Patchwork: Pay close attention to garden relationships

Editor’s note: This week’s writer is Jay Leshinsky, whose interest in gardening began during childhood while eating his way through the family berry patch and vegetable garden. He’s been gardening organically since starting his first garden in 1970 in Maryland, where he sold vegetables at a farmers’ market. Jay continued to have a market garden when he moved to Addison County in 1975. For the past nine years he’s split his work time between advising the students at the Middlebury College Organic Garden and doing seed trials and some sales for Renee’s Garden seed company. Jay and his wife live in Middlebury.
My friend and mentor, Wendy Johnson, wrote in her book, “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate”:
Jay Is Picking:
Mesclun lettuce
Sugar snap peas
Herbs (Chives, Thyme, Sage)
Edible flowers (Johnny Jump Ups, Chive Flowers)
Barbara & Kate Are Also Picking:
Bok choi
Herbs (Chamomile, Chervil, Chives, Cilantro, Hyssop, Lemon Thyme, Marjoram, Mint, Oregano, Sage, Thyme)
Mustard greens
Rapini (broccoli rabe)
See more Patchwork columns
“Every spot has a voice, a particular taste, a breath of wind unique to itself, a shadow, a presence. The best gardeners I know slow way down in order to receive the tidings of the land they are bound to work.”
The particular voice I’ve listened to for the past eight summers is that of the Middlebury College Organic Garden, where I have been teaching students how to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers organically. Because of my work at that spot I’ve listened to many voices and been connected to many wonderful people. In slowing down, looking and listening closer, I have come to a new and expanded relationship with the garden, and in particular, with the insects that visit.
When I started my first garden 40 years ago, the insects I knew the best were those that damaged crops. From cucumber beetles to squash bugs, I identified and battled these competitors for my crops with organic pesticides, protective row covers and hand picking. Then a series of events came together to expand my relationship with the insect world. A student doing research on companion planting at the garden observed that a row of yellow crookneck summer squash interplanted with catnip out-produced a control group of the same variety grown without catnip by two to one! We didn’t know why, but we hoped we could recruit some students to do more research the following spring.
Later that summer for reasons unrelated to the companion planting experiment, I asked Middlebury College Professor Helen Young to bring two of her research interns to the garden to do counts of insects coming to different flowers. What they found was that catnip was a great attractor of honeybees as well as other pollinators. Could more pollinators coming to the squash/catnip row be responsible for better pollination and higher yield? Should we be paying more attention to our insect visitors?
That fall another serendipitous connection occurred. Some Middlebury College students and I attended a seed-saving conference in Brattleboro, where we met Frank Morton, a master plant breeder from Oregon who works with open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and herbs without using pesticides of any type. Instead, he searches for traits like disease resistance, productivity and good taste. A big part of his program to improve pollination and control of destructive insects in his seed crops is to plant what he calls “insectaries.” These are groupings of plants that provide food, pollen or shelter for beneficial insects (pollinators or insects that prey on other insects that eat our food crops).
We decided to devote one section in each of our garden beds to an “insectary.” Based on the squash experiments we included catnip and added some of Frank’s recommendations like Korean mint (anise hyssop), arugula, chervil, fennel, cilantro, sunflowers and calendula. Many of these plants reseed freely in Vermont and will be back in the next season (take heed!). As a bonus we collected some of seed for cooking (like cilantro, the seed of which is the spice coriander). The following year we included some annuals: zinnias as pollinator attractors (and because they are great cutting flowers as well), alyssum, tithonia, nicotiana, nigella, borage and clary sage. We also planted perennials: yarrow, bee balm, echinops, centurea, catmint and thyme.
So we are looking more closely at the insects that visit our garden. We are seeing that some plants (borage, Korean mint, nigella, gaillardia and Clary sage) attract a wide range of pollinators. Other plants seem to have favorites: Our honey bees are the major visitors to raspberries while our bumble bees dominate in the blueberries. We have observed spindled soldier bugs parasitizing the larvae of Colorado potato beetles.
The relationship of the insects to our flowers is so much more complex and rich than I ever imagined. Perhaps for me the tidings of the garden are seeing connection and wholeness where I once saw unrelated parts. It is something I try to take with me as I leave the garden each day.

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