Bee Friendly Gardening Articles

Going Wild

January – Why we need to go wild in our gardens
February – Native versus Non-Native Garden Plants
March – From Old Lawns to Wildflowers
April – Managing Garden Weeds
May – Managing Plants’ Pests
June – Saving Seed, Saving Biodiversity (Part 1)
July – Saving Seed, Saving Biodiversity (Part 2)
August – Garden or Orchard Trees for Bees
September – With Ripening Autumn Fruits
October – Wildlife Hotels and Hazards
November – Looking Beyond ‘Silent Spring’
December – Planning your 2013 Bee Garden

January: Going Wild 1

Why We Need to Go Wild in Our Gardens

If anyone is still unsure about the cause of the worrying trend of major pollinator decline all over the developed world, and in the UK, please take a few minutes to digest these few facts:

• Since 1945 and the Second World War, and the advent of industrialised, intensive, chemical farming, in the UK we have lost 98% of our wildflower meadows and wild spaces, and 50% of hedgerows.
• “We are witnessing an ecological collapse in all the wildlife that used to live in fields, hedgerows, ponds and streams. All the common species we knew as children are being wiped from the face of the countryside” Graham White, environmental author and beekeepers on the Scottish Borders.
• “Hedgehogs and many other indigenous species could disappear from Britain within fifteen years. If there was one above all others that needs to be addressed, I would say it is habitat loss” Dr Toni Bunnell, retired zoology lecturer, August 2011.
• In the Big Bug Count of 2004 in the UK it was concluded that on average, only one bug would end up ‘splatted’ to your windscreen every five miles driven, whereas 30 years previously, windscreens and bonnets would have become encrusted with tiny bodies. The Independent. September 2004.

Our countryside is now sadly not the vast, wildlife friendly haven it once was. In the post war frenzy, farmers were actively encouraged to produce higher yields (with pressure of EU imports and supermarket price wars) on virtually every acre of agricultural land, using more fuel and more chemicals. Inconceivable as it may seem, in this frenzy, one, simple, yet crucial fact, seemed to have been forgotten: The interconnectedness of habitat, wild plants, pollinators, and our almost total dependence on all of them. Bumblebees and honey bees, our number one insect pollinators had simply been taken for granted.

We can avert environmental disaster, and it is not too late. Just as a flock of starlings switch direction, individually, yet together, we can all change. And our gardens are the perfect place to start. What we grow could potentially be visited by literally thousands of insects, while we work, or play, go on holiday or even while we sleep; pollinators will be hard at work but are we growing plants that benefit or are even recognised by them? Unfortunately there has also been much plant hybridising and fads that have not taken into consideration pollinator-plant symbiosis. By trading a plant’s role in the natural environment for its agricultural usefulness e.g. the pollen and nectar in some modern clover cultivars cannot be accessed by any bees; yet wild red clovers were the major source for bumblebees, or for its ‘eye-candy’ rating in our gardens, many gaudy or double blooms are hybridised artificially, without insects, producing no food for them.

Our gardens are now probably the best that our wildlife has got, in terms of ‘environment’. So it has fallen on gardeners’ shoulders to provide pollinators with their favourite foods. Can we take on this challenge? Absolutely! And by taking this simple decision to ‘turf out’ (pun intended) unbeneficial plants and replace them with ones that reward our little friends, we will have as much, if not so much more to gain as they.

It could not be simpler. Plants that provide the ideal in terms of pollen and nectar are ones that have evolved with bees over many millions of years, and luckily for us, since they, like ourselves have migrated far from our original points of evolution, we have a plethora of beautiful wild plants to choose from across the world. The one thing they all have in common, is that they are ‘species’, that is, have not been altered by man. There are also many open-pollinated cultivars that are equally good for bees that have been carefully bred over time; especially fruits and vegetables.

If we grow ‘species’ or heritage varieties, we can save our own seed. That is, and should be, every grower’s right. And let me spell this out: If we do not all keep on saving our own seed, that ‘right’ could also disappear; because nearly all agricultural varieties are now either F1, sterile, non-insect-pollinated or genetically modified (GM seed is patented) and because large scale growers scarcely use heritage varieties or wild species anymore, they too are disappearing. So unless we grow them in our allotments and gardens for our own use (and our pollinators’ benefit) they will go extinct like many wild plants already have.

Over the coming months I look forward to sharing with you some exciting and wild ideas which could turn the most out dated, silent gardens into enchanting, productive, semi-wild havens which will start positively humming with contented bees, and furthermore, will provide you with an amazing abundance of flowers, fruits, herbs, vegetables and – most precious of all gifts – viable seed. Thanks to bees and other pollinators.

Here are a few of the ideas I will explore:
• Finding the best sources of pollen and nectar for times of dearth.
• Creating mini wildflower meadows to replace sterile lawns.
• Crowding out pernicious weeds with productive ground covers.
• Looking at fruiting trees and shrubs for small gardens.
• How to create a perfect balance with pests, diseases, fungi and beneficial insects – yes, they are all interconnected too.

And for jobs for this month, you could start planning your own garden makeover and purchase some top bee plant seeds. Here are some ideal choices which are easy to propagate: These are all fully hardy. The vegetables are excellent old varieties, and you can save seed of all these must-have bee plants (remembering to leave some chives, coriander and broccoli just for bees).

