Wednesday, August 7, 2019

AFES research looks for prime time to harvest firewood

Jessie Young-Robertson is researching when trees have the lowest moisture
content, and how harvesting them at the right point could shorten the drying
time. UAF photo by J.R. Ancheta

While studying how trees take up snowmelt and rainwater, Jessie Young-Robertson noticed dramatic seasonal variations in the water content in the trees, particularly in deciduous trees like birch and aspen.

Most of her research was undertaken between March and September but last year, she extended her research through the winter —and made a surprising discovery.

This three-pronged device measures water content in trees.
UAF photo by J.R. Ancheta
Young-Robertson, a forest ecologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that scientists believed that trees dried down immediately after losing their leaves. Sensors in birch trees showed, surprisingly, that the trees dumped 70 percent of their water content into the soil in a 24-hour period in late October. The water dump correlated closely with a drop in temperatures. It followed one day in which temperatures were below freezing.

She knew that trees dropped moisture in the fall. “The surprise was how much and how fast,” she said.

The finding could be significant because fall is a popular time to harvest firewood. Depending on the when the trees are harvested in the fall, the wood could be very wet or much drier.

Further research is needed, but she believes that the information being collected may hold a key to reducing wintertime air pollution in Fairbanks caused by residents burning green firewood.

“You can let the trees do a lot of the work of drying the wood for you,” she said.

A birch tree in the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research
Watershed displays a bolted device on the left-hand side that
measures changes in tree girth and a white rectangular device
encloses a water content senor. The foil-like thermal shield
covers a sap flux sensor that measures traspiration. Photo
by Jessie Young-Robertson

Young-Robertson has studied water uptake in plants for more than 10 years. As part of a National Science Foundation grant, she studied water uptake in several species of trees from March to September for three years. She discovered that deciduous trees have low water content during winter and early spring, become saturated when the snow melts, and lose 20 percent of their water content when they leaf out. Trees refilled their water supply through summer rainfall.

She is trying to pinpoint the time when the moisture content is the lowest and the environmental factors that influence this. If people harvested firewood at the right time, she thinks it would shorten the amount of time needed to season it and reduce the PM2.5 emissions linked to burning wet wood.

The technology Young-Robertson used to measure the water content in trees has evolved since she started her research in the woods northeast of Fairbanks.

She used to walk or ski to her research plots in the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed, off the Steese Highway. She connected a sensor and her laptop to rods attached to the tree to measure its water content.  Sometimes electricity conducted by the tree shorted out her sensor, or bands measuring tree girth fell down when the trees shed water. The process is now automated and the devices she uses are more reliable.

Young-Robertson will continue to monitor plots in the research area, but will also establish and follow another plot this fall near Smith Lake. It will include birch, aspen and spruce, collecting data on air temperature, soil temperature, water content and tree girth.

One reason for placing the plot near UAF is that she hopes to stream the data to a website so people can track ongoing conditions and watch for the best time to harvest.

Young-Robertson, a researcher for the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, will expand the project with additional grant money expected this fall. She hopes to increase the number of plots at the research watershed and to add a plot on Fort Wainwright so she can monitor trees in various conditions.

Jessie Young-Robertson demonstrates how a device measures
water content. UAF photo by J.R. Ancheta
She will also hopes to conduct drying experiments with birch and spruce, the two most popular choices for firewood. The firewood would be harvested at different levels of moisture content.  She will try to determine the difference in drying times needed to reduce the water content to 20 percent or lower, the standard required by the state and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Young-Robertson has many interests besides ecohydrology. She is an artist who paints with vivid acrylic colors and creates art with a digital drawing pad. She is interested in the connections between science and storytelling. She recorded a series of conversations with scientists and others as part of a collaboration with StoryCorps, which airs stories on National Public Radio. She also told a story about a disastrous solo hike on Kesugi Ridge as part of the Dark Winter Nights storytelling series. She hails originally from New Mexico, where her father worked as a research physicist.

She likes her work with trees and their mysteries. She discovered they conduct electricity and they even pick up radio stations. Trees conduct sound when they’re full of water, she said. She could pick it up with specialized sensors that measure changes in pressure that she converted to sound.

