Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Backyard Biodiversity ~ What's in Your Garden?

While researching potential speakers for the annual Gardener's Mini-College, I came across this lovely article in the New York Times, written by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.  I knew Carol from my time as a graduate student in the Entomology Department at the University of Maryland.  Carol's husband, Merrill Peterson (who is mentioned in the New York Times article), was a post-doctoral researcher in Bob Denno's laboratory, where I was working on my graduate degrees.

My time at Maryland was about as utopian as a graduate student's experience could be.  Our lab was fun!  Our field sites were a 3 hour drive from the University, and we often killed time by playing games where we took turns naming as many birds species, butterfly host plants, car models, cartoon shows, or anything else we could come up with.  If you couldn't think of something new to add to the growing list, you were out.  [File under: games nerds play.]

We also spent quite a bit of time talking about our various collections.  If you're an entomologist, it's nearly mandatory that you have a collection.  Bob and Merrill collected butterflies.  Merrill and Micky Eubanks kept birding lists.  Bob also collected:  coins, pine cones, lichens.  I really looked up to these smart and accomplished folks, and I wanted to emulate them.

So I started my own collection.

I collect cerambycid (longhorn) beetles.  Cerambycids are beautiful, and sometimes quite damaging.

A banded alder borer ~ one type of cerambycid beetle.  Image credit:  Larry Hanks.  Image linked to Science Daily press release at:

But once I bought my first house and started gardening, I also started to collect the insect species that visit my yard.  I don't collect every day, or even every week during the summer.  Basically, I collect on summer days when work gets overwhelmingly stressful ~ and I need to do something to calm my mind, but could still qualify as 'work'.

The bounty from an afternoon spent collecting insects in my backyard.
My secret goal is to document every insect species that visits my backyard garden, similar to the classic A Natural History of New York, by John Kieran.  I want to know what insects are mere transients through my garden, and which ones call my garden home.  I want to know which flowers the bees visit and which ones are merely eye-candy for me.  I want to see which ground beetles and springtails gather in my compost pile.  I'm curious to know if any insects dare tunnel through the hard, clay areas of unamended soil.

So far, I've collected 36 species of bee, 20 species of beetle, 29 species of fly, as well as springtails, snakeflies, mantids, and many other insect goodies.  It's amazing to me how hospitable a small patch of land can be, to so many different types of insects. 

Carol and her family are doing the same thing, although on a broader taxonomic scale.  And it all started with Carol's discovery of a rare moth on her Bellingham, WA windowsill ~ a moth that had, until that time, yet to be discovered (or at least, not recorded) in North America.  It made the Peterson - Yoon clan wonder what else might be discovered in their yard.  They thus set out to record every species they could catalog in their house and from their yard ~ efforts so elegantly reported by Carol in her New York Times article.

My own research has yielded a series of papers, co-authored with Kevin Matteson, Evelyn Fetridge and others, and suggests a few basic principles for insect biodiversity in gardens.
  1. Gardens, even in the most heavily urbanized areas, host a diverse assemblage of beneficial insects.  (Fetridge et al., 2008; Matteson et al., 2008)
  2. Plant more flowering plants, and you'll get more bees and butterflies.  The number of flowering plants in urban gardens predicted bee and butterfly diversity more than any other factor we measured. (Matteson and Langellotto, 2010).
  3. Adding in native plants surely has benefits for wildlife (an argument convincingly made by Doug Tallamy in his book, Bringing Nature Home).  However, the small scale efforts often promoted by various organizations don't seem to have much of an effect, in terms of increasing beneficial insect diversity in gardens.  (Matteson and Langellotto, 2011). 
And, although I did not specifically research this principle, it should go without saying that if you want a diversity of insects in your backyard, you need to reduce or eliminate pesticide use ~ and in particular, reduce or eliminate use of broad spectrum insecticides.

In 20 or 30 years from now, it is my dream to publish a definitive list of the insects found in a single Oregon garden ~ all in an effort to show that gardens, if managed sustainably, really do offer promise as conservatories of insect biodiversity.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Open Letter to Scotts Miracle Gro

Dear Scotts,

I was completely dismayed to read the recent announcement by the EPA that you were sentenced to pay $4.5 million in criminal penalties for illegally applying insecticides to wild bird food products, falsifying pesticide registration documents, distributing pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels, and distributing unregistered pesticides.

In a separate civil suit, you agreed to pay $6.0 million in civil penalties and spend an additional $2.0 million on environmental projects to resolve additional violations that include distributing or selling unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides ~ including products with inadequate warnings or cautions.

You see, Scotts ~ my job is to coordinate the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener Program.  I know you are familiar with Master Gardener Programs around the United States.  Over the years, you have supported many Master Gardener programs ~ including my own ~ with donations of funds or products.  I believe it was in 2009, Scotts, that you gave the Oregon Master Gardener Association (a non-profit organization that is separate from, but works to support the OSU Extension Master Gardener Program) $1,000 for the purchase of coffee and snacks at our annual conference.  Even though the donation was to the Oregon Master Gardener Association, I personally took a lot of heat from Master Gardeners who felt that accepting a donation from Scott's went against our commitment to sustainable gardening practices.

In answer to those many people who asked me 'why is Scotts sponsoring our coffee hours?', I reminded these concerned Master Gardeners that it is our responsibility to remain objective.  In response to the many, many times I've had Master Gardeners and others ask why we don't exclusively teach organic gardening practices, or why we don't confine our advice and recommendations to only include organic options, I've reminded them that whatever our personal opinions and biases might be, it is our job to remain objective.  Our responsibility is to educate clients about all of the options that are available to them ~ and then let clients choose the option that will work best for their gardening situation.  When working as Master Gardeners, we don't selectively choose among all possible options, to include only those options that we personally favor.