• Allium schoenoprasum – Chives
• Agastache foeniculum – Anis Hyssop
• Borago officinalis – Borage
• Vegetables – Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Early or Late, Broad Bean ‘Super Aquadulce’, Runner Bean ‘Scarlet Emperor’, Courgettes ‘Nero Di Milan’, Squash ‘Butternut’
• Coriandrum sativum ‘Moroccan’ – Coriander (this is a cultivar for seeds, which should appear in August)
• Echium vulgare – Viper’s Bugloss
• Helianthus annuus – Sunflower ‘Russian Mammoth’
• Leonurus cardiaca – Motherwort
• Phacelia tanacetifolia – Phacelia (green manure, some of which you can allow to flower)
• Solidago virgaurea – Woundwort (grow in own secluded patch!)
• Valeriana officinalis – Valerian herb

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

February: Going Wild 2

Going Wild – Native versus Non-Native Garden Plants

The question is “Are native plants best for bees?” We have a lot of native solitary and bumblebees which have evolved to forage on native wildflowers – such as Red Clover Trifolium pratense, Viper’s Bugloss Echium vulgare, Foxglove Digitalis spp. Because of loss of wild habitat, several bumblebees Bombus subterraneus is one such, have been pushed to the brink of extinction – though effort is underway to reintroduce them from Sweden after attempts failed with New Zealand introductions. It could be said, that native wildflowers are essential for native bumblebees and other native insects.

Domesticated honeybees on the other hand, are no longer purely native. Introductions of queens from Italy had already begun in the mid 1800’s, thankfully, because from 1910-15 ‘Isle of Wight’ disease swept though the UK and virtually eradicated our native Apis melifera melifera. Brother Columban who had bred a cross between A.m.m and the Italian A.m.liguistica at Buckfast Abbey observed that these cross-breeds were the only surviving bees, resistant to the disease, so over the next few years he and Brother Adam devoted all their efforts to breeding and despatching literally hundreds of colonies to all parts of the country. We have a lot to thank them for. And since then, to avoid inbreeding which weakens bees’ resilience, queens have been introduced from Holland and France. In fact domesticated honeybees all over the world are now pretty much homogenous.

In 1831, a very interesting experiment took place. The first settlers emigrated to New Zealand, taking a wide selection of fruit trees and vegetable seed to stock productive gardens, and, because there was no such thing as a honeybee in the Antipodes, some bright spark decided to take a few hives of bees, which were carefully packed in wine barrels with ice to keep them cool on the long journey. In letters on record, they noted, the English pioneers had no real idea whether this introduction of honeybees would work or fail. The rest is history, though I like to muse on how the bees must have felt when they emerged into their new world, turning their old one literally upside down…

One sunny day, I guess it went something like this, a bright-eyed but perplexed and hungry honeybee must have stumbled, or sort of ‘flumped’ into a heady, sweet-smelling, inflorescence cloud within which she found nectar like no other nectar had ever tasted. At this very moment, she had made one of the most important bee discoveries in the whole history of ‘bee moments’. I like to imagine this clever worker bee floating euphorically back in the hive, and doing the historic waggle dance with a giddy flourish to signify the treat in store for the other bees. And for the first time in New Zealand history, one of their hitherto unremarkable native plants suddenly became melliferous. We are of course talking about Manuka Leptospermum scoparium, the small tree with remarkable antifungal properties, which flowers in the UK from May to July.

Clearly the bees don’t mind where a plant evolved, or even if they’ve never seen it before. The only thing that matters to them is:
1. Is the plant in flower?
2. Does the flower have tasty nectar, and/or pollen too?
3. Is the nectar within reach?
4. Is there enough nectar, or pollen, in the drift to feed the hive?

Only by watching the bees can we tell which native or non-native plants in our garden will tick the boxes. One important thing to bear in mind is that any plant must be hardy enough to flower in our climate (which will also mean we can save the seed to garden sustainably).

More non-natives loved by honeybees and other bees: Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum (wild species) the North American perennial herb said to support 100 hives on just 1 acre, is a boon for building up bees’ winter reserves of fat and protein. Sow seed in early spring or plant plugs any time. Pinch out the growing leaf-tips in May/June (I use the leaves to make a delicious tea), and you will have multiple-flowering plants from July to November.

Japanese Quince Chaenomeles japonica, is a shrub which produces deep orange flowers from February, providing vital early pollen and nectar. It flowers best if spur-pruned and trained as fans against walls, though works well as hedging or ground-cover, and later on produces edible fruit ideal for jam-making.

Borage Borago officinalis, a major source of pollen and nectar from June to October, deserving a massive patch; it self-seeds and thrives in poor soil.

Jobs for February:
• Prepare seed beds and lime vegetable patch (after pH testing) if necessary.
• Organic fertilizer: horse or chicken manure, seaweed or well-rotted compost, applied round plants or on vegetable patch now will ensure the nutrients are ready to be absorbed come spring.
• Plant bare-rooted fruit trees or bushes: such as Raspberry, Blackcurrant, Cherry, Plum or Greengage.
• Prepare surplus lawns for sowing new seed (next month I will explore how to create a mini wildflower meadow from tired old lawn).

