CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As recently as last week, you have read my laments about the abundance of summer rains causing diseases to run rampant in our gardens. Let's face it, it has been a pretty terrible year for most of the garden. Disease problems aside, it is becoming apparent that there are other issues that the rain and clouds are causing.
A lot of early problems in the garden and landscape this year had to do with poor root growth because of heavy moisture in the soil. Excess soil moisture can kill the root hairs that are responsible for much of the water and nutrient uptake in plants, resulting in nutrient deficiencies and even a reduced ability to take up water amid all the rain.
Tomatoes, peppers and other plants waited weeks or months without much growth, as did some trees and shrubs. Some plants finally started growing and others did not. I finally gave up on my 1-foot-tall pepper plants that were bent over with three peppers each.
Another problem in the vegetable garden is becoming increasingly apparent and troubling to those I talk to: lack of fruit production and development.
Now when I say "fruit," I'm talking about anything that arises from a flower and contains seeds, even if we call it a vegetable. Cucumbers and squash, tomatoes and peppers, and even corn and beans are all fruits. The problem is one of pollination -- or lack thereof. So now we need to have the talk, the one about the birds and the bees. Well, the bees anyway.
Crops that are self-pollinated aren't having as much trouble. Beans, peppers and tomatoes, along with their relatives, are all self-fertile. They do not need pollinators to have a crop; in fact, bean and tomato flowers are built to keep bees out to ensure self-pollination.
The plants that have had the most trouble this year are the ones that rely on bees for pollination, most notably the cucurbits -- cucumbers, squash, melons and the like. These plants all have separate male and female flowers on each plant, and pollinators (bees) are required to carry the pollen from the male to the female flower. Bees do not like dodging raindrops, so when days are rainy, little pollination occurs. Even heavy clouds and overcast skies can keep bees from their pollination duties.
It takes as many as 15 visits from a pollinator to make sure that a cucurbit flower is fully pollinated. Without these visits, the fruit will either not develop, or will have parts that are shrunken and misshapen.