Mount St. Joseph University

Biology student spends summer in Alaska researching effects of compost on peony growth for farming

Academics, Biology, Press Releases, Biology, School of Behavioral & Natural Sciences

File Under: biology, research

Girl sitting on a trailer in front of a tractor.

Mount senior biology student, Kelly Burger, is spending her summer doing research in Alaska. Her work on boreal peonies will help farmers find economical and environmentally friendly ways to grow peonies. She is with Dr. Jill Russell, Mount associate professor of biology, and her family who are also conducting research with boreal owls in Alaska.

This whole summer adventure began during Christmas break of junior year, when I began to wonder when junior biology students would receive more details about senior research. Searching for answers, I emailed Dr. Jill Russell (Mount associate professor of biology) with my questions. I met with her throughout the spring semester, learning more about her research with peonies and organizing some of her peony data from the previous summer.  Later in the semester, Dr. Russell offered me the opportunity to conduct my senior biology research project this summer at her peony research site in Two Rivers, Alaska.

My project involves studying the effects of compost tea on the growth and development of 21 different peony varieties.

Since I grew up on a dairy farm, I have always had a fascination with different types of agriculture and different forms of farming, so the idea of working on a peony farm in the Arctic was very interesting to me. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity, knowing that it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Soon after I arrived in Two Rivers, I quickly learned about the peony farming industry in Alaska.  Peony farming is a new practice in the state, so not much is published about recommended practices for the plants. Dr. Russell has been studying many aspects of peony farming, including determining which varieties grow best in an arctic environment and which fertilizers are most effective.

My project’s main focus was to examine the effects of compost tea on peony growth.  Compost tea is a liquid form of compost, which contains a lot of bacteria and fungi that are beneficial for plant growth (my microbiology course definitely came in handy for understanding how compost tea works).  Many organic farmers believe that compost tea is a healthier and safer alternative to fertilizers, but there is no evidence based research available on arctic peonies to support this idea.  Therefore, I have been brewing compost tea every two weeks and applying it to 21 different varieties of peonies; measuring the plants weekly to see if there are observable differences in the plants that received compost tea compared to those that did not receive it.

The results of this research will help other peony farmers determine if applying compost tea would be worth the time and investment.

Even though working with peonies has taken up a majority of my time spent in Alaska, I have had a variety of experiences while I’ve been here.  I’ve had the chance to spend several days with a graduate student who is working with Boreal Owls (and the owl chicks are even more adorable in person!), I’ve explored the Museum of the North and learned more about Alaskan culture, and I even went camping for the first time in my life and hiked to the top of Mount Healy in Denali National Park!

I know that when I arrive back home in Cincinnati in a few weeks, I will not be same person as I was when I left back in May. This has been an incredible opportunity that I never expected to experience. Thanks to working on the farm, I now know that I prefer field research over working in a lab and that I would love to orient my career goals more toward agriculture.  Attending graduate school in a Plant/Soil Science program or a Horticulture program may also be a possibility as a result from this summer.  Needless to say, I am excited to take my experiences from this summer and apply them to my courses and career preparations during my final year at Mount St. Joseph University.