Our job is to educate, and not legislate.  We're descriptive, and not prescriptive. 

I've used these lines, many times, Scotts ~ when Master Gardeners have asked me if they could ignore that your products exist, or even make recommendations against your products.  Our job is to teach ~ and not to make decisions for others.

Oh, but Scotts, I'm now at a cross roads.  You see, in addition to the taglines 'educate, not legislate', and 'descriptive, not prescriptive', another mantra that we repeatedly teach in the Master Gardener Program is 'the label is the law'.  We repeatedly emphasize that the label on a pesticide container is a legal document, that describes legal uses for a pesticide.  In Oregon, Master Gardeners must spend at least 3 and as many as 10+ hours a year taking classes where we bring in our magnifying glasses and carefully read the label on a pesticide.  We talk about potential hazards of the product.  We talk about precautions we can take to reduce hazards to people, pets and the environment.  We talk about how it is illegal to exceed application rates, or to use a product in a way in which it is not intended.  We talk about active ingredients ~ those ingredients that are intended to specifically kill, deter or repel a pest ~ and how those active ingredients must be listed on the label.

And now, after reading about your recent violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide (FIFRA) Act, and then doing some more reading to discover that these violations are not your first and that the violations extend to more than 100 of your products ~ my trust in your company and your products has been damaged.

When small, untested companies market products that are little more than 'snake oil' solutions, Master Gardeners are told that they can't include those products in the list of options that they give to clients.  Remember, 'research-based and reliable recommendations' is yet another Master Gardener tagline.

If your company has a history of:
  • falsifying pesticide registration documents
  • distributing pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels
  • distributing unregistered pesticides.
  • distributing or selling unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides ~ including products with inadequate warnings or cautions.  
how can recommendations that may include one or more of your products be considered reliable?

I really want to know, Scotts.  How can we trust you after this egregious breech of the public's trust?  What should I tell the Master Gardeners that I teach?  What should I tell the clients who come to us for objective, reliable advice?

Until we can be sure that your products are reliable and legal, how can we in good conscience recommend them to our clients?

Gail Langellotto
home gardener, and someone who works with many, many Master Gardeners and home gardeners

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Garden Insects to Soothe a Stressed Out Soul

When life gets stressful, I go to the garden.  While finding a garden full of insects might further stress some, realizing the my garden is hospitable to all kinds of insects makes me feel better.

I photograph and catalog garden insects the same way that avid birders keep a life list.  Finding a new or unknown (to me) species always lifts my spirits. 

I use my iPhone, plus an insect loupe, to take close up photos of garden insects.  This is my poor (in finances and final product) attempt at nature photography.  But, it does the trick just fine for my purposes.

My macro lens
I place this magnifying loupe over the slot of my iPhone camera, to take close ups of insects in the garden.

Here are a few that I was able to find and photograph this evening.

Froghopper on Rhododendron
Froghopper on the underside of a Rhododendron leaf.

UnID'd moth on Hydrangea limelight
Unidentified moth on Hydrangea 'limelight'.

UnID'd bug on Hydrangea limelight
Unidentified bug on Hydrangea 'limelight'.

UnID'd moth on Hydrangea limelight
Unidentified moth on Hydrangea 'limelight'.

Lygus elegans on Hydrangea limelight
Lygus elegans on Hydrangea 'limelight'.

Lygus elegans on Zinnia elegans.
Lygus elegans on Zinnia elegans.

Lygus damage on zinnia.
Lygus damage on my zinnia petals ~ which I don't even mind ~ yet.

Also seen, but not not photographed: a bumblebee, a honey bee, ichneumonid wasp.

Not too shabby, for 7:30pm in the evening.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gardening Increases Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Children

I rarely say that I'm proud of my work.  Often, my work is collaborative, so that it just doesn't seem right for me to take credit for a job well done.  Even more often, I focus on flaws rather than successes. 

But today, I can honestly say that I'm proud of my work.  Specifically, I'm proud of an article I recently wrote and published with my graduate student.
This is not the first article I've published, but it may be the first one that I literally want to share with just about everyone!  [Right about now, you should be thanking me for not talking about my past work on the mating habits and reproductive fitness of wing-dimorphic planthoppers.  Fun study.  Not a zippy cocktail party topic.]

I decided to write this article while contracted to work on another project.  Growing Healthy Kids is an OSU Extension nutrition education curriculum that uses gardening as a vehicle to teach healthy habits.  I was thus somewhat sad to see that a lot of the gardening activities I included in this first version of the curriculum had been edited out of the final product.  Actually, I was really, really sad.

One reason that gardening was edited out, was because rules governing USDA SNAP-Ed programs didn't allow gardening to be the focus of nutrition education programs - at least - not to the extent that I had written gardening into the curriculum.  Thankfully, the guidelines have changed for 2013, to allow for greater use of gardening in nutrition education programs.  And, right on time, we're set to publish version 2.0 of the Growing Healthy Kids curriculum this October - chock full of garden activities!

A second reason that many gardening activities were edited out of Growing Healthy Kids, version 1.0 is OSU's commitment to research-based practices.  OSU Extension - like Extension Services at Land Grant Universities around the nation - has a strong commitment to research-based practices.  This is the fantastic thing about Extension Services.  When you go to your local Extension Service office to ask for advice on gardening - we focus on research-backed methodologies, rather than simply giving you an opinion.

"It worked this way in my garden.  You should try it, too!" is not a suitable answer.  We instead look for those options that have been tested and supported by rigorous research.