Checklist:
Water supply – no drowning places. You could install a pond, fountain, or automatic bird-bath, and place netting and ropes draped into the water to provide bee-climbing-out places.
Wind shelter – bees don’t like foraging in windy sites, plant hedges strategically.
Sunny borders – Sun-loving plants flower more prolifically in full sun.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

March: Going Wild 3

Going Wild – From Old Lawns to Wildflowers  

Most, virtually all, gardens are gripped by a strange affliction: An area that produces no flowers, fruit or edible parts. It has to be immaculate (or neighbours will comment). Bent double we are driven to dig dandelions out of it with a fork, rake moss out, bang holes in, and brush sand into these holes. And roll it. Almost weekly it demands cutting with a petrol-guzzling engine. And as if that’s not enough, we are led to believe we should kill anything which may lurk beneath it, munching roots or moving soil, and there’s an array of noxious substances to help us do this… It’s a lawn.

I came to the conclusion that this is quite a lot of work for little end gain. Have you ever wondered why we British are so partial to so much lawn? The advantages of having longer grass and wildflowers in the grass are ten-fold that of lawn. Wildflower meadows provide nectar and pollen for all bees, moths and butterflies, and a habitat for a whole host of beneficial insects which will noticeably keep a check on pests in our gardens, and it is a constant treat to watch different wildflowers blooming through the seasons. Now here’s some good news. We can break this addiction to lawn painlessly in five easy steps. And when we have created this masterpiece, we can mow a path into it, place our favourite garden bench in its midst, and enjoy some well-deserved ‘me-time’.

Creating Your Mini Wildflower Meadow
This is best done in early spring or autumn, though can also be done in summer if attention is paid to watering during dry spells.
1. Assuming we are starting with a piece of lawn, the first thing we need to do is turf-out old turf (modern hybrid grass is bred to be lawn and not much more), and the best way is to cut it short, then cover with sheets of black plastic mulch (or old carpet) which will kill the grass in a month or so. A rotavator is another method to incorporate turf on larger areas.
2. The soil will need to be de-compacted by loosening the top few inches with a fork, then treading in to break up clods and raking with further treading to create a level and firm seedbed. (A rotavotor would have done this in step 1.) No need to fertilise, as most wild flowers love poor soil. If your soil is very acid or alkaline it is best to talk to a seed merchant who could create an appropriate mix for you.
3. A good wildflower mix should consist of around 80% non-aggressive wild grasses and 20% wildflowers, as these have evolved to grow together and will form good permanent swards (available from many places now, though one taylor-made for honeybees and bumblebees is available from www.beehappyplants.co.uk). Broadcasting evenly, is best done by using visual markers (such as stones placed strategically) to divide the plot into smaller areas. Weigh and divide the seed by the same number and place in separate bags, so that as you pass from one patch to another you can sow each area with the measured amounts. If a wind picks up you just have to hold your hand low to scatter.
4. You are now meant to roll the seed in to form good seed-soil contact, but as most of us don’t possess rollers, the same can be achieved with a family of welli-booted feet, by shuffling along like penguins, back and forth until all looks firm. It is hard not to giggle at the sight of others doing this, and younger members may even end up rolling around on the ground in stitches. But hey, job done!
5. You can now walk away and wait for rain. If you have a hose that reaches then why not water it in for a flying start. It is important however, that over the next few months whilst the new plants establish, you don’t organise a car-boot sale or suchlike on your emerging meadow.

Maintenance of your Wildflower Meadow
In the first year of establishment, annual weeds will need to be cut fairly regularly. This can be done using a mower on a high cut, not lower than 7.5cm(3in), or strimmer.

In second and subsequent years, treat as established wildflower meadow:
1. Do not cut or mow at all throughout spring or summer, but wait for most flowers to finish flowering which is around August –October. The sward will be quite tall now, so you could either use a strimmer, again cutting no lower than 7.5cm(3in), or for a truly green and groovy idea why not purchase a scythe, which is the most rewarding and tranquil way of all to cut grass.
2. Leave the cuttings to dry for 1-7 days to allow it to shed its seed, then gently rake off the hay (and put on your compost heap or feed to animals) allowing unhampered growth of your wildflower meadow.

Jobs for March
Sow Broad Beans in pots or trays under cover and plant out next month, 20cm (8in) apart in double rows 20cm(8in) apart. Eventually the plants will need support, so install posts at each row end, with two tiers of string placed to hold up the plants which reach 90cm(3ft).
Sow Viola tricolor, Calendula and other hardy annuals direct.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

April: Going Wild 4

Going Wild – Managing Garden Weeds  

April must be the gardener’s busiest time of year. Most of our vegetable and herb seeds are sown. If we sow directly into a ‘weed-free’ bed, unless we’re vigilant with the hoeing (undoubtedly the best method for stopping young plants in their tracks), the whole patch will be awash with opportunist weeds which will suffocate emerging seedlings and we might as well not have bothered. I have always gardened ‘minimally’. I just don’t like to waste time, so I use every organic trick under the sun to achieve the aim – of growing the plants I want – but without wasting time eradicating everything else. Of course, we have to maintain a balance with weeds, and perhaps this balance begins with our attitude to them.

