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WSU’s Green Times- Vineyards, Earthships, Physics for Kids, Soil Fertility

Posted by l.meyer | July 11, 2013

Native Plants in the Vineyard: Enhancing Ecosystems

Robin Dobson and Kathleen Perillo know they will have succeeded in designing a resilient farming system when the Western Meadowlark returns to nest under their grapevines. At Klickitat Canyon and Columbia Gorge Winery and Meadowlark Vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge near Lyle, Washington, restoring native habitat is front and center.

On a warm, sunny Earth Day among blooming meadows, ancient oak woodlands, and stunning views of Mt. Hood, participants on a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington were treated to an insider’s look at what Dobson and Perillo call ecodynamic farming.

Participants take a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington. Photo courtesy of Marcy Ostrom, WSU
Participants take a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington. Photo courtesy of Marcy Ostrom, WSU.

“Native plants growing within a cropping area enhance ecosystem services, for example the natural functions provided by native beneficial insects. We call this ecodynamic agriculture to distinguish it from other types of landscaping. The concept here is to add natives within the cropping area. It’s a form of restorative agriculture,” Dobson said.

Dobson, who has a Ph.D. in plant pathology from Washington State University, has been restoring native plants and woodlands on the property since he acquired the land to establish a vineyard in 1992. Together, Dobson and Perillo have established the Center for Eco-dynamic Agriculture, a non-profit organization on a mission to teach and promote sustainable farming techniques.

All 35 of their acres, including the vineyard, are stocked with plants native to the Columbia Gorge, including blue bunchgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot, lupine, and groves of Garry oak. Native ground cover from the surrounding woodlands grows seamlessly around neat rows of grapevines that are carefully pruned to produce high quality grapes. Asked how he does it, Dobson’s reply is “patience.” “It takes eight years for balsamroot to bloom after planting, yet, once established, it is extraordinarily drought-tolerant and resistant to trampling, and it lives for decades,” he said.

Plant diversity breeds system diversity

David James, an entomologist based at WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Prosser, has been monitoring beneficial insects and pests in this habitat-enhanced farming system and comparing it with a conventional vineyard in the same region. “Natural insect enemies available [to do] biological control here far outnumber those in the conventional system and corresponding insect pest populations are much lower,” James said.

James also found nine butterfly species compared with only one in the conventional vineyard. Next, he plans to figure out exactly which plants are attracting which beneficial insects so that recommendations for specific plantings can be shared with other producers. James has been awarded a BIOAg Grant from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources to further his research on this topic.

James believes that a farm like this provides unique research conditions that could benefit the entire Washington wine industry. He explained that what Dobson and Perillo have done allows him to carry out research trials that would have been impossible under the standard three-year grant funding timeframe.

“The types of native plants that flourish at Meadowlark Vineyard could not have been established in such a short time,” Dobson said.

Unfettered terroir, unbridled customer loyalty

Dobson claims that the carefully cultivated native vegetation in his vineyard can be tasted in the grapes that go into his handmade, organic estate wines. Dobson uses no additives to ferment or flavor his wine, simply allowing sufficient time for the natural yeasts found on the grapes to do their work.

The payoff for such an approach is found in the marketplace. A unique terroir, combined with meticulous organic growing and processing techniques brings a premium for Dobson’s wines and cultivates loyal customers. Klickitat Canyon Winery sells all the wine as they can make through an on-site tasting room as well as one in the nearby town of Stevenson. While some of their wines are composed solely of grapes from this vineyard, others incorporate grapes from neighboring small, organic vineyards, thereby creating an outlet for products from like-minded farmers following similar practices.

This farm walk, just one of many offered each growing season, demonstrated how information needed for sustainable farming is discovered and shared among producers and scientists. Farmers’ local knowledge, with outcomes carefully documented by WSU researchers, was shared through dialogue and demonstration. The information was hungrily absorbed by an audience of aspiring and established farmers, as well as by agricultural professionals.

For more information about the WSU Small Farms Team farm walk education series:

-Marcy Ostrom

Students Spearhead Sustainable Village Plan

The proposed landscape plan for the Hillyard Village self-sustaining community includes an edible forest, greenhouses, and a community garden.
The proposed landscape plan for the Hillyard Village self-sustaining community includes an edible forest, greenhouses, and a community garden.

The concept of an experimental, self-sustaining community in the Hillyard neighborhood of Spokane, Wash. has been approved by the city and its department of health, and citizens have volunteered to live there for a five-year trial.
Washington State University landscape architecture students, led by associate professor Bob Scarfo, spearheaded planning for the village during the 2013 spring semester, and the project team is working to purchase land.

The Hillyard Village Project emulates New Mexico architect Mike Reynolds’ world-renowned work with “earthships” — environment- and people-friendly, sustainable community living concepts.
The project started in 2010 after months of discussion between Scarfo and Hillyard community members about developing green industries in the area. Retired city and land planner Richard Burris is heading the project.

Structures would be built from recycled materials. Citizens would volunteer to live in the community for five years, using and monitoring passive energy systems, waste systems, and self-perpetuating food and water systems.

“We’re going to reach a crossroads given current energy issues, so it would be nice to know ahead of time the kind of construction that will reduce certain energy needs and strain on the power grid,” Scarfo said.

WSU students worked with eight high school students from Spokane’s On Track Academy. The high school students designed the systems for the village, while WSU students designed features that encourage interaction with the surrounding community.