“I feel like at every turn, we find something new,” she said.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

ASRA summer camp focuses on Alaska foods

Call it a food finale or a dessert smackdown. High schoolers with the Alaska Summer Research Academy group on Alaska foods prepared desserts made solely with local ingredients and asked the archaeology group to choose its favorite.
Sable Scotten of Galena prepares to bake king salmon as Glenna Gannon looks

The taste test lineup was enticing: serviceberry/blueberry pie with a barley flour crust, sourdough barley rolls with a raspberry filling and raspberry/strawberry sorbet topped with edible wildflowers and blueberry gummies made from scratch. The gummy gelatin was rendered from caribou bones.

Heidi Rader, who coordinates the two-week UAF camp, told the high school judges to taste everything before filling out the judging forms. She also asked for comments as they sampled the fare, while seated at a picnic table on lower campus.

“The bread was good. It was just a tad bit dry,” one volunteered.
Zoe McIntyre poses with her serviceberry pie.

After tasting the sorbet, another student said, “I can’t be the mean judge on this.”

“The pie’s really good,” one judge said. “It’s a bit tangy I guess.”

It was a blind tasting. The tasters did not know who prepared what, and the chefs stood by and listened to the feedback.

Cooking desserts is just one of many activities for participants in the camp module called, “What’s for Dinner? Why We Eat What We Eat in Alaska and What it Means for Our Health.” Participants toured the Georgeson Botanical Garden, learned about the vegetable variety trials there, and about food policy, healthy diets and career opportunities in agriculture. They also foraged for wild foods.

“It’s all about food,” said Rader, a tribes Extension educator who ran the camp with help of graduate students Glenna Gannon and Sheri Coke, and UAF Professor Liz Hodges Snyder.

Shea Gunter works on raspberry
Students spent a fair amount of time in the commercial kitchen at the Extension state office building, preparing kale salad, sautéing and baking salmon, making cauliflower muffins and cake, and other Alaska foods. They also canned jam with serviceberries and raspberries. The camp was focused on cooking healthy and with vegetables.

Zoe McIntyre, the architect of the serviceberry pie, said she signed up for the camp because she was interested in Alaska foods. She particularly liked tasting her first serviceberries.

Shea Gunter, who will be a high school sophomore this fall in Tetlin, said, “I really liked the baking.”

The winning dessert was the raspberry/strawberry or “strawsberry” sorbet made by Sable Scotten of Galena. The science academy ends on Friday.

The camp emphasized healthy eating and vegetables.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Tickets on sale for Georgeson Wine and Peonies event

The Georgeson Botanical Garden will pair wine and peonies for its annual fund-raising gala on Friday, July 26.

Wine and Peonies will run from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the UAF botanical garden. The event will feature peonies, wine from New Zealand and other locations and piano music by Victoria Salmon. Each participant will receive wine, hors d’oeuvres, a bouquet of fresh-cut peonies and a garden tour.

Garden program coordinator Mathew Carrick describes the event as an elegant evening that celebrates the garden’s peony connection with New Zealand. A couple from New Zealand, who toured the garden in 2004, encouraged horticulturist Pat Holloway to help develop a peony industry in Alaska because of the opportune time that peonies bloom here. Holloway had started variety trials at the garden three years earlier. The couple also hosted several Alaska growers who wanted to learn more about growing peonies.

The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society hosts the gala to support operations of the garden. Tickets are available at They are $40 when purchased by 5 p.m. July 19 or $50 when purchased later and at the door. Attendees must be 21 or older.

The garden is located at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, 117 West Tanana Drive. For more information, contact Mathew Carrick at at 907-474-7222 or at

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Peonies blooming at Georgeson Botanical Garden

The Hermione variety of peony can be seen at the Georgeson.
The UAF Georgeson Botanical Garden invites the public to enjoy its peonies in full bloom.

The garden will host Peonies in Bloom July 1-12, an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the big, showy “wedding flower” at the height of its bloom. The flowers emerge from buds by mid- to late June in Fairbanks.

The garden has about 150 varieties of peonies in a rainbow of colors, including white, pink, yellow and red. Most were planted as part of research and variety trials undertaken at the garden, beginning in 2001. The research has helped contribute to a successful industry and horticultural export for Alaska.

The garden is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Labor Day weekend. Admission is $5. For more information, contact Mathew Carrick at 474-7222 or

Monday, June 24, 2019

Bash/Mud Day draws a good crowd

Mud was a big attraction at the Birthday Bash and
Mud Day.

