Establishing the Value of Flower Companions in Cucurbits

Final report for FNC18-1122

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2020
Grant Recipient: Genuine Faux Farm
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Rob Faux
Genuine Faux Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The Genuine Faux Farm is a family-owned diversified farm that has been in operation since 2004. The farm produced certified organic vegetables for a Community Supported Agriculture share program until 2020 and has since moved to sales to larger, local accounts. The farm includes turkeys, broiler chickens and a flock of laying hens.

The farm has been certified organic since 2007 and has been working on finding efficient ways to intercrop since 2006. We have been working on including cover crops since 2009 and developing permanent pollinator habitat since the farm's inception.


Most cucurbits rely heavily on pollinator services to produce sufficient yield for a profitable operation. Many monocropping designs rely only on the attraction of the cucurbit flowers to bring pollinators to the field. This study is based on the hypothesis that intercropping plants within the cucurbit production system will increase pollinator services and thus, increase yield. This farm has shown "proof of concept" that non-cash crop plantings can result in higher yields without significant cost increase. However, it has not been shown that these changes are season independent. A study with a control plot versus a treatment plot would provide evidence that there is season independent difference.

This study hopes to provide evidence that a diverse cropping system in not only possible from a practice and profit standpoint, but it is also beneficial to threatened pollinator populations.

Project Objectives:
  1. Design an on-farm research project that is a simple control/treatment with two time replications (two seasons).
  2. Establish differences in yield for cucurbits depending on the presence, or lack, of pollinator attracting companion plants.
  3. Determine if there is a difference in pollinator presence between the control and treatment.
  4. Determine if there is improved survival for young cucurbit plants.
  5. Establish cost and labor differences between the two planting methods.
  6. Share results through field days or conference presentations. One opportunity could be with Practical Farmers of Iowa and another could be with the Iowa Organic Association.


Materials and methods:

General Farm Strategy

Plots on the farm are 200' x 60' oriented 200' in the East-West direction.  There are nine equivalent plots in the rotation.  Cucurbits are scheduled on a 2-2-3-2 year split to avoid an every other year pattern.  Ground is primarily flat with a heavier loam soil (Tripoli and Oran Loam).  Beds are based on the spacing between the wheels of a Case 45 hp tractor with a shared wheel track between beds.  Each plot on the farm is surrounded by a grass/clover buffer that also serves as the driving track for equipment.  The farm is certified organic and has a 35 foot buffer around the edge of the farm and a road to the south.  Corn and soybean row-crop fields surround the farm otherwise.  The target markets for produce included a long-season CSA program, local retirement services, local retail and local restaurants.  Variety within crop types fits both the market and approach of the farm, though an anchor variety or type is usually included.

Plot Selection Strategy

The control plot was selected on the basis of its distance from other plots that were likely to have additional pollinator services within the existing crop rotation.  The intent of the project is to determine if proximal location of pollinator supporting plants impacts production of the cucurbits.  Therefore, it was necessary to select the plot that had the fewest identifiable sources for pollinator support with respect to cucurbits.  The treatment plot required no such consideration.  Both had to remain within the farm rotation plan.

Plot Plans

Each plot is capable of holding 13 beds.  For the purposes of the project, we took our planned melon field and our planned winter squash field and split each in half, this allowed us to replicate the varieties and numbers of plants without changing our overall production capacity.  In other words, we took 4 beds from our prior year's melon plot and 4 beds from our prior year's squash plot and combined them into two plots that would have 4 beds of each.  One plot included 6 beds of pollinator support plantings.  The other plots corresponding beds were kept fallow.  Beds 1,4,7,10 and 13 were either the pollinator beds or fallow beds depending on whether they were in the treatment or control plot.  Beds 2,3,5 & 6 held winter squash and beds 8,9,11 & 12 held melons.