However, when I originally wrote Growing Healthy Kids, the research on whether or not garden-based programs increased fruit or vegetable consumption was mixed.  A few studies showed a positive effect of gardens on changes in fruit and vegetable consumption.  Many studies showed no effect.

Enter my 'aha' moment.  I haven't had many 'aha' moments in my life, and thus want to highlight this one instance in bold type!

I realized that at least part of the reason many researchers have not been able to show a significant, positive impact of gardens (or any nutrition education program, for that matter) on fruit or vegetable consumption is because there is a limit to the servings of fruits or vegetables one person can eat.  Researchers are thus left to look for very small changes.

For example, at the beginning of a research study, a student may eat an average of 1 serving of vegetables each day.  By the end of the study, if they eat an average of 2 servings of vegetables per day - that's a really big deal!  They increase their vegetable consumption by 100%!  However, the researcher is left to document that very small shift from 1 to 2.  This difference is small in magnitude - but can have huge, positive implications for the child who doubles their vegetable consumption.

This is what's known as a problem with statistical power - a problem we could circumvent if we conducted a review of the literature, and then subjected the studies that we found to a meta-analysis.  Meta-analysis is a statistical technique, that allows you to combine data from different studies, so long as those studies test the same hypothesis.  Power problem solved.

So, we searched the published, peer-reviewed literature for studies that looked at the impact of nutrition education programs on changes in:
  1. students' nutrition knowledge,
  2. students' preference for fruits or vegetables, and
  3. students' consumption of fruits or vegetables.
We categorized the components of each study, based upon what type of nutrition education program was offered.  Our three categories were:
  1. No nutrition education (control groups)
  2. Nutrition education without gardening (usually, focused on food groups and nutrition labels)
  3. Nutrition education with gardening
We found that nutrition education programs without gardening increased nutrition knowledge - but not fruit or vegetable consumption.

On the other hand, nutrition education with gardening significantly increased both fruit and vegetable consumption - while having no impact on nutrition knowledge.  Kids who garden eat more fruits and vegetables, even if they don't know why they should be eating more fruits and vegetables!

Harvest from Multnomah County Master Gardener Association demonstration garden, at the Learning Gardens Laboratory, 6801 SE 60th Ave., Portland.  Photo submitted as part of a Marje Luce Search for Excellence application, 2012.
Why might this be the case?  We think it may be a combination of two things.  First, kids who garden may have better access to fruits and vegetables.  Second, research by Birch and colleagues (1987) has shown that it takes somewhere between 10-15 'exposures' to a novel food, before kids are accepting of the new food.  Of these 'exposures' at least one of them has to be a taste - but seeing, feeling, growing, smelling are all different ways to expose kids to new foods.  We suggest that gardening is a fun a low risk way for kids to experience vegetables - which makes them more willing to include vegetables they grow into their diet.

So, it may be bold to say - and this was not the focus of our research - but it isn't too great of a leap to suggest that if you teach a kid to garden, you're teaching them to eat healthy!  Go gardeners!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pollinating Cucurbits

In my own garden, I'm just starting to see squash and cucumber blossoms on my plants.  I'm also starting to get emailed questions that suggest that folks are starting to see signs of pollen limitation on their own squash, zucchini, melons and cucumbers.  This is normal for the first blossoms of the year.  Cooler temperatures may mean that pollinators are less active.  Or, not having many blossoms in bloom may mean that the pollinators that are active aren't likely to find your flowering cucurbits. [Insert gratuitous plug for my own research, in an attempt to draw folks to a paper that few will ever read, otherwise.]

Fertilized zucchini (bottom) and unfertilized zucchini (top). Plants will drop unfertilized fruit, rather than wasting resources on their continued development.

Fertilized zucchini (bottom) and unfertilized zucchini (top).  Note how the seeds are fully developed in the fertilized zucchini, and the lack of evidence of seed development in the unfertilized zucchini.
Once cucurbit ovules are fertilized, seeds will develop, and the flesh of the plant will expand around the seeds.  When curcubit blossoms don't receive adequate pollination, rather than waste resources on developing unfertilized fruit, the plant aborts fruit development.  If your squash, zucchini or cucumbers are basically withering on the vine, shortly after the flower drops off of the fruit, you likely have a pollination issue.

To get around this issue, especially early on in the season, you can pollinate your own zucchini, squash, cucumber or melon blossoms.  Last year, I shot a few videos with my cell phone to demonstrate.  These videos were shot early in the morning, before coffee and enthusiasm  had made their way into my body.  Nonetheless, they might prove useful, if you're looking to pollinate your own cucurbits this year.  The videos are split into three parts:  (1) learning to distinguish male from female blossoms; (2) preparing a male blossom to pollinate, and (3) pollinating the female blossom.

Part 1:  Learning to distinguish male from female blossoms.

Distinguishing male from female zucchini blossoms. from Gail Langellotto on Vimeo.
Part 2:  Preparing a male blossom to pollinate.

Preparing the Male Flower to Pollinate from Gail Langellotto on Vimeo.

Part 3:  Pollinating the female blossom.

Pollinating Zucchini by Hand from Gail Langellotto on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pesticide Residues on Fruit and Vegetables

Yesterday, while working on the Growing Healthy Kids curriculum, I was asked to comment on one of the recipes we're planning to include in the revision.  This recipe is intended to support the 'Water for People and Plants' lesson and to encourage kids and their families to choose water over sugar-laden beverages.  The recipe is simply water flavored with things such as lavender, mint, cucumber, or citrus.

My concern with the recipe was that fruit and vegetables may contain pesticide residues, and that we needed to place STRONG cautions on the recipe card.

