UD professors gear up for study on lawns, water quality and ecosystem services

October 6, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Taking a fresh look at water quality management, a University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) research team is studying how the replacement of urban lawns with more diverse vegetation can help protect the environment and make our landscapes more sustainable.

The researchers have been awarded a $595,000 grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and will be working at the Winterthur Gardens on their project.

Shreeram Inamdar, CANR associate professor of plant and soil sciences, is the principal investigator and the research team includes Doug Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology; Susan Barton, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and a Cooperative Extension specialist; Jules Bruck, assistant professor of landscape horticulture and design; and Joshua Duke, professor in the Department of Food and Resource Economics.

One of the main goals of the three-year study, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) National Integrated Water Quality program, is to try to curb water pollution at its source — preventing pollution in the first place rather than waiting to treat contaminated water before it enters waterways.

“In the past, standard water quality management has focused on intercepting dirty water before it gets into water systems,” explained Tallamy. “We’re doing the opposite — we’re trying to keep the water clean from the start.”

The researchers believe this can be accomplished by shrinking the lawn and replacing it with more diverse vegetation, thus reducing fertilizer and herbicide inputs and enabling water filtration, which will lead to less storm water runoff and cleaner water.

Diverse vegetation also is expected to provide other natural ecosystem services — such as carbon sequestration, preserving biodiversity and natural pest control — that are associated with mixed vegetation landscapes.

Inamdar noted that the ability to look at both of these aspects is a unique opportunity for the researchers. “One of the great things on this proposal is that we get to look at water quality as well as ecosystem services,” he said. “Not many projects take that view, so I think that’s a very novel approach.”

To conduct the study, the group will be comparing watersheds with different vegetation types at Winterthur.

Barton explained that the group will look at runoff from different types of watersheds at Winterthur — one site will be a mown turf field that will be managed in the manner of a residential lawn and the other will be primarily forest and meadow.

By doing this, Barton explained, “We can directly compare these two streams, which are very close to each other, under the same weather conditions. One gets the residential lawn runoff and one gets the diverse landscape runoff.”

The team has also secured a local homeowner’s landscape for the research. Bruck said the property will be “used as a test garden, and will become a demonstration garden to show these different sustainable principles and practices.”

Barton noted that public tours of the sites will eventually be offered.

Planting will begin next spring and as soon as the team gathers enough information and data, it will provide educational courses at Winterthur to disseminate key information to the public.

Tallamy said that making this information readily available is an effort to “change the status symbol. Right now, the status symbol is a big lawn and we’re trying to make it more diverse.”

This is also one of the main focuses of the Center for Managed Ecosystems, of which Tallamy is the director.

Duke’s role will be to determine how much it would cost a homeowner to manage their property in a more diverse manner, as opposed to how much it costs to simply manage a big lawn. Said Duke, “We suspect that it might not be that lawn is actually the cheapest way to manage things. It may be that it’s cheaper for an owner to manage in a more sustainable manner; they might just not realize it because it’s not the status quo.”

Undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in many aspects of the research, from helping the group gather information on water quality, ecosystem services and the economic implications to helping in the design of the more sustainable garden.

Bruck explained that students in her Basic Landscape Design course will “work through the design process to come up with demonstration plans that will be presented to the University of Delaware Botanical Gardens (UDBG) and then we’ll post the plans on our website, for educational purposes for other homeowners.”

For now, the team is gearing up for the spring and ready to get the study under way, hoping to improve water quality and change the status quo from large lawns to diverse, more sustainable ecosystems.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

Graphic courtesy Jules Bruck

This article can also be viewed on UDaily > >

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Create a backyard rain garden

May 24, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Want to do your part to help local rivers and bays? Create a backyard rain garden.

It’s fairly easy to build your own rain garden and it can pay big dividends for nearby watersheds.

Stormwater runoff is one of the leading sources of pollution in waterways, according to Valann Budischak, a horticultural associate with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. But rain gardens can be a great way to manage stormwater. Rain gardens are shallow depressions, planted with perennials and woody plants, which collect water from roofs, driveways, other impervious surfaces and turf grass (which, like a driveway, is lousy at absorbing water).

Rain gardens slow down and reduce runoff and thus help prevent flooding and erosion. In addition, the garden’s soil and plants filter pollutants in rainwater.

“Rain Gardens for the Bays” was launched last year to encourage homeowners to build rain gardens to improve water quality in the Delaware Bay, Delaware’s inland bays and Maryland’s coastal bays. Partners in the project include UD Cooperative Extension, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), the Center for the Inland Bays, Delaware Nature Society and other agencies.

