020, that made air quality unsafe for him and others to continue their work, outdoors.

Despite these challenges, he was able to glean enough data from his project, to share some interesting findings:

  • None of the containers netted a positive economic benefit, in the first year of gardening, largely because the cost of materials outweighed the financial benefits of the harvest.
  • If the project were continued into year two, he projects that he would have had a positive financial outcome for the tomatoes grown with basil, in the 5-gallon containers.
  • Across the course of the season, he only spent 30 minutes tending to each container. Because he had few garden maintenance tasks, the time invested in container gardens was minimal. This is an important finding, for folks who may shy away from gardening because of lack of time.
  • As expected, the 5-gallon containers yielded more than the 3-gallon tomatoes. The 3-gallon containers stunted plant growth too much, to recommend them as a viable container gardening system. [As a side note, we were given the 3-gallon containers, for free, which is why we included them in the study.]
  • The fair market value of Roma tomatoes was fairly low (~$1.00 per pound). Thus, the net economic benefit of growing Roma tomatoes was also low. Basil, on the other hand, was a high value specialty crop that helped to raise the overall economic value of crops harvested from the buckets.

If you are interested in seeing Tyler’s thesis defense presentation (~30 minutes), you can do so, at the link below.

https://media.oregonstate.edu/id/1_8v2t4zd4?width=400&height=285&playerId=22119142

Tyler will be graduating in a few days, with a degree in BioResource Research from OSU! He’s worked in our lab group for two years, and has been an absolute joy to learn and work with. We wish him the very best on the next adventures that await him.

Garden Ecology Lab Year in Review: COVID Edition

This past year presented challenge and change to the Garden Ecology Lab. COVID locked us out of the lab and out of the field for a period of time. We said goodbye to two lab members (Angelee graduated! Cliff decided to move on from graduate school), and said hello to new lab mates (Cara took over Cliff’s project; Gwynne started her post-doc; Tyler, Jay, and Max all joined the lab as undergraduate researchers and research assistants). In addition to COVID and personnel changes, I had orthopedic surgery that took me away from work for a little under a month.

But somehow, despite the challenges and changes, we managed to make progress on several research projects. Below, I present a partial reporting of the Garden Ecology Lab year in review for 2020. Besides each project heading is the name of the project lead(s).

1) Garden Bees of Portland (Gail & Isabella): Jason Gibbs’ group from the University of Manitoba provided final determinations for a particularly difficult group of bees to identify: the Lasioglossum sweat bees. In addition, Lincoln (Linc) Best provided determinations for garden bees collected in 2019. Isabella is entering in some of our last remaining specimens, and I am working through the database of over 2,700 collected specimens to ‘clean’ the data and double check data entry against specimens in hand. There are a few specimens that need to be re-examined by Linc, now that we have determinations from the University of Manitoba, the American Museum of Natural History (Sarah Kornbluth), and a graduate of Jim River’s lab (Gabe Foote).

Altogether, we collected between 76 and 84 species of bee across a combined acreage of 13.2 acres (sum total acreage of 25 gardens). The low end estimate conservatively assumes that each unique morphospecies (i.e. Sphecodes sp. 1 and Sphecodes sp. 2) are a single species, whereas the high end estimate assumes that each is a unique species. A few noteworthy specimens:

  • We collected one specimen of Pseudoanthidum nanum, which is a non-native species to our area, which seems to be establishing and spreading in Portland. Stefanie Steele from Portland State University is writing a note on this apparent introduction, and is using data associated with our single specimen in her paper.
  • We collected one specimen of Lasioglossum nr. cordleyi which might or might not be a new species. The notation nr. cordleyi means that this specimen looks similar to L. cordleyi, but that the morphology of this specimen is different enough than the normal ‘type’ for this species, that it catches your attention. Jason Gibbs’ group is retaining that specimen. Further study will be needed to determine if it is indeed a new species, or not.
  • Some of the species we collected (as well as their ecological characteristics) suggest that gardens might be healthy habitat for bees. For example, we collected 72 specimens of Panurginus atriceps, which is a ground-nesting, spring-flying bee. Previous studies of garden bee fauna found ground-nesting and spring-flying bees to be relatively rare. We found them to be surprisingly (but relatively) common in our collections. We also collected seven putative species and 23 specimens of Sphecodes bees. This type of bee is a social parasite that does not collect nectar or pollen or construct a nest for their brood. Instead, they take advantage of the hard work of other bee species, by laying their eggs in the nest of another female. Parasitic bees are often used as bioindicators of habitat health. They would not be present on a site, unless the site also supported their obligate hosts.
  • We collected two species of bee that are listed on the IUCN red list for threatened and endangered species: Bombus fervidus (18 specimens) and Bombus caliginosus (10 specimens). I am not yet sure if their presence in urban gardens suggests that these species are recovering, that these species might be urban-associates that would be expected to thrive in urban gardens, and/or if gardens might represent particularly good habitat for these species.

In 2021, I *hope* that I can complete gathering data for this study, so that I can begin to analyze data and write. I hope to make it out to every garden, one last time, to finalize garden maps that will be used to calculate the area allotted to ornamental plants, edible plants, hardscape, and unmanaged areas. Aaron has already mapped out the landscape surrounding each garden at radii of 500 and 1000 meters. Together, these data will be used to understand whether/how garden composition and the surrounding landscape interact to influence bee species richness.

2) Native Plants and Pollinators (Aaron Anderson): In February, Aaron successfully defended his dissertation proposal and passed his oral examination, and thus advanced to Ph.D. candidacy!! Since that time, he has been busy sorting, identifying, and counting three years’ of insect samples from his 140 study plots, representing five replicates plots of 23 native plants, four ornamental plants, and a control ~ a task that he finished two weeks ago! His bees have been identified to species by Linc. Aaron has identified the thousands of other insects in his samples to the taxonomic level of family. He is working through analysis of his massive data set, and is simultaneously working on two manuscripts: one focused on just the bees and the other covering all other insects. We plan to turn the key points of these two chapters into an infographic that can be used by gardeners and green industry professionals, to select native plants that support an abundant and diverse assemblage of beneficial insects.