Here's my line of thinking:
  1. The limits for pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables are set by the EPA.  However, although pesticide residues are limited, it is unlikely that fruit and vegetables purchased at the store have zero pesticide residues. 
  2. Some of these pesticides are organophosphates.  Organophosphates inhibit cholinesterase, which is an enzyme that insects have - but that humans and other mammals also possess.  Thus, the same pesticides which act against insects also impact humans.  It's no surprise then, that organophosphates are often implicated in cases of pesticide poisoning.
  3. Their higher metabolic activity and lower body mass make infants and children more prone to pesticide poisoning, compared to adults.
  4. Water is the universal solvent, and is often used to dissolve the active ingredient of many pesticides.
However, this line of reasoning was more of a 'thought experiment'.  Ever curious, I wanted to make sure that my recommendations weren't too severe.  Thus, I decided to work through this issue, using citrus as a model.  I chose citrus, because it tends to have a bumpy rind, which can better 'hold' onto dirt, debris and pesticide residues.  Yes - you could simply peel the citrus rind off of the fruit prior to making citrus water.  However, in restaurants and in homes, it seems to be 'en vogue' to keep the peel.

I searched the USDA Maximum Residue Database for the maximum allowable residue limits (MRL) for malathion (a common organophosphate) on lemon, lime and sweet orange in the United States.  All had a MRL of 8 parts per million (ppm).  It was interesting to note that the MRL of 8 ppm in the USA is orders of magnitude higher than the default MRL for citrus set by the European Union (0.01 ppm), Canada (0.1 ppm), Japan (0.01 ppm), Malaysia (0.01 ppm), New Zealand (0.1 ppm) or South Africa (0.01 ppm).

Although the MRL for malathion on citrus is 8 ppm, in practice, citrus water likely contains far less than 8 ppm.  First, the 8 ppm is a maximum residue level, and not the actual residue level.  Second, not all of the residues are likely to dissolve back into the water.  But, in my line of thinking, it is probably that **some** of the residue will dissolve. And, although I couldn't find many examples of published research on what would be termed 'sub-chronic exposure' (i.e., very low levels of exposure, over an extended period of time), one study performed on mice found no discernible impact of low level exposure to malathion.

So, in one sense, I'm probably being over-reactive.  But, I still maintain that it's better to be safe than sorry - particularly when working with children.  And, with a few easy tweaks, we can easily reduce potential sub-chronic exposures to pesticides.  Thus, there's no real need to bother with a recipe that could potentially expose kids to low levels of pesticide.

What tweaks would I recommend, if you're preparing your own flavored waters at home?
  1. Peel cucumbers or citrus prior to placing them in the water.  This will greatly reduce pesticide residues, as the vast majority of residue resides on the outer peel.  Maybe people leave the rinds and peels on because it provides a beautiful shot of color.  However, it's not worth it (in my opinion) to needlessly introduce potential pesticide residue into your water.
  2. Follow the National Pesticide Information Center's tips for reducing pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables.  Briefly,  wash produce under running water.  Don't dunk or soak.  Don't use soap, bleach or veggie washing products, as these have been shown to be no more effective than running water, and may even 'trap' residues in pores of the produce.
  3. Choose organic over conventionally produced fruit and vegetables.  Organic pesticides aren't necessarily less toxic than synthetic pesticides.  After all, organic pesticides are still pesticides - and pesticides are generally formulated to *kill* something.  However, the major advantage of organic over synthetic pesticides is that organics tend to degrade quicker.  In fact, studies show that organically grown produce has about 1/3 the pesticide residue of conventionally grown produce.
  4. For flower-flavored waters or for pastries or other drinks those that use flowers as a garnish, use ones that you've grown in your own garden, so that you can know how they have been grown.  The MRL database doesn't list residue limits for flowers - probably because flowers aren't considered edible crops.  So, when you garnish your cake with pansies, or add lavender as a garnish on ice cream - the pesticide residues may be higher than what you would find in edible crops.  Once again, better safe than sorry - and the best way to be safe is to know 100%, without a doubt how those flowers were grown.

By the way, I love learning new things.  This week, a paper I submitted with my amazing graduate student, Abha Gupta, was accepted for publication in HortTechnology.  Briefly, we re-analyzed published data from the literature, and found that nutrition education programs that have gardening component increased vegetable consumption in kids.  However, nutrition education programs without a gardening component had no such effect.  As part of the revision process prior to publication, I need to make sure that our format is correct, as well as fix minor errors in grammar.  I never knew that the plural of fruit is fruit.  I always thought that fruit was singular and fruits was plural.  Who knew??

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Land Planarians in Portland? Who Knew!?

Oregon State University, like many land grant Universities, has an Ask an Expert service.  Through this service, anyone can submit a question on just about any topic: gardening, nutrition, agriculture, livestock, landscaping, pesticides, hens, food safety . . . . you get the picture.  Your question is then answered by an Oregon State University faculty member, or in some cases, expert Master Gardener volunteers.

Many people submit photos of insects, arthropods or other invertebrates that they would like us to identify.  I have quite a bit of training in entomology (M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and post-doctoral research at UC Davis).  I'm not usually stumped.  But this week, a question referred to me by one of our most prolific Ask an Expert volunteers left me perplexed.

What is this?

I had no idea!

The picture is in 2 frames.  The one on the left shows the beginning of a 'nob'.  The one of the right shows the same critter, a few moments later.  The photo was taken in Multnomah County (photo posted with permission of the person who submitted the question).

Luckily, I'm not the only person at Oregon State University who can field such questions.  The esteemed Dr. George Poinar, a courtesy professor of Entomology at Oregon State University, provided the answer.