A weed is in the eye of the beholder Many weeds provide food for bees and habitat for beneficial insects. Prime examples are Lamium spp (Red and White Dead Nettles) and Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion, whose young leaves are tasty salad) – flowering right through from February up until the winter frosts, serious pollen and nectar. If we eradicate the weeds adjacent to crops, then it’s no surprise that insects will migrate to our cherished plants. At this point ‘agrarian man’ fell into the vicious circle of killing insects too. Efficiently using pesticides year on year over decades has bred super-weeds and super-aphids increasingly resistant to them. This escalating use is now harming beneficial insects and wildlife. So, let’s work with nature, instead of against it.

Dedicate ‘self-manage’ garden areas
If your garden is fairly big, demarcate areas which can (virtually) manage themselves, being modelled on natural habitats, and supporting a variety of wildlife. These plants will also provide pollen and nectar for honeybees, and if your garden is small, it is a case of choosing fewer species, but planting drifts of them.
Long-term ground-covers:
• For both large and small areas, you can create native wildflower meadows, which only need one cut each year (explained last month).
• Grow bee plants in drifts around the garden which will be self-sustaining and look stunning too, such as Agastache foeniculum (Anise hyssop), Borago officinalis, Phacelia tanacetifolia, Viola tricolour(Wild Pansy), Leonurus cardiaca (Motherwort).
• Create a wilder area which may be sheltered by a hedge or walls, with a base of wild grasses, and to this you can introduce fairly rampant but excellent bee forage such as Solidago virgaurea (Woundwort), Achillea millefolium (Wild Yarrow), Rosa canina (Dogrose), Silybum marianum (Milk Thisle). And let the Nettles and Thistles thrive here too! This can be scythed once a year.
• For specific situations such as shady corners otherwise neglected, establish ‘ground-cover’ plants in drifts: Fragaria vesca (Wild Strawberry) perennial which tolerates sun and shade, and provides delicious fruit. (Plant 20cm/9inch stations).
Pulmonaria officinalis (Lungwort) evergreen perennial which prefers dappled shade, with edible spotted leaves and beautiful flowers. (Plant 20cm/9 inch stations).
Teucrium chameadrys (Wall Germander) evergreen shrub preferring sun, is also a herbal ‘digestif’ with pretty pink flowers. (Plant at 3ocm/12 inch stations).

Short-term to mid-term ground-covers:
• Mulch vegetable plots with compost or horse manure in January, so that come planting time, there is a clean, fertile, weed-free bed. If small weeds appear, simply hoe, and if they’re bigger, fork them in and throw on manure or compost. If you need to hand pull, you have left it a bit long!
• Use composted pine bark as mulch around ericaceous shrubs and trees, such as Blueberries, Arbutus unedo (Strawberry tree), Calluna vulgaris (Heather), Erica carnea (Winter Heath) (both these being excellent long-term ground-covers too) should be applied every couple of years.
• Green manures make a brilliant ground-cover for resting vegetable plots over one or more seasons, and enriching the soil with biomass (organic matter) and nitrogen (by fixing it from the atmosphere or lifting it from deep soil). Some should be incorporated before going to flower – as they themselves can become weeds. However, these are such excellent bee plants that I would let these flower, and save some seed before incorporating the haulm:
Phacelia (Nitrogen-lifter) a hardy annual (and major melliferous crop) is fast to establish any time after March, flowers from March to September, overwinters and self-seeds.
Chicory (Nitrogen-lifter) a hardy native perennial flowers from July to October is a longer-term green manure crop and channels very deep drainage in all soils, lifting many nutrients.
Red and White Clovers (Nitrogen-fixers) are sown from April or in September and used for one or two years. Honey bees forage on White Clover (a major melliferous crop) while Bumblebees forage on Red Clover.

Jobs for April
Plant out evergreen shrubs, particularly Leptospermum Scoparium (Manuka) after hardening off, having spent two winters under protection.
Start sowing most seeds into trays or pots on benches away from slugs and snails, in a polytunnel or shaded area of greenhouse, keeping just moist. The idea is that when they are planted out, they will be big enough to outgrow minor slug attacks:
Chives, in trays or direct
Agastache foeniculum, in trays or direct.
Borago officinalis, direct.
Broccoli, in April/May and plant out in June/July to overwinter.
Courgettes, indoors, then harden off next month, planting late May.
Echium vulgare, direct.
Sunflowers, Slugs’ favourite, so must be tray sown.
Geranium pratense, direct or into trays.
Solidago virgaurea, direct or into trays.
Runner beans, sow in mid April, inside, plant in May.
Squash, Butternut, sow inside in April or May, hardening off before planting in May or June.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

May – Going Wild 5

Going Wild – Managing Plants’ Pests  

Remember the 1950’s. It was an era of euphoric victory, the birth of television broadcasting as we know it, and emergence of advertising as a major tool. Famous British Rail posters spring to mind – sunny wildflower meadows and children skipping in holiday destinations. Behind this façade was the boom in industrialised, intensive farming – monoculture – whose aim was high yields, and the ‘growing’ market-garden business, using the then exciting new tools of machinery and chemicals. This was the advent of ‘perfect fruit and vegetables’ (not a blemish or nibble in sight) and gradually we were led to believe that these unrealistically perfect samples were what we should expect. And, through clever advertising, we bought it, and demanded them. It was big business.