Aaron recently submitted the first paper from his dissertation for publication consideration, to the journal HortTechnology ~ and it was accepted, pending revisions! This paper reports on his survey of gardeners’ impressions of the aesthetic value of his study plants, and includes five specific recommendations for native wildflowers that Pacific Northwest nurseries might consider growing and marketing as pollinator plants (e.g. Gilia capitata, Clarkia amoena, Eschscholzia californica, Madia elegans, and Sidalcea asprella virgata). These plants all fell within the ‘sweet spot’ of being attractive to both pollinators and to gardeners.

Aaron’s plots at the NWREC station remain in place. Although we are through collecting data for Aaron’s study, I am applying for grant funding to study how plant traits ~ both the reward that plants offer pollinators and the displays that they use to attract pollinators ~ change with plant breeding for specific aesthetic traits, and whether/how these changes affect pollinator visitation. We also hope to study how highly attractive pollinator plants function in mixed plantings and in garden settings.

3) Bees on Native Plants and Native Cultivars (Jen Hayes):

Jen successfully completed her first field season of research, which is a monumental accomplishment during this time of COVID restrictions on our work. In early 2020, Jen finalized her list of study plants, which included one native species and 1-2 hybrids or native cultivars. This, in and of itself, was a huge accomplishment. Although we started with a much broader list of potential study plants, so many native plants did not have native cultivars or appropriate hybrids available for sale.

Jen’s study plants, which include one native (top photo in each group) and 1-2 native cultivars or native hybrids.

Once Jen and her crew put the plants in the ground, a new set of challenges emerged. For example the native yarrow emerged with pink flowers, which was a clear signal that these plants were not true natives. In addition, the Sidalcea cultivars that Jen and her crew planted came up looking different than the Sidalcea native. This sent Jen on a journey to the OSU Herbarium, where she learned that the Willamette Valley’s native Sidalcea malviflora has been reclassified as Sidalcea asprella, and that the cultivars we purchased were hybrids of Sidalcea malviflora (native to SW Oregon and California). This all suggests a need to work with local nurseries and/or growers of native plants, to see whether or not there needs to be or can be standards for sale of native plants. Should native species and native cultivars be verified or share provenance? Should gardeners be asking for this information? I don’t know, but I think that they’re important questions to consider.

With one field season’s worth of data in hand, the native cultivars were more attractive to all bees (with overall patterns being driven by the abundance of the European honey bee) for all floral sets, except California poppy. When we excluded honey bees from the analysis, to look at (mostly) native bees, no clear pattern of visitation on native plants versus native cultivars emerged. Native California poppy was most attractive to native bees. But, native cultivars of Sidalcea were more attractive to native bees (keeping in mind that in 2020, our native cultivars were not cultivars of our regionally appropriate native plant). For all other plants, there was no difference. We look forward to collecting additional data in 2021 and 2022, to see if the lack of difference in bee visits to native plants versus native cultivars holds up. Particularly for the perennials, we are finding that bee visits change so much from year to year, as the plant becomes established.

4) Garden Microbes in Soil and on Skin (Dr. Gwynne Mhuireach): Dr. Mhuireach successfully recruited 40 gardeners to participate in this study: 20 from western Oregon and 20 from the high desert. She has received and processed all soil samples and all skin swab samples for PCR (genotyping), which will be used to infer the diversity and identity of the soil microbial community in garden soils and on gardeners’ skin. She has also received survey responses from all study participants, so that she can characterize gardeners’ crop types, time in the garden, and gardening practices (e.g. organic, conventional, or mixed).

Dr. Mhuireach then sent me the soil samples, so that I could process them for submission to OSU’s Soil Health Lab. The Soil Health Lab is currently performing the chemical and physical analyses on each soil sample, so that we can determine if there is any relationship between soil characteristics, gardening region (e.g. western Oregon or high desert), crop choices, management practices, and the microbes that can be found in garden soils and/or on gardeners’ skin. Gwynne just received the first data back from the PCR analyses ~ and we can’t wait to share some of the intriguing findings with you, after we’ve had some time to process and digest the data!

Because of COVID-19 lab closures, we are a bit behind where we had hoped to be at this point. We anticipate receiving all data from each service lab by the end of January or in early February. You can read more about Gwynne’s project, here.

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Beyond these four studies, Tyler started his BioResource Research project (costs and yield of container grown and intercropped tomotoes), and Isabella worked on her thesis (parasitoids in Portland area gardens). We also collaborated with OSU Computer Science students to turn a database of first frost / last freeze dates that Angelee compiled, into a web-based app (the app is still in beta-testing, but we hope to release it, soon!). I will detail those studies, in another post. But for now, I’m getting excited for the smell of carnitas that is filling the house, and that will go on top of the New Years’ nachos that will help us ring in 2021! I hope that you all have a very Happy New Year, and that 2021 brings health, and happiness, and joy to all.

OSU Has the 1st Endowed MG Professorship in the Nation!

Garden research takes a lot of time, patience, and money. For example, the four new research projects that I detailed in an earlier post will cost close to $180,000 *this year, alone* to cover the salary and benefits of one post-doctoral scientist, two graduate students, and three undergraduate student researchers. And that doesn’t cover the cost of materials or supplies, including the 200+ plants that we purchased for two of the studies! We currently cover the costs through a combination of a USDA Fellowship that supports Gwynne, cost-sharing with another research group to support Cara, small grant funds and donations made to our research fund managed by the Agricultural Research Foundation to support Jen and the undergraduate researchers.

Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, at Aaron’s native plant study site. I visited on June 24, 2020, for the first time this year, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. We will now start measuring floral traits, as part of an effort to develop a predictive model of a plant’s attractiveness to various pollinators.

