Thank Heaven for Little Pollinators

When you are allergic to bees, you grow up rather fearful of hearing that unmistakable buzz made by bees’ wings.  Or at least I did.  When I was younger, I thought of these insects as shark-like predators, waiting to devour me alive and usually ran away, arms flailing and screaming, whenever one happened to flyby too close for comfort.

Over the past few decades, I’ve since come to recognise the importance of both shark and bee.  I no longer run, flail and scream when sitting in a buzzing garden on a warm summer day.  I might scream and flail if I saw a shark whilst in the ocean on a warm summer day though, but I digress.

Bumblebee on Geranium

The global worries about bee populations have been covered and recovered in the mainstream news, with the most recent scientific studies pointing to neonicotinoid pesticides as a significant contributor to the decline of honey bees.  This year UK groups launched bee and butterfly counting campaigns to raise awareness of declining pollinators and to help track numbers, species, and locations of various UK pollinators.  This summer also saw President Obama launch a Pollinator Health Task Force that will develop a national strategy to improve numbers of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

I’ll admit, I’m not an insect person by nature or education.  And while I have heard and read about this pollinator decline, I’ve not really felt that it’s something of particular interest or worry to me personally.  I just hoped that scientists, governments and farmers would figure out how to make the problem better and then I wouldn’t have to worry about the vast economic and food security issues that could come from further pollinator declines.

That is how I felt before this year.  The change this year, is that I’ve been lovingly growing a multitude of flowering fruits on my south-facing flat windows and garden.  Grown from seed sown in March, April and May, I have tended to plants, shared some with friends, planted some out in my garden, and kept some inside in pots.  I’ve learned several lessons this season in the value of potting on seedlings, in timings of planting said seedlings outside, and also in the value of pollinators.

Last week my first poblano chilli started growing, and my husband and I let out collective cheers.  We’re watching it daily for signs of growth and readiness to pick.  We have also watched the three other poblano chilli plants on the same windowsill drop countless flowers.  A quick google search told me that lack of pollination was the likely culprit. So I’ve since taken a small brush to hand-pollinate the flowers, and I’ve put one of these plants outside.  I suppose the proof will be in the pudding for the poblanos.  But my windowsill cucamelon plants also have had flower-drop, whilst the ones outside are already fruiting with flowers still attached.  That’s enough evidence for me to change behaviour and keep up hand-pollination.

This unintentional experiment has really opened my eyes to the importance of bees and other pollinators. It has made the issue of pollination one of personal importance – as it should have been before anyhow!  Now, I shall regard bees with even more esteem and will take more interest in the science and policies of honey bee populations and pesticide use.

I’m still not a fan of stinging wasps though, but perhaps in another decade or two I’ll learn to love and appreciate them too.

Magical Mushrooms

I’m not sure if I gave my husband a Father’s Day present that was for him, or for me.  He’s been getting rather excited about the amazing health properties of shiitake mushrooms for a while, and I love to grow plants, so it just sort of seemed logical to get a mushroom block.  We, well OK I, have been squirting the block several times a day now for the past month, and we’ve started to collect a nice little bounty of shiitake caps.  It’s the first time I have ever grown mushrooms, and I’ve gotta say, it is really quite fun and easy.

My husband keeps saying that these shiitakes are like eating multi-vitamins, and he’s not too far off.  They are quite rich in B6 and other vitamins and minerals, in addition to being quite high in fibre.  I used to take B6 supplements when I was a kid and camping because someone said it helped repel mosquitoes.  I’m not sure it ever really worked, but surely it couldn’t have hurt.  So add that to the nutritional and immune system boosting properties of these little guys and you have one rather nice super food.  

Plus they are quite tasty!  We’ve been popping them on pizzas and into pasta sauces.  When nobody is looking I also finely chop them to add to mince to bulk up the meat and hide them from our picky son who refuses to eat any vegetable or fungus. 

Ash Arch

The garden has quite the little forest of volunteer ash trees and saplings.  They are starting to become a bit of a nuisance to tell you the truth, popping up in cracks between the cement and wall.  I’ve cut down a few of the smaller ones, and am half thinking that perhaps we’ll need to get serious to thin out some of the patches they have taken over.  But in the mean time, I’ve been cutting some of the longer lower branches that are pushing out and clogging borders.

Silly me, I’ve tossed countless branches into the trash, but this year I’ve been using some to hold up my tomatillos (lots of flowers, but still no fruit!) and tomatoes.  And this got me thinking about what else I could do with them.  The little branches are quite bendable, while the thicker bases can be quite strong and stable.  So bending them into an arch seemed quite easy and logical.

So… here’s my first attempt at any sort of garden structure construction with branches.  It may not be the prettiest arch in the whole world, but I’m totally happy with it.  I’ll leave it  hanging for a week or so to dry and then hopefully it’ll be easy to put in the garden.  I’ve a wee clematis already in the garden that could grow up one side, and I may plant another one to grow up the other side too.   Or I may leave it in the stairwell landing and grow a jasmine on it, if they can survive 10 degree C or colder winters, as it gets REALLY cold out there in the winter.  I’m not sure yet but we’ll see if it holds it’s shape once I take off all of the twine that’s currently holding it together.

Elderflower Apple Vodka

Elderflower HelmetJune rolls around and so does my hay fever.  Going for a bike ride with the kids along the bike path is fabulously fun, but I could not do it in June without a good dose of Loratadine.  I was fine all day, riding, picking elderflowers and throwing rocks into the Water of Leith.  But once we got the flowers home and I started pulling off the flowers for my vodka liqueur, no dose of loratadine was going to hold back my super sneezes.  But no pain, no gain eh?

I should have been more greedy with my elderflower picking, but my kids and I picked about 6 heads of lovely little white flowers.  Most recipes call for 10-20 heads per 1L of alcohol, so we’ll see how things turn out in a fortnight or so.  To round out the flavours and boost the interest, I threw in a half of an apple too.   The hard part is going to be the waiting for infusion and dissolving of sugar.

I added the apple to push the liqueur all the way to the top, eliminating any air bubbles.

I added the apple to push the liqueur all the way to the top, eliminating any air bubbles.

Thankfully I made an elderberry gin in September, so was able to enjoy a splash of that over ice today.   I’m all about eating in season, but the joy of preserving and liqueurs is that I don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying flavours that are half a year from my local season!  I might finally crack open my pickled nasturtium pods, now that I think about it!