In addition to doing good, rain gardens look good. “Rain gardens are an attractive way to reduce impact on the environment,” says Budischak. “And you don’t need a huge property to have a rain garden.”

She has seen successful rain gardens as small as 10 feet by 15 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, rain gardens on UD’s Newark campus range from less than 1,000 square feet to more than 3,000. In addition, a large rain garden was installed on the Lewes campus last year, says Tom Taylor, UD’s landscape engineer.

Rain gardens were at UD long before the term “rain garden” was coined, says Taylor. He spearheaded the installation of a rain garden – at the time called a bio-retention basin – at the Dickinson residence complex in the early 1990s.

UD’s rain gardens have always had an environmental function but now the gardens serve an educational role, too. “The key is signage,” notes Taylor. “It’s important to have signs at the rain gardens so that people know what they’re looking at and understand how they can do something similar at home.”

Taylor added plantings to a bio-swale at his Lewes home and used the campus gardens for inspiration. Plants on the exterior of a rain garden must tolerate both dry and wet conditions while plants inside the garden need to handle very wet conditions. (A rain garden’s interior is designed to hold water for up to 48 hours.)

On the edges of a rain garden, Taylor likes native ornamental grasses, asters, goldenrod, blueberry bushes and red-twig dogwood. For the interior, he frequently chooses clethra, cardinal flower, iris, button bush and winterberry. Other options that Budischak suggests are turtlehead, Joe-Pye weed, dwarf fothergilla, sweetbay magnolia and river birch.

Living in Sussex County, Taylor doesn’t have to contend with the single biggest obstacle to a successful rain garden – heavy clay soil. That’s a problem most New Castle County residents must overcome because clay soil inhibits water infiltration.

Taylor recommends replacing a foot and a half of heavy clay soil with a rain garden soil mix to improve drainage.

Other considerations in building a rain garden are size and location. Although it would seem logical to install a rain garden in a low area that doesn’t drain well, this is a poor choice because it won’t support plant growth. The ideal place for a rain garden, says Budischak, is gently sloping ground where stormwater drains off grass or impervious surfaces.

Garden size depends on the size of the area from which you are capturing runoff, soil type and depth of the garden. Many homeowners seek professional advice about the garden’s size and soil requirements before tackling installation and planting. UD Botanic Garden intern Rebecca Pineo created a how-to guide to rain gardens, which can be found online.

For more information about the Rain Gardens for the Bay program, go to the website.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

The original posting of this article can be viewed on UDaily.

 

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CANR promotes nutrient management, water quality efforts in China

November 10, 2010 under CANR News

The University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has recently taken a leadership role in organizing and presenting at two international symposia in Beijing, China. Through an ongoing partnership with China Agricultural University (CAU), CANR officials say they hope to provide sound advice and direction for the latest agricultural issues in China.

In 2008, UD signed an agreement with CAU and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, to participate in joint research and exchange activities.

The fourth International Symposium on Phosphorus Dynamic in the Soil-Plant Continuum (ISPDSPC) provided a forum for international scientists to share their latest research findings and knowledge on phosphorus dynamics and management in food-producing and other managed and unmanaged ecosystems.

At this conference, keynote speeches were given by Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil Chemistry, and Tom Sims, deputy dean of CANR and T. A. Baker Professor of Soil and Environmental Chemistry.

Sims was a part of the international steering committee for this event. There were approximately 300 people in attendance.

Following ISPDSPC was the third International Workshop on Nutrient Management Technology and Policy, which was hosted by CAU and UD, and also joined by Wageningen University and Research Centre of the Netherlands.

Sims presented a keynote talk entitled “Nutrient Management Strategies in the USA: Integrating Science, Policy, and Management to Sustain Agricultural Productivity and Protect the Environment.”

David Hansen, associate professor of soil and environmental quality and Cooperative Extension specialist for nutrient management, spoke about the issues related to the development of a comprehensive nutrient management training program in China.

This conference also provided CAU graduate students with a training course on nutrient management tools and nutrient balance at different scales. U.S. and European experts alike shared their experiences with and how to improve upon best nutrient management practices and policies.

After the conference in Beijing, CAU hosted a tour of the new Quzhou agricultural research center, where a large-scale Chinese project focused on improving nutrient management, protecting water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is now underway.

“At CANR, our nutrient management efforts have been recognized globally,” Sims said. “By using our years of research and extension experience on nutrient management in Delaware and Pennsylvania, we hope to put China’s researchers in a better position to solve their agri-environmental problems.”

