GardenSouth

Because all gardening is local

Flower

“I’m allergic to bees!”

Mention the word “bee,” and some people start to hyperventilate. “Oh, I’m allergic to bees.” is a statement you will hear from half the people discussing the topic. This is not true. Since bees are such a vital part of our food supply, we need to get some perspective on the situation, rather than hitting the panic button, and killing the bees. Especially gardeners should be sensitive to the need for the bees, and the obvious fact that bee numbers are seriously declining, causing pollination problems for lots of gardeners.

A report by the USDA says:  ”Many people believe they are allergic to honey bees when in fact they are experiencing symptoms of a normal reaction. Only a very limited portion of the population (one or two out of 1000) is allergic or hypersensitive to bee or wasp stings.”

Bumble bee on plum blossomBumble bees will ignore you while foraging, and will sting only to defend their nest, or reflexively if stepped on.

 

Swelling and redness around a sting site are perfectly normal reactions. The USDA goes on to say, “The average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. This means that although 500 stings could kill a child, the average adult could withstand more than 1100 stings. Most deaths caused by multiple stings have occured in elderly individuals who may have had poor cardiopulmonary functioning.”

Honey bee

Honey bees are major pollinators of food crops. If disturbed while foraging on a flower, they will move away. At their colony, they will be defensive if they perceive a threat.

Unfortunately for the bees, all venomous insects are grouped together in the statistics (most emergency room doctors could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp sting, anyway). So bees may well be blamed for reactions from wasps, hornets or even fire ants.

Yellowjackets are the most frequent venomous insects to sting human, as they will vigorously defend their nests. They also seek out sugar in late summer/fall, and can be a problem at dumpsters, picnics, and especially soda drinks, where they can enter unseen, and sting ones mouth or throat when drinking.

About 50 deaths occur per year from all venomous insects combined. It is likely that the majority of these are from yellow jacket wasps, and bees only account for 5-10 per year.

To put this in perspective, dog bites kill 30 people per year in the US; horse riding accidents kill 20; about 30 people per year are killed by falling TVs and other furniture; lightning strikes kill 55; drowning kills 3,300; auto accidents kill about 30,000; flu kills 36,000 people each year; and, worldwide, mosquito bites kill about 3 million people per year.

Emergency room doctors often have no or little training in allergies, and the statement, “The next sting could kill you.” is likely just covering their own butts for their lack of knowledge.

I would be more concerned if a competent allergist diagnosed an allergy. In the case of a genuine allergy an epi-pen should be carried at all times. Or better yet, get the series of treaments to desensitize oneself.

To live in this world involves engaging risks. You don’t even have to go outside your home to find risks.  I was putting on my shoes one morning, and was stung high on the arch of my foot by a yellow jacket that was inside my shoe. I have no idea how it got there. But it cost me a day’s work, because my foot swelled too much to wear a shoe.

As a farm kid and a career pollination contractor, I’ve been stung by just about everything that stings in North America. Honey bees give me very little reaction; often within 20 minutes, I could not find the spot where I was stung. Yellow jackets and hornets cause a lot more reaction. The most painful sting I ever had was from a “cow killer” (velvet ant), but this only cost me a few minutes lost work time and little swelling. Stings cause more swelling, and are more painful around one’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

One of the worst places I’ve ever been stung was on the eyeball, which gave me a throbbing headache; forced me to take a couple Tylenols and lie down for a couple hours before going back to work.

Another bad sting was by a hornet on the temple, when I was on a tractor mowing hay. This one caused me to black out, but I am thanksful I was conscious long enough to knock the gearshift lever into neutral. Whether I was out for a minute or twenty, I do not know, but I awoke slumped over the steering wheel with the tractor racing and the sickle bar mower still running at full speed.

I certainly have a healthy respect for stinging insects, but I will not harm them, if I can help it. Only in rare cases is it necessary to kill a colony of bees, and even yellow jackets have an important role to play in pest control in the garden, so I won’t harm them either, unless they build their nest in high human traffic areas. Paper wasps, mud daubers, and carpenter bees are all quite laid-back insects, all beneficial,  and I will never bother them. either.

