By Jay Leshinsky, East Coast and Canadian Sales Manager
This is the time of year I summarize my summer working with the students at the Middlebury College Organic Garden where we trial varieties for Renee's Garden and grow produce for the College's dining system. Each summer's group of student interns has a different personality. This year, the group loved to make up and sing songs while they worked. Our garden has a close connection to work songs; six years ago Bennett Konesni, one of the student founders of the garden, won a Watson fellowship to study work songs all over the world (you can learn work songs at his farm, Sylvester Manor.
Many of the songs Bennett discovered were tied to agriculture and were created to make work more enjoyable, cohesive and collaborative. Following Bennett's lead, the garden often had interns who played music during work breaks, but this was the first time I worked with such consistent “on the job” singers. One song they created while thinning over-grown yarrow plants (sung with a pace similar to that used by old time railroad workers pounding stakes into the rails) was so memorable that the elementary school children visiting the garden that day all left singing the "yarrow" song as they walked back to town, even though no one had taught it to them.
Yarrow is one of the many plants we use to attract pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden. One of the most striking observations a student doing research made was that the yellow crookneck summer squash she grew inter-planted with catnip out produced a control group of the same variety by two to one! When I mentioned this to Renee, she told me she knew farmers who were planting very specific plants throughout their garden beds for beneficial insects (since that time we put together a Guide to Attracting Beneficial Insects.
The students decided to plant some perennials like catmint, catnip, Korean mint, yarrow, bee balm, echinops and centurea and began to experiment with planting of annual flowers. We also plant lots of zinnias (because they are great cutting flowers as well), alyssum, tithonia, nicotiana, nigella, cleome, asclepias, cosmos, calendula, Marble Arch salvia, poppies and sunflowers. We also let herbs like cilantro, dill, arugula, basil, borage, thyme and sage go to flower where they attract many beneficial insects (plus we wind up with a crop of coriander, the seed stage of cilantro).
For the past two years we also grown yellow sweet clover, the favorite food of our honey bees- we have 5 bee hives at the garden- as a “ green manure” crop, grown to enrich the soil. After the bees pollinated it we got a great crop of seed, mowed the clover and allowed it to reseed for the next year (when it bloomed again). We turned it in this spring for it nitrogen value (it is deep rooted and can be hard to turn in by hand) and got sensational crops of broccoli and cabbages in that part of the garden late this summer.
In my blog post last March, I mentioned the pollinator research done last fall at the garden by Professor Helen's Young's biology students. Three new students will come to the garden next week to do more research on the insects that visit our flowering plants in the fall. Visitors to the garden love strolling through to enjoy the flowers. The interns and I established a ritual of cutting our zinnias and bringing bouquets of these long lasting flowers (unannounced) to the offices on campus as gifts from the garden. It is so satisfying to see the smiling faces of the recipients of our flower surprises.