Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Professor interested in effects of light and temperature

SNRE horticulture professor Meriam Karlsson poses
with some bell peppers she is growing for a
trellising experiment in the Arctic Health Research
Building greenhouse. Jeff Fay photo

Meriam Karlsson grew up on a small dairy farm in southern Sweden, where her family raised hay, barley and oats for a herd of 20 to 30 cows.

Agriculture seemed like a logical career path, but Karlsson found plants and crop production more compelling than animals, so she studied horticulture in Sweden and at Michigan State University. While earning her doctorate, she became interested in the effects of temperature and light on plants, particularly flowering plants produced in greenhouses.

The horticulture professor has continued work in this area for nearly 30 years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The extreme day lengths and short field seasons in Alaska intrigued her from the start, and they still do.

“It made sense to study lights and temperatures in Alaska,” she said.

Karlsson’s current research centers on greenhouse and controlled-environment crop production, controlled-environment technology and resource management in commercial greenhouses.

Not all light is the same, whether in nature or the greenhouse. Because Alaska greenhouses need a lot of supplemental lighting, she is studying LEDs, which use less energy but provide a different quality of light than traditional sodium lights. Karlsson is looking at how the different combinations of colors in LEDs affect plant growth and is developing guidelines for Alaska greenhouse operators to use.

She has found that LEDs work best for seedlings and plants that grow close to the ground and that different plants at different stages need different types of light.

Much of her work concerns greenhouse food production because of the interest in local foods, Karlsson said. Her office is a few steps down the hall from the research greenhouse on the south side of the Arctic Health Research Building.

One area in the greenhouse holds flats of 6-inch-high orange and red bell peppers that she is growing as part of a trellising experiment. Little research has been done in Alaska with peppers, which are a good potential greenhouse crop, she said. To optimize greenhouse space and productivity, the plants are trellised, with two lateral branches that grow from the main stem. The horticulturist is looking at how pruning the lateral branches affects production.

Poinsettias grown in the Arctic Health Research
Building thrive. UAF file photo by Todd Paris
 The greenhouse on West Ridge also holds red, cream-colored and speckled poinsettias, grown for the benefit of students in her applied plant science class. The flowers demonstrate the effects of different light and temperature treatments. Karlsson teaches a sustainable agriculture course with two other professors and a class in greenhouse management this spring. The greenhouse class is popular among students, some of whom want to operate their own greenhouses.

Eric Cook is among those who have learned from Karlsson. Before coming to work for her in 2014, Cook had studied horticulture and worked in greenhouses in Guam, Oregon and Wyoming and at Chena Hot Springs. But he had not worked in a research greenhouse with state-of-the-art climate and light controls until he worked with Karlsson for a year. Cook said he learned about scientific design and trials, the use of beneficial insects to control pests and more about greenhouse controls and lighting.

“I definitely picked up some skills from her,” said Cook, who is now the greenhouse coordinator at Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City. He described Karlsson as quiet, kind and well-liked by students.

As part of a project funded by the Division of Agriculture, Karlsson will compare the nutritional value of locally produced vegetables and fruit this summer to that of imported produce in grocery stores. She will look at different varieties of tomatoes, lettuce and spinach, and possibly other vegetables. Some of the locally grown produce will be grown in the university greenhouse and some will be purchased from farmers markets. She will analyze the vegetables’ sugar and mineral content in university labs, and a lab in the Lower 48 may evaluate antioxidant levels.

“We hope that locally grown is more nutritious,” she said. “We want to get some good documentation to show that.”

Karlsson is also trying to develop greenhouse protocols for growing spinach, which is in demand but difficult to grow outside because it bolts and flowers under the long daylight hours. Growing spinach with LEDs seems to delay flowering, but more work needs to be done to see if it can be grown commercially throughout the year in greenhouses, she said.

Karlsson does not take much time away from her greenhouse or her research.

