Preparing for Garden Guests

As we prepare for an abundant season of food for our CSA members and market, we are also planning food sources for the pollinators which perform a valuable service on the farm.  While bees are often the first pollinator which comes to mind, there are a variety of pollinators we depend on.  One of the most lovely is the Monarch.  The adults may feed on the nectar of many plants, but the species depends primarily on a single genus of plants, commonly known as milkweed for egg-laying and as a food source for the young larvae.  The insectary, is a portion of the garden dedicated to plants and flowers which invite pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden.

Release of Monarch, reared from egg stage
Release of Monarch, reared from egg stage
Photo by Brenda Keith

The declining population of this pollinator has greatly concerned scientists lately.  There is a worry that they could become extinct in a very short time unless something changes.  Many people love the Monarch, and, unlike some insects; it is an easy creature to admire.  It is beautiful; it has a unique migratory habit, and great cultural significance.  In Mexico, they symbolize the souls of those who have passed on, and the migratory return in November coincides with the holiday, the day of the dead.  Across North America the Monarch is a symbol of summer, where butterflies frolicking in the sun rank right up there with cold watermelon and a day at the lake. 

Pathogens and parasites have an influence on natural populations of Monarch.  For this reason, many people are raising the young caterpillars from the egg stage to maturity in a protected environment in order to increase the reproductive success of the Monarch.  When combined with these natural pressures, human influence, which leads to vast landscape changes and the introduction of toxins into the environment, increases the difficulty for the population to remain stable.  Modern agricultural methods are directly related to the plight of the Monarch.

A collection of Monarch eggs and larvae being reared to maturity. Photo by Brenda Keith
A collection of Monarch eggs and larvae being reared to maturity.
Photo by Brenda Keith
Monarch egg (center) and larvae at various stages of maturity. Photo by Brenda
Monarch egg (center) and larvae at various stages of maturity. Photo by Brenda Keith.

Modern agricultural trends which affect the Monarch include:  farm consolidation, increasing herbicide use, and pesticide use.  The consolidation of small farms into large industrial food complexes reduces the amount of traditional field border which often contained the food plant of the Monarch, Milkweed.  Herbicide use has increased, due to modified crops which will tolerate glyphosate and its application to ever larger areas on consolidated farms has eliminated healthy Monarch habitat in these areas.  Pesticides are not aimed at any particular species, but an entire trophic level.  There is no way to distinguish among the good insects and the bad ones.  The use of these chemicals in agriculture, horticulture, and increasing availability to homeowners who may not fully understand the consequences of their widespread application greatly reduces the number of safe places in the landscape for the migratory Monarch.

“Milkweed”, the food plant of the Monarch caterpillar, includes more than 100 species of the genus Asclepias and suffers from a negative label.  When classified as a “weed” or “pest” elimination becomes the natural goal.  In the past we have battled with pests and considered them such an invincible foe that we did not imagine that they could be reduced to a level of concern.  We are so invested in the battle which seems justified by a negative label that we fail to see the essential role that they fill and how it may connect to us.  But history has shown us to be quite successful in eliminating pests.  The Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet, both now extinct were both considered agricultural pests in the United States.

One advantage of Organic agriculture is that it treats the farm as an agricultural ecosystem where problems are ideally managed through rotation, timing, and increased diversity rather than chemicals.  This is good news for wildlife, and us as well.  Unfortunately, most insects do not capture our hearts and imaginations the way that the Monarch does, yet we are only a few steps away from them on the food chain.

Biologists know that in any ecosystem, problems in one portion of the food web, often lead to trouble in other portions of the system, including the human societies which are a part of them.  For this reason indicator species are often selected which serve as a measure of the health of the ecosystem, and they also serve as an early warning system if something is wrong in the system, like a canary in a coal mine.  Some indicators are chosen because they are susceptible to some environmental factor, such as water quality or toxins, and others are chosen because of economic or cultural significance.  If the Monarch is viewed as our canary, it’s not doing so well.

Glyphosate, which has virtually eliminated milkweed from farm ecosystems, has also been linked to several human illnesses.  Residue remains on foods and has even infiltrated the public water supply at low levels through agricultural run off in some areas.  Despite growing health concerns and questions of safety with this chemical, permissible levels are increasing rather than decreasing.

If you’d like to learn more about Monarchs and how to help their populations, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (mlmp.org) is one place to go for information and to participate in this citizen science project.  Even if you do not wish to become involved in research, to increase your enjoyment of the Monarch, you can make certain to avoid harmful chemicals on flowers which may be useful to pollinators and be sure to plant some milkweed to help this migrant complete its annual cycle.

Here’s a link to a recent article about health concerns with glyphosate exposure.

My thanks to Brenda Keith for providing photos of the wonderful work she does each year, helping to boost populations by raising larvae to maturity.