The Soil Food Web
In a healthy soil, there is an incredible array of microorganisms which carry out some of the most important functions on this planet, such as fixing Nitrogen from the atmosphere, providing food and making nutrients available to plants – this is the ‘Soil Food Web’, and their constituent parts:
• Bacteria (beneficial) – break down organic matter, fixing Nitrogen and feeding plant roots.
• Protozoa – eat bacteria, and are food for insects, releasing more Nitrogen.
• Mycorrhizal fungi – break down resistant organic matter, maintain soil structure and have a symbiotic relationship with 90% of plants by supplying them with Phosphorous from the soil.
• Nematodes (beneficial) – feed on bacteria and fungi, and predate on other, less beneficial plant-parasitic-nematodes.

Put aside for a moment the dramatic loss of farmland birds as a direct result of insecticide use. More insidious still; applying any pesticides (which are all composed of chemical salts) to the soil, also destroys the beneficial bacteria which supports life at the very base of our food chain. The consequence? Dependency on chemical fertilizer, and yet more pesticide. A vicious downwards spiral.

The Original Model Displaced by Modern farming
Bees, insects and plants had co-existed on earth for over 100 million years in an evolving, bourgeoning, self-righting eco-system – later on supporting reptiles, then mammals. The plant-eating insects and reptiles were kept in check by meat-eating insects and reptiles – just as today, aphids are kept in check by ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewings, and wasps. Slugs and snails are kept in check by hedgehogs, slow-worms and birds etc. If they lose their food source, they become extinct. So we can arrive at the understanding that such ‘pests’ are an indispensible part of a balanced eco-system.

Sometimes, we throw the eco-system out of kilter by importing foreign pests who have no predator in our country (prime examples must be Varroa mite), and their control is justified – but maybe more effective control will eventually come in the form of predatory mites (which don’t harm bees).

A Natural Model for Today
“Prevention is better than cure”, is a sound maxim, and this applies to plants just as much as to bees or people. Some progressive current thinking in raising healthy plants, sits quite comfortably with the Spartan’s treatment of babies who were exposed overnight on a hillside – as a test of strength. If baby plants are not molly-coddled, not over-fed (so grow slowly, their tissue being tougher and more resilient to pest attack), and exposed to the natural world of bacteria and fungi (so developing a strong immune system), those that survive will be strong plants.

Hybridised plants are less resilient to disease than their wild ancestors. It is similar in the whole living world (clones such as Dolly the sheep do not have a healthy constitution or life expectancy). The addiction to ‘altered’ plants is not doing us or the environment any favours, since they will depend on more pesticides. Moreover, some plants have been altered without consideration to bees or wildlife – by breeding out nectaries, or making them unpalatable to birds. We can only know for certain, that unadulterated ‘species’ or wild plants are perfect for all pollinators. The only plants we can justify hybridising are tried-and-tested fruit and vegetable cultivars that improve quantity or quality of our food, yet still being ‘open-pollinated’. Ornamentals which are sterile, hybridised clones provide nothing for wildlife or their own species.

Organic Control to the Rescue
A big, resounding “However”! There are times when we don’t want our Broad Beans swamped by black-fly, or our Kale gobbled by Cabbage White caterpillars… we do sometimes need help (PDQ). There is now a huge selection of organically acceptable products:
• Fatty acids insecticidal soap – effective against aphids, white-fly, red spider-mite
• Seaweed extract – boosts plants’ natural immunity
• Yellow sticky traps – attracts white and sciarid-fly to non-toxic glue
• Potassium bicarbonate – for powdery and downy mildew or black-spot
• Sulphur – for powdery mildew (also acidifies pH of soil).
• Ferric phosphate – slug and snail killer, non-toxic to everything else (though personally I don’t use this; I make sure I plant plugs which are large enough to sustain slug attacks)
• Biological control – an array of living organisms which provide help to control outbreaks (often used in commercial tunnels) – though in my experience, not as effective as native garden insects.
• Physical barriers – nets, prevent carrot root-fly or cabbage white butterflies landing.

One Caveat
Pyrethrum (one organic insecticide), made from flowers of Chrysanthemum, effective against most pests, is also toxic to bees (though does not persist in the environment). If used at all, do so with care – not spraying during the day, and not onto flowers.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

&nbp;

June: Going Wild 6

Going Wild – Saving Seed, Saving Biodiversity (Part 1)  

Something which may strike a chord with beekeepers is the importance of ‘birds-and-the-bees’ concerning plants (natural reproduction), bees and other pollinators being THE indispensible cog in the wheel of insect-pollinated plants. This symbiosis began many millions of years ago when the first flowering plants on earth somehow arrived at producing nectar to attract insects, mainly bees, who brush past the pollen-bearing anthers to reach the sweet nectar. Thus pollen, stuck to hairs on their legs and body, whilst the bee forages another flower, brushes past the sticky stigma, thereby pollinating that flower with a previous flower’s pollen. Tirelessly bees have foraged since time immemorial, from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen, at the same time pollinating plants.