As I said, life is full of risks. But when we magnify those risks by our lack of knowledge and perspective, it becomes paranoia.  A healthier response to risk is common sense efforts to mitigate them. I won’t quit driving, but I will wear a seat belt.

Common sense responses to bees is to give them some space, avoid quick motions and vibrations when they are around (especially resist the urge to swat at them – and be perceived a threat), and avoid panic. It’s important to teach children the importance of bees, if we want to eat, and learn not to disturb them on purpose. And not to run barefoot through the clover!

Balancing the risk of being stung against the risk of famine by loss of pollinators gives the pollinators the upper edge in most situations.

The immortal onion

 

Here in the Southland, onions can be a year around crop. In fact, we’ve found that for green onions, we don’t even need to seed them anymore.

Now most people think of onions as a summer crop, but it’s pretty nice to go pick some fresh crisp green onions for your cooking, in the dead of winter. Actually it’s more of a three-season crop, as it will live, but greatly slow its growth in the heat of summer.

Some time ago I was given a large bunch of green onions from the store that were dried out and unsaleable.

Green onions dried out

Green onions dried out

I decided that the best thing to do was to plant them.

Dried up onions are set out in the garden

Dried up onions are set out in the garden

 

In six weeks they looked like this:

Onion regrowth

Onion regrowth

 

And when pulled they looked like this:

Green onion harvest

Green onion harvest

The wonderful thing is that the story does not end here. When preparing the onions for cooking, I simply cut off the lower (bulb) part and saved it, along with the roots, which I replanted.

Green onion - cutoff bulbs

Green onion - cutoff bulbs

These are simply replanted and they grow again. Here’s what they look like in three weeks, despite the scratchings (and replanting) due to an errant hen:

Green onion regrowth

Green onion regrowth

This cycle can be repeated over and over for many years, indicating an endless supply of green onions -forever!

 

Marigold – the miracle plant

I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.

(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)

Bumblebee on marigold

Marigolds are much loved by bumble bees, Melissodes bees, and honey bees, and occasionally visited by other species as well.

DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.

One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.

Root knot nematode symptom on tomato plant

A heavy infestation of root knot nematode on tomato roots will result in many nodes on the roots, and the plant will be severely stunted and unproductive. This pest also affects many other vegetable crops.

 

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

 

Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.

Adult squash bug

Adult squash bug

 

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

 

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves. You can see also a tiny parasitic wasp, which is your friend. It will lay eggs that will hatch and be parasites of the squash bugs.

 

The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.

(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)

DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.

While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.

 

Hints for growing your own

T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.

Saving seeds

To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.

I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.


How I cut my garden weeding to less than 15 minutes per week

Many beginner gardeners start off with a bang and are excited and encouraged when their seeds germinate and their started plants take off and grow. But then the weeds begin to show more vigor than the desired veggies.

Weedy garden

Weeds are about to take this garden.

Even experienced gardeners, who know that you cannot let the weeds even get a couple day’s advantage, sometimes lose the garden to weeds, when there’s several days of rain and it becomes too muddy to get into the garden.

Another weedy garden

You would think a tractor would help - but each pass turns up more weed seeds.

It’s pretty dismaying when you have trouble finding your plants among all the weeds. You can wind up spending many hours of catch-up work, and still find that your plants were severely set back, both by the competition with weeds, and the damage you did to their roots when you pulled up the weeds.

It’s been several years now, since I basically solved the weed problem. Sure, there’s weeds in my garden, but they are few and far between, compared with what they used to be. I find that just a few minutes a week is sufficient to pull up the weeds, and keep my own veggies growing without competition.

There are three basic reasons why the weed problem mostly disappeared:

1. I no longer till my garden. Every time you turn over the earth, you expose new weed seeds to sunlight and air. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, then suddenly germinate when you’ve given them ideal conditions to grow.

I’ve been able to pretty much eliminate tilling because all my gardening now is in raised beds. I was forced to go to raised beds, because our land is as flat as it can be, and we are subject here in coastal South Carolina to occasional heavy rains. These rains would flood my garden and pretty much spoil it. Few of our garden veggies can stand in water without dying or getting riddled with disease.