"I think it is a land planarium of the family Geoplanidae.  Very little is known about them, but they suddenly appear and then are gone.  The structure sticking down on the ventral (bottom) side would be the pharynx.  They are predaceous, eating earthworms and snails. The systematics (biological classification) is complicated, and photos are difficult to find on the web."

Poinar then added further details.

"The Geoplanidae is a large, diverse family with several subfamilies.  Check the images of the members and the 6 tribes of the Rynchodeminae. Some of these are round in cross-section.  It would be nice if someone did a synopsis of this group along the Western coast."

Since so little is known about this group, and so few photos are posted on the web, I wanted to get this information posted.  It's a real treat to glimpse something so rare and fleeting in our own backyard.  

By the way, Dr. Poinar's extraction of 130 million old DNA from insects preserved in amber was the inspiration for Micheal Crichton's novel turned movie, Jurassic Park!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Your Questions Answered, Intrepid Web Searchers

A few of the notable searches, that have lead folks to my blog, are questions that are relatively easy to answer. So, here it goes.

Q: Can flea beetles come from dogs?
A: No. Flea beetles are herbivores, that have to feed on plants to grow and reproduce. Fleas are parasites, that need a blood meal in order to grow and reproduce.

Q: How do you kill cabbage worm eggs?
A: The best thing to do is to first make sure you know what cabbage worm eggs look like. Next, use your fingernail to 'pop' them or squeeze them. If you don't want to pop them, you can simply knock them off the plant. Once the egg hatches, the caterpillar won't have anything to eat. Since it will be too small to burn all the energy needed to find a cabbage or kale plant on which to feed, it will likely die before it reaches a meal. For a least toxic pesticide, you can use horticultural oils to smother the eggs.

Cabbage Worm Eggs
Cabbage worm eggs (two of them) on kale.

Q:  Can you grow potatoes without soil?
A:  Yes, you can grow potatoes hydroponically, or without soil.  The University of Florida has a nice set of instructions on the topic.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's National Volunteer Week!

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Dear Oregon Master Gardeners,

All this week, the National Extension Master Gardener Blog will be celebrating National Volunteer Week and the great work of Master Gardener volunteers.

Here in Oregon, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of the Master Gardeners who volunteer their time and talents to make our communities a better place to live.

The preliminary numbers for our impact in 2011 (I still need to double check all entries to ensure accuracy) are:
  • There were 4,009 active Master Gardener volunteers in 2011.  Of these, 765 (19%) were new trainees, and 3,245 (81%) were veterans who had been active as a Master Gardener for one year or more.
  • In Oregon, Master Gardeners donated over 181,000 hours of volunteer service to Oregon State University Extension, in support of sustainable home and community gardening programs.
  • Together, we made over 200,000 contacts!  That's over 200,000 people who attended a Master-gardener led class, called into the Master Gardener plant clinic hotline, talked with us at a Farmer's Market, worked with us in a school garden, or otherwise benefited from the research-based advice of a Master Gardener volunteer.
  • Master Gardeners were featured on the television 170 times, interviewed on the radio over 270 times, and featured in the newspaper 407 times.  This greatly extends the outreach and education provided by Master Gardeners, well beyond the 200,000 person to person contacts in 2011.
  • Nearly 11,000 pounds of produce were donated from Master Gardener demonstration, community and private gardens to local food banks and food pantries.  This value includes only documented pounds of produce, and is thus likely an underestimate of what was actually donated. 
Oregon Master Gardeners are volunteering in schools, in prisons and in hospitals.  We deliver classes in community gardens, private home orchards, farmer's markets and classrooms.  We teach people to rely less on pesticides, and more on cultural, physical and biological pest control methods.  We bear witness to kids getting excited about their first gardening success.  We re-assure adults that we all have plants that die-off, vegetables that don't bear fruit, and pests that we just can't seem to keep at bay.

Master Gardener 10 Minute University-Edible, Beautiful Plants from Clackamas County on Vimeo.  10-Minute University is an award-winning program of the Oregon State University Master Gardeners in Clackamas County.

Thus, on this day, and every day - I hope that Oregon Master Gardeners know that you make a real and positive difference in this world - as well as in my world.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

How Much Does a Vegetable Garden Cost/Save?

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Finally!  A day without work to play in the vegetable garden.  My peas are coming up!  The potatoes have poked through the soil.  My seed starts have all sprouted!

Raised Bed Cloche
Raised bed cloches, such as this one in a Master Gardener demonstration garden in Lincoln City, OR, are a great way to get a jump start on the growing season. 

The time I get to spend in the garden is truly a gift.  Even better, my garden is a gift that keeps on giving.  We haven't bought garlic or shallots since we started gardening (I always overbuy and overplant).  My kids don't like to eat peas, unless they're straight from the garden.  Herbs are always clipped from the perennial rosemary and thyme shrubs, out front.  We celebrate with fresh salsa and pesto, when we harvest our cilantro and basil.  And, like many gardeners, we have been known to leave bags of tomatoes and squash on the doorsteps of our unsuspecting neighbors.

Although I am totally sold on vegetable gardening as a way to have more direct control over what my family eats, as well as way to supplement our family food budget - I thought it might be useful to spell out the approximate monetary value of home vegetable gardening.