Production Methods

All cucurbits were transplanted from starts into the field.  All pollinator support plants were seeded directly into their beds.  Germination failure requires response with transplanted pollinator support plants or reseeding.  All beds were provided with drip irrigation, though this was not used for much more than establishment and parts of late July/early August in 2018.  Cultivation was provided by a Williams Tool Bar with flex tine and squash knives.  Wet weather required significant hand weeding and hand tools and prevented mechanized cultivation during key periods.  Melons were provided with supplemental compost for fertility at transplant.

Cash Crops

The cash crops were identical between the two plots in 2018:

  • 2 beds Waltham Butternut
  • 1 bed pumpkins - Musquee de Provence and Long Island Cheese
  • 1 bed shorter season squash - Thelma Sanders (acorn type) and Spaghetti
  • 1 bed Pride of Wisconsin melon
  • 1/2 beds of the following melons: Eden's Gem, Emerald Gem, Ha'Ogen, Arava, Oka, Hearts of Gold

The cash crops were again identical between the two plots in 2019, but show a simpler set of varieties:

  • 3 beds Waltham Butternut
  • 1 bed pumpkins - Musquee de Provence
  • 2 beds shorter season squash - Thelma Sanders (acorn type)
  • 1 bed Pride of Wisconsin melon
  • 1/2 bed each of Eden's Gem and Emerald Gem

Pollinator Support Crops

  • borage
  • marigold, Red Marietta
  • zinnia, State Fair
  • nasturtium, Empress of India
  • chleome
  • basil, thai and lemon
  • hyssop

in 2019, the support crops included opal and lemon basil, but no thai basil.  Chleome was not included and the hyssop had a germination failure.  Buckwheat was sown in an outer bed to replace the failed crop and to take advantage of its quick germination and growth rate.

Watching for Pollinators

Weekly pollinator 'walks' were taken once flowers of any sort were observed in either field.  One bed was randomly chosen each week for observation and the 'walks' were planned to be no more than 5 minutes in duration to keep the task sustainable for an operating farm.  A quick weather observation and a rough count of pollinators are kept.  Any quick observations regarding types of pollinators were written as notes.

In 2019, these walks continued, but notes were less detailed.

Watching for Plant Survival Rates

A quick survey of survival numbers was taken one week after transplant and at the point vines begin to 'sprawl.'

Yield Data

Count and weight was taken for all marketable fruit.  Culls were not counted in 2018, but the intent was (and is) to also count fully developed culls whose presence would indicate that a flower was successfully pollinated.  There are not plans to identify and count aborted fruit due to inadequate pollination. 

Once again, culls were not counted in 2019.

Cost and Labor Comparison

Workers recorded labor hours in the participating fields in 2018 and more detailed information will be kept in 2019 to allow the development of a full enterprise budget for comparison between the control and treatment.  Basic costs are measured as normal: seed, seed starting supplies, drip line and headers, mulch, etc.  The obvious differences include more seed and drip line for the treatment field.  Labor costs include seeding, care of seedlings, transplant, direct sow seeding, irrigation maintenance, cultivation and harvest. 

Data collected in 2019 was, in fact, exactly the same as 2018, despite the desire to do more.  Simply put, there was not enough time to do it all without getting more help.

Additional Information

Weather observations include those provided in pollinator walks and data collected using the farm's weather station.  Digital photographs were used to record progress.  Standard information such as seeding dates, transplant dates, irrigation records, fertilization records and harvest records were kept per normal farm protocol.

Limiting Variables

When possible, farm work was performed in corresponding beds between the two fields within the same half-day.  Irrigation ran during the same period for both fields when it was applied.  Seedling trays were split so that half of the tray was planted in one plot and the other half in the other plot.

In 2019, the only variable that could not be controlled was weed control functions.  Weather and other issues did not allow completion of cultivation in one period of time.

Research results and discussion:

Extreme Weather Conditions

Our farm was among those impacted by extremely wet weather during the growing season.  Most of the moisture came in the form of later snows in April, so is not shown in the graphic.  After a normal May, a wet June followed, making it difficult to get cultivation done in a timely fashion.  Also, there were issues with seed germination, which impacted pollinator support plant germination in the treatment plot.

