Summer 2018: A PlantEd Project Coordinator Reflection

By: Lindsey Miller
PlantEd Project Coordinator
Stakman-Borlaug Center for Sustainable Plant Health

Me overlooking the farm field in October 2017 (end of last season) admiring the newly mowed rays and arcs that Keith and I worked all summer to create

Photo 1: Me overlooking the farm field in October 2017 (end of last season) admiring the newly mowed rays and arcs that Keith and I worked all summer to create.

For the past two summers, I have been lucky enough to represent the University of Minnesota Plant Education Group (PlantEd) on the ground at the Horst Rechelbacher Site in Osceola, WI. Last year (my first season) was primarily dedicated to helping five PlantEd researchers decipher the logistic needs for a project in this space, and then create plans for the 2018 season. Simultaneously, I worked with Keith Johnson (a farmer contracted through Bee Squad) to create the field plots dedicated to PlantEd. I consider last year’s term a success, as we began this summer (my second season) prepared to implement four PlantEd projects in the field at HMR Farm.

Overall, the 2018 season was to be a learning summer. We began work in a space that had been mostly untouched for years and was overgrown with non-beneficial weeds and quackgrass. Soil sample results had shown we’d need to supplement specific nutrients if our plants were to thrive. And, we would be competing with large populations of deer, gophers, and other wildlife present in the growing space. To complicate matters, the land at the site is certified organic; therefore, our options for weed-control, nutrient additions, and pest-control were limited.

Flowers for pollinators project in the field in mid-july

Flowers for pollinators project in the field in mid-July.

I went into this season prepared to help PlantEd researchers respond to these challenges with four main questions in mind:

  • How will each plant species respond to field conditions at the farm?
  • Does each project make logistic sense as planned? What adjustments need to be made before next season?
  • What plants will flower and which flowers will attract pollinators?
  • What pollinators will our flowering plants attract?

Overall, I’d say the plants did very well in the field at the site. We grew more than 100 species, which included annual flowering and food plants, medicinal plants, soil and pollinator beneficial field plants, and grapevines. Many plants were started on-site using Bee Squad’s distillery and the greenhouse on site. Seedlings were small when placed in the ground, but matured quickly as soon as their roots adjusted to the sandy field soil. Most plantings were amended with organic potassium and nitrogen, which proved to increase the hardiness of species across the board.

Surprisingly, we did not experience heavy interference from wildlife until late in the season. Once the food plants began setting fruit, the deer found our plots and made quick work of any peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, sunflowers, corn, and more. The deer also nibbled at the tips of our grape plants as they began to peek from their grow tubes. This being said, one of the main concerns for PlantEd researchers next season will be protecting their plots from deer activity.

Butterfly taking nectar from Rudbeckia 'Prairie Sun' in the Flowers for Pollinators field plot

Butterfly taking nectar from Rudbeckia 'Prairie Sun' in the Flowers for Pollinators field plot.

In addition, I will encourage the PlantEd group to increase the number of supplies available on site and to delegate more funds towards labor resources. This season, researchers brought all supplies needed with them each trip made to the farm. It would be helpful to have a basic set of supplies on site, and a space in which to store PlantEd supplies. We will also need to increase the number of hands on-site if we are to combat the weeds and keep things watered and maintained in a way that supports ultimate plant growth and fruit development.

Our greatest success in the field this season was in the way we supported pollinators. The flowering annuals in our ‘Flowers for Pollinators’ plot grew large and healthy, setting forth a breathtaking array of blooms all season. At any time, one could walk through this space and hear the loud buzzing of bumblebees and honeybees, see hummingbirds scattering from the sunflowers, and watch the flies and native bees move like a blanket across the blooms. This project was a favorite among farm visitors, and was also used regularly by Bee Squad during their weekly bumblebee counts.

Another project, the ‘Annual Display and Plant Diversity Garden’, attracted a large number of pollinators as well. Here, you would consistently witness bumblebees buzz pollinating tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos. Honey and native bees swarmed the cornflowers as they bloomed in succession. The basil garden was constantly alive with activity, and the marigolds were traditionally covered in butterflies and grasshoppers. Although this project will need additional supplies and staff support in following summers, it was loved by many insects this year.

Each project this summer had its own set of successes and failures. Overall we learned enough to move confidently into the next season. Thank you to the HMR Foundation for letting us use this space, and to all who helped make this season an overall success!