Thus, I tracked down as many references as I could, that detailed how much it cost to start a vegetable garden, as well as how much their garden yielded.  I came up with 6 studies, that reported 8 observations.  The sources include:
  • James Stephens and colleagues 1980 paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society (Volume 93, pages 70-72).  They report on two separate gardens in this paper: one in Tallahassee and a second in Jacksonville.  Time spent in the garden was tracked, and charged at $3.10 per hour.
  • J.D. Roth's Get Rich Slowly blog, where in 2008, he and his wife tracked how much a vegetable garden cost and saved for one year.  They spent a total of 54 hours in their Oregon garden, between their January start date and October harvest.  I did not add in the cost of their labor in their reported costs of $318.43.
  • Stall's 1979 paper published in the  Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society (Volume 92, pages 213-214).  Labor, water and travel costs not included in the reported costs.
  • Roger Doiron's Kitchen Gardeners blog, where he and his wife tracked how much food they could grow over six months in their large, home garden in Scarborough Maine.
  • Cleveland and colleague's 1985 paper, published in HortScience (volume 20, pages 694-696), where they looked at the costs and yields of vegetable gardens in Tucson, Arizona, over 2.5-3.0 years.  Labor costs were included in total cost of establishing and maintaining the gardens.  As you might expect for desert gardens, the greatest cost incurred was the cost of irrigation water.
  • Utzinger and Connolly Harrison's 1978 paper, published in HortScience (volume 13, pages 148-149).  I admit that I didn't read this paper (no electronic access to this paper), but secondarily cite information, as reported in Cleveland et al. 1985. 
For each garden, I looked at the difference between yield and cost (difference = yield - cost).  I adjusted the value of the difference to its 2012 value, using an online Consumer Price Index inflation calculator.  I then divided this adjusted difference by the size of the garden, to arrive at the value per square foot of garden area.
Source Location Size (Square Feet) Cost Yield Difference Difference, Adjusted to 2012 Value Value/Square Foot
Stephens et al. 1980 #1 Tallahassee, Florida 1,400 $70 $384 $314 $874.14 $0.62
Stephens et al. 1980 #2 Jacksonville, Florida 638 $83.00 $416.00 $333.00 $927.03 $1.45
Stall 1979 Homestead, Florida 600 $333.65 $495.70 $162.05 $512.02 $0.85
Doiron 2009 Scarborough, Maine 1,500 $282.00 $2431.00 $2149.00 $2297.80 $1.53
Roth 2008 Oregon 878 $318.43 $606.97 $288.54 $307.42 $0.35
Cleveland et al. 1985 #1 Tucson, Arizona 833 $45.00 $154.00 $109.00 $232.38 $0.28
Cleveland et al. 1985 #2 Tucson, Arizona 627.5 $56.00 $178.00 $122.00 $260.09 $0.41
Utzinger and Connolly Harrison 1978 Columbus, OH 150.7 $46.00 $90.00 $44.00 $154.80 $0.41

Altogether, the gardens had an AVERAGE VALUE OF $0.74 / square foot of garden area, and a MEDIAN VALUE OF  $0.62 / square foot of garden area. 

For a modest-sized garden, 200 square feet in size, that's a return of $148 in the first year.  For larger gardens, 500-700 square feet in size, that's a return of $370-$518 in year one, alone!

In at least 5 out of the 8 observations (all but Cleveland et al. 1985, and maybe Utzinger and Connolly Harrison 1978), the costs incurred included what was needed to establish a garden, and not simply to maintain a garden.  These costs are sure to decrease in subsequent years, as the cost of maintaining a garden is substantially less than start up costs.

Thus, even in the first year after establishment, the net economic benefits of vegetable gardening are positive - and these economic benefits are sure to increase in years two, three and beyond.

The consistent 'winners' in these papers included:
  • salad greens
  • tomatoes
  • beets
  • broccoli
  • potatoes
  • strawberries
These were the fruits and vegetables that yielded the most, in terms of dollars saved by not having to purchase these items.  However, to truly get the best value from your vegetable garden, it is important to plant what your family likes to eat.  No one really liked the green tomatoes (or the pear tomatoes) that I planted a few years ago.  Lesson learned.  I scratched those from my list.

On the other hand, my kids couldn't get enough green peas or kale.  Thus, I am more than accommodating with space for these favored fresh veggies.

To cut our garden start up costs, my husband and I did the following:
  • We compost everything we can for the free soil amendments that composting yields.  Our first year garden was planted in subpar (cheap) soils that we purchased (but we still had a great harvest!).  Years two and three were amazingly productive.  I give credit to the compost.
  • We built raised garden beds out of recycled/reclaimed fencing material.  The fencing material had not pressure treated.  CCA, or copper chromated arsenic treated wood should be avoided -  primarily because of the hazards with handling the wood, rather than the wood contaminating the garden produce.  Other wood types are likely okay.
  • We started gardening with what I like to call the 'starter set of seven' - vegetables that do well with little work, in most home gardens.  My starter set was:  peas, leaf lettuce, summer squash, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, garlic.
  • We were proactive in our pest management.  I like walking the garden every day, and this helps me catch problems before they grow out of hand.  Cabbage worms in kale?  I hand picked them off, nearly every day.  Slugs clipping my seedlings (which is happening right now)?  Time to pull out the Sluggo.  My husky is eating the peas again?  Ugggh.  Time to fence her out.
  • Kids in the household = free help with weeding.  My kids have come to understand that it takes time and effort to grow our own food.  They normally leave the garden to me - but will help spread wood chips (as a weed-suppressing mulch) or will help hand weed beds - when asked.  I also invite them to plant with me.  At 17 and 15 years old - they take real delight when they see something that they planted and harvested on our dinner plates.  
  • We hand water everything.  A turf professor once told me that he thought watering should be as burdensome as possible, so that folks realized how much water they were using to maintain their lawns and their garden.  I've taken that to heart - and hand water (every day, in the heat of the summer) our vegetable garden, as well as a few ornamentals.  This cuts down on our water use, which cuts down on irrigation costs.
  • We're learning to preserve what we grow, so that there is no waste.  We're still not perfect in this regard (some tomatoes have been known to be worked into the soil at the end of the season, rather than put up in cans).  But, we're getting better, and we accept mistakes.  Gardening should be relaxing, and not one more thing that stresses you out. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Tribute to Louise Aunspach (1913-2012)

One of the best parts of my job is that I have the opportunity to meet and work with so many amazing Master Gardener volunteers. By far the most difficult part of my job is bearing the loss of amazing and inspiring individuals who I truly admire.

