A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mason Bees - The Friendly Pollinators

Mason Bees appear like a big house fly with a greenish black shine to them.
Did you know that Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria) are one of the most common hole-nesting bees? They are wonderful pollinators, especially for apples and pears. Researchers claim they can be up to 90% more efficient at pollinating than honeybees due to the fact that Mason Bees will forage in light rain and at cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. If you are worried or concerned about getting stung then this hard working little Mason Bee may be just what you and your flowers and vegetable gardens are looking for. Mason Bees are not aggressive since they are a solitary bee and are not defending a queen they are considered quite docile. 
Linda's nesting boxes are hung under the eves, on the southeast side of a shed so they get sun and are protected from prevailing winds/rains. Insets show other styles of nesting boxes.
Nesting boxes for Mason Bees: In the photos you can see that I have quite a few nesting boxes. My nesting boxes are hanging under the eaves of my pump house facing towards the southeast so they can be warmed by the early morning sun and protected from direct rain.  Mason bees are easy to care for. You can make new nesting boxes by using a drill press and a 5/16 bit and blocks of UNTREATED wood. You may also purchase nesting straws. I have found the straws at the WildBirdsUnlimited store in Corvallis. For right now I have placed 2 new nesting boxes and a package of straws for the ladies to use as new homes for their eggs. As these begin to fill up I will continue making new boxes. Last year the girls were so prolific that I had to make several new nest blocks 3 different times.
Chris hangs nesting boxes at Crowson/Monroe garden
Mason Bee life cycle: This year, my Mason Bees began emerging in early April. The males hatch out first once our temperatures get above 55 degrees for 3 days in a row. The females seem to understand that it is important to lay female eggs at the back of the holes and lay the male egg at the front of each hole. This assures the survival of this species as it only takes one male to mate with several female Mason Bees. Once the weather begins to warm and the males emerge they then wait around for several days for the females to chew through their cocoon and then chew through the mud wall that divides each egg cell until they reach the end of the nesting hole and crawl out to live their short productive life in our wonderful Willamette Valley. The males then fly around chasing the females in a mating dance. Once the males have mated their job is complete and they die. The females immediately begin gathering pollen and laying eggs. They do not excavate holes but look around their environment for a 4-6 inch-long space that is approximately 5/16 of an inch in diameter. They are often seen crawling up under house shingles. No need to worry though. They do not damage your siding but are merely looking for a safe, dry place to lay their eggs. After she has gathered pollen she will return to the nesting tubes/boxes, fly into the holes and turn circles inside which helps the gathered pollen fall off her body as she wiggles her way to the end of the tube. 
Mason Bee larvae with pollen-ball for larval feeding.
There she will lay her tiny egg and put a pollen ball on top of that. She will leave about a 1 inch space and she then make a 1/4 inch mud plug to wall off that egg, hence the name "Mason" Bee. For the next 8-10 weeks these busy ladies continue gathering pollen and nectar. Sometime towards the end of June their life's work is over and they die. During the summer months the eggs develop into larvae. The larvae feeds on the pollen and nectar and develop into pupae. The Mason Bee pupae develop into bees protected inside a cocoon. They hibernate over the winter and emerge sometime towards the end of March or early April to start this marvelous life cycle over again. Click here for excellent pictures of Mason Bee life cycle.
HappBee gardening. Linda Zielinski
Linda Zielinski is an avid Mason Bee 'farmer' who lives in Philomath, Oregon. She generously provided the "Sharing Gardens" with a starter house of bees which we hope will multiply so we can spread them around the valley and help other gardeners get them established. Check back next February if you're interested in getting a starter house of Mason Bees for next spring. Thank you, Linda, for writing this article about the bees for us to post on our site.

Note: This was originally published on this site, April 13, 2012. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Do I Need to Buy Seed Potatoes or Can I Just Grow Potatoes from the Grocery Store?

Buying seed potatoes from a nursery catalog can be pretty pricey and its not really necessary. The only real advantages are that they sort them for uniformity of size (not a big deal), you know that they're ready for planting (see the discussion about dormancy below) and you can find some exotic varieties. We just use potatoes we saved from last year's harvest or buy them straight out of the produce section at the grocery store.   