Ask any scientist that serves as the Principle Investigator (PI’s) of a research group (such as the Garden Ecology Lab at OSU): the hardest part of doing science is ensuring that you have the funds to pay the people that are integral and essential parts of your team. It is the part of my job that I lose sleep over, most often.

This week, the Garden Ecology Lab and Oregon Extension Master Gardener Program received news that literally changes the future for research and Extension in gardens.

Clackamas County Master Gardener Sherry Sheng, and her husband Spike Wadsworth, made a gift of $503,000 to the Oregon State University Foundation, to formally establish the Y. Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Master Gardener Professorship Fund. This week’s donation creates a gift annuity of $503,000, where payouts will benefit the Professorship Fund. This gift is in addition to the $1.2 million planned estate gift that Sherry and Spike made to the Oregon State University Foundation in 2012. Both gifts will combine (when Sherry and Spike pass away), for a $1.7+ million endowment that will fully fund what I suspect is the very first Endowed Master Gardener Professorship in the United States.

The language describing the intent of the Professorship fund is below:

The OSU Master Gardener™ Program offers engagement and outreach in communities across Oregon. OSU faculty train volunteers through in-person and online instructions and provide hands-on experience in advising home gardeners.

The personal contacts Master Gardener volunteers provide clients are rooted in the design of the Master Gardener Program: informed by science, accessible to the public, and delivered by trained volunteers in a cost-effective manner.

Quality and effectiveness of the program requires a strong leader in the position of the Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator and the leader’s ability to engage in scientific research. Nearly all of the gardening advice universities dispense to home gardeners are derived from agricultural research. This is because research funding concentrates in commercial crops while there is little to no money to support research in gardens. As a result, gardens are understudied.

The Y. Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Master Gardener Professorship Fund is intended to support the Master Gardener Program leader’s original research in gardening practices that build soil, conserve water, grow food for people and wildlife, and nurture the human spirit.

Farewell to spring, Clarkia amoena, at Aaron’s native plant study site.

It is important to note that the Y Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Master Gardener Professorship is an estate gift, and will benefit the NEXT generation of garden researchers and Extension professionals. Even though the funds will not be realized for several decades, their contribution and pledge solidifies support for the Master Gardener Program in Oregon with key administrators and decision-makers, and helps to raise the overall profile of the Master Gardener Program.

In addition to Sherry and Spike’s current and planned estate gifts, the Master Gardener Coordinator’s position will also be supported by a planned estate gift from Bob and Barbara Bailey, both Master Gardeners in Wasco County. Once again, as an estate gift, these funds will benefit the next Statewide Master Gardener Program Coordinator, many years down the road.

Oregon sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum, at Aaron’s native plant study site.

Oregon’s Master Gardener Program also benefits from endowment funds that currently sit in an Oregon State University Foundation endowment account for the Statewide Master Gardener Program. This fund was established by the Oregon Master Gardener Association in 2004, in collaboration Jan McNeilan and Ray McNeilan. This endowment has since been funded by thousands of grassroots donations, ranging from $10 to $25,000, from individual Master Gardener volunteers, family, and friends, as well as from the Oregon Master Gardener Association and its 22 chapters. The fund currently generates about $10,000 per year, that is or has been used to pay for:

  • the partial salary of the former Statewide Master Gardener Program Assistant,
  • the partial salary of the current Statewide Master Gardener Program Outreach Coordinator
  • bridge funding for Lane, Hood River, Union, and Marion County Master Gardener Programs, when they experienced funding shortfalls,
  • the Statewide Master Gardener Program Leader’s travel to teach local Master Gardener classes in 27 counties across the state,
  • creation and maintenace of tools to support Master Gardener volunteerism, including the Volunteer Reporting SystemSolve Pest Problems, and the soon-to-be released Plant Clinic Database (known as ECCo, for Extension Client Contact Database).

With all sources of support combined, Oregon’s Master Gardener Program will eventually be supported by the income generated from over $2.5 million in endowed funds. Once again, it is important to note that many of these gifts will not be realized for decades (so I hope, because I genuinely care for the donors!). But when I think about what it will mean for the MG Program in Oregon, it’s a mind-boggling and landscape changing level of support. OSU is going to be the home to the best-resourced Master Gardener Program in the nation, and the support offered by the Y Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Master Gardener Professorship not only raises the profile of the Master Gardener Program ~ but will attract a unique and highly qualified pool of applicants who are the best leaders, educators, and scientists in the world. 

Pearly everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea, at Aaron’s native plant study site.

Master Gardener programs in some states often struggle with funding issues. Some states have no statewide program leader, which hampers efforts for coordinated programming, among other things. I don’t know of another Master Gardener Program that maintains a Principle Investigator lab group, such as the Garden Ecology Lab at OSU. Although some Programs engage in research, I don’t know of any that consistently conducts field-based, original research that results in peer-refereed journal publications that are the gold standard for research-based recommendations.

The support that our garden research and Extension programs have received has been a essential to what we have been working to build in the OSU Garden Ecology Lab. Our research on native plants, garden pollinators, garden soils would have never happened without this support.

Moving into the future, the establishment of the first named Professorship for the Master Gardener Program in Oregon is game-changing, and will surely place OSU’s Master Gardener Program among the leaders in home and community gardening research and Extension.

To all of those folks who are currently conducting research in home or community garden systems, no matter where you are . . . keep an eye on OSU. In the future, OSU will be able to offer an irresistable package of support to help you build a world-class research and Extension program focused on gardens.

Garden Ecology Lab Research Update

COVID-19 has impacted our research in many different ways, including making it more difficult to find time to provide research updates on a regular basis. Despite the long silence, we have many projects up and running this summer! In fact, we’re launching four new projects, finishing up three long-term projects, and writing up another two projects.

In this blog post, I give a brief overview of the four new Garden Ecology Lab projects that launched this summer.

