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.

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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. 

Cinco de Mayo

2014FlamingParrot

Spring is in full swing in the garden and many of my perennials are about ready to burst open with blooms.  The veg plot is still just a dirt square, but there are three rows of carrots, beets and parsnips sowed, which should start to pop through in the next week or two.  There are a few tomatillo plants hardening off in my flat stairwell, so they should probably be put outside sooner as opposed to later to get them acclimated and ready to fruit.  The cucamelons have to be the word’s slowest growing fruit plant, but I am hoping that once they get to at least 2 inches tall they’ll finally start to take off???

If the weather holds, perhaps I’ll enjoy a margarita today in honour of Cinco de Mayo in the garden to enjoy the flowers.  Come to think of it, these flaming parrot tulips remind me of the swirling skirts of Mexican ballet folklórico dancers.  Hermosa!

Planting out the veg plot

It has taken me seven years to figure out how to grow flowers in Scotland.  I think that if the little old lady who we bought our flat from could see our garden now, she might not break down in tears.  Two years ago she certainly would have wept to see its decline, but now that I have figured out what is flower and what is weed, it is certainly on the up!

I tried to plant some cabbages and cauliflower in the garden about four years ago, but within weeks of planting out lovely little baby plants, worms and slugs destroyed any semblance of green.   Needless to say, this southern California girl that was used to sowing any sort of seed straight into the garden and watching it thrive with lots of watering, was depressed, downhearted and determined to NEVER plant veg again.

But, my recent Great Energy Race (GERace) efforts have made me more determined to finally master growing vegetables and fruit in the garden.  I have had a great bounty from my red currants, so this year as part of the GERace, I planted four different berries – tayberry, raspberry, blueberry and cranberry.  I’m pretty confident that we’ll have a lovely berry bounty this Summer and Autumn, but I also wanted to conquer my fear of growing vegetables!  So…

After definitely pulling a muscle in my back last weekend, turning the compost heap, adding the best compost bits to the newly cleared veg plot and turning the whole thing over thoroughly, I am started again in a big way to see if I can start to learn how to grow vegetables in the UK.  Lord only knows, it’s not as easy as in California.  But at least I never need to water anything here!

 

So, my windowsill propagator has been putting in lots of overtime and I have tried my very best not to spend too much on new seeds.  But for about £10, I’ve gotten myself quite a nice selection of standards like carrots, radishes and parsnips, and also some less common fruits like tomatillos, cucamelons and physalis (Inca berry or Cape Gooseberry).  And of course lots of herbs for the kitchen windowsill too.  I am really looking forward to harvesting and eating my efforts, but I am also not getting my hopes up too much.  I’ve already planted out a litte cucamelon seedling after weeks of frost free weather, only to see this week’s forcast for a late frost…  Oh well, hopefully my reused pasta sauce jar cloche will protect it.

 

I was totally inspired this week after watching Gardener’s World, so I have sowed a row of radishes with parsnips, in-between carrot seeds sowed a week apart.  We’ll see what happens.  I need to plant a bit more though, but I think that my two pumpkin seedlings and the other fruit will take up a fair bit of the plot, so I should conserve space for them.  I will try my best to wait until the end of May to put these little guys outside to avoid a late frost disaster.