Despite occasional rain drizzles, the Georgeson Birthday Bash and Mud Day attracted than 300 visitors Sunday to the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

People enjoyed the music, garden walks, birthday cake and watching kids cavort in the mud pit. Activities for young visitors included face painting, sculpting with clay, creating bubbles and mud pies, painting with dirt, walking the shrub maze and handling composting worms. Kids especially favored the mud holes. A lengthy line formed for the opportunity to slide on plastic and splash into a watery mud pit.

A young girl, waiting for her turn, said, expectantly: “It’s gross. I know it’s going to be gross.”

Kids in an adjacent mud hole flung mud on each other and created mud pies.

Admiring visitors snapped photos of the garden’s flowers, including multiple varieties of peonies, which are beginning to bloom.

The event celebrates summer in the garden and the 168th birthday of Charles Georgeson, an agronomist who founded experiment stations in Alaska.

Mud Day is sponsored by the garden, the Georgeson Botanical Garden Society and the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension. The garden is open through Labor Day weekend, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Admission is $5. Tours begin Fridays at 2 p.m. and meet at the entrance kiosk.
A young artist shows off the artwork he created on
a paint wheel.

Face painting artistry at work.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Birthday Bash and Mud Day coming to Georgeson

A reveler celebrates in the mud pit last year.
The Georgeson Birthday Bash and Mud Day will take place June 23 in the UAF Georgeson Botanical Garden.

The event will include kids' activities, live music and, of course, a giant mud pit for romping in. Activities will include making mud pies and clay sculptures, painting with dirt, storytime, a spinning color wheel, bubbles and information booths. The public is also invited to enjoy the garden and birthday cake to celebrate its namesake, Charles Georgeson.

Information booths and activities will be available from noon to 2 p.m., and the mud pit will be open from 1 to 3 p.m. Admission is $5 per family.

The garden started hosting Mud Day in 2013, and the mud pit remains a big draw, according to Mathew Carrick, the garden’s program coordinator.

“Kids find it so fun,” he said.

More than 600 people attended last year’s event, which combined Mud Day with a birthday celebration for Georgeson, an agronomist who founded experiment stations in Alaska.

Fairbanks artist Heidi Morel and several community organizations, including the Fairbanks Children’s Museum and the Interior Alaska Food Network, will provide activities. The Fairbanks Community Food Bank will collect food donations. The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society, the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension sponsor the event.

Water will be available for cleaning off, and towels are recommended. The garden is located at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, 117 W. Tanana Drive. To help alleviate parking congestion, a shuttle will run from the Nenana parking lot, across Tanana Loop from the Patty Gym, from 11:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, contact Carrick at 907-474-7222 or email

More mud pit action at the 2018 Georgeson Birthday Bash.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Music in the Garden series begins May 23 at Georgeson

A popular musical tradition will continue this summer at the Georgeson Botanical Garden. The Music in the Garden series kicks off Thursday.

The band Haifa performs as part of the Music in the Garden series.
UAF photo by J.R. Ancheta
Concerts begin at 7 p.m. on Thursdays most weeks until Aug. 9. Spectators are welcome to bring a blanket and picnic, but are asked to leave pets at home. Food and drinks are available from Chartwell's Campus Dining. Concerts are free, but the garden will accept donations.

Parking at the garden is limited but is available on UAF’s West Ridge. A short walking path to the garden, located at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, begins at the overlook.

This summer’s Music in the Garden schedule includes:

May 23 — Sourdough Rizers
May 30 — Dry Cabin String Band
June 6 — O Tallulah
June 13 — Cold Steel Drums
June 20 — Rock Bottom Stompers
June 27 — Headbolt Heaters
July 11 — Marc Brown and The Blues Crew
July 18 — Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival American roots ensemble
July 25 — Red Hackle Pipe Band
Aug. 1 — Fairbanks Community Jazz Band
Aug. 8 — E.T. Barnette String Band

Music in the Garden is sponsored by UAF Summer Sessions and Lifelong Learning, with support from the University of Alaska College Savings Plan, Design Alaska, Sound Reinforcement Specialists and Georgeson Botanical Garden. For more information, visit or call 907-474-7021.
Jeff Richardson of University Relations provided the information for the story.