Microbiome of Garden Soils and Gardeners: Dr. Gwynne Mhuireach’s project has been spotlighted in a recent blog post and webinar. She has selected the 40 gardeners that will be included in her study: 20 high desert and 20 Willamette Valley gardeners, half of whom are organic and half of whom are conventional gardeners. Soon, these gardeners will be sending in their soil and skin swab samples. And then, the long process of analysis will begin.

She’s studying the microbe community in garden soils, and how those might differ according to garden region (Willamette Valley or high desert) and gardening practices (organic versus conventional soil managmeent). She’s also studying whether garden soil microbes transfer to gardeners’ skin during the act of gardening, and if so, how long those microbes persist on the skin.

Pollinators on Native Plants and Native Cultivars: Jen Hayes is well into the data collection phase of her first field season. She is working with undrgraduates Jay Stiller, Tyler Spofford, and Isabella Messer to: track flowering phenology, measure floral traits, observe pollinator visits to study plots, and collect pollinators so that they can later be curated and identified to species. Jen has written about her research project, in a past blog post. I’ve also set up a Flickr album to host photos from her study.

Native plant and nativar study site, at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture. A yarrow cultivar, ‘Salmon Beauty’, can be seen in the foreground. Nemophila, Clarkia, and Escholzia cultivars can be seen in the background.

Jen’s field site is located at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture at OSU, which makes it so much easier for undergraduate student researchers to participate in this project. She samples pollinators on Tuesdays and Fridays. She takes 5-minute observations of pollinator visits on Mondays and Thursdays. In between, lots of time is spent weeding and watering plots, counting flowers, and measuring floral traits.

Cost / Benefit Analysis of Growing Edible Plants in Containers: Tyler Spofford is a new lab member, who is completing his undergraduate degree in the BioResource Research program at OSU. He is working to develop a ‘budget’ for growing food in low-cost containers. I’ve summarized this ‘budget’ data for growing food in standard vegetable gardens, but no data yet exists (that I can find) for containerized vegetable gardens. Tyler is growing 40 tomato plants across two sizes of containers (3 gallons and 5 gallons), as single plants and in combination with basil. He’s keeping track of all of the costs (both money and time spent to grow food). When he harvests food, he’ll weigh his harvest, and track the economic benefit of his efforts, and how container size and planting configuration (one or two crops per container) influences harvest. I’ve set up a Flickr album for his study, to host project photos.

Tyler’s project grew out of my concern that, even though 18,000+ people enrolled in a free, online vegetable gardening course (over 40,000, at last count) ~ that the people who might be most at risk for food insecurity may not be benefitting from Extension Master Gardener resources and information. Tyler’s project is one component of a larger effort to develop more support for renters who might want to grow their own food.

Bucket gardens, on the day that the tomatoes were planted into 5-gallon BiMart buckets. We tried to keep all materials and plants low cost and easily accessible. Photo Credit: Tyler Spofford.

Below is an excerpt from a concept paper I’m writing on the topic:

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is exerting stress on multiple pressure points related to the economic and food security of U.S. households: more people are in need of food aid and more people are concerned about food access. The U.S. has a long history of gardening in times of national emergency (e.g. Victory Garden of WW I and WWI II, ‘recession gardens’ of 2008). The benefits of gardening as a tool of economic security and resilience are well-established. However, research suggests that these benefits are largely restricted to homeowners. Currently, most state and local laws afford no legal right to renters who want to grow their own food. Community gardens might offer renters opportunities to grow their own food, except that these gardens are often associated with gentrification. To promote public health in the face of economic and health risks of COVID-19 and future pandemics, it is critical to support the food gardening efforts of the most vulnerable. Those in rental housing have been found to be most vulnerable to food insecurity, as well as the food and economic insecurity associated with natural disasters.

Pollinators on Buddleja Cultivars: Cara Still is studying how breeding butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii cultivars) for sterilty impacts the pollinator community that visits Buddleja blossoms. Buddleja davidii and some fertile varieties of this plant are considered noxious weeds in Oregon, and many other places. Normally, noxious weed status would make it illegal to sell or trade butterfly bush in Oregon. However, the Oregon Department of Agriculture allows exceptions for non-sterile cultivars and interspecific hybrids.

Buddleja ‘Buzz Velvet’ (I suspect that plant breeders have a lot of fun, naming new cultivars)

Cara is studying whether or not the plants that are allowed for sale, under the exceptions, still pose a risk of invasion. Our group is working with Cara to document the abundance and diversity of pollinators that visit eight fertile Buddleja cultivars with 16 cultivars that have been bred for sterility.

When I was initially approached to participate in this project, I thought that it should be obvious that sterile cultivars would not attract pollinators. Afterall, sterile cultivars don’t produce pollen, or produce very little pollen. Without pollen, I doubted that bees would visit the plants. But, it is possible that sterile plants would still produce nectar. And, many pollinators ~ such as butterflies and moths ~ visit plants to consume nectar, rather than pollen.

The more I looked into the literature, I realized that no one has yet studied how breeding for sterility might affect a plant’s attractiveness to pollinators. Would sterile forms of butterfly bush no longer attract butterflies? Would sterile varieties attract syrphid flies that visit blossoms for nectar, and not pollen? We’ll let you know what we find, in about a two years. In the meantime, you may want to visit the Flickr album of photos I set up for Cara’s study.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the OSU Garden Ecology Lab

I asked our group if they would be willing to share how COVID-19 is impacting their science, their studies, and their life. Our collective reflections can be found, below.

Gail Langellotto, Professor and Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator: In early February, I woke up from a dream, sobbing. I had dreamt that my parents were sick in Baltimore, but that domestic air travel had been shut down. I am not an expert in the ecology of infectious disease, but I used to teach infectious disease models to pre-meds. And, there were several things that I saw in reports of this emerging disease that greatly troubled me. Unfortunately, my fears of large scale community spread have come true, and life has changed for us all. Luckily, my parents and sisters continue to be healthy, even though they live in a COVID-19 hotspot.