The raised beds took a lot of work to set up, but once they are up and running, the work forever afterwards is minimal. I started with a mix of about 40% sandy loam topsoil, 40% well rotted compost, 10% crushed coquina (for lime and minerals), and 10% crushed charcoal (to help prevent leaching when those heavy rains come).

Raised bed garden

Raised beds keep the plants from flooding rains, save my back, and help control weeds. Note how near weed-free the tomatoes in the front are. The middle section has not been planted, while the back is onions from winter.

These raised beds are in production year around. As soon as one crop is finished, I start with another. About the only disturbance to the soil is when I pull a deep rooted plant like tomatoes, or a root veggie like carrots or turnips. With smaller plants like beans or peas, I just snip them at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground.

Ready to topdress

Asclepias (left) and Borage (right) are ready to topdress with fresh compost. Dwarf French Marigolds are in the cells of the blocks. These flowers among my veggies help to build up pollinator populations as well as other beneficial insects.

Load of compost

Compost is free from the town. It is screened to remove larger chunks that haven't rotted fully, and to separate any trash, which is put into the tin can on the trailer fender.

2. When planting or setting out a new crop, I topdress it with about an inch of fresh compost. This compost has very few weed seeds, as it reaches a high temperature during its formation.

Squash seedlings topdressed

As soon as the seedlings are big enough, I put an inch of compost around them. The compost pile heated up during formation and killed most weed seeds.

My soil remains soft; I can easily plunge my hand up to the wrist into the soil, just by wriggling my fingers and pushing. The soil smells sweet and it’s full of worms and insects, unlike most agricultural soils in the area, which are quite barren of life. I always figure that the worms are tilling the soil for me, as much as it needs and in a very natural way.

Growing squash is nearly weed free.

Growing squash is nearly weed free. The sparse weeds are well behind the squash, because they germinated in the soil and had to break through the compost/mulch.

Topdressed watermelon

Weed suppression is nearly complete around this young watermelon plant. All that's needed is an occasional pulling of a weed or two.

3. I don’t let the weeds go to seed. By having raised beds, I never walk directly on my garden. I have more-or-less permanent walkways between the beds. This means that I can always pull weeds, even if it’s very muddy. The weeds never get a chance to get ahead of me.

I can’t take very much credit for this system of weed supression. Actually it came as a pleasant surprise. And I had to study it a bit to come to an understanding of why there are so few weeds.

Get your fruit trees from a quality nurseryman!

February 9, 2012

It’s time to plant, right now in the Deep South. If you wait until Spring, it’s actually too late. The plants need to get established before the heat of summer comes – and late planted nursery stock is much more apt to die.

One problem many homeowners don’t recognize is that, by the time fruit trees show up in the Big Box stores, it’s already too late. These stores are geared toward the North rather than the South.

There are many other reasons to avoid the Big Box stores and purchase from a reliable nurseryman. Our favorite local nurseryman is Stanley McKenzie of Lake City.

If you are in this area, I highly recommend him. If you are in another area, I encourage you to search for local businesses of equal competence.

Here are some reasons why I prefer my trees from Stan, rather than from Lowes, or Home Depot, or the grocery and farm store chains:

1. Stan knows what does well in the South, and the varieties he supplies are those that are tested for productivity here. The Big Box stores sell the same varieties nationwide, so you often see apples like Red Delicious, McIntosh, and others which do very poorly here. They require much more winter chilling than we get, except in an extreme winter.

2. Your questions are answered, if you go to Stan. At the Big Box stores, the staff usually doesn’t have a clue about how to best grow them.

3. Stan’s plants are stocky and strong. You won’t find any sickly, half dead ones there. I have lost trees purchased elsewhere, but have never lost one from Stan.

4. Stan’s prices are very competitive. Nuff said!

5. Stan offers varieties and kinds of fruit that you won’t find in the Big Box stores. Yesterday we purchased two plum trees, two rabbiteye blueberries, a pomegranite, and some spring bearing strawberries. I have looked everywhere for spring bearing strawberries, and have only found everbearing – until I asked Stan about them.

