Green Therapy

The teens in the rehab program can’t have drugs, so they use the waterfall instead.

That’s how Lily Mank BSLA’15 explains the fact that when patients first visit the healing garden at the Rosecrance Griffin Williamson adolescent substance abuse facility in Rockford, Ill., they choose to sit near the cascading water.

“I think the drugs numb their emotions, and when they don’t have access to drugs, they become very raw, very sensitive to their thoughts,” says Mank. “They need the stimulation of the waterfall, the white noise, to quiet themselves down.

“They move away from the waterfall as they become more comfortable with their thoughts and more able to be balanced within themselves,” she says. “That’s a sign that they’re getting ready to leave the program.”

Mank doesn’t know if her explanation is right, but she plans to find out in her ongoing research of nature restoration.

The five-acre garden, designed by master Japanese landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, is incorporated into every part of the highly successful 12-step addiction treatment program at the Rosecrance facility. It’s a powerful tool for clearing the minds of the 12- to 18-year-old patients.

It was also powerful for Mank. Since working in the garden as an intern in her junior year of the CALS landscape architecture program, she has made healing landscapes her career focus. She went on to do a senior thesis focused on improving nature access at a Wisconsin mental health hospital. She also earned a certificate in health care garden design at the Chicago Botanical Gardens and interned at Ziegler Design Associates, a company owned by Steve Ziegler BS’83 and Joan Werner-Ziegler BS’78, CALS alums who specialize in designing healing spaces.

Mank still thinks about the waterfall. How, exactly, she wonders, does spending time in the Rosecrance garden—or in any peaceful outdoor space—help settle an unsettled mind?

That’s a great question, says Sam Dennis. It’s right at the heart of what he studies as a professor and director of the Environmental Design Laboratory (EDL) in the CALS Department of Landscape Architecture (LA). While the LA department is best known for its work on environmental restoration—techniques people can use to heal damaged natural environments—Dennis and his team at the EDL flip that around. They’re finding ways to incorporate nature into human-made environments to restore the health of people. Dennis’s projects employ thoughtful outdoor design to help people eat better and get more exercise and to create safer, calmer and more cohesive neighborhoods.

Health-conscious design has always been on the department’s radar. In 1981, 10 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Steve Ziegler was encouraged to do his senior thesis on barrier-free design in elder care facilities. But today the topic is getting much more attention.

As one example, assistant professor Kristin Thorleifsdottir has been reworking the curriculum to make sure students get a good grounding in the burgeoning area of science that looks at connections between health and the built environment.

The native Icelander offers three classes on the topic, including a new sophomore-level design class in landscape architecture and a graduate seminar that attracts students from landscape architecture, interior architecture, urban and regional planning,health care and other disciplines. She touches on history—from the cities of the ancient Greeks to the urban squalor of the Industrial Revolution—but most of what she covers starts in the 1980s.

In a 1984 study, Texas A&M design professor Roger Ulrich found that postsurgical patients who had a view of trees from their hospital windows were released sooner, took less pain medication and experienced fewer complications than did patients who had a view of a blank wall.

“Ulrich’s study was the first that looked at health and design,” she says. “Since then there have been a lot more.” Those studies span diverse disciplines—urban planning, public health, pediatrics, psychology, gerontology, neurobiology, art, horticulture and forestry, to name a few—which means those who study the topic must learn several lexicons.

“The fields of public health and design speak very different languages,” Thorleifsdottir notes. “Design researchers tend to take a more qualitative approach—they look at how people experience the environment. Public health is very much into quantitative measures.”

Her own research focuses on health at the community level, including studies on neighborhood design and children’s outdoor physical activities. She’s embarking on two new studies, one of them on the quality of public city parks and the availability of settings for mental restoration, a collaborative project with research partners in Sweden and Serbia.

Sam Dennis has become pretty fluent in the language of public health. As part of UW–Madison’s campus-wide Obesity Prevention Initiative, his partners include researchers in nutritional sciences and family medicine. Body mass index (BMI) is a common research metric, and a recent study involved drawing blood. That project, a collaboration with the Madison-based nonprofit Community Groundworks, used a garden-based curriculum to teach young people to eat better.

“Rather than ask how much the students eat, the researchers took a blood sample. You could tell by levels of serum carotenoids in blood whether they were eating fruits and vegetables,” Dennis explains.

Dennis doesn’t wield the syringes. While his collaborators collect data on human health, he assesses how well the urban landscape supports it. He works with residents of underserved urban neighborhoods to identify features that either facilitate or impede physical activity, healthy eating and safety.

To collect the data, the EDL team has developed an innovative (and now widely replicated) tool that they dubbed “participatory photo mapping.” The researchers ask neighborhood residents—often kids—to photograph things that they see as barriers to healthy living, and then ask them to write stories explaining the photos.

“They tell the stories, then we geo-locate the stories and photos with GIS, so we can overlay their stories and images with, say, traffic data, or data about pedestrians and bicyclists getting hit by cars, or crime rates.”

Often the stories lead to simple fixes, such as repainting crosswalks, adding pedestrian signals or hiring a playground supervisor so that parents feel reassured about their kids using a local park.

But residents also point out problems that are pretty surprising—and tough to solve. Dennis recounts what Latino kids in South Madison had to say about a nearby city bike path.

“They say they’re not welcome there because the bike path is for white people—that you’ve got to be rich and have a special kind of bike,” Dennis says. “The literature says the presence of a bike trail significantly reduces the body mass index of everyone around it, but the kids aren’t using it because they don’t see it as their space. Instead, they ride on busy streets.”

“They’re very sensitive to where they feel welcome,” Dennis notes. “Mapping that is part of mapping their well-being.”

Stories like these are important, Dennis says, because they point to health problems that can’t be diagnosed by calculating body mass or drawing blood.

“Physiological things like body mass index are important, but so is our mental well-being,” Dennis says. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that chronic stress experienced by people with low incomes helps explains disparities in health across different environments. As environmental design researchers, we try to figure out the source of that stress and then see what we can do to reduce it through changes in the built environment.”

Spending time in a natural setting can relieve stress, but that’s not guaranteed. That was underscored by another of Dennis’ projects, a survey that looks at the benefits of natural outdoor classrooms at more than 200 early childhood care facilities across the U.S. and Canada.

Rapid staff turnover is a problem among early childhood care providers, due to low wages and very high stress. But according to the teachers surveyed, spending time in a green, natural environment during the workday helped compensate for the downsides.

“Their mental well-being is better supported when they can spend time in these natural settings,” Dennis says. He attributes this to a process known as attention restoration: We become mentally exhausted in situations where we have to make ourselves pay attention; our minds recover when doing things that are so inherently interesting that paying attention is effortless. Engaging with the natural world fits the latter category. But you really have to engage.

