field day 2019

John Gaskin, center, conducts a weed workshop in this 2019 file photo taken during annual field days. 

Plow it under, dig it up, spray it down — nothing you try does much to bindweed. It happily grows — sometimes all the more — despite your best efforts to knock it back, and it seems to love even the poorest of poor soil conditions. But there may soon be solutions to this tenacious pest, thanks to work being done at the USDA-ARS center.

It’s one of several research efforts going full speed ahead at the USDA-ARS center despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had to social distance, and that is OK,” researcher Dr. John Gaskin said. “The building was closed to the public, and there were temperature checks and screening questions.”

While there has been one case of infection, the CDC guidelines, which involved social distancing and wearing masks when unable to social distance, prevented that one case from becoming an outbreak at the lab, all while allowing critical research, like the bindweed project, to go on.

“The problem with bindweed is they have a lot of underground root growth,” researcher Dr. John Gaskin said.

That is particularly problematic for organic growers, as they cannot plow the weed to control it. Indeed plowing it just helps the plant multiply all the more, as each tiny piece of root can itself grow a new plant.

Gaskin said the research work began with a search of its native habitat — Europe and Asia — for some type of pest that preferentially attacks the plant. That agent is now being put through its paces to ensure it won’t bother anything in the environment where the biocontrol is used. This part of the process alone can take as many as 10 years to get through.

Right now, it appears there is a viable bioagent of interest. It’s a fly that lays its eggs preferentially on bindweed, and then its larvae drill down to the root system to eat the plant’s roots, destroying it from underground.

Researchers are also looking at the genetics of bindweed, to determine its primary means of reproduction, to help decide which management approaches will work best.

Another weed that plagues organic gardeners especially is Canada thistle, which also has a very strong underground root system. A search for bioagents to control that has so far not yielded anything that is particularly effective, Gaskin said, so researchers are taking a new direction with a rust — a fungal agent.

Gaskin said the research center is working with the Richland County weed agency to spread this rust on plants in Richland County to determine whether this might be a viable alternative. The rust came from Colorado, where there has been fairly good progress on developing this approach.

Temperature and timing are among the variables these studies are examining.

“It’s not the kind you release once and don’t worry about it,” Gaskin said. “You have to move it around, and hammer (the thistle) with a lot of spores at the right time.”

Other projects the center worked on during 2020 ranged from rotation studies at the Froid research farm, as well as the rotation study in North Dakota at Nesson Valley.

Travel in vehicles had to be restricted to one person per vehicle, Bart Stevens told the Sidney Herald, and the pandemic was challenging when it came to group work that sometimes had to be closer than 6 feet.

“We wore masks when it was appropriate,” Stevens said. “And we did simply some of our research a little bit and we gave up some projects we normally would have done. In spite of all that, however, we had a very productive summer, a productive growing and research season and we accomplished most of our research goals.”

COVID-19 had a more dramatic effect on public outreach, Beth Redlin told the Sidney Herald.

Large group events had to be cancelled. The center has been thinking about ways to host outreach with Zoom instead.

Growers, meanwhile, were encouraged to use electronic means of reaching out on problems they are having, such as phone or email.

“We love to hear what the problems are, so we know how to tailor our research,” Gaskin said. “We work on a wider area and problems than just Richland County, but we do a lot of regional problems as well.”

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