I teach two face-to-face entomology courses at OSU during the spring term: ENT 311 and ENT/HORT 444/544. I had exactly one week to pivot these classes to fully remote offerings. Instead of real time (and automated) assessment of learning using TopHat, I’m building quizzes and assignments into Canvas, where I am manually grading 210 quizzes and assignments per week. I’ve drastically cut down on course content, in part because I continue to try and focus on essential messaging, but also because I know that many of my students are under immense stress.

Spring term is when I normally move to having a lighter touch with the Master Gardener Program. New Master Gardener students are completing their coursework and exams. Long-time Master Gardeners move their attention to plant sales, garden fairs, and educational outreach. Not this year. Training classes had to move online or to Zoom. Plant sales, garden fairs, and other Master Gardener events were cancelled. Our working group started trading resources and ideas via weekly Zoom meetings. Each new dictate from the Governor or the University requires attention and consideration of how it applies to the Master Gardener Program. It’s been a challenge to stay on top of everything, and a challenge to keep a positive attitude.

In terms of science, there has been good and bad. The ‘bad’ is that, as an Associate Editor of the journal Urban Ecosystems, it has been difficult to find peer reviewers for scientific manuscripts. And, it feels ‘out of touch’ to prod folks to get their reviews in, when they may be sick, or they may be busy home-schooling kids or shopping for senior family members. Also in the ‘bad’, I generally have zero time or energy to work on my own scientific manuscripts. Exhaustion is a constant. The ‘good’ is that I can’t sleep at night. And, during these sleepless nights, I often think about next steps in our research, and plotting out key questions in urban ecology that remain unresolved, but could be addressed in garden systems.

Gail’s workstation at home. The photo of the bear and fish (to the right) is named ‘A meditation on perspective’. When working, I often stop to tell myself ‘be the bear, not the fish’.

Angelee Calder, senior year June 2020, Agricultural Science undergraduate: Covid has greatly impacted my plans and life!  As some of you may remember from my last blog post, I was expecting to spend my final term as a senior at Oregon State University doing an internship in Costa Rica! Twelve days before I was scheduled to leave, we entered a worldwide pandemic and all my plans where flipped and turned upside down! In preparation to leave for Costa Rica, I had put in my 30 day notice in on my apartment and my roommate found somewhere else to live. Last minute, I had to scramble to get my refunds, register for classes, and find somewhere to live. Since then, I have been struggling with homelessness.

Currently, I am living in the emergency housing at OSU provided by the Human Resources and Services Center. While I am extremely thankful to be here, I am only permitted to stay for less than a month. Which means my struggle with homelessness during my final term of school will continue to be an issue well into finals week. I started my first term at OSU homeless and I am finishing my final term homeless! While this is stressful and uncertain, I have managed to continue to kill this term academically. I am proud of myself for prevailing during these hard times to thrive under these heavy pressures and keep my eyes on the prize of my diploma that I have worked 5 long years to earn.

My passion for agriculture and my dedication to school go unwavered. This time has helped me to feel more secure in my chosen field as Agriculture than I ever have before. After seeing the bare shelves at the store and hundreds of thousands of Americans get laid off of their jobs, I realize agriculture is about as “essential” as you can get! My passions and education can not only create stable work for myself but also can help the rest of the world through these difficult times with stable sustainable food production.

Angelee’s workstation at the OSU Human Services Resource Center.

Mericos Rhodes, M.A. Student in Environmental Arts and Humanities. As a practitioner of ecological agriculture, this COVID era is one of the most interesting times of my life. Put simply, I have never witnessed such intense interest in what is, to me, the most interesting topic in the world: local ecological farming.

The farm that I help run, Spoon Full Farm, has completely sold out of CSA memberships and many other items. Our waitlist is growing. Here in Corvallis, the farmers markets are well-adjusted and well-attended. I can understand why: a shorter food chain means far fewer opportunities for food to be contaminated. Healthy nutrient-dense food is a cornerstone of resilient health. Small businesses such as local farms need our support now, more than ever.

In an exciting development, a friend and I are busy converting an old grassy field, across from the Corvallis Fairgrounds, into a small-scale community-based farm. We connected with the landowner after he put up a sign at the co-op seeking farmers! So, our restorative farming project has begun! It doesn’t look like much, but we have 7 chickens moving rapidly through the grass between our dug rows of mixed perennials (mostly currant bushes and thyme), fertilizing the ground to support annual vegetable beds. We plan to dig a little pond and use a heavy mulch of leaves and/or wood chips.

The Corvallis field that Mericos and his partner are converting into a farm.

How is this relevant to the garden ecology lab? In two ways:
First, I am planning my graduate project to be a narrative introduction to ecological farming (stories, characters, motives will be highlighted). This personal experience will be part of the story. Second, this project will put into place many practices suggested by Gail’s Insect Agroecology class (ENT 544), which I am currently taking, including creating diverse perennial habitat for insects, and not spraying pesticides or synthetic nitrogen. It will also be an experiment in “Dry-Farming,” which basically means zero irrigation – perhaps a critical farming technique here in the Northwest, where irrigation water may be in much shorter supply, in the decades to come.

I feel extremely grateful to be able to work outside, with living nature, during these times when so many are stuck in screen world, all day every day.

Aaron Anderson, PhD Candidate: During this uncertain time, I feel lucky to be able to be part of the Garden Ecology Lab and be able to continue my classes and work. As I am in my fourth year as a graduate student here at OSU, I have already collected all of my field data. This means that I am able to hunker down at my desk here at home, without having to worry about the logistics of conducting fieldwork during a pandemic. I’ve been busy taking two courses, and also plugging away on some data entry and statistical work.