“The natural environment supports attention restoration if the teachers were using all of their senses to experience the natural environment in a loosely focused way, as opposed to the tight focus they give to their indoor lessons,” Dennis says. “It’s important that they aren’t ‘traffic cops’ or hypervigilant monitors like they typically are in a traditional playground setting—that they can engage with kids as they play in nature.”

Job stress is part of the job for caregivers at the UnityPoint Health–Meriter Child and Adolescent Psychiatric (CAP) Hospital, even though there’s plenty of nature nearby. The facility sits on a secluded wooded hilltop on the western edge of Madison. But while things outside are quiet and serene, inside a very different story plays out. The young patients who come here struggle with attention and impulsivity disorders, anxiety and depression—conditions that have made it hard to function in everyday life. Many, especially the teenagers, are at risk for suicide.

“We hear a lot of hard stories here,” says Karen Larson, the CAP program nurse manager. Mental illness in children can be as hard on families and staff as it is on the children, she points out.

Hospital staff members were excited when the program moved to this bucolic spot from its former downtown location in 2004. But they soon realized that there wasn’t a way to incorporate the green surroundings into the treatment of their emotionally fragile patients.

“We started looking at the evidence about the impact of a natural environment on depression, anxiety and well-being, and what it could mean to our patients,” Larson says, “and we realized how much better it could be.”

With research in hand, the Child and Adolescent team contacted their employer’s philanthropic partners—the Meriter Foundation and Friends of Meriter—about raising funds to create a healing space for the patients. She emphasized that she wasn’t asking for landscaping.

“I compared it to purchasing an orthopedic tool that would allow somebody to have their hip replaced,” Larson recalls. “In psychiatry, one tool is the engagement of patients and staff in their environment. The more beautiful, less stressful and skillfully planned the environment, the better the tool.”

After a successful fundraising campaign, Meriter hired Ziegler Design Associates to create the healing garden. It was a good fit. The firm has worked extensively with caregiving facilities and has developed many creative outdoor spaces for youth for schools.

“It was a very special opportunity, to be able to bring healing into the landscape for kids and families and staff who needed it so badly,” says Steve Ziegler. “But it was also a complicated design challenge. A typical hospital healing garden wouldn’t work here.”

“In a psychiatric population, safety is a primary concern,” Larson says. “And a psychiatric population of minors is vulnerable on so many levels. We needed to make the space beautiful and usable and child-friendly and calming—and also safe and secure.”

This garden wouldn’t have secluded spots for quiet contemplation. There couldn’t be any trees big enough or grass tall enough to screen a staff member’s view of patients. No sharp edges, no loose objects that could be thrown (bricks were glued together). Joan Werner-Ziegler, the firm’s perennial plant specialist, researched plants for toxicity and potential reactions with medications. Steve Ziegler spent several days looking for nicely rounded boulders with serene colors.

“I stayed away from bright colors,” he says. “If you’re under psychological stress, abrupt changes can trigger a lot more emotion than they would in you or me. Our colors are wonderful, but not jarring. We chose pavements that didn’t reflect glare, because some drugs make patients’ eyes sensitive.”

They ended up with a space that’s compact enough for careful supervision while offering a variety of places to be or wander. There’s a “traditional” garden (to remind patients of home), a stepping garden with pathways through the plants, a grass garden, a prairie sensory garden and a separate garden for horticultural therapy.

You can tell the space works, says Larson, by watching the patients: “They just naturally settle. They settle into the chairs, they sit on the boulders, they sprawl on the ground, they kick balls around. They just settle into the space.”

More important, Larson adds, the garden helps get the kids talking.

“When you work with kids who are psychiatrically hospitalized, you’re trying to help them express their feelings,” she says. “If you just start asking questions, they are likely to shut down.

But if you go for a walk, they’re more likely to start talking. It’s true for all of us: If we’re feeling comfortable, we can talk about things that are really hard to talk about. And that’s what we have to do here.”

The healing garden also works wonders for the staff.

“When you work in a caregiving field, you give so much,” Larson says. “Your successes can be small and the challenges can be huge. You have to bring your best self every day. And then many of us go home to stressful lives. So if part of your workday can be restorative, it’s a wonderful gift.”

Meanwhile, Lily Mank is still intrigued by that waterfall. Now a CALS grad student, she’s teaming up with Sam Dennis and Kristin Thorleifsdottir on research to understand how all elements of a garden ease patients’ minds as they address their addiction issues.

Her goal is to help designers view healing gardens not just as a collection of streams, pathways, plantings and benches, but also in terms of how those features allow patients to interact with nature. At the waterfall, a patient may simultaneously be sensing rushing water, the breeze, the coolness of shade, light dappling through the leaves and fish moving in the nearby pool. There are many possible interactions with nature, she says, and they can combine in many ways to evoke different emotions.

“I’m trying to find out how different interactions with nature make patients feel. If I understand that, it can be another way to think about garden design,” she says.

And if patients have a better understanding about how their interactions with nature make them feel, they can use that to continue healing when they get back home.

“They won’t have access to a garden like the one at Rosecrance, but they can still seek out places that let them encounter nature in ways that make them feel calm,” Mank says. “A healing garden can be anywhere.”

SIDEBAR—Healing With a Hoe

When Mike Maddox MS’00 signed on as Rock County’s UW–Extension horticulture agent in 2003, he thought gardening was about growing plants. Some tough-talking convicts convinced him otherwise.

Maddox was leading gardening workshops at Janesville’s Rotary Botanical Gardens when he got a call from the Rock County Jail asking if he could he teach some inmates. He figured he’d be working with some tough customers, and he was right—to start with.

“The first time these guys came out, they had this machismo attitude,” Maddox recalls. “They were too big and bad to be out there gardening. But after a few weeks, they were talking about how they used to work in the garden with their grandmas. And if they had kids, they were saying, ‘I need to get my kids out here doing this.’”

At the same time, Maddox was getting good news from the jail. On the days they’d been gardening, the prisoners were better behaved.

The experience was a career-changer for Maddox. It showed him that working with plants could be a powerful restorative tool, and he wanted to learn more. He got some formal training, first in Minnesota, and then in Colorado, where he earned a certificate in horticultural therapy. Now, as director of UW–Extension’s Master Gardener program, he trains 3,000 volunteers, and horticultural therapy is one of his favorite and most popular workshop topics. He’s also helping the Meriter Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital staff incorporate horticultural therapy into their treatment program.

Maddox doesn’t usually lead horticultural therapy sessions himself, but he likes to keep his hand in it. So on Thursday mornings during the growing season, you’ll find him in a courtyard garden at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison. It features waist-level planting beds and wide walkways to accommodate the patients— many of them grizzled men leaning on canes or sitting in wheelchairs—who are busy planting and watering.

“It’s kind of a phenomenal process,” says Diane Neal, the hospital’s recreational therapist. “There is a positiveness that comes with being able to plant seeds and have them sprout. If the patients enjoy gardening and participate while they’re rehabbing, it raises their self-esteem and keeps them from being depressed.”

