This year's Practical Farmers of Iowa conference was held virtually at the end of January and it went as well as any event that is normally geared to face to face interaction can go when it must be done at a distance. Both Tammy and I presented as part of a 'Lightning Talks' series of presentations where each individual got about 8 minutes of time to cover a topic. Tammy presented on turkeys and I covered planting to support pollinators and beneficial organisms on the farm.
PFI will put at least some of the sessions out for public consumption as time goes on, but I suspect the Lightning Talks won't make the cut. It's just the nature of the beast. However, I thought that people might enjoy a blog version. It won't be exactly the same, of course - but perhaps it will have value on its own merits.
One of the things Tammy and I have committed ourselves to over the years at the Genuine Faux Farm is providing a diverse and healthy habitat for beneficial critters on our farm. We delight in seeing all kinds of bees and toads and snakes and ladybugs and... Well, you get the idea. There are even some creatures that are welcomed with less joy on a vegetable farm, but are nonetheless part of the diversity that makes for a healthy ecology.
Every year, as we design our planting plan for the season, we identify the edges and the corners that could be turned into opportunities. Here are some of the opportunities we try to take advantage of every season as we are able.
1. Let Some Areas Go
A healthy farm is not necessarily one where everything is completely tidy and there are no wild areas. In fact, it is important that there be some truly wild areas on every farm, in my opinion. Places that you just don't get to when you look at 'cleaning things up.'
Of course, you would be correct if you point out that there might be 'good wild' and 'bad wild' as far as our farms are concerned. One example of a 'wild' that I am not terribly pleased to keep are the stands of Giant Ragweed that we've battled from "Year One" at our farm. These plants tend to choke everything else out and they don't really seem to support much diverse wildlife. So, we've worked to control those areas and encourage other 'wildness' that harbors more diversity.
On the other hand, we had some strong patches of asters this year and we were happy to let them go so our pollinators would have a reliable food source late in the season.
2. There Are Plenty of Corners Outside
If you plant as many crops as we do at the Genuine Faux Farm, then you have plenty of little nooks and crannies where you can slap some interesting and attractive flowers. And, we are NOT above being opportunists. We planted these chleome at the end of a bed in 2019 and found a significant number of volunteers popping up in that area again this season.
We ended up transplanting some, cultivating others out and leaving a few in the same spot this year. While I do not acknowledge chleome as a highly attractive pollinator plant, they lend color and a diverse landscape for all sorts of critters. We also tend to go with some of the more traditional, old varieties rather than the highly hybridized versions because they often do seem to support wildlife better. This decision is based only on our own anecdotal evidence - but it is enough for us to feel comfortable with this decision.
3. And Opportunities Inside!
Most vegetable/hort growers around our size of farm have at least one high tunnel for production. The tendency is to recite the mantra that the space inside a high tunnel is "Prime Real Estate." Thou shalt not waste the "P.R.E.!" As a result, too many farms put a single crop in their buildings to optimize production. This tends to eliminate diversity and the grower commits the same sin so many of us like to blame row cropping systems for doing.
Perhaps we go quite a bit further than many growers by having anywhere from eight to twelve different crops in each of our buildings. All that does is illustrate either the level or our commitment or the extent of our insanity. But, I do think many growers miss an important opportunity when they fail to do anything to diversify in the high tunnel. For example, we plant sweet alyssum at the base of our trellised heirloom tomatoes.
The biggest issues? Well, the sweet alyssum is a strong volunteer plant the next season that will need to be controlled in crops that don't get as tall as tomatoes. And, I suppose you could argue that they get into the walking path and try to trip you up as you harvest. I think I can tolerate that.
My biggest concern about attracting pollinators and other wildlife to the high tunnel is that these buildings can be a death trap to some of our worker friends. Sometimes birds and butterflies don't figure out how to get back OUT of the building and we find their bodies later on. In the end, I just have to trust that by creating more habitat, we encourage more robust populations - even if we lose some in this fashion.
4. Lawns and Pastures are Opportunities
Our farm has lawn areas closer to the farm house and pasture areas for our poultry. In both cases, we are happy to let dandelions grow so the pollinators have early season food sources and we encourage clover in all of these areas.
We have even gone so far as to allow a couple of areas in our 'lawn' to become overwhelmed by clover that we cut once the first peak bloom finishes so it will be encouraged to produce a late bloom. The presence of bumblebees and butterflies confirms for us we are doing a good thing. I was tempted to say we are doing the 'right thing,' but I wonder if that is too presumptuous of me to say. Nature is far too complex for me to ever be completely certain what the 'right thing' might be.
Maybe I should say we are doing a 'better thing' - as in - 'better than other things we could be doing.'
5. Plant Those Borders with Pollinator Support Crops
We are fully aware that many of our crops are highly reliant on the presence of pollinators for production. Melons, squash and cucumbers are all more likely to do better if you encourage pollinators to be present. Even crops that do not rely on pollinators, such as broccoli and cauliflower, will benefit from the presence of predators you encourage by providing shelter and diverse habitat.
About the easiest nook or cranny any farm might have would be the edges of plots, rows and fields. Give up that outer row that never produces all that well anyway and put in some annual flowering plants. Or, better yet, put in some perennial pollinator habitat there. The endangered Monarch will thank you for your efforts.