Last year we purchased a cold hardy Satsuma orange tree from him, and in earlier years got a Lisbon lemon (potted to go inside in the winter), muscadine grapes, figs, and pineapple guavas.

Stan is famous for his hardy citrus. He is expanding his line, as he finds varities that work here in the Southeast. I find it pretty neat to be able to grow apples (low chill) right alongside citrus trees. I’d be growing a lot more of both of them if I had the space.

Another favorite nurseryman, interestingly, is in the North, but they have southern experience and can supply some unique low-chill apples, as well as other fruit. This is Cummins Nursery in Ithaca, NY,so, of course, their items must be shipped to the South. What I’ve said about McKenzie Farm Nursery is equally applicable to Cummins Nursery.

Steve Cummins is exremely knowledgeble; he has always answered my questions well, and the best surprise is always in opening the box, and finding trees that are twice the size and in better condition than any other bare-root plants I’ve ever gotten. I certainly can’t recommend this family business more highly.

The mass merchanizers have ways to entice us to make impulse purchases. But planting a tree is a long term committment. Perhaps the wise words of Mark Twain would also apply here – “Marry in haste; repent at leisure!”

Low-tech greenhouses extend the growing season

Our growing season for tender plants usually ends in mid to late November with a killing frost. But we can move fall tomato and pepper plants into a cheap homemade greenhouse to add extra heat for ripening and postpone the frost date. It would be nice if we could extend our season to Christmas, but we haven’t gotten quite that far yet.

Of course more cold-hardy plants can handle frost or even freeze, but when it gets really cold, they stop growing. This year I am also moving potted broccoli and cauliflower into the greenhouse, in hopes that the extra heat will serve to keep them growing and harestable through the winter. Otherwise we’d have to wait for warmer spring weather to continue their growth – and that sometimes ends with them bolting (flowering and going to seed), instead of heading.

In the spring the greenhouse is perfect for starting plants early. Actually the germination is done in trays at a southeast-facing window inside. But as the seedlings reach transplantable age, they go into separate containers and out into the greenhouse. We’ll tell more about this in a separate post.

We have two low-tech greenhouses to help extend our seasons. The smaller is on our deck on the southeast side, and the larger is attached to the southwest side of our house. Both are made of pvc pipe with some 1×2 bracing and covered with six-mil polyethylene plastic sheeting. The sheeting is attached at the top by being clamped between two 1x2s, but the rest is held in place with cheap spring clamps.

The sheeting is replaced seasonally, and is the only ongoing cost. I found that four-mil sheeting will not last long enough, but six-mil does okay.

We do not try to heat the greenhouses, but I do have water containers to help them hold the day’s heat and prevent night freezes as long as possible in the fall.

The larger one has served now for two years, and the smaller for a year.

Both will ultimately be replaced (we hope) by more permanent greenhouses, but for now, on a limited budget, they serve quite well. Neither cost more than a hundred dollars, though the larger one might go a bit over that now, with the recent rise in prices.

Here are some photos of our construction of the larger, so you can get a better mental picture:

Rebar anchors the pipes to the ground.

Rebar was driven to anchor one end of the hoops. Then the plastic pipe hoops were slid over the rebar.

Get's a little heady sniffing the glue on the other end.

Get's a little heady sniffing the glue on the other end.

PVC tee is cut in half for end anchor

Plastic tees were cut in half and screwed to a 2x2 which was attached to the wall with masonry anchors.

Mama is happy with the results so far.

Mama is happy with the results so far.

Spring clamps from Harbor Freight

The plastic sheeting was held by cheap spring clamps from Harbor Freight

Nearly finished - now to make up tables from recycled pallets.

Nearly finished - now to make up tables from recycled pallets.

Three veggies for the long haul

Gardening is tough in the South!

Many southern gardeners have a lot of problems with pests. We think we’ve gone a long ways to solve most of the pest insect problems by working to build good populations of beneficial insects.

Many of the bad guys don’t have a chance here. Our paper wasps, assassin bugs, robber flies, mantises, lady bugs and others, along with our large bird population, keep most of the bad bugs from ever growing up.

It’s gotten so that my wife – who likes to raise butterflies – has to capture the larvae and bring them inside to munch on potted plants. Otherwise they become prey for one of our garden predators.