Nearby, Maddox is getting an earful. A U.S. Army veteran named August grew up on a Racine County truck farm, and he’s adamant that the VA garden is too small for corn. Maddox loves the give and take. He’s thrilled that August is so engaged.

“In this kind of a closed setting, where depression and isolation can be high and self-esteem can be low, you’ve got to create a spot where they can feel wanted and needed and purposeful,” he says.

It’s a lesson he learned from the jail inmates. “I thought it was going to be about growing carrots,” Maddox recalls. “No. It wound up being about growing individuals, just using carrots as the tool to do it.”

SIDEBAR—Why Nature Makes Us Feel Better 

The notion that nature can ease our minds is not new. It’s reflected in Japanese Zen gardens (an idea that goes back at least 10 centuries) and was espoused by writer Henry David Thoreau and by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park as an antidote to the stresses of urban life. But in the past 30 years or so, researchers have been digging into the science behind it.

A hardwired love of life. In 1984, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson theorized that biophilia, our affinity for nature, is bred into us. He noted that the human race has been in close contact with nature for almost all of its 200,000-year history. Only in the past three centuries of industrialization have we separated ourselves from nature. Until then, a keen awareness of the natural environment was a trait that helped the fittest survive.

Restoring attention. A theory advanced in 1986 by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan holds that our most exhausting mental work is “directed attention”—when we have to force ourselves to concentrate. The way we recover is to give our minds over to things that are so fascinating that paying attention is effortless. The natural environment fits the bill because it’s immense in scale, full of fascinating things and usually removed from the places where we tax our minds.

Reducing rumination. Research published in 2015 by Gregory Bratman of Stanford University and others looks at how exposure to nature influences rumination— repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self—which is linked to depression and other mental illnesses. They found that a walk in a natural setting decreased self-reported rumination as well as neural activity in a part of the brain that’s associated with behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination. Walking in an urban setting had no such effect.

SIDEBAR—Tips for Creating Your Own Healing Garden 

Make it personal. Start by thinking about what it is that draws you into your yard, mentally and physically, advises landscape architect Steve Ziegler BS’83: “What’s healing for one person may not be healing for another.” For example, one of Ziegler’s clients likes to walk in the garden at night, so her garden features flowers and paving materials that reflect the moonlight. Another’s healing garden includes an attractive, custom-made clothesline, because she relishes the ritual of hanging out clothes. “That’s her Zen,” Ziegler says.

Mike Maddox MS’00, director of UW–Extension’s Master Gardener program, seconds that: “Don’t get caught up in magazine images of gardening or what’s on HGTV. Go with what’s fun. Work with plants you like and that have meaning to you.”

Make it lush. A rich diversity of plants leads to a diversity of animals—especially birds and insects—and a variety colors, aromas, textures and shapes. “You want to awaken all of your senses,” Ziegler says.

Create transitions. Moving from one area to another should be easy and inviting. That’s especially true for transitioning from your house to your garden. “You want it to be easy, not jarring,” Ziegler says. “If you have to walk out a south-facing door into the blazing sun, for instance, you might want to add a pergola that provides partial shade.”

Offer choices. We get stressed when we feel like we don’t have control over our daily lives. That’s huge for hospital patients—they can’t do much about their situation—and it’s true for the rest of us as well. A healing space can ease that by offering a choice of where to sit—in the sun or shade, in a secluded spot or a more social one—and of things to smell, feel, hear and look at.

Add a focal point. A well-composed photo draws your attention to a certain spot, and so can your sanctuary. It could be a water feature. Running water is therapeutic, and there’s a wonderful selection of easy-to-maintain fountains available, Ziegler says. A bench or gazebo can serve as a focal point as well as a place to sit. So can a tree or sculpture.

Take care of yourself. “If you want to garden, find tools that fit you well and learn about body mechanics and appropriate techniques for lifting, bending, cutting and pruning to make it easier on your body,” says Maddox. And pick tasks that are appropriate to your age and abilities. Pain is not therapeutic.

Bitten

There’s no ignoring it. Some of the students enrolled in this medical entomology class are far more attractive than others. They know it, their classmates know it, and so does Susan Paskewitz, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology.

Paskewitz describes herself as “relatively unattractive,” and she proceeds to prove it using the same test her students have just performed. She fills a small vial with warm water, rubs it between her palms to coat it with volatile compounds from her skin, then places the vial on top of a thin membrane stretched over the top of a plastic container akin to an economy-sized ice cream tub. She invites a visitor to do the same.

Waiting on the other side of that membrane are 20 blood-starved specimens of Aedes aegypti, commonly known as the yellow fever mosquito. Hungry as they are, the insects don’t show a lot of interest in Paskewitz’s vial. They hover near where it touches the membrane, but only two or three land. The visitor’s vial, on the other hand, is a busy spot. At least a dozen have landed and are testing the surface with their needle-like proboscises.

“Wow,” says Paskewitz. “You’re really attractive!”

In another context, those three words could make your day. But not here. Nobody wants this kind of animal magnetism. Nobody wants to be the person who’s cursing and slapping and reaching for the DEET while others are calmly eating their brats and potato salad.

If you’re that person, take heart. Paskewitz can tell you a little bit about why you might have more than your share of interspecies charisma and offer some suggestions on how to scale it back. But first, let’s talk about why this matters.

An average American adult outweighs an average-size mosquito by about 30 million to one. Ounce for ounce, that’s like the USS Nimitz vis-a-vis a good-size duck. But while it’s a safe bet that a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier won’t change course to avoid a six-pound mallard, it’s almost certain that, on a regular basis, you change your behavior to avoid being bitten by a 2.5-milligram mosquito.

Mosquitoes cause us to do things we’d rather not, like dosing ourselves with a repellent that’s sticky and smelly and comes with a sobering warning label (you can apply it to your kids’ skin, but keep the bottle out of their reach), or pulling on long pants, long sleeves, a hat and maybe a head net on a sweltering midsummer day.

Mosquitoes keep us inside when we’d much prefer to go out. In the summer of 2009, Paskewitz and environmental economist Katherine Dickinson, of the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, asked a sample of Madison residents how they coped when mosquitoes got fierce.

The second-most-common answer (right after applying repellent) was to stay indoors. About two-thirds of the respondents said they had curtailed outdoor household activities—gardening, yard work, sitting on the deck—in the past month because of mosquitoes, especially in the evening hours, which, for working people, may be the only time available to get a little fresh air. About a third said they had avoided outings, and a similar share said they had avoided outdoor exercise.

Nobody wants to be outside more than John Bates, of Manitowish. An author of seven books about Wisconsin’s north woods and a naturalist by trade, Bates leads interpretive hikes year-round—except in June: “We just kind of throw the month out. The mosquitoes cause too much discomfort for people to listen to interpretation. All we can do is keep walking. People hire me because they want to learn more about the place than they knew before they came. If they can’t stop to listen, what’s the point?”