  Rain at GFF
jan 2.09
feb 0.53
mar 0.15
apr 1.04
may 5.36
jun 8.51
jul 3.06
aug 8.45
sep 14.66
oct 5.08
nov 3.43

After a normal July, August provided approximately twice the normal rainfall, which was followed up by an extremely wet Fall.  Records were set for yearly rainfall in our area and this was the wettest Fall recorded as well.  A significant portion of the crops were lost due to these conditions.  Field conditions frequently prevented entry into the fields.  Many fruit breached and were lost to rot (especially melons).  The volume of loss and conditions of the fields prevented a reasonable effort to count culls.

In 2019, the season started cold and wet, presenting problems with getting cucurbits into the field and causing issues with pollinator support crops.  However, we were able to get the fields planted by June 10, which is just (barely) within our normal planting window.  We were able to fill in poor germination in the pollinator crops with transplants and with the borage seeding in an outer row.  In the second half of the season, weather dried out and was a bit warmer than usual.

Yield Data

The melon data can not be extrapolated to show any true results due to the high level of losses seen this year.  Many of the observed differences had more to do with 'wetter' versus 'drier' areas of field than any other factor.  The melons harvested as 'marketable' were not out of the norm for size and quality.

melons 2018 fruit weight in lbs.
Arava 31 102.2
treat 7 14.8
control 24 87.4
Eden's Gem 14 12.8
treat 14 12.8
Emerald Gem 5 5.1
treat 5 5.1
Haogen 1 2.2
treat 1 2.2
Hearts of Gold 18 34.2
treat 18 34.2
Pride of Wisconsin 58 241.8
treat 17 60.4
control 41 181.4

The winter squash/pumpkins could have had the potential to show us some results, but we can not discount the weather conditions here as well.  We are aware of sections in all beds for both plots that saw plant/fruit loss in the Fall due to wet conditions.  We provide the raw data simply for completeness.


winter squash/ pumpkins 2018 fruit weight in lbs.
Long Island Cheese 42 261.9
treatment 15 82.5
control 27 179.4
Musquee de Provence 39 323.3
treatment 28 225.7
control 11 97.6
Spaghetti 39 86.7
treatment 8 21.5
control 31 65.2
Thelma Sanders 245 275.8
treatment 163 179.4
control 82 96.4
Waltham 238 556.6
treatment 167 416.6
control 71 140

2019 Yield Data

Unfortunately, 2019 yield data was negatively impacted by drift from a dicamba product onto our farm.  Dicamba, a growth inhibitor, resulted in many vines with damage in patches throughout both fields.  The dicamba volatilization was in late June, catching the cucurbits in an early heavy growth stage.  Leaf petioles were twisted and classic symptoms of exposure to a growth inhibitor were seen.  This means any data collected with respect to yield will have no value for this study.

Pollinator Presence

In 2018, there was minimal difference in pollinator presence through July.  No conclusion can be made from this since most of the pollinator support plants in the treatment field had to be replanted and were not blooming until August in most cases.  More pollinators were observed in the second week of August for the treatment plot than the control plot.  It should also be noted that we observed lower than normal pollinator presence on the farm until the second week of August (regardless of the location on the farm).  We have noted this decline continuously since the farm's beginnings in 2004 despite efforts to increase habitat.

In 2019, we observed greater activity of pollinators throughout the season in plots that provided pollinator service companion plants.  To be perfectly clear, there was plenty of activity on the pollinator plants, but there was also a similar load of activity in the sections of healthy cucurbit plants.  Measurements below represent individual pollinators in a random fifty foot sample of vine crop.  Measurement was conducted by a "stroll by" method that included a walk next to the row at a pace that would cover fifty feet in over the period of one minute.  The first such samples were used for training and were discarded for the purpose of the study until the data collectors were confident that consistent results were being collected.

