Friday, August 14, 2015

Flower Power

A prior post discussed how we try to feed our pollinator workers on our farm.  We actually had someone ask us a follow-up question that we thought was worth responding to.  They wanted to know if we could show some results of our efforts to attract pollinators.  And, they are correct, if you work hard to accomplish something, it makes sense that you should assess whether or not you are achieving your goals!

Our Flower Companions at GFF
Since we do not grow flowers so we can cut and sell them (though it seems we could do that), it might seem like it might not be an economically sound model to spend time on the flowers on our farm.  But, in case you do not end up buying my arguments by the end of the post, there is one reason that is good enough for us.  We (Tammy and I) like flowers.  Since where we work is also where we live, it makes sense that we should grow some things that make us happy.

So, reason number 1 is...
1. We like the way they look!

Zinnia - from the State Fair mix.

Autumn  Beauty sunflower

 But, we actually have some other reasons why we select some of the flowers we do.

2. They really attract the pollinators

Look in the center and you'll see a bumblebee
 Unfortunately, I'm not always ready to take pictures during the times of the day when the pollinators are most active.  So, you'll have to take my word for it that they love these flowers.  Bees seem to like clover, borage, bee's friend (oh.. now there's a surprise) and squash/melon vine flowers among others.

Oh, and they like buckwheat flowers too!

So, part of the strategy is to make an area so attractive for the pollinators that they will not need or want to go all that far afield to find the nectar they desire.

buckwheat far left, then melons, then zinnia, then melons, then borage.
The more activity there is, the more likely the cash crop you have will be pollinated - and pollinated WELL.  The photo above shows you what we strive for in many of our vegetable plots each season.  But, we rarely accomplish it as well as this.  This year has been a special one for the melon patch and we're very proud of it.

3. Increased Pollination Services Increases Yield and Yield Quality
So, if you are wondering why we are willing to expend some effort in growing flowers other than the "we like them reason" - how about increases in crop production?
Yep, pollinators were here.
Some crops, such as melons, rely heavily on pollinator presence.  Melons and zucchini, for example, will abort inadequately pollinated fruit.  So, if you see small starts that get soft and turn yellow (and then brown) they are examples of a fruit that was not pollinated sufficiently to produce a fruit.  Remember, plants are growing fruit to produce seed so they can propagate - that is their number one goal in life.  If a fruit isn't going to carry viable seeds, the plant will not spend its energy growing it out.
Beans do not rely exclusively on pollinators
Other plants, such as green beans, do not rely exclusively on pollinators.  Wind, rain and other disturbances may be enough to pollinate.  And, some plants are 'self-fertile.'  However, it has been shown that even these plants will increase production when there are more visits by pollinators.

4. A Host of Additional Reasons
There are many other reasons - and maybe I'll spend more time this Winter writing something up.  But, one big reason is the diversity provided by the flowers in the growing space.  Diversity interrupts pest cycles and breaks up paths that pathogens can travel.  In other words, the simple act of NOT growing one type of thing in a given area makes it harder for pests and diseases to attack our crops.  I will not claim it is impossible for them.  But, there is a difference between what we do and placing a giant blinking sign on our fields that say "Eat at Joe's" for all of the aphids (or other pests) traveling around out there.

Then, consider the habitat we are providing for the things that EAT the pests.  We have a host of toads, frogs, snakes, katydids, ladybugs and other helpful workers that love to sit in the shade of these flowers and their cash crop companions.
And sometimes, the flowers provide cover for a cash crop
I like planting zinnias next to tomatoes that tend to have wispy foliage that does not cover the fruit well.  Exposed fruit tend to have problems with sun scald.  A nice hedge of zinnias can help provide cover, in addition to all of the benefits listed above.  Ideally, I like the zinnias to be on the South side, but I'll take North side as well if that's what works for the current placement (as above).

Here's hoping we can continue to be this successful with our flower crops in future years!

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