If we do venture out when mosquitoes are massing, we may not get the experience we were hoping for. Andrew Teichmiller, an outfitter of bikes and paddling gear in Minoqua, recalls mountain biking in 2014, arguably the area’s worst mosquito year ever. “You had to ride the complete trail without stopping, all the way back to the parking lot, and jump in the car, quick, because if you stopped there were 15 or 20 mosquitoes on you immediately.” As for camping: “It’s a different type of experience when you can’t sit by the fire at night and tell stories. You’re forced to run for your tent. It definitely affects the feel of the trip.”

But let’s be clear: A ruined camping trip is far from the worst possible consequence of a mosquito bite.

Mosquitoes transmit diseases that kill nearly a million people every year and sicken hundreds of millions. Tropical and subtropical areas bear the brunt of this, but no place is immune, including Wisconsin. Malaria plagued the immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the 1800s, and various types of encephalitis are diagnosed on a regular basis.

But today the biggest concern is West Nile virus (WNV). Wisconsin has been relatively lucky since the first case arrived here in 2002, with a total of 230 cases reported through 2014. But all four adjacent states have had bigger outbreaks—notably Illinois, with 2,093 cases total and 884 in its worst year, most of them just across the border in the Chicago area. Wisconsin’s worst year brought 57 cases.

Most cases of WNV bring no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but about one in five can involve a fever, headache, body aches, vomiting and a fatigue that can last for weeks or months. Fewer than 1 percent of WNV victims display severe neurologic symptoms, including disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures or paralysis, and of those, about 1 percent die.

Nevertheless, Wisconsin residents are bothered much more by the nuisance of biting mosquitoes than they are worried about West Nile virus. The Madison residents responding to Katherine Dickinson’s 2009 survey said they’d be willing to pay an average of $149 for a hypothetical program to control nuisance mosquitoes, but wouldn’t pay anything for one targeted at mosquitoes carrying WNV when risks were as low as they were at the time (about one case per year in Madison with a population of 250,000).

It’s not surprising to find that attitude in Wisconsin, where mosquito-borne disease is relatively rare, but Dickinson says that people tend to think the same way in places where mosquito bites are often fatal. She observes that in Tanzania, biting mosquitoes were a major factor motivating people to use bed nets. “It was a similar situation to ours,” she says. “Some mosquitoes are more noticeable and more of a nuisance, but those that transmit malaria are kind of sneaky; people don’t feel them biting as much. In areas where mosquitoes were more of a nuisance, people used the bed nets more.”

Biting-wise, there’s an important distinction between nuisance mosquitoes and the ones that transmit WNV. The former come at us aggressively, in such staggering numbers that they’re impossible to ignore. They remind us to protect ourselves. Culex pipiens, the WNV vectors, are more subtle and harder to notice.

Nuisance mosquitoes and the WNV carriers also show up at different times. The most annoying biters—Aedes vexans in particular—are floodwater species that breed after a stretch of wet weather. Culex breed in water that stagnates during a dry spell.

“When it’s been really dry, the water just sits in the stormwater catch basins that are the biggest sources of the WNV vectors,” says Paskewitz. “There’s not enough rain to flush them. Things get more fetid, stinkier. That’s the year when we see a ton of Culex.”

The take-home message: If you only grab the DEET when the biting is so bad that you can’t stand to be without it, you’re not protecting yourself against West Nile virus.
“You need to protect yourself against bites even if you’re not getting a lot of them,” says John Hausbeck, director of environmental health services for Dane County and the City of Madison. “We’ll see summers where it’s really dry and the floodwater mosquitoes are very limited, but we still have plenty of small pools that the Culex can breed in.”

That “biting pressure” is something that Hausbeck needs to stay on top of, and Paskewitz helps with that. She and former grad student Patrick Irwin PhD’10 were able to characterize the types of sites where Culex are most likely to breed and identified alternatives for treating them—for example, introducing fathead minnows to feed on Culex larvae. She and her students analyze the mosquitoes trapped in the area to see how many are Culex and whether they’re carrying WNV. Their data tell Hausbeck whether he needs to issue a public alert.

It’s important to remain vigilant. “When West Nile first came into the country, people doubted it would make it through the first winter,” Paskewitz says. “Well, it did persist, and in a very short period of time it whipped across the whole country. We’ve had a lot of cases in new places. First it was really bad in North and South Dakota. Then Colorado and Arizona. Then Texas, Illinois. It’s really hard to predict. And given the vagaries of climate, we just don’t know whether the next year it might be Wisconsin.”

Maybe WNV hasn’t changed Wisconsin residents’ ideas about why to guard against mosquito bites, but it certainly has spurred a lot of questions about how. There is a seemingly endless list of products and strategies, that, according to somebody, will eliminate mosquitoes or repel them—and since WNV arrived, Paskewitz has been getting questions about pretty much all of them.

“They call me to ask, ‘Would this work or wouldn’t it?’ There is a lot of misinformation out there and not many good sources of information, so I realized I needed to get a better idea of what the science was behind these things,” Paskewitz says.

As she comes up with answers, she posts summaries online. Her website, http://go.wisc.edu/mosquitoes, gets plenty of visits (55,000 last year) and triggers a lot of calls from media from across the nation.

A few of her findings:

• Repellents can be very effective, but comparing them is tricky. There are lots of products with varying active ingredients offered in different concentrations and combinations. Generally speaking, DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus have good track records. There are also a number of other plant-based compounds—garlic, catnip oil, vanilla and oil of cloves, for example—for which there’s less research and conflicting results. The website sums all this up and gives links to more information.
Yard traps get a thumbs-down. “We tested those and didn’t get any positive outcome,” Paskewitz says. Yard traps lure mosquitoes by releasing C02, light or octenol, a compound contained in our breath and sweat. Sure, they can catch mosquitoes by the hundreds, Paskewitz says. But does this significantly reduce the numbers that bite you? Properly controlled studies say “no.”

• “Sonic” devices—wristbands, smartphone apps, etc.—do better at extracting your money than keeping mosquitoes off your deck. “You can test them yourself,” Paskewitz says. “Sit at the picnic table and count how many mosquitoes land on you, then turn on the device and count again. Or you can trust the research and save your money.”

• Bats are busted. The idea that a colony of bats can consume millions of mosquitoes per night came from a study in which someone put a bat in a room full of mosquitoes and estimated how many it ate. The question is, given the choice, is that what bats eat in the wild? Researchers who examined the stomach contents and fecal pellets of bats have found bigger insects, like butterflies, moths and beetles, but very few mosquitoes. “Bat houses are great for conserving bats,” Paskewitz says, “but not for mosquito control.”

• Avoiding bananas—When she first heard the idea that eating bananas makes you more attractive to mosquitoes, Paskewitz raised her eyebrows. “I thought, okay, we’ll debunk that,” she says. She was teaching medical entomology at the time with 24 students—enough for a robust sample—so she made it a class project. For several weeks, each student ate a banana and then performed an attractiveness assay at prescribed intervals. “We were really intrigued. It did look like we were getting an increase a couple hours after eating the bananas.”