One feature is a weekly market area on the southwest corner of the lot that many people walk through to get to school, catch the bus, or go to work. There is also a stage in the center of the village that would serve as a community gathering place.

“We want to invite people into the village,” Scarfo said. “Let them walk through and see how people are growing food in front of their homes, using passive energy systems, and interacting.

“We tend to get caught up in the fact of creating physical objects, but designs should not be products to put on a piece of land,” Scarfo said. “They are living parts of the community.”

-Alyssa Patrick

Simple Hands-on Project Teaches Kids Physics, Energy Efficiency Basics

Children learn basic concepts of physics by using exhibits designed to also teach home energy efficiency. Photo by Kathleen Ryan, WSU
Children learn basic concepts of physics by using exhibits designed to also teach home energy efficiency. Photo by Kathleen Ryan, WSU

An innovative collaborative project is teaching young people the basics of physics while simultaneously opening doors to more sustainable, energy-efficient homes.

Project SOS – the Science of Sustainability – is funded by a National Science Foundation grant to teach middle school students from local communities about the physics of energy transfer in their own homes. The two-year project aims to give children a basic understanding of physics even as they learn to work collaboratively and then bring their interest and information home to their families and begin to think about the future.

Outreach to science centers

“It’s an exploration project where we are attempting to develop a new way for children to learn science,” said Kathleen Ryan, assistant professor of interior design in the Washington State University School of Design and Construction. The project has two outreach components: phase one is the development of an audience-appropriate curriculum; phase two involves presenting and sharing the curriculum with national science centers.

Children learn basic concepts of physics by using exhibits designed to also teach home energy efficiency. Photo by Kathleen Ryan, WSU Children learn the basic concepts of physics through simple hands-on exhibits and are then shown how to apply what they’ve learned to make their own homes more energy efficient, Ryan said.

One of the activities has students work together to conserve energy in a model house using easy energy-saving measures such as installing insulation, plugging air leaks, and performing energy audits.
“Whenever a structure fits together well, it means someone designed it well,” Ryan said.

Reaching rural communities

The team has developed tabletop exhibits and model houses (simplified representations of houses – although they are basic box structures right now) that can be taken to outreach communities.

Taking Project SOS from prototype models to permanent exhibits is the goal for one of the partners, the Palouse Discovery Science Center in Pullman. Ryan’s hope is to provide these models to other informal science centers in the area as well.

In particular, the project aims to address the potential for informal science education centers in a number of rural communities. Participants in the SOS project are middle school students from Rosalia, Wash., as well as in Plummer, Kendrick-Julietta and the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho.

Collaboration is key

Part of the Project SOS puzzle for Kathleen Ryan was recruiting a team of professionals from very different backgrounds who could collaborate for the goal of introducing some of the basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to young people. The project brings together faculty and staff from WSU, the Palouse Discovery Science Center and University of Idaho physics and science education with professionals from the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, Avista, Clearwater Power, Inland Power and Light and Kootenai Electric.

Creating effective interactive experiences about abstract science concepts is challenging for small science centers due to limited resources, which is why collaboration across disciplines is key to the project’s success.

“We develop hands-on exhibits and then work with the kids [on the concepts of] conduction, convection and radiation,” explained Ryan. “The big step, once they understand these basic concepts, is whether they can take that and work collaboratively with another child to explain the science that’s going on within a system.”

Find the full story at WSU News online at

-Chelsea Pickett

Breaking Down Organic Fertilizers for On-the-Ground Application

soilfertilityGrowing field crops and vegetables organically requires building healthy and productive soils, which can be challenging and expensive. The new Extension booklet Soil Fertility in Organic Systems (PNW646), clarifies some of the most common misunderstandings about organic soil fertility and provides recommendations for optimizing organic production of several common Pacific Northwest crops.

Written by faculty specializing in small farms, vegetable production, and soil science, PNW646 uses a systems approach to explain basic soil fertility principles. The authors include information about specific vegetable crops such as spinach, tomatoes, and broccoli to demonstrate how these principles play out in the field. Lead author Doug Collins hopes PNW646 will help readers navigate the multitude of fertilizer options available and make effective decisions about the type and quantity of organic fertilizer to apply.

Organic fertilizer myth busting

Among the top misconceptions that Soil Fertility in Organic Systems dispels are that more fertilizer and faster rates of nutrient release are always better. Each type of organic fertilizer has a unique nutrient content and availability for plant uptake. Similarly, each crop has its own nutrient needs. The key is to match the two.

While “anything that was once living” qualifies as organic, according to Collins, much of this very large pool of natural sources requires industrial-scale equipment to prepare it for use as a soil amendment. As a result, commercial organic fertilizers are costly. Alternatively, he explains, creating organic fertility on your own is not difficult: anybody with a serious interest in growing food using organic methods can grow cover crops, generate mulches and compost, or obtain manures relatively inexpensively.

Long-term value and added benefits

Growing an organic nutrient source such as a legume cover crop may not only cost a fraction of what a commercial organic fertilizer such as processed feather meal costs, but the slower release of nutrients from such sources also acts to “bank” the nitrogen. This long-term effect translates into a supply of nitrogen that will last throughout the growing season and even into subsequent years. Additionally, cover crops and mulches do more than provide nutrients — they can reduce soil erosion and help control weeds, both of which impact soil quality, crop yields, and the overall farming system.

Soil Fertility in Organic Systems, PNW 646, is available as a free pdf download from the WSU Extension Online Store at

– Dora Rollins