Tag Archives: pollinators

VABF Conference Wrap

VABF John Boyd
John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association

Last weekend I got to attend my first Virginia Biological Farming Conference, not just as a participant, but as part of the team making it happen, the Tradeshow Coordinator. If you have any interest in organic farming/gardening, I highly recommend going next year. There were fascinating talks on a wide range of topics, great exhibits from a variety of vendors and organizations, and the food was unbelievable.

Some highlights:

  • Southern Exposure teamed up with Seed Savers Exchange for an all day special seed saving pre-conference workshop. I had to duck in and out while setting up for the exhibits, but I still learned so much!
  • Nazirakh Amen of Purple Mountain Organics gave a talk about his rice farming project on University of DC land. In addition to being a farmer and tool vendor, Nazirakh is a Chinese medical practitioner with extraordinary insights to impart.
  • Rodger Lenhardt of Norm’s Farms brought his fabulous elderberry products. He traded us some syrup (great against coughs and as an immune-booster) and jam, and I now have three little elderberry sticks on my windowsill happily sprouting roots.

    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
  • Debbie Roos of the NC Cooperative Extension got me all fired up about pollinators and what we can do to attract and protect them. Look for pollinator blog posts soon!
  • Did I mention the food? The food alone was worth going to this conference for. There were contributions from local farms at every meal, but best of all was the giant pot luck lunch. Let’s just say I regretted that I was wearing a corset.

    So much yummy food!
    So much yummy food!

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.


Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.

10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons

By Ira Wallace   Photos by Irena Hollowell

Arkansas Little Leaf cucumber
Benning's Green Tint summer squash

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:

Bumblebee on Spanish Brocade marigold
Wasp on mint blossom
Wasps on fennel inflorescence
Buckwheat, Cleome and Purple Hyacinth Beans
Baby Thai squash
Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon
Eden Gem muskmelon
  1. Do not use any toxic sprays or synthetic chemical on your  organic garden or farmland.
  2. Plant an abundant variety of flowers and herbs to provide nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
  3. 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.
  4. Plant flowers in clump or swathes so they are easier for the pollinators to find and create areas for resting and nesting.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Another thing to do in the Fall is to leave some areas undisturbed and “natural” as overwintering habitat for beneficial insects.
  8. 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.
  9. Live with some damage on Butterfly Weed and other plants that provide habitat for beautiful butterfly and moth larvae.
  10. 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.