Paskewitz repeated the trial the next two times the course was offered, with a few tweaks to the methodology: Half the students ate bananas, the other half grapes. “The third trial was the best of all—the strongest statistical evidence and the most repeatable,” Paskewitz says. “We did it three times and saw a strong difference between the groups. Grapes didn’t matter, bananas did. At that point I was convinced. I think it’s real,” she says. Does that mean you if you leave bananas out of your picnic fruit salad, you can skip the bug spray? Probably not, Paskewitz says.

Because “less attractive” is not the same as mosquito-proof, Paskewitz gets plenty of mosquito bites, probably more than her share, because she spends a lot of time around mosquitoes—in the woods doing field research, in her garden, and in her lab. When you’re a mosquito researcher, getting bitten comes with the job.

What Makes You Attractive?

It sounds like the topic of an article in Seventeen magazine—and, interestingly, some of the same general categories apply whether you’re talking about your appeal to a mosquito or to a certain someone of your own species.

Your breath. If you breathe, you’re mosquito bait. Every breath adds to a plume of carbon dioxide (CO2 levels in your breath are 100 times that of the atmosphere) emanating from where you stand. “That’s the big signal,” says entomology professor Susan Paskewitz. “Insects are very sensitive to chemical cues. They’ll zigzag to pick up the chemical as it gets stronger and stronger, circling to narrow in on you.”

Your aroma. Once they find you, mosquitoes use chemical cues to decide whether to land and dig in. They have a lot to sort through: You emit roughly 400 different compounds from your skin and 200 in your breath. Many mosquito species won’t land on humans, even if they’re starved for blood. Others will bite us in a pinch but prefer other hosts, Paskewitz says.

Your genes. Perhaps you were born to be bitten. A pilot study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that identical twin sisters were significantly more alike in their attractiveness to mosquitoes than were non-identical twins. Since identical twins are closely matched genetically, this suggests that some of your Culicidae charisma is inherited. Some volatile compounds on our skin are produced by skin cells (others are produced by bacteria), which would be gene-regulated, the study’s authors note.

Your jeans. What color you wear matters. This is based on a series of studies in which researchers draped different colors of cloth on human volunteers or on robots heated to simulate human body temperatures, then counted mosquito landings. For the most part, darker colors were more attractive. White was least attractive, followed by yellow, blue, red and black.

Your smelly feet. “The malaria mosquito is really attracted to the smell of funky feet,” Paskewitz says. “It’s a classic story in medical entomology. The compound that makes feet smell funky and attractive to mosquitoes is the same one that causes Limburger cheese to smell the way it does.” That compound is produced by bacteria that can accumulate in the moist spots between your toes, and are kin to those used to culture Limburger.

Your drinking habits. A number of researchers speculate that drinking alcohol makes you more attractive to mosquitoes. A team in Japan put this to the test. They asked some volunteers to drink 350 ml of beer while a control subject did not. The percentage of mosquito landings after alcohol consumption increased substantially. Why this happens is unresolved, although some have speculated that people who have been drinking are easier targets because they move more slowly.

Getting Under Your Skin

Maybe you don’t get more mosquito bites than other people. Maybe your body just makes a bigger deal of it. The swelling, redness and itching are signs of your immune system kicking into gear, explains Apple Bodemer, an assistant professor of dermatology at the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. And some people’s immune systems kick harder than others.

A mosquito bite involves give and take. Before drawing out up to .001 milliliters of your blood, the mosquito injects a bit of its saliva, which contains anticoagulants to prevent clotting. You can spare the blood, but the saliva is a problem. That’s how disease gets transmitted. And the saliva contains foreign proteins, or antigens, that spur your immune system to create antibodies, Bodemer explains. “When antibodies bind to the antigens, it initiates an inflammatory response, which includes the release of histamine, which causes the blood vessels to dilate, which brings the swelling and redness and the inflammatory mediators that are responsible for the itching.”

This doesn’t happen the first time you’re bitten. It’s the second time, when your body has built up the antibodies, that your immune system engages. If you get bitten enough times by the same strain of mosquito, you may become desensitized and have either a very mild reaction or no reaction at all to the bites. “People often have more vigorous immune responses early in the season and then, as the summer goes on, they don’t have as much swelling and redness and itching,” Bodemer says. “But when you go a winter without any exposure, you often become resensitized.”

For the same reason, younger kids tend to have more aggressive reactions. Once they’ve had several years of mosquito exposure, their response tends to die down, Bodemer says.
As for scratching? Doctor’s orders: Don’t! “Scratching really promotes the full inflammatory reaction. It causes more irritation, causing the blood vessels to be more dilated and further dispersing the inflammatory mediators. It initiates a cycle of swelling, redness and itching. If you can avoid scratching, a lot of times the bumps will disappear.”

Antihistamines can ease the itching, she says, or you can try a home remedy: “I paint a little clear nail polish on the mosquito bite. That will stop the itching to some degree and allow the inflammation to clear up more quickly,” Bodemer says. “Some people cover the bite with Scotch tape for two to four hours. The tape stops you from scratching and when you peel it off, it removes some of the mosquito saliva.”

Wisconsin’s Pestilent Past

Wisconsin’s 19th-century settlers knew that mosquitoes were biting them, and they knew that something was making them sick—but they didn’t put the two together.

Their doctors blamed the ailment on “malarial vapors” emitted by decaying vegetation in the swamps, according to Peter T. Harstad, a UW–Madison educated historian who authored several articles on the health of Midwestern settlers. Harstad used reports by military and civilian doctors as well as immigrants’ diaries and letters to chronicle the devastation caused by what was sometimes called “intermittent fever” because the symptoms—chills, aches and a general fatigue—often recurred over a period of months or years.

“I became sick as soon as I came here and have been sick for eighteen months with malarial fever, which is very severe and painful and sometimes fatal,” reads one letter excerpted by Harstad, written in 1941 by a resident of Muskego. “My wife and I are now somewhat better, but far from being well. This year seventy or eighty Norwegians died here … Many became widows and fatherless this year.” About 13 percent of Muskego’s population died that year, Harstad estimates. The town was hard hit because of an abundance of marshes, a relatively warm climate, and the fact that Norwegian immigrants had no resistance to the disease.

Soldiers also suffered. Harstad cites army reports of malaria outbreaks as far north as Ft. Snelling, near present-day St. Paul. Hardest hit was Ft. Crawford, located amid miles of Mississippi River wetlands at Prairie du Chien. In the fall of 1930, there were about 150 cases reported among the 190 soldiers stationed there. To treat the disease, army surgeons were directed to “extract from twelve to twenty ounces of blood, an operation which it is sometimes required to repeat once or twice.” Wisconsin was mostly malaria-free by the end of the 19th century, as farmers drained wetlands and better housing shut out mosquitoes.