This beautiful, natural fertilization process of flowering plants has ensured the survival of both bees and plants. The pollen grain then travels down a pollen tube to arrive in the ovule where it forms new seed which ripens after the flower fades, sometimes inside the juicy flesh of fruit (another clever evolutionary ploy by plants to entice animals to spread their seed), or inside dry pods, exploding spring-mechanisms or burrs.

The importance of seed
Each individual wild or natural seed of a ‘species’ has unique genetic material, enabling the species group to evolve and adapt to a changing environment. Some seedlings will survive whilst others will not. Unsuccessful seedlings would survive different extremes (should they occur) but whichever condition prevails will dictate which seedlings carry the genetic material onto the next generation. In this way, life on earth has survived, as explained by Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’.

Playing God has caveats
The hybridizing of plants artificially is a recent discovery. With a mind like a curious, young child possessed of a new toy, modern man has created a bewildering array of flower forms and colours. For the most part it is just a bit of fun. Where vegetable hybridising is concerned, it generated a wealth of wonderful varieties which have enhanced the original wild forms to the point of being more delicious, larger, nutritious and also commercially viable. Sadly a UK law (Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964) banned the sale of many heritage vegetable varieties (in favour of commercial seed producers’ more uniform ones) meaning many of these are being lost. This is especially sad since these old varieties are/were also ‘open-pollinated’ (naturally, by insects in the field), unlike newly emerging modern hybrids.

Fun though it is to breed another novel cultivar or clone, it is painfully sad to see a favourite bee-forage plant reduced to a mass of showy, yet useless, double flowers. It is not just sad; it spells disaster for nearby pollinators, and disaster for the plant species’ which need to reproduce by seed to ensure healthy gene-pools.

Heather Calluna vulgaris, which bees know and love, is the wild form species name, and now at least a hundred cultivars exist. Here are some double-flowered cultivars/hybrids of this species to avoid: Calluna vulgaris:
“‘County Wicklow’
“‘Elsie Purnell’
“‘J.H.Hamilton’
“‘Kinlochruel’
“‘Peter Sparkes’
“‘Red Star’
“‘Tib’

Wild Cherry Prunus avium, an important native tree for bees, now has a cultivar Prunus avium ‘Plena’, another (useless) double-flowered form.
On reading the plants labels: Prunus denotes the genus, avium denotes the species, and all names which follow, such as: ‘Plena’ in inverted commas, with capital initial letters, are always cultivars.

Cultivars created from the species Lavandula angustifolia (Lavenders), such as: Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’ – produce large individual inflorescences which may be good forage. However, some beekeepers are of the opinion their bees choose species Lavandula angustifolia (Old English Lavender) in favour of other cultivars or forms of Lavender in their gardens.

If we do buy cultivars, we need to assess their palatability to bees, and this is not easy to do (here I would recommend ‘The bee Friendly Garden’ by Ted Hooper and Mike Taylor). Surely, a regulation of plant breeding to ensure ‘cultivars’ are acceptable to wildlife, should also be covered in the ‘Plant Varieties and Seeds Act’? In the meantime, I suggest it would be wise to stick with wild forms (‘species’) of plants (which are also more disease resistant and usually hardier).

A number one advantage of ‘species’ over cultivars for us is that they can be sown from seed for free (with no reversions). And the thrill of seeing natural variations in each genetically unique plant within a group of one species, and knowing this will help the whole species survive into posterity, is absolutely magical.

Jobs to Do in June
• Remove weed from water features, and ensure there is always rope dangling or a half-submerged rock for bees to climb out.
• Water container plants, thoroughly in each session.
• Install drip irrigation lines to plants which suffer in drought.
• Last chance to sow annuals to flower this season
• Last chance to plant out Runner Beans
• Do NOT tidy nor cut back Spring-flowering perennials: Their seed is just ripening and soon you will be able to save this seed.

Next month I will explain how to save and store seed from ‘species’ annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, so you can start filling your garden with perfect bee plants.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

July: Going Wild 7

Going Wild – Saving Seed, Saving Biodiversity (Part 2)  

There is absolutely no reason why amateur gardeners should not collect their own seeds, if they are equipped with a basic understanding of the process and aware of a few pitfalls, yet there are many reasons why taking up this rewarding craft is a great idea; If we all left seed-saving up to businesses with a vested interest in a limited seed list, then wild species and old cultivars will continue to go extinct, at the expense of pollinators.

• The first thing to know is that we should only choose plants whose seed can ripen sufficiently in our climate.
• The parent plants must be strong and healthy-looking (a sign they are not harbouring any diseases).
• Many cultivars do not come true from seed.
• You cannot save seed from F1 hybrids.
• Always discard seed with any blemish or imperfection (it could be carrying a virus).

Kitchen Garden Crops
The old gardeners’ varieties do come true from seed, and have been for hundreds of years in some cases. Gradually bred over many generations of plants, the gardener only saved seed from those with desirable characteristics. This is in tune with nature’s own breeding method for survival of the fittest, and does not drastically change the flower structure. This is win-win for us and pollinators.
Many of these old varieties have good disease resistance – as do some of the newer (also open-pollinated) varieties, especially those bred for the organic growing system.
Here are a few points to consider when growing for seed-saving:
• Keep your chosen varieties isolated from other varieties of the same family, for example: Alliaceae (onion family), Brassicaceae (cabbage family) and Cucurbitaceae (cucumber family), and varieties of broad-beans or runner-beans (which flower at the same time), could potentially cross-pollinate with those in the same family groups, thereby corrupting varieties.