In August 2011, the fourth International Workshop on Nutrient Management Technology and Policy will be hosted at UD. For more information about this workshop, see the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management website.

Article by Rachael Dubinsky

This article can also be read on UDaily by clicking here.

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College converts cow pasture into thriving wetland

May 19, 2010 under CANR News

Several times a week, Chad Nelson begins his workday with a trek through a wetland near his Townsend Hall office on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus. With spring in full swing, he enjoys the sight of the butterflies, migratory songbirds, mallard ducks and their ducklings, frogs and tadpoles that make the wetland their warm-weather home.

Later this summer Nelson, an assistant professor of landscape design in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, will be on the look out for dragonflies. And even in winter, he says the wetland teems with life, with such species as glossy ibis and over-wintering songbirds.

Two years ago, about the only animal life this two-acre site supported were dairy cows and migrating Canada geese.

Jenny McDermott, facilities manager for the college, spearheaded the effort to convert a poorly draining cow pasture into a wetland.

Her go-to man on the project was Tom Barthelmeh, who is a wetlands restoration expert with the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

“This project had a lot of challenges and Tom’s help was integral,” says McDermott. “Our goal in creating this wetland was not only to provide wildlife habitat but to improve water quality in the White Clay watershed.”

Once it is fully operational, the wetland will reduce runoff to Cool Run, which is a tributary of White Clay Creek. And that’s just one of the ways it will help the watershed.

The University’s farm and main campus are where Cool Run starts, the headwaters of the stream, and thus are a critical area for influencing environmental quality.

“Wetlands, especially in this area, do a lot of good things for a watershed,” explains McDermott. “By taking the pressure off the rate and volume of water that flows into a stream, wetlands reduce problems caused by stormwater runoff downstream.”

From a wildlife habitat perspective, the wetland gets high marks from Doug Tallamy, chairperson of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

“The new wetlands will raise the carrying capacity of the UD Farm for decades,” says Tallamy. “The wet areas churn out insects that develop on detritus. These support swifts, martins, swallows and bats. Wading birds eat the aquatic insects and frogs in the wet areas. The wetland also provides habitats for breeding birds. It’s very productive. And none of this was happening when it was a cow pasture.”

Barthelmeh says he enjoyed the project, especially because it gave him the opportunity to mentor students. UD undergraduate and graduate students were involved in every aspect of the project, from site design and installation to the two rounds of planting that occurred, most recently last October.

Nelson spearheaded plant design with plenty of assistance from his students. Almost 2,000 trees, shrubs and perennial seed plugs have been planted at the site, ranging from blue flag iris, which provides purple-blue spring blooms; buttonbush, which blooms in summer; bald cypress, with its brilliant rusty orange fall foliage; and winterberry holly, known for its red berries in winter.

A whopping 90 percent of the first year’s planting survived despite dry planting conditions and some damage by waterfowl.

“I was concerned last year because a lot of Canada geese were browsing the wetland but most of the damage wasn’t significant since it was confined to the stalks and not the roots,” says Nelson.

The wetland is one component of a comprehensive plan to make the UD Farm a model of sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture.

McDermott is now busy overseeing other conservation projects. Additional channel and wetland restoration will take place along the entire length of the Cool Run tributary running through the farm. A stormwater retrofit will address building and parking lot runoff that flows into Cool Run.

“These restoration efforts wouldn’t be possible without a lot of partners within the university, from DNREC and from the New Castle Conservation District,” says McDermott. “Grant funding from several DNREC departments and from the University’s alumni-supported Sustainability Fund have been matched by funding from our college to not only implement environmental protection but to provide a teaching opportunity for students and a demonstration of watershed protection.”

The UD wetland has been utilized as an outdoor classroom by landscape design, landscape construction, ornithology, wildlife management and wildlife ecology students. And it serves a public education function, as well, especially now that it has become a part of the UD Botanic Gardens.

“We offered wetland tours on Earth Day and Ag Day and the public is welcome to take self-guided tours any day from dawn to dusk,” says McDermott. “Wetlands are sometimes seen as a ‘no man’s land.’ We want people to appreciate the positive impact they can have on water quality and the diversity of wildlife they support. Wetlands are incredibly important.”

To learn more, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the UD Botanic Gardens wetland from dawn to dusk daily. The wetland is located on UD’s Farm off Route 896 in Newark, near the Girl Scouts building.

Click here to see the article with photos online on UDaily.

Article by Margo McDonough
Photos by Danielle Quigley

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