Long-time Oregon Master Gardener Louise Aunspach passed away on March 27, 2012, at the age of 98. She would have celebrated her 99th birthday in June. Louise was a member of the very first Master Gardener training class that was held in Lincoln County, in 1996. For her class project, she designed and planted a garden for the Alzeheimer's Unit at Newport Rehabilitation Center, in Newport Oregon. Louise was an active Master Gardener volunteer, contributing to OSU Extension, the Lincoln County Master Gardener Association, and the Central Oregon Coast community in so many ways. Louise has been a mentor for many Lincoln County Master Gardener training classes, and served as the Lincoln County representative to the Oregon Master Gardener Association. She was honored as the Lincoln County Master Gardener of the Year in 2000, and was again honored as the Behind Scenes Awardee in Lincoln County in 2005.

What I will most remember about Louise was how much fun she always seemed to have at Mini-College. Last year, Mini-College was held in Lincoln County - and at 98 years of age - Louise was there with a huge smile on her face. It was lovely to have a visit, and to see her reconnecting with old friends on her home turf. I also remember Louise from my first Mini-College, in 2007. Little did I know that Louise was a regular at Mini-College, attending every one from 1996-2005.

Louise's friend, Sally N., was kind enough to share a profile that she had written about Louise in 2006. Reading the stories that Louise shared with Sally, it was impossible not to smile. Louise danced with Ronald Reagan! She won joined the Navy in 1941, where she was on the tennis team and earned an Expert Pistol Medal! She sang in the Navy Hour Chorus on an NBC radio show, where she was directed by Fred Waring! She taught needlepoint at Shasta College in Redding, CA for 17 years, and tended a garden of many roses, pyracanthas and oleandar for 29 years in Gerber, CA. Her secrets to longevity?: getting into all the trouble that she could, and inheriting good genes - but not often wearing them.

Louise gardened on the Oregon coast for about 28 years. Her wealth of knowledge about how to successfully garden in the challenging climate of the Oregon coast have benefited many gardeners. Calendulas, osteospermums and gallardias were among her recommendations. She also loved zinnias (me too!), but found that they didn't easily prosper in the cool climate of the coast.

A memorial service will be held on April 21, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church in Newport Oregon (227 NE 12th street).

Louise will be in my heart and on my mind at this year's Mini-College, and when my zinnias and calendulas are in full bloom in my garden.  We'll miss you, Louise.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Neonicitonoids offer LLLOOONNNGGG Term Protection Against Pests

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One group of pesticides that I have been devoting more and more time to in my Master Gardener training classes is the neonicotinoids. This group of pesticides received quite a bit of news this past week, as news outlets reported on two studies that link bees' declines with neonicotinoids.

Imidacloprid is perhaps the most common neonicotinoid pesticide available to home gardeners, as it was the first neonicotinoid to gain widespread use (Mullins 1993). Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide. When applied as a soil drench or soil injection, it is absorbed by the plant's root system, and distributed to different plant tissues via the plant's vascular system. Imidacloprid can also be applied to plant leaves. This is known as a foliar application. In general, soil applications of imidacloprid take longer to work against insects, compared to foliar applications. However, soil applications of imidacloprid are effective for longer, compared to foliar applications.

There are two primary advantages of using a systemic insecticide, such as imidacloprid, against insect pests.
  • First, imidacloprid is highly specific to insects. Imidacloprid is thus less likely to have negative effects on humans and other mammals, compared to other pesticides - such as the organophosphates or carbamates.
  • Second, since soil applied imidacloprid is taken up by the plant's roots and incorporated into plant tissues - by definition - only a pest of that plant will get a dose of the insecticide. An insect has to feed on the plant to get a dose of the pesticide. Sitting on the plant is not enough to get a dose. This is one advantage of soil applied systemics, compared to insecticide sprays. With broad spectrum insecticide sprays, every insect in the path of the spray - whether they are the target pest, or a beneficial lacewing - gets a dose of the insecticide. Systemic pesticides diminish these 'non-target effects'. Of course, there is the issue of systemic insecticides being translocated to the nectar and pollen of plants. I'll cover this issue in a future post. Nonetheless, I'll mention here that one way landscape managers try to reduce the impacts of systemic insecticides on bees is by limiting their application to wind-pollinated trees - such as hemlocks.
Other potential advantages of soil-applied imidacloprid include:
  • They are easier to apply to trees and large shrubs, relative to foliar sprays, and
  • They offer long term protection against pests. In fact, you can often spot those pesticides that are likely to contain imidacloprid as an active ingredient, by looking for phrases such as '12 month control' or 'season long control' on the container.
However, there is much to learn about the long-term persistence of soil applied imidacloprid in trees and shrubs. In fact, the data that is available suggests that long-term persistence may really be LLLLOOONNNNGGGG term persistence.