The Lend-Lease Act of World War II stated that 1/4 mile isolation distance is desirable between two varieties, but the distance should not be less than 150 feet plus a barrier crop between two varieties.
• Apiaceae such as carrots, parsnips and parsley, are biennials and will need to overwinter before they set seed the following year. Their seed is generally only viable for one year. It works well to grow two different carrot cultivars in alternate years, so each year there are both carrots and seed of the previous year’s crop.
• Cucurbitaceae such as courgettes, squash and pumpkin, are also liable to cross-pollinate, if grown too close together. However, another factor with this family is their seeds’ longevity; since cucurbits’ seed remain viable for up to ten years. Different varieties can be grown in annual succession, their seed saved and stored until you feel like reuniting with an old favourite variety again.

If you wish to grow ‘heritage’ varieties of vegetables, and help save them from extinction whilst enjoying some of the best tasting natural veggies around, why not join a seed library who will send you these seeds for free (there is a small joining fee). This gets around the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964. If you are a dedicated grower you can even become a ‘Seed Guardian’. Visit www.rytongardens.co.uk.

Annuals and Perennials
Annuals take care of themselves by releasing every year (then the parent plant dies) and it will self-sow; if we wish to control where they grow, we can save and redistribute their seed. Perennials also self-seed, though they seldom flower in their first year. Plants, left to themselves, form drifts in the right soil – which is exactly what bees need.
Allowing the seed to ripen, you need to keep an eye on the optimum time for seed collection which is just before natural dispersal. Choosing plants with good characteristics will ensure the traits you desire will begin to predominate naturally in your stock.
1. Remove seed-heads on a dry day; if they are damp they should first be scattered on a sheet to dry. Of flower-spikes, take the entire stem of seed-capsules and hang upside-down in a paper bag, out of sunlight in a dry, ventilated place. All ripe seed will drop into the bag after a few days (discard any seed left behind in the capsules as they are probably unripe).
2. Clean off as much chaff and dust from the seed as you can (to avoid it rotting and harbouring mould) using a series of sieves and blowing off the dust.
3. Place the seed in a clearly labelled envelope and store inside a plastic box placed in a fridge (at between 0 – 5ºC). If your fridge is very damp, you can put silica-gel sachets (or even milk powder) in the box to absorb excess moisture.

Shrubs and Trees
Nut-like fruits with high water content (from trees like Hazel) need to be collected, their shells removed, and sown straightaway in pots. If they dry out they lose viability. They also need to spend winter outside to break dormancy. Seed from ‘dry’ pods are ready to collect when their pods turn from green to brown. Ripe seeds inside will be plump and still green. Put the pods in paper bags to shed their seed, and store as you would perennial seed; these will usually remain viable for many years.

Good luck to all you seed-saving champions!

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

August: Going Wild 8

Going Wild – Garden or Orchard Trees for Bees  

If we have a fairly sheltered spot, free-draining, ideally sloping gently south, if it isn’t producing anything else, isn’t a frost-pocket or landfill site, what are we waiting for? Plant a few trees for bees! Better still, some fruit trees. Trees enhance any piece of land no end, providing shelter, habitat, shade; some even fixing nitrogen which benefits adjacent plants, and of course flowers. Cue bees. It is at this point we need to know a little about ‘pollination groups’ of fruit tree cultivars in order that we have compatible flowers of two, sometimes three, different cultivars at the same time, to enable pollination thus producing fruit. Some trees and most plants are ‘self-fertile’ (meaning they can effectively be pollinated with their own pollen). Most fruit tree cultivars are not (self-infertile).

Plums are some of the earliest flowering (early to mid spring), so need a warm, sheltered, sunny and frost-free site so that the flowers are not damaged. There are few fruits more delicious than a succulent, ripe, home-grown Greengage or Victoria Plum. The good news is that many plums are self-fertile, though all cultivars benefit from cross-pollination.

Pears also flower early to mid spring, again needing a frost-free site. Their pollination is a little more complicated; most are ‘diploid’ (needing a different cultivar in the same flowering group) and some are ‘triploid’ (needing a diploid for pollination, and another diploid to pollinate that diploid’). Get advice from your local tree nursery!

Sweet Cherries tend to flower in mid spring after plums and pears. Their growth is vigorous so ‘rootstocks’ (the cultivar is grafted to a tree species rootstock which dictates that final size of the tree), usually Colt (semi-vigorous) are used for cherries. Pollination can be very complicated, so it is a good idea to make sure you choose the self-fertile cultivars of cherry, unless you have a lot of space for several compatible cultivars.

Apples flower from mid to late spring. You can choose later cultivars for frost-prone sites. Almost all apples need compatible cultivars. Most are diploid, some are triploid. Probably more cultivars have existed for apples (with scores of heritage varieties) than any other fruit. They are all neatly pigeon-holed in pollination groups ranging from 1 to 6, so it is an exciting task choosing compatible cultivars in each or adjacent groups to plant nearby. Just thinking of the fruit (with quaint names, such as ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’, first recorded in 1678) when planning an orchard, is enough to make any mouth water. Their rootstocks (M25, MM106 or M9) were developed in East Malling, UK, mainly between WW1 and 2. This work now benefits worldwide apple production.