Pests are one thing, however, and disease is another. Heat and humidity seem to compound the disease problems. Even drought doesn’t seem to slow down the progress of disease.

This means that many veggies are only temporary. Tomatoes engage in a race with early blight, which gradually defoliates the plants. Our tomato crop was very good this year. But we also had them planted earlier than ever before. Folks that waited until the traditional plant day (Good Friday) pretty much lost the race. 85% of our tomato crop came on early. The rest was a smattering from a few holdout plants, especially the cherry tomatoes.

Squash and cukes race with powdery mildew, which also kills the leaves. I focused on tomatoes this year and the squash got planted late. We had very little squash.

Avoidance of the problems is very much coupled with good timing on plantings – early in the spring to mature before heat, or late in the summer to grow and mature in the fall.

I’ve come to appreciate a few veggies that just hang on and keep right on producing, no matter how hot and dry it is.

Young eggplant fruit

Eggplant resists heat and disease, has been knocking out fruit for us since June and shows no sign of stopping now in late Septmber.

One of these is eggplant. We planted them early, made sure we had plenty of bees to set those first blossoms – and they’ve never stopped producing from June to now in late September as I write this. As far as I can recall there are only two problems I’ve ever had with eggplant.

Eggplant and bumblebee

Eggplant is a bit difficult to pollinate, and blossom drop is the key symptom of problems. The deed is done by various bees (not usually honeybee) with bumblebees being the most efficient.

One is pollination – which should be obvious to gardeners, but often isn’t. And the other is flea beetles. In past years I’ve had eggplant eaten up by flea beetles, but with our increased populations of predator insects, these pests were only a minor and brief problem while the plants were young. Years ago, I sprayed eggplant for the flea beetles, but it did little good, anyway.

The second of these favorites of mine is peppers. We don’t go in for hot ones, but we grow a lot of sweet bananas and some bell peppers. Like the eggplant, they have very few insect pests (in our current environment), and seem to only have problems if there aren’t enough bees to pollinate. Diseases are practically non-existant, and heat doesn’t faze them a bit.

Sweet banana peppers

Peppers are a good Southern plant, resistant to heat and disease. They need bee pollination - usually by tiny Lasioglossum bees or bumble bees; rarely are they visited by honey bees.

The third is an old Southern tradition – okra. I believe okra could grow and fruit in Hell, as it simply loves hot weather. Young okra is a beautiful plant, with large dark green leaves and gorgeous creamy white flowers with red centers.

Okra flower

Beautiful okra flowers produce copious amounts of large sticky pollen grains, and the flowers are obviously are self fertile. These are one of the few garden plants that don't actually require bees, as the sticky pollen easily is transferred by beetles, flies and other agents.

But as it grows, it only produces on the top, and the lower leaves die and fall off. By late summer it is a rank, ugly plant. Some of mine are six to seven feet tall right now, and look quite disgusting. But they still keep on knocking out the okra pods.

Okra pod with lady bug

Okra keeps on producing in the hottest weather. This photo also shows one of our best garden friends, a lady bug beetle.

One secret, if you haven’t grown them before – pick okra young, before the pods get tough and stringy.

Have you got any favorite veggies that just seem to be long-haulers and failsafe for Southern gardens?

The misuse of a good cause

I recently received an e-mail from “Solutions from Science” that promotes a system of seed sprouting for emergencies.

Now the concept is good. We grow sprouts ourselves, and they are easy to do and highly nutritious.

But I get suspicious when I see that hype and misinformation are used to promote a high-priced product (and it is very high priced).

I have two questions for these folks – “Why can’t you tell the truth?” and “Why do your prices seem like a real rip-off?

A pollen-coated bumblebee

You are telling me that bumblebees aren't good pollinators?

I’ll leave the reader to judge further about the price. You can go to their site, if you want to see their comercial at:  http://www.survivalsproutbank.com/

But here’s what they said in their e-mail with reference to the pollinator crisis:
“If only it was [sic] the weather. Unfortunately, it’s something much more insidious and much less understood than climate changes. It’s called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

With Colony Collapse Disorder, you have entire hives of bees dying off, and no one has been able to ascertain why or pinpoint a cause.