Pecatonica Without the “P”

Conservation experts and farmers alike are pretty pleased with the news from Pleasant Valley.

A seven-year pilot project in this 12,000-acre sub-watershed of the Pecatonica River showed that it’s possible to significantly cut phosphorus and sediment losses from agricultural land by zeroing in on problem areas.

Changing farming practices on selected fields on just 10 of the valley’s 61 farms reduced the amount of phosphorus entering the Pecatonica from Pleasant Valley during major storms by more than a third. Steps such as reducing tillage and planting crops that leave more residue to protect the soil caused estimated average annual losses of phosphorus and sediment entering the stream to drop by 4,400 pounds and 1,300 tons, respectively.

The project partners— UW scientists, public agencies, local farmers and The Nature Conservancy—began in 2006 by collecting baseline data on water quality in the Pecatonica below Pleasant Valley and below a nearby watershed that served as a control. From 2010 through 2012, conservationists worked with farmers to implement new practices. Data from 2013 showed that those efforts paid off.

“We can say with 90 percent confidence that this project made a real reduction in the phosphorus losses,” says CALS soil scientist Laura Ward Good. “Farmers who changed their management practices reduced their estimated phosphorus and sediment losses by about half.”

A key tool in the research was SnapPlus, software developed at CALS that estimates each field’s potential for phosphorus runoff under various management scenarios.

“In many cases the higherrisk areas were fields on steep slopes, where silage had been grown in consecutive years so there wasn’t much crop residue to hold the soil, and where soil phosphorus levels were high—possibly because past manure applications had supplied more phosphorus than crops required,” Good says.

Once they’d identified high-risk fields, team members worked with landowners to assess the likely impacts of switching practices on that land—not just on runoff, but also on yields, expenses, feed supplies and other factors that govern the success of the enterprise.

Results to date indicate that farmers can make the needed changes without reducing their bottom line if the practices are tailored to the needs of the farm and growers can proceed gradually.

“No tilling is very good for the environment, for example, and you can get high production,” points out UW–Extension specialist Jim Leverich, the project’s on-farm research coordinator. “But you have to pay close attention to the details. You don’t have as much latitude. You can’t make any mistakes.”

“The trick is to give farmers the time to adapt, to search among the best management practices to see how they fit into their systems. If they have time to utilize the practice on a small scale first, they’ll start to see the advantages and maybe start to use it on more acres,” Leverich says.


Soil Forensics:

Sediment is sediment to you and me, but not to Jasmeet Lamba PhD’14, who as a graduate student worked with professors Anita Thompson and K.G. Karthikeyan along with soil and water conservation engineer John Panuska (all in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering). Lamba was able to “fingerprint” sediment suspended in the stream and figure out where it came from. Lamba analyzed soil samples from throughout the Pleasant Valley watershed for naturally occurring metals and radioisotopes. Soil from different types of land—stream banks, woodlands and farm fields—has different concentrations of these telltale markers. By comparing those samples to others collected from the river, he determined that about 70 percent of the sediment exiting the Pleasant Valley watershed in the stream originated from farm fields, while about 30 percent came from stream banks.

A Look at Wisconsin’s Latino Population

Wisconsin’s Latino population is 74 percent larger and significantly more homegrown today than it was at the beginning of the century, according to a report by CALS demographers.

The number of Latinos residing in Wisconsin increased from 193,000 to 336,000 between 2000 and 2010, and the share of those who were born in Wisconsin rose from 40 percent to 45 percent, according to the report by the CALS-based Applied Population Laboratory. The share born outside the United States dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent, while the portion born in other states remained around 20 percent.

Ninety percent of Wisconsin’s Latinos live in urban counties—37 percent in Milwaukee County alone—compared to about 70 percent of all Wisconsin residents, the report notes. But while relatively few Latinos live in rural areas, some of the highest rates of growth are occurring far from urban centers. In Trempealeau County the Latino population rose from 240 to 1,667, a sixfold increase. In Lafayette County it went from 92 to 522, a fivefold increase.

“In many rural counties, in-migration by Latinos has stemmed population declines and filled gaps in the labor market caused by young non- Hispanic whites moving out,” says report co-author David Long, a researcher in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology.

The 58-page report, Latinos in Wisconsin, uses graphics and text to provide a statistical portrait of Latinos across the state, with details on such factors as income, employment, education, language proficiency, housing and health insurance. There’s also a companion set of “Latino Population Briefs,” one for every county.

Among other findings in the report:

  • The age distribution of Latinos differs markedly from that of the state as a whole. While the biggest age groups in the general population consist of baby boomers—ages 46–64—the largest among Latinos are children under age 10.
  • Trends in education are in the right direction, but Latinos still lag behind the general population. “The estimated share of Latinos with less than a high school diploma declined from 45 percent to 40 percent, but that’s still four times greater than the share of the total population without a diploma,” Long notes.
  • The poverty rate among Latinos is more than twice that of the overall population, and while the state’s median household income has more than kept pace with inflation since 2000, Wisconsin Latinos’ buying power fell by more than $10,000.

Data in the report came from the 2010 census and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and various state agencies. The report and briefs are available online at www.apl.wisc.edu.

 

Back to the Land

When Jerry Kaufman’s family was selecting his final resting place, they knew which one they didn’t want: The cemetery behind the strip mall.

“My father was a planner,” says daughter Ariel Kaufman. “He wasn’t a strip mall person. It just didn’t feel right.”

Jerry Kaufman, a UW professor emeritus of urban and regional planning who died in 2013, was a holistic thinker. His work involved looking at seemingly incongruent places and systems that affect our daily lives and figuring out ways to make them work together. After retiring in 2001 after 30 years on campus, he continued to serve as board president of the Milwaukee-based urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power, a position he held for some dozen years.

Fittingly, when Kaufman died, he was interred in the Natural Path Sanctuary at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability near Verona. Burial sites there are incorporated into a 25-acre nature preserve located near a training center for beginning farmers featuring a community-supported agriculture program.

“The center has these other activities that are part of life—the peace, justice and sustainability work and the community food program,” says Ariel Kaufman. “It’s not like death is separate from life. They fit together.”

Natural Path Sanctuary fits because it’s a place for natural burials—no embalming, no metal or concrete enclosures. Remains are placed in biodegradable shrouds or bare wood caskets and buried just three to four feet below the surface, a depth at which there’s still significant biological activity.

“What goes into the ground is returned to the ecosystem quickly,” says Stephen Ventura, a CALS professor of soil science who chairs the sanctuary’s board of directors. “Traditional burial puts a lot of toxic chemicals into the ground and a lot of concrete and metal. People are starting to realize that it’s not sustainable. And while cremation avoids some of that, it also has a significant impact because of the large amount of fossil fuel required.”

