By Ira Wallace Photos by Irena Hollowell
Abundant harvests of cucumbers, squash, melons and all their cucurbit relatives like gourds depend on having many active pollinators. Each squash or cucumber blossom requires multiple visits to make a perfectly formed fruit. Much of the heavy work of pollinating vegetable crops is done by honey bees but there are also many other types of bees, wasps, beetles, and moths working our vegetable gardens. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association shares some useful info about native squash bees.
Here in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial gardens we work hard to keep the welcome mat out for all these insect allies and you can too! Here are our 10 tips for attracting bees and other pollinators:
- Do not use any toxic sprays or synthetic chemical on your organic garden or farmland.
- Plant an abundant variety of flowers and herbs to provide nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
- Pollinators come in many sizes and shapes so plant flowers of different heights, shape and size to welcome a range of different insects from slow bumble bees to tiny wasps and beautiful showy moths. Some pollinator friendly plants to consider for your garden.
- Plant flowers in clump or swathes so they are easier for the pollinators to find and create areas for resting and nesting.
- Plant pollinator-friendly trees such as dogwood, cherry, willow and popular to provide both pollen and nectar early in the season when food is hard to come by. Leave some over wintered arugula and mustard plants in your garden to flower early in the season.
- Start fall seedlings of hardy annuals like sweet peas, feverfew, cilantro, bachelor buttons and Johnny Jump Ups to overwinter well mulched or under row cover. They are additional sources of early season beauty for your garden and food for pollinators.
- Another thing to do in the Fall is to leave some areas undisturbed and “natural” as overwintering habitat for beneficial insects.
- Make second plantings of quick flowering annuals like cosmos, calendulas, sunflowers and daisies to make a bright late season splash in your garden and provide late season pollen and nectar. Also planting a bee friendly late summer cover crop of buckwheat can provide flowers in as little as 6 weeks.
- Live with some damage on Butterfly Weed and other plants that provide habitat for beautiful butterfly and moth larvae.
- Plant native or heirloom flowers with “single” type blossoms, not “doubles”. They are generally preferred by both pollinators and other beneficial insects.
The great thing about creating a welcoming environment for pollinators is that you also encourage other beneficial insects and create a more balanced and diverse ecology in your garden for birds and bats as well as the smaller insect friends.
Getting back to squash, cucumbers and melons, adequate pollination is a sometimes overlooked but important factors in turning all those lovely yellow flowers into crunchy cucumbers, buttery squash and sweet juicy melons. These crops are easy to grow if you give attention to the basics of soil, pH, water, and selecting pest- and disease-resistant varieties. All of these cucurbits prefer a loose, sandy loam, pH of 6.5-7 and an even supply of moisture (1″/week) until the fruit is set. Grow in raised beds or hills with plenty of compost and other organic matter added especially you have heavy clay soil. Get a soil test and follow recommendation to adjust pH. Melons especially will not produce well below 6pH.
Getting great squash, cucumber and melon harvest also means harvesting the fruit in a timely way. Summer squash and cucumbers are most delicious harvested young and tender, before the seeds form. Winter squash is a storage crop and should be allowed to mature on the vine until the rind is hard enough that it cannot be easily dented by a fingernail. When to harvest melons is complicated. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Vegetable Growing Guides can help.
Even with the best of care squash, cucumbers and melons need active pollinators for the best fruit set and highest fruit quality. A 2010 Wisconsin study showed better quality fruit and a 4x increase in production in pickling cucumber with active pollinators. This agrees with our experience of increased productivity and seed yield. We love it when doing the right thing ( doing the right thing in providing pollinator habitat, pollen and nectar ) gives such sweet results! Squash and cucumber are great but I love melons. Stop by our booth at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville September 13 for a taste of some of our best heirloom melon varieties and dozens of heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well.
What is your favorite cucumber, melon or squash? Let us know and we’ll put your name in a drawing for a copy of my new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.