You do not have to go right to the end of each row with your cash crops either. Put a few flowering plants at the end of row. It's still in the row so your cultivation practices won't have to change. Planting a few things on the edges is a simple task that you could even ask a volunteer to do.
6. Intercrop Rows of Pollinator or Habitat Support
You can always go to the next level and dedicate some of your beds to plants that do not directly provide you with crop production. Several years ago, we decided to reduce the number of rows that had melons and replaced them with borage, zinnia, calendula, basil and other flowering plants. We planted 1/3 fewer melon plants and expected a corresponding drop.
Let me be perfectly clear here. We removed cash crop plants from our plan. We put in flowering crops that would have no harvest value to us. We treated these flowering crops as well as we did our cash crops by cultivating and even running a drip line during a dry season.
The result? We got 1/3 MORE saleable melons that year. And we had similar results in the years that followed.
We got a positive result that was directly attributable to this change in this instance. But, we do NOT expect such a return for every one of our projects at our farm. Typically, we will call these efforts a success if our production stays close to what it was.
Why? Well, if we can do things that do not actually hurt our bottom line for production AND we see evidence that it helps provide useful habitat - why wouldn't we?
And, of course, we are more likely to reach our goal of creating a field that we like to be in. That is a successful field!
7. Intercrop In Row
Take it up one more notch. It really isn't all that hard to do - even if you use a waterwheel or other, similar, transplanter.
We will often use marigolds, calendulas, zinnias, or other flowers to mark a change from one variety of a crop to another. For example, we have typically grown three to four varieties of broccoli to extend the harvest period and handle variability in seasonal conditions.
We also use flowers as dividers when we do on-farm research. If you look closely at the picture above, you will see some color here and there in our broccoli and cauliflower rows.
Sometimes, the selection of a flower to intercrop in row has a very specific purpose. We have found that nasturtium can reduce the incidence of vine borers in squash. Now, that's a pretty good incentive to slap a few nasturtiums in between plants in our cucurbit rows!
8. Leave That Spent Cash Crop
The picture below shows a field where we have some arugula and mustard flowering at the right side of the picture. As the season got warmer, these plants bolted and wanted to flower and set seed - all part of the natural process. These crops often flower when flowering plants are not at their peak to be available for our worker friends, so we left the crops to bloom for a time before we took them out. These plants were BUZZING with activity.
The obvious downside? Well, we aren't growing anything for farm production there while we let the plants bloom. But, we have found that perhaps we don't need to make every square inch be productive in that way for every day of the growing season. And - if we have healthier pollinators at this time of year, they will be there for our crops that need them later in the season.
The next obvious downside would be the volunteer plants we are bound to see in future seasons in addition to some weeds that get more established than they would have otherwise (the flower stalks make it hard to cultivate near those rows). Frankly, these are not insurmountable problems, so I am willing to deal with them. Once again, I think the benefit outweighs the cost.
9. Some Cash Crops Work for Habitat Too
We made the choice to grow several 200 foot rows of basil every season because we liked how it worked with our tomato field. There was no way we would have demand for that much basil. And, even if we DID get that much demand, we did not have a processing system in place to handle that much of the crop and get it to the proper markets.
We still grew that much basil because we could target sections of it for the basil we wanted to give to our CSA customers or sell and the rest could be allowed to bloom. Basil, especially Lemon Basil, really does provide an excellent food source for many of our smaller pollinators. And, those same critters increase the pollination levels in our tomatoes.
In short, you need to remember to pay your workers well. If you do, they will work better for you. Sometimes, that means giving up a little production space so the workers have a 'break room.'
10. Grow to Leave Some Food Sources in Winter
With the snow pack this year and the extreme cold we have had recently, I have found myself feeling even more grateful that we planted and then left many row feet of sunflowers standing on our farm.
The Cardinals and Goldfinches love the seeds and we hope this has helped some of them survive so we can see them again this Spring. If you feed the birds, that's great. But, why not feed them AND provide places for them to perch. Places that might have more shelter from predator birds or the farm cat?
The woody remains of basil plants provide shelter for the smaller creatures - including mice - that you might like to have predating on weed seeds (and basil seeds). They help hold soil in place and capture some of that snow that would otherwise keep on blowing until it sits in the ditches.
Certainly, growers know enough to point out some of the shortcomings of these practices. The more variety you plant, the harder it is to be efficient in your labor. But, while it might be harder, it is not impossible. Every tool - and I consider this approach one such tool - has its learning curve and every tool has its plusses and minuses. But, it is my belief - once again - that the issues created by planting pollinator and beneficial population support in the nooks and crannies are nothing compared to the potential benefits that might be accrued when more people do this habitually, rather than haphazardly.
Are you a grower? I challenge you to use those nooks and crannies well.
Do you have a yard or a small garden? You too have your opportunities! The scale is different, but you can still take some of the thoughts here and make them your own. I also challenge you to find those nooks and crannies in your life and fill them with flowers and worthwhile habitat.
I am looking forward to a beautiful growing season for all of us. Let's make it happen. Let's create a pollinator paradise.