Things can be undeniably stressful due to the background worries about COVID-19, but working from home has had some plus sides. The first is the ability to work with a cuddly cat on my lap. I’ve also been able to take breaks out in the yard, where we’ve been working on our garden bed and also seeded the side yard with several native plants from my study. We have Phacelia heterophyla just starting to germinate, and Clarkia amoena and Achillea millefolium are both beginning to bolt. Hopefully, some native bees will be visiting soon!

Aaron’s cat.
Aaron’s side garden.

Signe Danler, Instructor, online Master Gardener training course: As an instructor of an online course, most of my work was already done online via computer before the pandemic hit. I have also worked from home for many years in a variety of jobs, so I already had a full office set up at home, and did much of my OSU work at home already. In this regard, there was not much change – I grabbed a few things from my office at OSU so I would have them at home, and have not been on the campus since the stay-at-home order.

Nevertheless, life suddenly became much more stressful. For the first few weeks, the constant bombardment of new and conflicting information was terribly distracting, making it hard to be productive on any project requiring sustained effort. The cancellation of virtually all events I normally participate in has been saddening and frustrating. With two vulnerable family members at home, we have to exercise great caution in outside contacts. I not only have to do all grocery shopping, but do it in a way that takes much longer than usual, and is tiring and stressful. I’m keeping trips out very infrequent!

All in all, though, I feel we are very fortunate, since we are in a position to ride this situation out with minimal problems. To stay healthy and sane I’ve been taking more walks, which is easy since we live at the edge of town and crowds are non-existent. My large garden is getting more attention than usual, and I’m propagating more of my own plants to reduce nursery visits. As I have adjusted to the new normal, my ability to focus is getting back to normal too, and I am confident we’ll get through it just fine. 

Signe’s Plant starts.

Mykl Nelson, Instructor of Urban Agriculture: The first thing I noticed was how much remained the same. I was already fully remote and integrated with eCampus. I was lucky. I watched the flurry of emails, the hectic conference meetings, the string of popular articles. Everyone seemed to scramble as essentially the entire academic world pushed to move fully online and remote. I’m excited to see this push because I hope to see advancement in the teaching of remote teachers. When I first started trying to educate myself about educating others in agricultural topics in a remote classroom, I saw very little supporting material. I hope that changes now.

I’ve seen real changes in the community around me. Store shelves lay bare as a slow realization—the façade of abundance—spreads across stores. I know from my time as a grocery clerk that those shelves aren’t stocked that deep, and the “back stock” is kept as thin as possible. I’m watching my country get squeezed around me; the most vulnerable of my fellow citizens being forced to confront the more dire aspects of this pandemic. 

But in this panic, I feel safe. I get to add yet another scenario to the privileged category of my life. From my youth in a military family to my time now as university faculty, I am repeatedly shown the benefits of access to health care. When it comes to basic hygiene and global health, I want everyone to be able to wash their hands just as easily as they could access medicine. It only makes sense to extend such secure foundations to as many people as possible.

Mykl’s workstation in Central Oregon.

Sharing my Story – Angelee Calder

STEM Leaders Program Professional Head shot

Hello Blog Readers!

I am writing here to share my story! Possibly also to toot my horn a bit. I am extremely proud of what I have been up to lately!

In the Lab…

Me Presenting my Lab Poster at the STEM Leaders Symposium

I joined this lab through the STEM Leaders program. They connected me to the Urban Ecology lab where I started work in January 2019. January 2020, I presented a research poster at the STEM Leaders Symposium on Professor Gail Langellotto’s and Aaron Anderson’s research projects, as well as my role in them. My role is, primarily, to provide support to the Lab’s research projects. My tasks included things like cleaning, data basing, and pinning bees. I also provided help in the field by weeding plants, observing pollinators, and collecting specimens. The research projects I contributed to are amazing and I am proud of the work I have done. I am very thankful for knowledge and skills I have gained along the way. As a result of these skills, I have been able to be successful in school and my other opportunities.

Starting at Oregon State University…

When I transferred to Oregon State University (OSU) from Southwestern Oregon Community College, I knew that I wanted to participate in research. I had no idea where to begin. After earning a spot in the program, STEM Leaders provided me with the tools I needed to be successful in a lab. They then connected me with Gail Langellotto, my first choice in labs. Since starting work, I have gained a new passion for urban ecology and pollinators. I have also learned many skills that will directly translate to, and benefit me, in my journey to a possible master’s degree and my future career.

In my time at OSU, I have been presented with many opportunities. Originally, I was concerned about finding a community here at OSU. I am from the small town of Baker City, Oregon. The biggest town I had lived in, before Corvallis, was Coos Bay, Oregon.  Since my first term, I have been participating in TRIO (student support services), STEM Leader’s, and the Organic Grower’s Club. These programs have provided me with a wide range of support and connections.

Current Events…

From Left to Right: Javier Nieto – Dean of OSU College of Public Health, Allison Myers – Director, OSU Center for Health Innovation, Me – Angelee Calder, Jock Mills – OSU Director of Government Relations

Recently, I have been involved with the OSU Human Resource Service Center’s Advisory Board and the Presidential Student Legislative Advocacy program (PSLA). PSLA is a non-credit course aimed to reach students who want to be advocates for Oregon State University. They work to teach and engage students in policy issues related to our interests. Through this class, I was able to advocate for the program “Coast to Forest”, from OSU’s College of Public Health. This program aims to reduce mental health issues and opioid addiction in four rural counties across Oregon, including Baker County. I was able to advocate for this much-needed program by giving an invited personal testimony to the Oregon Senate Committee on Public Health. This was my first time participating in the public process. For that reason, I was encouraged to pursue an internship at the State Capitol.

Me Sitting at Governor Kate Brown’s Desk with
Senator Arnie Roblan

Later, I earned an internship position at the State Capitol. I am now an intern in State Representative Caddy Mckeown’s office during my final winter term here at OSU. As a first generation, low income, and Agricultural Science student, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to learn about the legislative process first-hand by doing office work in a Representative’s office. I am extremely thankful for this opportunity as I have already learned a lot and have made many new connections. I am looking forward to learning more as we progress through the 2020 legislative short session. Similarly, I am extremely excited for my other upcoming events.