“My plants grow 24-7,” she explained. “It’s an exciting area. Growing is a good field to be in.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

OneTree plans birch sap cooperative meeting

Nicole Dunham collects birch sap from trees near the chancellor's
home on the UAF campus in 2016. UAF photo by Todd Paris

The OneTree Alaska program will host a meeting March 27 for individuals interested in tapping birch trees and forming a birch sap cooperative.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the OneTree STEM to STEAM Studio in the former Lola Tilly Commons kitchen on the UAF campus. The OneTree Alaska program processes birch sap with different types of evaporators as part of research assessing various methods and the quality of the product.

OneTree Alaska program coordinator Nicole Dunham said the structure of the cooperative will depend on what participants want. The OneTree program will lend buckets and taps to be used by members of the cooperative, who will bring their sap to the facility in exchange for birch syrup. The program wishes also to extend knowledge about syrup processing, and volunteers are needed for multiple tasks. Participants may tap anywhere from one to 100 trees.

Community volunteers and elementary and middle school students regularly participate in the annual sap collection process in April and May. Volunteers and staff collected more than 2,200 gallons of birch sap in 2016.

The birch sap season lasts anywhere from 10 days to three weeks in mid-April to early May. Equipment may be checked out from OneTree from noon to 5 p.m. April 5-7. To arrange another time or for more information, call 907-474-5517 or email OneTree Alaska is a research and educational outreach program affiliated with the School of Natural Resources and Extension.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New 'citizen science' gardening app and website released

Heidi Rader shows her new Grow & Tell app. Jeff Fay photo

Heidi Rader describes the new Grow & Tell app and website she developed as “essentially Yelp for gardeners.”

The free app, which was released Tuesday, allows gardeners in the United States to see what vegetable varieties grow best in their areas based on what other gardeners say. The app also invites gardeners to act as citizen scientists and rate the varieties that they have grown for taste, yield and reliability.

Rader teaches gardening and farming as the tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She also reaches gardeners and farmers from around the state through distance-delivered courses.

Vegetable variety trials conducted in Fairbanks show what grows well here, she said but not in other areas of the state.

“That works pretty well for me but not for people, say, in Arctic Village or Nome,” she said.

Rader hopes that lots of gardeners will rate crops, which will make the app more useful for others. “It’s citizen scientists conducting variety trials where they live,” she said.

The app is available on the App Store for iPhones, Google Play for android phones or as a website at Development of the app was funded by a grant from the eXtension Foundation to promote innovation in the Cooperative Extension Service. To keep the app free, Rader said, Extension will seek sponsorships to pay for updates, fixes and regular maintenance. Additionally, event advertising can also be purchased and targeted to app users locally, by state or nationally.

Rader hopes to expand the app to capture ratings on other plants used in the landscape and garden, including trees, shrubs, flowers, fruits and berries.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks recognized Rader with a 2016 Invent Alaska Award for her work on the app. Cornell University contributed ratings that it had already collected as well as lessons learned from operating a similar citizen science project. A Boston-based company, Geisel Software, built the app. For more information, contact Rader at

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

SNRE students receive URSA travel and project awards

Two students with the School of Natural Resources and Extension received spring travel awards from URSA, the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity program at UAF.

Trisha Levasseur received funding to attend the National Environmental and Recreation Research Symposium April 2-4 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Zoe Marshall received support for exploring sustainable agriculture in Delta Junction.

Levasseur will present a poster on data analyzed as part of a large visitor survey conducted with Associate Professor Pete Fix this past summer. Marshall said she used the money to pay for a trip to Delta Junction, where she interviewed Bryce Wrigley as part of a case study she is writing for the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture course and as part of her senior thesis coursework. Wrigley operates a 1,700-acre farm that grows barley, which his family processes into barley flour and barley cereal at its Alaska Flour Company mill.

Two SNRE students also received spring project awards. Kelly Schmitz received an URSA Spring Project Award to study the nutritional effect of willow on reindeer calf growth, and Kimberly Diamond is studying the factors impacting the dormancy and viability of Prunus padus (bird cherry) seeds. Zoe and Kelly are seniors.