Monday, February 22, 2010

A Bee Or Not A Bee

Don't wear perfume in the garden - unless you want to be pollinated by bees.
~Anne Raver

WooHoo! It feels like spring and the bees are flying! We've had sunny days in the upper 50's all week.  Being a beekeeper, I’d be remiss not to take this opportunity to point out that bees are not bad. Bees of all kinds are beneficial insects and they pollinate the plants that grow our food!

Honey bees not only give us healthy honey and natural wax, they pollinate loads of crops that produce the foods we eat. Without honey bees we’d see a huge reduction (and some sources claim elimination) of many of our fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Likewise bumble bees (used in commercial greenhouse pollination), leaf cutter bees (which are responsible for the circles cut out of your rose leaves for their nest materials), ground nesting bees, mason bees (also commercially used for crop pollination) and the bee fly are pollination pros.

Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are pollinators and voracious bug eaters, chowing down on grubs, caterpillars and aphids, so while they are to be respected for their defensive stinging abilities they are not to be exterminated at all costs. If they are starting a nest that is above your front door, you may want to scrape it off while it’s still tiny, prompting them to build elsewhere, but if it’s on an out-building or garage that’s not too near people traffic you may consider leaving it for the benefit they bring. These are good bugs that help us keep the bad bugs at a manageable level all the while pollinating too.

You may also see the Syrphid fly, which looks a lot like a bee. Their larvae are insect predators and the adults pollinate as they visit flowering plants.

Since there are so many types of ‘bees’ and I often come across people who are confused as to which are the much loved honey bees, I’m including these photos, taken in my garden to help identify the visual differences in the flies, bees and yellow jackets that may visit your gardens.

My honey bees, aren't they beautiful?

Bumble bee loaded with pollen on mullen and chive blossoms

A Syrphid fly

A yellow jacket on a rhododendron

A managed honey bee hive and a paper hornet nest

Make note of the difference between honey bee hives and wasp nests. Honey bees in the wild will not make a paper ball style nest like the hornets or wasps. They will move into an empty cavity, like a hollow tree or the space in a wall.

If you are allergic to bee or wasp venom, even to the point of serious reaction, I still urge you to have an informed respect for these insects. The allergic person should always keep an Epi-pen with them during the warm months when honey bees and wasps are flying. Your doctor can write you a prescription for it. Understand, honey bees are not aggressive but simply defensive and will not attack unless they feel threatened. I work with my bees wearing no gloves and rarely get stung. Africanized bees in the warmer southern regions are a different matter all together. If you live there and are allergic you should keep an Epi-pen with you at all times. Africanized bees have a heightened sense of defensiveness and will defend for a much further distance from the nest than the calmer European honey bees used for managed beekeeping in the USA and worldwide. I could go on and on about honey bees, but that would digress from this post, so if any readers want more information about gentle honey bees, please leave a comment. If you are bee venom allergic there is hope of cure. Api-therapy uses bee venom to cure allergic reactions to bee stings and claims to be successful in treating many other serious ailments. I know a beekeeper that after years of not being allergic, became allergic. After treatments he can safely keep bees again, without a dangerous reaction.

If you are interested in pollinators, there is a fantastic website that goes beyond the bees. At you can find loads of information and an awesome eco-regional planting guide based on your zip code. This will tell you what plants to plant in your garden to attract beneficial insects and birds based on your locale in the USA. For my readers in the UK and elsewhere in the world, if you have a site like this I’d love to know about it! Please drop me a line in comments.

If you want info about other garden bugs in our North American gardens, an extensive resource to identify good and bad bugs of all kinds is Whitney Cranshaw’s Garden Insects of North America. It has a pollinator section and is full of wonderful color photographs and descriptions for easy identification. You may just find yourselves squashing less bugs and letting them do their job, making your life easier in the garden. And by all means, don’t buy that chemical/petroleum based insecticide/pesticide! Insecticides/pesticides kill honey bees too! Please BEE careful!! Turn to organic control methods, use organic sprays only when absolutely necessary and use them at dusk when bees and birds are not flying. Even some of the organic ingredients can kill a bee if it gets sprayed or is rummaging around on flowers that are still wet with spray. Your local beekeeper and bees will THANK YOU!