Since Ventura’s academic work focuses on using geographic information systems (GIS) to make land use decisions, the creation of Natural Path Sanctuary has provided a teaching opportunity. Early on, seniors in a CALS soil science capstone class helped evaluate the land and map the areas best suited for burial. More recently, students in Ventura’s GIS class developed a management information system to keep track of burial sites.

It’s not just environmental concerns driving the interest in natural burials, Ventura says. “Not all cultures believe that bodies should be preserved forever. And for many families, it offers a more personal connection with the departed—a way to be involved
at the end. Families can participate in the digging if they choose.”

Jerry Kaufman’s family chose to prepare his grave themselves. It was January, and there was snow on the ground and roots to contend with, but it wasn’t a problem. Everybody pitched in—family and friends from campus and beyond. Kaufman’s Growing Power “family” was on hand, and they’d brought picks and shovels.

“As farmers, they knew how to work the ground, but it was more than that,” says Ariel Kaufman. “It was an act of love. It is the final caring act we can do for someone—to find them their final resting place.”

Class Act: A Vet-to-Be

James Downey was thigh-high to a Percheron when he got his first look at veterinary medicine. As he watched the local vet treat his grandparents’ draft horses, the seed for a career in animal health was planted.

He already was tuned in to the idea of a medical career because both his parents were nurses. “They do health care for people; I love animals. I saw this as a way to tie the two together,” says Downey, who grew up in Manitowoc County near Valders.

By high school he was earning money raising grass-fed beef and litters of pigs and helping out on nearby dairy operations. And he’d begun shadowing a vet—the same one who treated his own stock and his grandparents’ horses.

By the end of his freshman year at CALS, Downey was on the fast track. He’d been accepted to the highly selective Food Animal Veterinary Medicine Scholars program (FAVeMedS), which was created to address concerns about a shortage of agricultural veterinarians. Undergraduates in FAVeMedS are guaranteed a spot in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) after completing their junior year.

As a designated vet-to-be at CALS, Downey pursued hands-on training in the labs of CALS animal sciences professor Mark Cook and SVM professor Dr. Gary Etzel. And he honed his people skills by serving as a peer mentor in the Bradley Learning Community (a housing program that helps freshmen transition to college life), as a house fellow in the Farm and Industry Short Course dorms, and as a leader in groups like Saddle and Sirloin and Collegiate FFA.

The business he’s going into is changing fast, Downey says. “Vets are spending more of their time in a consulting role. Our job isn’t just to treat animal disease. We look at the entire farm to see what we can do to prevent infections and outbreaks. As a vet in the future, it will be important to have broad knowledge for looking at the whole farm.”

Getting that broad knowledge will likely take him far from home—he plans to work on swine, beef and dairy operations outside of Wisconsin in his fourth year of vet school, his “extern” year, to see different practices—but he hopes that’s temporary. “I’d love to end up back in Valders,” Downey says. “I love where I’m from. I want to learn as much as I can, to be well-rounded, so that when I move back I can help everybody.”

Coming and Going

You can tell a lot about what a community has to offer by the types of people who are moving in and the types who choose to leave.

Whether an area attracts or loses residents of a certain age group, race or gender says something about the opportunities and amenities you’ll find there, points out Katherine Curtis, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of community and environmental sociology.

Curtis, a researcher at the CALS-based Applied Population Laboratory (APL), is part of a multistate team that has developed new estimates of net migration—the difference between residents moving in and out—for every U.S. county from 2000 to 2010. The estimates are broken down by age, sex and race. Combined with similar estimates from previous decades, the new numbers offer a chance to make decade-by-decade comparisons of migration by age group from 1950 to present.

Those 60 years’ worth of estimates are available online at www.netmigration.wisc.edu, where users can graph, map and compare migration trends for counties across the nation. The site was created by APL web developer Jim Beaudoin.

“Examining net migration trends helps tell stories of regional and community character and social change,” says APL director Dan Veroff.

For example, Kenosha County’s migration signature shows the shift from manufacturing (an influx of people in their 20s) to rust belt decline (a net loss in the same age group) to suburban (a big gain of people in their 30s) as the area went through auto manufacturing’s boom and bust, then became home to people commuting to Chicago-area jobs.

At the opposite end of the state, net migration in Burnett and Vilas counties is sharply negative for people in their 20s—an exodus typical in remote rural areas—and highest for those in their 60s, as retirees settle to enjoy the lakes and forests. As a result, these counties have some of the state’s fastest-aging populations.

“When we see how these things line up over time we can get a glimpse of the future as well,” Veroff says. “This is useful for people who need to plan for providing services. It can show if a certain population is going to be stable, or decline or increase. School districts, for example, can use it to project enrollment trends.”

While net migration data has been available in the past, it used to require the skills and tools of a demographer to tease it out of large and complicated datasets. The new website eliminates that barrier, Veroff notes.

“One of our goals is to democratize data,” he says. “This effort fits squarely in that realm—making useful data available and easy to use for people in many different positions.”

A Fresh Approach to Fighting Hunger

Wisconsin has hundreds of diversified, fresh market vegetable operations, but there’s one on the outskirts of Franklin that’s in a class by itself.

Most of the state’s market farms are small. They grow produce on a few rural acres, rely heavily on family labor and sell at farmers markets or roadside stands. But “the Farm,” as it’s simply called, is different. It’s big—it grows 26 kinds of fruits and vegetables on about 150 acres—and anything but pastoral, being located on the grounds of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. Hundreds of people, mostly volunteers, work the fields. And everything they harvest is given away.

The Farm is operated by the nonprofit Hunger Task Force (HTF) as a way to supply fresh produce to more than 80 food pantries and meal programs in the Milwaukee area. HTF leases the former prison farm from the county for a token fee, and with help from hundreds of community volunteers and several dozen workers employed through its job training program, provides hunger relief sites with 350,000 pounds of everything from apples to zucchini.

That’s impressive, especially considering that HTF embarked on the project some eight years ago with little expertise in horticulture. Farm manager Rich Richardson’s background is in information technology.

That’s where CALS comes in. For the past few years, CALS and UW-Extension specialists in horticulture, soils, agronomy, entomology, plant pathology and other disciplines have been
providing hands-on, in-the-field advice on topics ranging from soil fertility and weed control to irrigation and orchard management. And CALS dairy science grad Jay Janowski BS ’07 is Richardson’s second in command.

The UW experts have been happy to help—the project not only serves a worthy cause, it also offers a unique set of challenges.

“This is very ambitious. It’s not a market garden, it’s a very large, diversified vegetable farm,” says CALS horticulture professor Jed Colquhoun. “It’s a tremendous task when you consider the number of crops and that most of them have to be hand-harvested.”

“They’re doing a great job,” agrees CALS soil scientist Matt Ruark. “Last year they were having issues with nutrient deficiency. We reviewed their fertilizer program and helped them make adjustments. Everything looked good this year. Now we’re working with them on trying some other management practices, such as cover cropping, to improve fertility.”