The term "seed-potato" can be misleading. Potatoes do, on occasion produce seeds, but growers do not grow their crops from them. Instead, they grow them from small sprouting potatoes. Any potato, with sprouting eyes, that's at least the size of a chicken egg has the means to yield up to five pounds of fresh potatoes (Generally speaking, the smaller varieties of potatoes grow to maturity faster but yield less harvest.)

These green spheres in Chris' hand contain actual potato seeds but rarely do people grow potatoes from seeds
Potatoes are unique in that their growth cycle is not determined by length of day (as so many other plants are.) Potatoes have an internal clock that requires them to be dormant for a prescribed amount of time--different lengths for different varieties of potatoes. They won't sprout until their dormancy cycle has been reached. This is why some potatoes are better storage potatoes, because they won't start sprouting before you've eaten all the ones you want to eat.

When we want to plant more potatoes than we've saved from the previous year's harvest, we start looking for seed potatoes at the grocery store in late January (mid-winter in northern latitudes) and continue to buy them through till mid-spring. Many of the potatoes that have been in storage for the winter start to sprout in the warehouses at that time and you can get them for better prices. When selecting potatoes to plant, look for ones that already show signs of budding/sprouting from the eyes as this way you know they are viable for growing. Choose the variety you like best. Potatoes do not "cross pollinate". This means that, if you plant a russet, by golly you'll get a russet. (Note: one of our favorites is the Yukon Gold. They last a long time in winter storage and we like the flavor/texture too.)

Ideally, seed potatoes should be about the size of a chicken-egg. Larger potatoes can be cut and skinned over before planting. be sure you have at least three "eyes" per potato.
Potatoes need 70-90 days from planting to maturity so count backwards from your first frost date, or when you wish to begin eating your harvest! The exotic potatoes that come into the markets, and the small, egg-sized, common varieties are usually quite fresh; as they don't keep a long time in storage. They too won't be ready for planting till they naturally go through their dormancy cycle—four to six months. We haven't tried this but I read that you can hasten the dormancy by storing the potatoes in a cool, moist place for a few months and then putting them in a dryer, warmer (but still dark) area.
It is important that you buy organic potatoes because many of the commercially grown ones are sprayed with a "sprout-retardant" which gives them a longer shelf-life and this can delay their sprouting until the potato actually rots.

If the potatoes you have are only just starting to sprout and the buds aren't very long, keep them in the dark to encourage more sprouting. Once the buds are at least 3/4 of an inch long, it's time to "chit" them. 
How many to get? Each plant will take up about 12 - 16 inches of row space. If stored well, they will last for up to six months before starting to sprout again. Figure on 3-5 pounds of yield per potato you plant.  

What size should you get? Ideally you will find them that are about the size of a chicken's egg. Larger potatoes can be cut and allowed to skin over so they won't rot when you plant them.

What if they aren't already sprouting? If you can find potatoes that already have "eyes" that are budding, so much the better. This way you know they are viable for planting. As long as you buy organic potatoes (that have not been sprayed with sprout retardant), and allow 3-4 months time for them to begin to sprout, they do not already need to be sprouting.

When is it time to plant potatoes? Here in the S. Willamette Valley, unless you have raised beds, you need to wait to plant them till the ground dries out a bit. We planted them in early-April one year, when things were especially cool and wet and they just rotted in the ground. Depending on the variety you plant, they take 13 to 17 weeks to ripen. You may wish to plant them in succession so you'll have some potatoes to eat fresh and, the later harvests will last longer through the winter.

If you buy them in a plastic bag, transfer them into a cardboard box or paper sack so they don't rot before you get to them. Keep them in a cool, dark place, with good air circulation until they sprout. Layering them in a tub with leaves or straw, or sawdust works too. Just be sure to keep them from freezing.
Potatoes stored in damp layers of damp leaves. These had already begun to sprout and this storage protected their sprouts from breaking off, or the potatoes from drying out until we had the right conditions for planting.