Date control sample treatment sample
Aug 1 5 8

Aug 4

12 13
Aug 6 8 12
Aug 9 3 4
Aug 11 10 27
Aug 14 14 25
Aug 15 18 14
Aug 16 15 16
Aug 19 2 3

Unfortunately, the data collection did not occur at the same time each day and weather conditions varied.  However, there was a period where there was clearly much more activity, primarily from the domestic honeybee population in the treatment field on the vine crops.  Anecdotally, since we did not try to track specific pollinators, squash bees did not appear to vary - which is not a surprise.  The bumblebee populations in our area have been in severe decline and we did not see much evidence of them in either plot.  The smaller pollinator bees were not typically found on the vine crops, but were present on the pollinator companions.

Crop Dates

Cucurbit seed start date: May 3, 2018 and May 2, 2019

Cucurbit transplant date: Jun 1 (melon), Jun 4 (squash) in 2018.  In 2019, all were transplanted on Jun 15, 2019.

Pollinator seeding 1: Jun 1, 2018 and May 21, 2019

Pollinator seeding 2: Jun 28, 2018 (supplement with transplants leftover in trays for other fields), Jun 15, 2019

Harvest Melon: Aug 27 - Sep 10, 2018     and Sep 1 - Sep 12, 2019

Harvest Squash: Sep 24 - Sep28, 2018 and Sep 28 - Oct 14, 2019

Cost Observations

Seed cost for pollinator support plantings (borage, etc) is minimal, as are any other related direct cost.  The labor seeding (and even reseeding) was also negligible.  The additional cost that had some impact was the time spent cultivating and weeding the non-cash crop beds.  If the treatment is going to show a favorable result, it needs to produce enough additional crop to pay for this labor and/or this process would need to be made more efficient.  Typically, a heavy seeding of marigolds, zinnias and borage provide sufficient canopy that only early cultivation is necessary.  This year was an exception with poor germination rates.

In 2019, we found that cultivating the pollinator support crops worked well with a heavily seeded, single row of the companion.  As expected, the biggest single expenditure was keeping the non-cash crop rows weeded.  However, the heavier seedings made it more possible to simply use wheel hoes and a finger weeder on a walk behind tractor to keep the rows sufficiently clean.

Planned vs Implemented Changes for Year 2 (2019) of the Project

The trends are clearly showing that our area of the country will continue to be (on average) wetter than it has been - and, in fact, the first part of 2019 was quite wet.  Our farm is particularly susceptible to wet years and we continue to take steps to address the situation in general.  However, there are specific alterations to our growing plan we are making for 2019 that relate to this project.

  1. Hilling planting beds - we did not implement this in 2019, instead, we worked on putting in ditches to move water away from some low areas.
  2. Paper mulch all long season cucurbit rows - implemented
  3. Seed some pollinator support beds earlier (marigold and zinnia) - implemented with some success
  4. Place more transplants in row with cucurbits - did not implement, stayed with same spacing.
  5. Move transplant date up on cucurbits and prepare to cover if cold weather afterwards - could not implement due to wet weather

Paper Mulch - we are noticing that Weedguard Plus is developing a better paper mulch product and we saw success using it for our tomatoes in 2018 despite the wetter than usual weather.  We applied 4' wide paper mulch on all cucurbit rows and did not use the paper mulch on the pollinator companions.  Melons did not appear to do as well on the paper mulch as the squash/pumpkins.  But, again, we cannot say whether this had something to do with the dicamba issue or the paper itself (or a combination of the two?).

Earlier Seeding - as with all of the other things we are looking to do differently, this seems good in theory.  However, we had significant germination problems throughout our farm in May and early June during both years due to cold, wet soils.  Many row croppers in our area also found a very compressed planting window in 2018 and 2019. 

It makes sense that starting zinnias and marigolds earlier will provide a longer flower window for these annuals.  Both are known to produce well for an extended period.  Borage, on the other hand, has a definite peak bloom period and we do not want that to happen before the cucurbits are ready.  We kept the borage planting date close to the cucurbit transplant date.

In row transplants - we used flowers to mark varietal breaks in beds as well as to mark replications in research trials.  In an effort to insure some support plant presence in 2019, we increased the numbers of these transplants in the cucurbit rows.  We used plants, such as non-vining nasturtiums, that do not compete adversely with the cucurbits.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

9 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
3 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Other educational activities: Two students came to farm for a filming project that included information on supporting pollinators.