HTF executive director Sherrie Tussler says her organization is grateful for the help. “CALS has helped us overcome many of the challenges we’ve faced as new farmers,” she says. “The expertise CALS provided helped us grow 350,000 pounds of fresh Wisconsin produce this past season. Hungry people in Milwaukee were fed—and for this we are thankful to our friends at CALS.”

To learn more about the Farm’s impact on families in need, visit www.hungertaskforce.org/the-farm

Class Act: Hardwood and Soft Skills

When CALS sophomore Logan Wells tells you he spends his spare time sawing logs, he doesn’t mean he’s catching up on sleep. He’s actually out in the woods, running logs through his portable sawmill, making lumber for clients—and making money to help cover his college expenses.

Wells’s Smock Valley Timber is more than a business—it’s part of his education. He started it as a hands-on project for the National FFA Organization, the youth program focused on agricultural and natural resource careers, while he was still in high school. Wells enjoyed working the wood and growing the business so much that he opted to enroll in CALS as a forest and wildlife ecology major with an eye toward a career in forestry or forest products.

While practicing and studying forestry keeps Wells busy, the program that sent him into the woods in the first place keeps him even busier. Logan is a state vice president in the Wisconsin FFA Association, representing 24 FFA chapters in Dane, Rock and Green counties.

Much of that work involves going out to middle and high schools, where he encourages FFA members to get active in the program and talks with them about the importance of “soft” skills—a positive attitude, good work habits, teamwork and other traits that can put them on the path to success.

His own high school FFA project helps them understand where a good idea and a good attitude can take them. His timber enterprise paid off in more than money. It earned a top prize in a national FFA competition, which in turn earned him a spot on an agricultural exchange trip to Costa Rica featuring visits to banana, coffee and cacao plantations, whitewater rafting and trips through the rainforest on zip lines and suspension bridges—all very exciting stuff for students to hear about.

“I get to tell them my story and inspire them to do something like that for themselves,” Wells says.

Quenching with Less

Doug Soldat thinks there are better things to do with Wisconsin’s drinking water than use it to grow grass.

Nationwide, landscape irrigation sucks up about seven billion gallons of potable water on an average day—and probably two-thirds of that get sprinkled on home lawns, the CALS/UW-Extension soil scientist and turfgrass specialist estimates. Adding to the problem: We tend to all do it at the same time, particularly during hot, dry spells.

“The issue is reducing peak demand in municipal areas,” Soldat says. “As we put in more lawns and irrigation systems, we’re seeing higher peak demand, which means we have to build more wells and water towers.”

Soldat is looking at several strategies to address the issue. He’s got downspouts at the O.J. Noer Facility for Turfgrass Research flowing into the mother of all rain barrels, a 4,000-gallon underground reservoir that can see the center’s large lawn through a lengthy dry spell. He’s also developing guidelines for irrigating lawns with treated waste-water. That’s common in arid regions, and he suspects it will work even better in Wisconsin, where there’s ample rainfall to flush the soil of any salts the wastewater carries.

But one of the simplest solutions is to plant grass varieties that need less irrigation than, for example, Kentucky bluegrass, the most commonly planted grass in Wisconsin. One of the most promising, he says, is tall fescue.

“It has about the same water needs as Kentucky bluegrass, but its deeper roots give it access to more water in the soil,” Soldat explains. “It has double or triple the root mass of Kentucky bluegrass, so you could potentially double or triple the amount of time before you need to irrigate.”

Just how the two will match up during a dry spell is something Soldat is testing this summer. He’s growing several cultivars of each, along with a couple of other species, under severe drought conditions. That’s not easy in Wisconsin, where droughts are short and unpredictable. So he’s inducing drought with a rainout shelter—a 2,500-square-foot vinyl canopy on tracks. It sits off to the side when the sun is shining, but at the first hint of rain, it rolls into place to keep plots dry.

The drought tolerance work is part of a larger effort by the UW turf management team to provide information on reduced-impact lawn care strategies that work in Wisconsin. They offer suggestions in a new publication, “Organic and Reduced-Risk Lawn Care,” available at UW-Extension county offices or online at learningstore.uwex.edu.

Heart Healthier

If you read labels in the cereal aisle, you know that oats are among the heart-healthiest of foods. And they may soon be even more so. CALS oat breeder John Mochon has developed a variety with significantly higher levels of beta glucan, the soluble fiber that nutritionists liken to a sponge that traps cholesterol-rich acids in the bloodstream. UW breeders hope to have it available for sale for the 2014 growing season.

Kids at Work

The slopes in the Yellowstone Wildlife Area are an impenetrable tangle of brambles, prickly ash, dogwood and honeysuckle. They need a thorough de-brushing. But the craggy hillsides are too steep to mow, and they’re a nasty place to wield a chainsaw.

But it’s terrific terrain for goats. That’s why a land management firm was hired last summer to bring 85 Boer goats to this 4,000-acre DNR-managed property in Lafayette County. The goal is to restore the woodlands to oak savanna. This open mix of trees, sedges, wildflowers and grass dominated southern Wisconsin until settlers began controlling the wildfires that kept savannas free of brush.

“Oak savannas are of prime interest to both state and federal wildlife managers. That includes endangered species that require savanna habitat—red-headed woodpecker, vesper sparrow, brown thrasher—as well as game birds such as turkey and grouse,” says CALS landscape architecture professor John Harrington. Harrington leads a team that is evaluating the goats’ impact with support from a state program funding grazing research.

Goats love to browse on woody plants. They are used widely out West to get rid of such noxious weeds as leafy spurge and to clear brush from fire-prone hillsides.

But the idea doesn’t sit well with some conservationists. Free-ranging livestock have done major damage to wild areas through overgrazing, spreading weed seed and causing soil compaction leading to erosion. Harrington hopes the project at Yellowstone, in which the goats are carefully managed by landscape restoration experts, will change some minds.

“Environmentalists have been really gun-shy—or goat-shy,” says Harrington. “This study aims to see if we can use goats as a management tool without the problems grazing has caused in the past.” Harrington hopes to conduct further research this summer.

Graduate students Julia Ela and Katie Baumann, who monitored the animals, report that so far the damage has been negligible. There’s no evidence of soil compaction—and if there’s any problem with plant damage, it’s that there hasn’t been enough of it.

“The goats defoliate the shrubs, and they break and bend a lot of branches, but they don’t necessarily kill them,” Ela says. “It’s clear that repeated grazing cycles will be necessary.”

But just getting rid of the foliage opens up new management options, including reintroducing fire. “By opening up the cover, if we can get more grassy savanna plants growing back in, we can start applying both fire and grazing and achieve greater biodiversity,” Harrington says.

Getting goats to eat more has a benefit beyond brush clearance. The firms that provide the goats supplement their management fees by selling mature animals for slaughter, taking advantage of a Midwest market for goat meat that has been rising along with the presence of ethnic groups that prefer it. The plumper the animals are when they come out of the woods, the more they’ll fetch at market—and the more affordable this management practice can be.