This is a post on bees, but I must mention our feathered friends too! Many birds, even hummingbirds help pollinate and eat lots of bugs, so put out those feeders and keep ‘em full to attract birds to your garden. Then have a heart to heart with your kitties that the birds are off limits.

Enjoy your summer and look around, you may just be blessed with a honey bee in your blossoms!

In bloom in my garden today: Daffodils, Daphne, Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose (double English), Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Time To Sow

“Looking forward to the future is what we gardeners do every day, when we plant a seed or even a tree.”
~Ken Druse

I’ve not been much in the garden since late fall, so by the time January or February rolls around I’m starting to go through withdrawals. My houseplants get more attention than ever, seed catalogs are perused again and again and I begin to sow seeds for this years vegetable crops. Today I sowed Stupice tomato, Bambino eggplant and cleome flower seeds in Jiffy peat pellets and Fiber Grow coir pellets indoors.

The differing climates throughout the USA and the world, determine success or failure of a particular variety of seed. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Stupice is a very successful tomato. It is of medium size so it ripens within a shorter growing season, and doesn’t seem to mind a certain amount of our cloudy, cooler days. The big Beefsteak tomatoes are better in the sunny, hot southern states with their longer growing season. Talk to the old timers around you who have vegetable gardens. They’ve been trialing for decades and will be glad to tell you which varieties have given them consistent reward. Also read your seed catalog information very carefully when ordering seeds. Each seed has specific needs for success. The seed information will specify “number of days to maturity”. It is especially important to us in the northern climates. We have shorter growing seasons so we want seeds with the shortest number of days to maturity. This countdown begins with the transplant of the seedling into your garden soil, not from when you sow the seed in your trays.

To start many of my seeds I like to use expandable pellets. They are compressed but expand when you soak them in water first. They are easy and rarely do I have germination failure, provided I keep them moist. Be sure to pot them up into a four inch pot of soil when roots begin to show at the sides. I have better success in pellets than with seedling mix in pots or seed trays, but at 10-15 cents each for the pellets, when I have a large number of seeds I’ll use seed trays with little cells which I fill with a seed starter mix. Here I’ve pictured the compressed pellets and a cell tray.
 Peat pellets and seedling mix both are full of peat moss. Peat moss products have been used extensively in gardening and gardening products for eons. I for one have never been fond of peat because it dries out easily and you’ve got to keep an eye on it no matter what you are using it for. Once it dries out it forms a hard pancake that is difficult to get re-hydrated, so your seeds are wasted. It is always recommended for use in reseeding lawns, or to mix into a planting hole for acid loving plants, but I prefer just using compost.  And if you need to acidify your soil, used coffee grounds or fir and pine needles mixed in will do just that.

That said, I think it’s important to talk about the great peat debate. We hear very little about it here in the USA. I don’t know why that is, as we strive to be responsible gardeners as much as the next, but peat usage is quite controversial in other parts of the world. I learned about it a few years ago by reading gardening magazines from England. In a nut shell, environmental groups in recent years have called attention to the damage done to peat bogs and the wildlife they support because peat extraction is done by draining the bogs to remove the peat. An English gardener friend tells me its usage is banned in the UK.

"Today, lowland peat bogs and their wildlife are threatened through peat extraction for garden composts and other uses. Peatland wildlife such as dragonflies, butterflies and birds depend on peat for its survival and gardeners can choose alternatives.”

“Peat develops very slowly, no more than 1mm in depth per year. A 10 metre deep peat reserve will have taken 10,000 years to develop. So when peat is mined for garden compost it will take 1,000 years to replace every metre that is taken away."

I think more attention should be raised on this matter here in the USA and I think worldwide we all should strive to reduce peat usage by looking for peat free bagged soils, compost and potting products. And to Jiffy company… I applaud your efforts to replace peat with coco fiber (coir) for some of your products but I ask you to please step up your efforts to replace peat in all your products including the expandable pellets. There’s a new kid on the block who’s done just that, and I’m switching! I found some expandable pellets and seed sowing products from Canada’s Planter’s Pride.  Their Fiber Grow products are made out of highly renewable coir fibers. Coir is from the coconut’s brown fibrous shell. I’ll be looking for more of their products in future. I bought some of their coir pellets this year and am trialing them along side Jiffy’s peat pellets. Already I like the fact that the ‘fabric shell’ on Fiber Grow coir pellets is advertised to be biodegradable, whereas Jiffy’s is a fine netting that I find still buried long after the plant has been harvested.