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Activities included:

  • Hosted tour Waverly-Shell Rock Junior High School
  • Hosted tour University of Northern Iowa Capstone class (2 different)
  • Class presentation Wartburg College Environmental Science class (3 different)
  • Class presentation University of Northern Iowa Capstone class (2 different)
  • Film project, UNI students
  • Practical Farmers of Iowa - presentation
  • Iowa Organic Association - presentation

The farm tours occurred in September and October, making it difficult to combine visual results with the project.  However, significant time was spent discussing the ideas of intercropping and providing support for pollinators.  Both class presentations featured this project and the principles surrounding it.  The Wartburg class presentation specifically requested a focus on the on-farm research we do.  While none of these projects focused only on this project, the project did feature prominently, despite unsatisfying results for both years.

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We are extremely disappointed that circumstances prevented us from completing our research in a matter that was satisfactory to us.  However, while we cannot say anything definitive from the data collected with respect to yield, I can make the following observations:

  1. Our domestic honey bees did seem to prefer the vines in the field with pollinator support.  We know that honeybees must visit flowers more times than a squash bee to effect pollination, so if we need to rely on the domestic honeybee, this might very beneficial.   For other pollinators, proximity of pollinator attractors may not be as important as simply providing habitat for their colonies and a continuous food supply.
  2. We observed no difference in vine 'survival' between the control and the treatment. 
  3. We did find additional labor required to keep the pollinator support rows clear of unwanted weeds.  However, we felt that we could adjust our plant density and cultivation approaches to minimize that cost.  Otherwise, it would not take much production difference to cover the extra costs.
  4. As a grower, I found that I liked being in the treatment field, with the flowering plants more than I did the field that was only cucurbits.  From a personal well-being perspective, I found this worthwhile - especially considering the fact that were were dealing with poor weather in 2018 and dicamba drift in 2019. 

My recommendations to other farmers who might like to try integrating pollinator support plants into cucurbit crops are as follows:

  1. You can provide pollinator support with diverse plants both in row and in separate rows.
  2. In row can be simply implemented by putting a pollinator friendly plant with the same spacing as your cucurbits in every five or ten plants.  If you select something that will not grow too tall, it will not interfere with harvest.
  3. In row planting of bush type nasturtiums works especially for squash and can be planted in between squash plants while maintaining the preferred spacing for the squash.
  4. If you opt to provide a separate row pollinator crop, treat that row like another crop.  Plant it in a row with your normal spacing and cultivate it as you would another crop.  If seeded, plant that crop heavier than you might normally.  While I like the idea of diversity of these plants within one row, it is more efficient to go with one variety in each row OR split the row into sections of flowering plants that have similar growth habits to make cultivation easier.
  5. Doing something is better than nothing.  Perhaps choose rows on the edges of your plot or field to provide flowering plant habitat.  These are often areas where you have the lowest production for cash crops, so why not use them to support the pollinator population and attract them to your cash crops? 

While I do not have proper research data to support it, I do have anecdotal evidence that our yield for cucurbits, especially melons and winter squash, have increased since we started including flowering plants into the plots where we grow these vine crops.  Personally, I will not return to plots with vine crop only production. 

Project Outcomes

8 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

One row crop farmer, who also grows pumpkins, began to include zinnias as a border planting and center of field planting for his pumpkin patch after discussing this project with us.

A CSA farmer had added in row flowers to mark variety changes in row and placed similar flowers at the ends of all rows in response to our efforts.

Several farmers, in both Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa Organic Association spaces, have consulted with us about ideas for integrating annual flowering plants into their production plots.

Several peers, who are also vegetable growers have begun adding borage to their grow lists as a pollinator support plant.  Others are increasing basil production with the intent of harvesting only a portion of the plants and leaving the others to bloom.  Still others are integrating flowering herb plants into their vegetable production, thus introducing a beneficial plant that could also serve as a cash crop.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.