Future Events…

Me Walking and Talking with Representative Caddy Mckeown to a Speaking Event

Next term, my final term at OSU, I will embark on my biggest journey yet! I earned a full time internship at the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica! This is a huge leap for me! I have never left the country, have hardly left the Pacific Northwest, and have never travelled alone. I could not be any more excited! Here, I will be working with the local farmers to develop farm designs and do soil analysis. I will work to advance the Monteverde Institute’s goal to advancing sustainability on a global level. Additionally, I have the opportunity to design a local pollinator garden at the local elementary school and educate the children on it! In this way, I will be bringing a bit of the Garden Ecology Lab to Costa Rica with me!

Finally, my graduation will be in June 2020, after I return from my 2.5-month internship in Costa Rica. I will have earned a major in Agricultural Science and a minor in Comparative International Agriculture. My time here at Oregon State has been short, yet very fruitful. It is sad to see my educational journey end. I will be eternally grateful to all the people I have met along the way. I would not have made it where I am without their guidance and help. They will not ever know how truly grateful I am and how impactful their presence has been in my life. Thank you, Gail Langellotto for your leadership, knowledge, and the opportunities you have given me!  

I will be blogging from Costa Rica. If you would like to follow this, or learn a bit more about me you can find my personal website at the link below.

https://angeleecalder.weebly.com/

Setting up a native-nativar plant study

Natives vs Nativars Recent studies report an increase in consumer demand for native plants, largely due to their benefits to bees and other pollinators. This interest has provided the nursery industry with an interesting labelling opportunity. If you walk into a large garden center, you find many plant pots labelled as “native” or “pollinator friendly”. Some of these plants include cultivated varieties of wild native plant species, called “nativars”. While many studies confirm the value of native plants to pollinators, we do not yet understand if nativars provide the same resources to their visitors.

Echinacea purpurea

Photo Source: Moxfyre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

E. purpurea ‘Maxima’

Photo Source: Ulf Eliasson – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

E. purpurea ‘Secret Passion’

Photo source: National Guarden Bureau

An Echinacea Example Above are three purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) plants: on the top is the wild type, in the middle is a nativar ‘Maxima’, and on the bottom is another nativar ‘Secret Passion’. In some cases, like ‘Secret Passion’s double flower, there is an obvious difference between a nativar and a wild type that might make it less attractive to insect visitors. Since we can’t see the disc flowers (the tiny flowers in the center of daisy family plants), we might assume that ‘Secret Passion’ may be more difficult for pollinators to visit. The floral traits displayed by ‘Maxima’ seem similar to the wild type, but it might produce less pollen or nectar, causing bees to pass over it.

Unless we actually observe pollinator visitation and measure floral traits and nectar, we can’t assume that natives and nativars are equal in their value to pollinators.

Nativar Research One study looking at the difference between native species and their nativar counterparts has come out of the University of Vermont (my alma mater!). A citizen science effort started by the Chicago Botanic Garden is also currently ongoing. My Master’s thesis will be the first to use a sample of plants specific to the Pacific Northwest. We have selected 8 plants that are native to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and had 1-2 nativars available. These plants have shown a range of attractiveness to pollinators (low, medium, or high) based on Aaron’s research. We are including plants with low attractiveness because it’s possible that a nativar may have a characteristic that makes it more attractive, such as a larger flower or higher nectar content.

This example of a Randomized Complete Block design shows 2 garden beds containing a native species (California Poppy and Camas) and their nativar pairs (a yellow poppy nativar and a white Camas nativar).

Experimental Design We have four garden beds in our study, and each bed contains at least one planting of each native species and their nativar counterpart(s). This kind of design is called a “Randomized Complete Block” (RCB). The RCB has two main components: “blocks”, which in our case are garden beds, and “treatments”, which are our different plant species. Above I have drawn a simplified RCB using two of our plants: Camas and California poppy. The bamboo stakes outline each plot and have attached metal tags that label the plants.

We planted our seeds and bulbs in November and will plant out 4″ starts of the other plants in early Spring. Look out for my spring and summer updates to see how these plots progress from mulch and bamboo stakes to four garden beds full of flowers and buzzing insects!

Reference articles: https://www.asla.org/NewsReleaseDetails.aspx?id=53135 http://www.gardenmediagroup.com/garden-media-releases-2019-garden-trends-report

What Does Permaculture Mean to You?

This week’s post comes from Mericos Rhodes, who is a MAIS student at Oregon State University. His M.A. studies combine the fields of Horticulture, Food in Culture and Social Justice, and Public Policy Mericos’s capstone thesis will be comparing the history, practices, philosophies, available research funding, and scientific basis of four agricultural approaches: biodynamic, permaculture, organic, and regenerative farming. Mericos is a farmer, himself. He’s also a deep thinker and eloquent speaker and writer. We think about farming in two very different ways: I am more of a scientist and he is a practioner and an artist. I look forward to our conversations, because I always broaden my perspective after talking with Mericos. He’s truly been a delight to have in the lab. (-Gail-)

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What does the word ‘permaculture’ mean, to you? 

Maybe ‘permaculture’ brings to mind an herb spiral, with rosemary, thyme, and some basil crowning it in summer. Or you may envision intricate systems of swales, which slow down and carry water to ridgelines. Maybe it’s as simple as letting ducks into an orchard. Or maybe ‘permaculture’ means nothing to you, at all!

Permaculture spiral in progress. Photo by James Keller. https://www.flickr.com/photos/semaphoria/2468761366 Creative Commons license.