Extending the Growing Season

With spring fast approaching, it is time to consider options that would allow your growing season to begin even sooner. There are several ways in which you can extend the growing season to allow you to raise crops earlier in the spring or later into the fall.

This article will discuss two methods of season extension: greenhouses and high tunnels.

Greenhouses are metal or wooden framework covered in glass or plastic, which offer the greatest controlled environment for vegetable production. They are often used with heating systems or fans to provide temperature control, and the enclosed system offers protection from pests and the elements. They can be used to cultivate plants year round (especially in colder climates) and seed plants (grow plants from seeds that will later be transplanted). In a greenhouse, the plants are grown in pots or flats using potting mix. The plants are not grown in the ground, unlike in high tunnels.

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Greenhouses can be found in a variety of sizes depending on your needs. Small, easy to assemble greenhouses can be found at many farmer’s cooperatives and other stores. Smaller greenhouses are ideal for seeding and growing plants for small farm or garden operations. In contrast, large operations often use market garden vegetable greenhouses that are normally 32 feet wide by 90 feet long. For more information and help choosing a greenhouse, visit these links: Choosing a GreenhouseGreenhouse Types and StructuresThe Benefits of a GreenhouseGreenhouse: The Benefits of A Greenhouse

High tunnels have become more popular in the past few years. Like greenhouses, they are made of stretched plastic over frames. However, in high tunnels plants are grown directly in the ground under the tunnel. The plastic sides of the tunnel roll up to provide ventilation, and normally no heating, cooling, or energy is used within the high tunnel. This often makes high tunnels a less expensive alternative to greenhouses, because they can have fewer costs from energy and potting materials. They are used for season extension and crop protection, but may get too hot to effectively grow plants in southern summers.

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Also, the NRCS is currently offering a seasonal high tunnel initiative program that will provide funds for people interested in building high tunnels. Even new farmers have received 90% funding with the program. For more information, contact your county NRCS agent and read the following link: EQUIP Seasonal High Tunnel Extension Program.

For more information about high tunnels, feel free to view these links: High Tunnel Crop Production ProjectHigh Tunnels: OverviewThe Benefits of Building a High Tunnel

Both greenhouses and high tunnels offer great benefits to any grower. Be sure to consider your options as we wait for the snow to melt!

Industrial Hemp Making a Comeback in TN? Let’s Hope So!

There is currently a lot of talk and even some promising action surrounding the issue of re-legalizing the cultivation of industrial cannabis hemp. The 2014 Farm Bill was approved in the Federal House of Representatives finally last month with a crucial amendment that focuses on the rescheduling of industrial cannabis hemp. More specifically, the US Senate’s “Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013” would appropriately differentiate the non-psychoactive cannabis hemp from another variety of the plant currently placed under schedule I drug prohibition. The amendment to the 2014 Farm Bill “allows institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for the purpose of agricultural or academic research.” The volition of the State’s will decide whether or not to allow hemp to be cultivated.

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This is an incredible advance in the outmoded, if ever valid, prohibition of a vital crop which has been predicted to offer to meet and exceed the nations fiber and nutritional needs. Perhaps the US can once again become a major exporter–or at least begin to provide more for itself without ravaging the land. Cannabis hemp may be a superior feedstock for bio-fuels, plastics, building materials, insulation, and a host of other products that currently are derived from unsustainable fossil fuel consumption. The impressive scale of this reality may hold promise to an end in the need to cut down one more single tree for paper. Hemp is a crop that can offer a profitable and sustainable mode of agriculture to the landscape in Tennessee.

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 Proponents of forestry and agriculture alike will surely recognize this as an epic turning point in our history—one which will likely be venerated by future generations. It is likely that the prohibition of the plant was tied to political and industrial interests which sought to remove competition from the vital and versatile agricultural crop to make way for other products in the capitalistic pursuit of profits. The controversy surrounding genetically modified crops, the need for bioremediation, the plague of petrochemical pollution, and the viability of agriculture and manufacturing for Americans are all benefits for our failing economy.

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One does not have to do too much digging to research on the Web to read about the history, many uses, and benefits of this crop that has been a part of humankind at least since agriculture itself was developed.

Legislature pertinent to the new Farm Bill is currently awaiting approval in Tennessee. There are many avenues from which to show your support for this groundbreaking step toward better health and economic stability for Tennesseans:

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Please click the links below to explore a viable crop with exciting economic and environmental benefits for the land, people, families, and communities of our nation:

(All photos sourced from the Web--not property of the author.)

https://www.facebook.com/tnhemp

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c113:H.R.525:

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d113:hz208:

http://www.tnfarmbureau.org/content/farm-bureau-welcomes-2014-farm-bill

http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy../Cannabis_sativa.html

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf404278q

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926669099000485 -Fiber strain different than drug

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01140671.2001.9514191 -Hemp as a pesticide [nematicide]