I for one, plan to read more closely the ingredients listed on those potting soil, seedling mixes and compost bags…no matter how fine the print is. It is reported that European manufacturers try to hide the peat content, making it hard for consumers to know what they are buying. Be aware, be informed, be choosey. Follow this link for more facts on the peat debate.

Back to seed starting…once you sow your seeds, they need to be kept moist and the humidity needs to be kept up till they sprout. You can use seed starting trays which have small cells that you fill with a special seed starting mix, a very light, airy soil that is yes…mostly peat. The cell trays come with a clear raised plastic cover that will keep in the humidity. If I am using expanding pellets, I put them in a plastic, lidded grocery store container as a way to reuse/recycle. The container shown below was butter lettuce packaging at one time.

Heat mats are electric, super thin and provide gentle warmth from below that help germination of some seeds. I use the heat mat for tomatoes and many summer blooming, heat loving plants that I am sowing seed for. Not all seeds want heat. Lettuce, kale, cabbage and any cool weather crop will not germinate if it’s too warm so keep them off the heat.

Now that my seeds are planted, the most difficult task is at hand. To keep my cat from pushing them off the heat mat now that she’s discovered it. Heat is such a cat magnet! More than once I’ve come home to find her stretched out, toasty and snoozing on it after the seeds have landed on the floor below (sigh).

 In bloom in my garden today: Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose (double English), Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Author’s photo

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Field Trip!

“Dying plants are great for the nurseryman but not so much for the soul.”

~Fergus Garret, Great Dixter, England

Seattle’s Northwest Flower and Garden Show is back!!

This fabulous show was nearly cancelled after last year, much to the sorrow of northwest gardeners. The show’s creator wanted to move on to other endeavors and as of the 2009 show there were no buyers. Gardeners near and far were grief stricken! But now we can all breathe a sigh of relief, it was purchased and The Northwest Flower and Garden Show 2010 is on! Thursday I made the annual trek with my mom, and this year we were happy to have my sister along for the ride. And what a ride it was! This isn’t your ordinary Home and Garden show. This show is all garden. I don’t think there are many shows of this caliber, so we are truly blessed to have it right in our own backyard. There are a few other shows like this around the country, one I know of in San Francisco and another in Philadelphia and of course if you happen to be in England in May the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show is the mother of them all! I’ve never been to the Chelsea and the crowds would probably suffocate me but it’s definitely on my list of things I’d love to do someday.

Our show is perfectly timed in February when it’s cold, dreary and gardening withdrawals are at an all time high. This year there are 24 designer gardens to drool over, 124 seminars and demos by leading professional gardeners from the US and abroad (even Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter estate in England will be speaking again - woohoo!), and oodles of booths selling every manner of gardening accoutrement. You’ll always find the rare and unusual plants and you can often find new plant introductions at shows like this. You’ll have them in your garden before most of the local nurseries can stock them. There are tables and tables of orchids, sedums, heather, perennials, tropicals, pots, tools, gloves, garden art and anything else you can think of for sale. This year I bought two hardy terrestrial orchids, a Calanthe tricarinata hardy to USDA zones 6-9, and Oreorchis patens, hardy to USDA zones 5-9. One is for me and one will be a Mother’s Day treat for my mom. I can’t wait to see them bloom in the garden! I’ll be sure to write a post on hardy orchids later as the Calanthe makes four in my garden.

The designer gardens are awesome. Most are not necessarily practical for the average person but the creativity you can absorb spurs your imagination to run wild toward making some of the ideas work in your garden. You must bring your camera and maybe even a notebook. There are so many great ideas it’s impossible to remember them all.

All of this joy and fragrance is spread over 2 floors, 6 indoor acres and five days! No way can you attend the seminars and see the show in one day. One gardener told me she takes 3 days off work every year just for this show.

Do you live near one of the nation’s few flower and garden shows? Do you go? Its great fun and a great day spent with fellow gardeners who by all accounts are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet! 
By the way, I've fixed the problem that created an error while trying to comment on my blog, so please try again, I'd love to hear from you!

In bloom in my garden today: Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose, Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Photo courtesy of Pat Chissus