  • Szczepaniec and Raupp (2007) found that toxicity persisted, and pests were absent, up to three years following the application of imidacloprid to potted cotoneaster. It is important to note that the researchers did not sample foliage or look for pests in year four. They stopped their assays three years following the application of imidacloprid.
  • Cowles and Lagalante (2009) found that a single soil injection to hemlock can provide between 5-7 years of pest protection, and that imidacloprid was detectable up to 8 years after application. After 5 years, the metabolite imidacloprid olefin was more abundant in tree tissue than imidacloprid. Although the authors of this report note that the olefin metabolite is much less toxic than imidacloprid, Nauen et al. (1999) report that the metabolites (including olefine) of imidacloprid retain toxicity to at least some insect pests.
  • Dilling et al. (2010) found that trunk injection of imidacloprid in hemlock trees provided protection against hemlock wooly adelgid for 3-5 years.
  • Webb et al. (2003) also found that a soil drench of imidacloprid protected hemlock trees from hemlock wooly adelgid for almost three years - the extent of the assays in this study.
Now, I'm not writing this post to be anti-pesticide or anti-imidacloprid. In fact, imidacloprid has great potential as a tool that ecologists and land managers can use to save ancient hemlock forests from the invasive insect, hemlock wooly adelgid. This insect is having large-scale, ecosystem level effects that threaten unprecedented hemlock loss (Orwig et al. 2002). If we love hemlocks and hemlock forests, then it makes sense to consider imidacloprid as one tool that can be used against hemlock wooly adelgid, as part of a comprehensive integrated pest management plan. Remember that hemlocks are wind pollinated, thus lessening the potential negative impacts of imidacloprid-treated trees to bees.

Instead, I'm writing this post because I worry that too many home gardeners see the advertisement of '12 month control' on the front of the label, and think 'hmmm . . . . why purchase a product that can give me short term control, when I can get one with really long term control? That seems like the best buy!'

If you are having a short-term, one-time problem with aphids on your rose bushes, I'm not sure that imidacloprid is your best choice. In fact, for short-term, one time pest problems on any plant, I'm not so sure that imidacloprid is the best choice. Thus, I wanted to write a post that points out that the long term protection advertised may be RRREEEEAAAALLLLLlllllyyyyyy long term protection.

It's interesting to note that only one of the studies that I listed (Szczepaniec and Raupp (2007)) looked at the long-term persistence of imidicloprid in an ornamental plant. It's also interesting to note that many of these studies could detect imidacloprid (via bio-assay of pests or chemical assays for the active ingredient) up through their last sampling date. Thus, there is clearly more to learn about the persistence of imidacloprid in home gardens.

Are soil-applied systemic insecticides the best choice for pest problems in the home garden?

Are annual applications necessary?

I can't answer these questions - but I think they're important questions to ask.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do Companion Plants Offer Protection from Insect Pests?

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This past week, I attended the Pacific Branch Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (PB-ESA). The meeting was held in Portland, so it was a wonderful opportunity to interact with and learn from entomologists from CA, HI, ID, UT, MT, WA, AZ . . . and of course, OR. What I love so much about scientific conferences, such as the PB-ESA, is that we get a chance to hear about hot and happening research results. Scientific conferences are an opportunity present your work to your scientific colleagues for consideration and critique, before you publish the results of your research.

One talk that really stood out to me was the fantastic work of Joyce Parker. Joyce was examining the efficacy of two ecologically-based pest management practices in broccoli: trap cropping and companion plants.

Trap cropping is a practice where farmers plant a 'trap' crop next to the target crop that they want to protect. Pests are attracted to the trap crop, where they can be managed via targeted chemical controls. The pesticides applied are greatly reduced to a few strips of the trap crop, rather than being broadcast across the larger geographic area of the target crop.

Companion planting
is a practice where farmers plant aromatic crops next to the target crop that they want to protect. The aromas of the companion plants are said to 'hide' the target crop from insect pests. Many gardeners also use companion plants in their garden, by planting marigolds next to marigolds next to cucumbers, or dill next to cabbage.

Joyce's results suggest that using mustard as a trap crop was an effective, ecological pest management strategy in broccoli fields. However, her companion plants (Yukon Gold potato, marigolds, dill, and bunching green onions) didn't protect broccoli from the crucifer flea beetle. Her results align with several others studies which found that companion plants don't mask target crops with their aroma:
  • Finch et al. 2003: cabbage root fly and onion fly were distracted from target crops by the leaf color of some companion plants - but not by the aroma of companion plants.
  • Held et al. 2003: companion plantings of geranium actually INCREASED Japanese beetles on roses. So too did fennel seeds, cedar shavings, crushed red pepper, and osage orange.
  • Latheef and Erwin 1979: cabbage interplanted with peppermint, nasturtium, marigold and/or thyme had just as many caterpillars as cabbage planted with other cabbage.
  • Latheef and Ortiz 1984: hyssop and santolina did not protect cabbage from crucifer flea beetles. Wormwood and tansy reduced crucifer flea beetle numbers by about half (as compared to control cabbage - planted without companion plants). However, damage from crucifer flea beetles was still high on cabbage interplanted with wormword or tansy.
Nonetheless, some gardeners swear by the use of companion plants in the garden. I always tell gardeners that if they feel it's working for them - keep doing what they're doing. Companion plants can be a great way to add color and variety to the vegetable garden. However, if you're planting companion plants purely for the pest control benefits that you've head they might confer . . . you may be disappointed.

Instead, I would suggest planting insectary plants - such as coneflowers, tickseed, bee balm or spirea. These plants have been tested by researchers at Michigan State University and ranked according to their attractiveness to pollinators, parasitoids and predators.

Plants for the Central Coast of Oregon

Yarrow, such as this specimen in the Lincoln County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, attract a wide variety of beneficial insects when in bloom.