You may wonder how this affects your garden.Look out the window. Do you have beautiful tomato plants… with no tomatoes? Are your squash plants leafy and vibrant… with no squash? Are you looking at a luscious green garden with little or no produce to show for it? That’s what a dearth of honey bees will do. You have to have bees to pollinate in order to make many vegetables and fruits.”

Tomatoes – honey bees?  Nope!  It’s true that honeybees will work tomato plants – when they reach a saturation point where little else is available and honey bees are desperate. And they may accomplish a little bit of pollination.

In all my years as a beekeeper and flower observer, I’ve seen honeybees on a tomato blossom maybe a half dozen times. Now I’ve seen bumblebees many thousands of times, and even seen sweat bees a whole lot more often than honeybees.

I love my honey bees and I maintain a few hives in my back yard. But it would be a phony argument for me to ascribe my tomato pollination to them. I have two species of bumblebees that consistently visit my tomato blossoms. And that’s the truth!

Squash? Again, it’s not a favored plant for honey bees. In a garden setting, which is what these folks refer to, honeybees aren’t likely to even visit squash blossoms. They are beat to the draw by squash bees, bumble bees and sweat bees.

Now in a large field, where there is little competition from other flowers (and there are few squash bees), honey bees are brought in to pollinate the squash. And they do a fine job, with a little help from bumble bees.

They go on to say: “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of our food comes from pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Larger bumblebees cannot pollinate as effectively (if at all) as the smaller honeybee. Today, wild populations of bees are nearly gone. Instead, the bee has become dependent on the human population to insure its survival, and beekeepers struggle to maintain vibrant bee colonies.”

Struggle?  I’m not struggling to keep my honey bees alive. They are doing fine, thank you – as long as my neighbors obey label directions in using pesticides, I’m confident they will continue to do fine!

Bumblebees not pollinators? HA!  A bumble bee is about three times more effective in pollinating cucumbers than a honey bee!

Bumblebee in cotton blossom

Tell me again that bumblebees aren't good pollinators!

And many flowers are almost exclusively pollinated by bumblebees. Now in an agricultural setting, honey bees are more important, partly because they have 30,000 hive members as opposed to around 100 for bumblebees, and honey bees are portable and manageable.

But to question bumble bees’ ability to pollinate? That’s the biggest one yet!

What bothers me (and I see this a lot, particularly when someone is selling something) is the mixture of fact and fiction. When that happens we wind up with “myth” or “hype.”

And I’m not going to buy anything from those who play fast and lose with the truth!

Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?

It’s time for a short course in cucumber pollination. On Internet gardening groups and mailing lists, this question keeps coming up, over and over: “Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?”

To answer the question, we have to go back to some basics, because many new gardeners don’t understand them.

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

Male (lower) and female (upper) cucumber blossoms

First off, cucumbers have separate male and female flowers. They are produced on the same plant – and the plants are basically self-fertile, although there is evidence that pollination is improved when there is cross pollination between separate plants.

Pollen must be transferred from the male blossoms to the female blossoms. It’s amazing to me that many people assume that this heavy, sticky pollen will just jump from one to another all by itself.  Believe me, it does not jump – it would take a gale wind to move pollen from the male – and that kind of wind would destroy the plant.

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) on a cucumber blossom

Some plants are wind pollinated – corn, grasses, pecan and hickory trees, ragweed – but these make light, fluffy pollen grains that are produced by the billions.

Bees are the workhorse pollinators for cukes - basically honey bees and bumble bees; with occasional minor help from other bee species. Some will also say some beetles, ants, and other insects can tranfer pollen – but these are negligible.

A brawny and fuzzy bee is the best possible pollinator. They are totally equipped with branched hairs and strong electrostatic charges to carry pollen. A bee pushes its way through the flower structures and picks up large quantities of pollen on its body.

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Honey bee on a female cucumber blossom

Now a bumble bee has been shown by studies, to transfer about three times as much pollen per flower visit than a honey bee. But honey bees make up in numbers what they cannot do in comparison to bumble bees. A typical bumble bee colony is about 100 workers, while a honey bee colony may have 20,000 to 30,000 workers.