Well, permaculture is most definitely a thing. Yet it’s a slippery thing, a concept full of emergent behaviors and biodiverse adaptation, unsuited to singular, rigid definition. Permaculture has been growing “from the bottom up,” and its distributed growth takes as many forms as there are watersheds on this planet. Indeed, one of the difficulties of defining permaculture is due to its fundamental principle that no particular crops, tools, or techniques are universally beneficial, for land management and food production. Learn your land. Learn its quirks, its frost pockets, and its native flora and fauna. Let what you learn guide you. Of course, following these principles will lead to vastly different techniques and plantings, across the world’s different ecosystems.

Unlike “conventional” industrial, yield-driven modern agriculture farms, no two permaculture farms will look alike. Even the cultural trappings of permaculture affirm this diversity: instead of “conferences,” permaculture people gather in “convergences,” to share evolving ideas and practices. 

The distributed, evolutionary, informal nature of ‘permaculture’ makes it a nightmare for rigorous research. During my very first conversation with Dr. Langellotto, she brought this up. My application letter had mentioned an interest in applying permaculture to broad-scale agriculture. Just seeing “the P word” made her wary, she said. Luckily, my interest wasn’t a deal breaker, it was an inspiration: Dr. Langellotto suggested that I direct my interdisciplinary research towards defining permaculture in a way that researchers could use to study it.

So part of my inquiry is a simple question with a complex answer: “What is permaculture?”

Along with permaculture, i will also be examining organic and regenerative farming. ‘Organic’ has been codified by the USDA, a process that has directed more funding, research, and legitimacy to that type of farming, but has diluted the whole concept, in the eyes of many elder organic farmers. ‘Regenerative’ is a newfangled, five syllable word that seems to refer to farm practices that actively build soil health, rather than depleting or even simply maintaining it. The word is tossed around more and more, with relative impunity.

Can we create a system that defines, legitimizes, stabilizes, and preserves the spirit of ‘regenerative,’ in a way that ‘organic’ no longer does, for many farmers and ecological eaters? Is that possible for permaculture? That’s the hope, and the motivation for my studies.

If all of this sounds more qualitative than the research that you may expect from a horticulture department, that’s because it is! However, I am loving being a part of the Garden Ecology Lab, and the Horticulture department, because the plant and insect-focused research being undertaken by my peers constantly grounds me. All of these types of agriculture and land management are, after all, just different ways of interacting with plants, animals, and soil. My hope is that my presence here may inspire those who think so beautifully about horticulture and all of its related fields to deeply consider how our work affects the biodiversity of life on this planet, climate change, and the role that our human species can play in healing the Earth.

PolliNation Podcast and Lab Update

If you love bees, and you have not yet subscribed to PolliNation, you’re missing out! OSU Professor and PolliNation podcast host, Andony Melathopolous, does a wonderful job assembling a diverse array of guests to talk all things pollinator.

Aaron Anderson recently joined Andony on episode 94 of thePolliNation podcast, to talk about his research on native plants, different insect groups, and gardeners.

Aaron talks about the 100+ study plots that he manages (two of which you can see, below), as well as which plants were most attractive to bees (such as the California poppy, on the left) versus those that were more attractive to gardeners (such as the Oregon iris, on the right).

In other news, our lab group has been very busy. All of the 2017 and 2018 bees from our garden pollinator study have been identified to species (unless they are truly recalcitrant to being ID’d to the level of species).  Gabe has been working with Lincoln Best to identify the 2018 bees.  The 2017 were verified by Sara Kornbluth, and provided a great reference collection against which we could compare the 2018 bees. Gabe has been a short-time member of our lab group, but his expertise has been a huge benefit to our program. He leaves us at the end of April to start field work in the College of Forestry. After that, he heads to UC Davis to do his Ph.D.

For the garden bee project, we have >50 verified species of bees collected from Portland-area gardens, with a few more at the morpho-species level. This summer will be our final year of collections.

This summer will also be Aaron’s final year of field work at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center. This final year will help to resolve some of the differences we saw between his 2017 and 2018 data set.

After two years of amazing assistance in the lab and in the field, Isabella has started an independent research project on campus. She has planted some of Aaron’s study plants in gardens on campus, and is looking to see if bee visitation and bee communities markedly change, when you take them out of single-species plantings (like Aaron is studying) and put them into a garden setting.

Mykl is working to write up his urban soils data for publication. We are also hoping to do a side publication, comparing the soil types that we’re finding in home gardens, and seeing how they align with the types of soils that nesting bees prefer.

Lauren is writing up her capstone paper, and is preparing to defend this term. She surveyed gardeners to try to understand how well they can identify bees from other insects, and how well they knew bee-friendly plants from those that offered few or no nectar/pollen resources to bees.

Signe is taking the data that we are collecting, and working our findings into the online Master Gardener course. The best part of our work is being able to see gardeners put some of our research-based recommendations into action. Signe plays a huge role in translating our work for the general public.

Angelee is a relatively new member of the lab. She comes to us from the OSU STEM Leaders program. She’s learning lab protocols and lending a hand on just about every project. She has been a joy to work with.

Lucas has moved on from the lab, but still helps us with remote data-basing work, on occasion. He was a joy to work with, and I feel lucky that he stuck with us for a few years.

This fall, Jen will be joining our group as a new M.S. student. We will also be close to launching the first course in the online Urban Agriculture certificate program, which is being spear-headed by Mykl. We should also be pushing out a few more papers from our garden work, to join our first concept paper on the value of urban garden bees to urban and peri-urban agriculture.

 

Garden Bee Webinar

In case you missed the webinar on our garden bee research, I’ve embedded the video, below. The entire webinar is about an hour.

And, make sure to mark your calendars for Monday, October 22nd at 11am PST. Aaron Anderson will be presenting a FIRST LOOK webinar on his research on native plant-pollinator associations. Visit the hypertexted link, above, to register for this FREE webinar.

Aaron was sharing some of his latest data with me, just this past week. His data, collected at replicated field plots in Aurora, Oregon, echoes what we’ve seen in home garden sites around Oregon: for native bees, Douglas Aster was a top performer.