Many gardeners assume that when a bee goes to a flower, that it is instantly pollinated. While this can be true for a fruit with a single seed (like a peach), it is not true of multi-seeded fruits like cucumbers. Many grains of pollen have to be delivered – and this takes numerous visits by bees.

If no or very little pollen is delvered, the fruit simply aborts. There may well be spoilage, starting from the blossom end. This is due to an opportunistic fungus, but no fungicide will fix poor pollination.

Cucumber aborting due to very poor pollination

This cucumber is aborting due to very poor pollination

Well suppose then, that a few more grains get delivered to the flower – and some seeds get fertilized by those pollen grains.

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

Extremely poorly pollinated cukes are badly deformed and very slow to grow

The fruit may grow, instead of abort, but it will be slow growing and can be highly deformed.

A poorly pollinated cucumber sliced to show seeds

Note that there are no seeds on the deeply curved part in the center, and few seeds on the top end. The development of the flesh of the fruit is governed by the fertilized seeds

The only portion of the cuke that developed was the portion where the seeds were – which is on the outer curve of the cucumber. On the inner curve there are NO seeds, so the flesh didn’t develop in this area at all. Also note that on the top end, there were very few seeds that formed, so the top end is also undersized.

Compare pickle cucumber pollination

The upper pickle cucumber is well pollinated; the lower has missing seeds on the right side

When a full complement of pollen is delivered and evenly distributed across the stickly stigma of the female flower, the finished cucumber will look like the top one. It will grow rapidly, and be crisp and good flavord.

If some pollen is missing – and some seeds do not get fertilized the deformation of the fruit in the area of the missing seeds will show up in the shape of the fruit, as in the lower example in the photo above. The fruit forms a “neck” on the right side, due to missing fertilized seeds.

Cucumbers need to grow fast to be of good quality. Lack of water, excessive heat or cold, fertility, or plant disease can slow down growth. This makes the flesh tougher and dryer – and it can be bitter as well.

Anything that slows growth can cause bitterness – and this includes inadequate pollination. A poorly pollinated cucumber of the same size as a well pollinated one will usually be a day or two older. It will be tougher, and is more apt to be bitter.

Comparison of slicer cucumber pollination

The upper slicer cucumber is poorly pollinated; the lower has good pollination

Another problem with poor pollination is that the deformed area is the first place that spoilage will occur, if the grower tries to store, or send to market his or her cukes.

All in all, we see that good bee populations are critical to obtaining the perfect cuke.

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

A perfectly pollinated pickle cucumber

Now, it is possible to hand pollinate cukes – yes, we can do the bee’s job, and we’ll talk about that in future articles. But, if you have more than a few plants that you are trying to hand pollinate, you’ll quickly come to appreciate the tremendous service the bees do for us!

Why am I talking so much about pollination

 

Some have commented to me that I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my blog on the topic of pollination, and have asked why.

There are several answers. One is that good pollination information is hard to find, though there are many sources of inadequate, or just plain wrong information online. And a lot of garden and farming literature simply ignores pollination completely.

I was just looking around on the Internet at various Extension publications about watermelon culture, both for those who sell them and those who just raise them for home use. It’s surprising to me how many of them say nothing about pollination. To me, this is a disservice when a serious Extension publication purports to teach growers, yet assumes pollination will just take care of itself.

I have seen entire fields of watermelons, squash and other crops that were unharvestable or had to be severely culled, because of pollination failure. Pollination is a vital input in agriculture today, but it’s the least understood of all inputs.

So, as you can see, I am working on an article on watermelon pollination. If you don’t understand watermelon pollination, you don’t understant the plant!

A second reason that I concentrate on pollination is that this was my livelihood and specialty for my career. Although I am now retired from active duty in the contract pollination field, I figure it’s my responsibility to make sure I share the things I have learned in years of experience, observation, and study.

A third reason, is that I have available the many years of photos that I’ve taken, so I can usually well illustrate the points I make – and this makes it more interesting and clear for my readers.

You could say, this is the payment of dues for my spot on this earth. And I hope it does help!