Acid Cherries flower from mid to late spring, and mostly growing on Colt (semi-vigorous) rootstock, these have the advantage that all are self-fertile, so only one tree is needed for a good crop. They also do not need full sun. Pruning however, is important for these cherries particularly as they bear most fruit on the previous year’s wood. The aim is to remove some of the fruited wood to encourage new wood (never do this in the dormant season, due to risk of infections silver leaf and bacterial canker), pruning instead early spring and summer (as you would all stone fruits).

Nitrogen-fixing tree increases orchard productivity!
Elaeagnus angustifolia (Oleaster or Wild Olive), is a member of a remarkable genus of trees which have symbiosis with soil bacteria to produce root nodules capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. This feeds not just the host tree but also adjacent plants, and it has been estimated that companion planting this tree in an orchard increases fruit yields by about 10%. There’s more! This ideal garden subject also produces fruit which is not only edible (raw or cooked), but packed with vitamins A,C,E, flavanoids and essential fatty acids, now being investigated as a food capable of preventing, halting or reversing the growth of cancer. That’s not all. The sweetly perfumed, small yellow flowers appear in June (the June-gap dearth) and are loved (and pollinated) by bees. Growing to about 7m, it tolerates maritime exposure, even growing in very poor, alkaline or (jaw-dropping now) saline soils. Oh, and it’s self-fertile. What a hero. Let’s hear it for Elaeagnus angustifolia!

Crataegus monogyna Hawthorn
And if, conceivably, you are still not sure what to plant in your garden or orchard, or still have any space which isn’t ear-marked, spare a thought for our humble king-of-the-hedgerow which deserves far more than being just a hedge. It also makes a beautiful and productive garden specimen that supports not only bees (in years when the nectar flow is good) but a host of other beneficial wildlife. And this tree cannot be mentioned without referring to its berries which are a food elixir par excellence (for the cardio-vascular system and used as such for thousands of years, from a time gone-by when humans had healthy instincts).

Jobs for August:
• Before you reach for slug pellets, grab a bucket (with a little water), a torch, and collect slugs and snails after dark. Deposit them at the back of your compost heap (they love potato peelings, orange skins, mouldy lettuce, fruit etc) and soon they will attract and feed beetles, birds, frogs, hedgehogs, slow-worms).
• Feed container shrubs and trees with high-potassium fertilizer which encourages green stems to ripen into wood; helping them survive a cold winter.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

September: Going Wild 9

Going Wild – With Ripening Autumn Fruits  

September is the month that the bees’ hard work pollinating plants, and the plants’ hard work growing, all starts coming to fruition. The garden air is warm and sweet with aromas, vibrant with a contented hum of millions of insects and the plants themselves seem charged with almost palpable energy that boasts an ability to handle a harsh winter. Laden with seed pods and fruit, the mother-plants begin to loosen their grip on their progeny; they know exactly when to let go; the point at which the seeds are ripe with potential for germination and survival when conditions become right. It is almost as if they care that their offspring survive.

Apples, pears, plums, damsons, gages, nectarines, apricots, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, lingonberries, kiwifruit, grapes, melons, almonds, cobnuts, filberts, quinces, medlars… take a breath, and the more unusual fruits such as hawthorn berries, elderberries, autumn olives, strawberry tree fruit, Oregon grapes, passion fruit, pomegranates, rosehips, goji berries and sloes… are all ripening this month! Some, such as cherries, mulberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, red currants, white currants, and gooseberries, are already ripe. And who should we thank for this cornucopia? (I think we all know this one).

Unripe fruit tastes bad, and ripe fruit tastes oh, so good; and not by chance. Mother-plant wisdom has contrived that only the irresistible ripe fruit (seed inside will now be ripe) is eaten, and the seed discarded, hopefully on fertile ground (ideally having first travelled several metres through somebody’s alimentary canal to start a process of breaking dormancy). When seeds inside pods are ripe, the pod will become brown and papery (allowing the seed to break free). So ingenious. And all designed to work beautifully without anyone needing to understand any of it!

Preparing Fruit for Fruit or for Seed?
If you want fruit pulp for jam-making, you have seeds left over. If you want seeds you have fruit pulp left over; so why not make this a dual purpose activity. This is one of my highlights of the year, and not only do I relish the thought of next years’ seedlings, but I am left with an appetising if not bewildering array of fruit compotes, jams, syrups and beverages.

The fresh seed is best simply washed free of fruit, rinsed and mixed with about an equal quantity of a compost and sand mixture, placed in a drainable container (with a rodent-proof wire mesh secured on top) and half buried in a bed outside, where it gets rain and snow. You can forget this over winter, but the following spring you need to check and turn over the mixture weekly for any signs of germination. As soon as you see sprouting, sow the seeds onto a prepared seed tray for propagation, somewhere out of direct sunlight, but still outside in the garden (again with a rodent-proof cover).

Growing for Gold!
Consider something that has been grown for thousands of years, is prized for its beauty, medicinal, culinary and industrial uses, weight for weight is more valuable than gold. Yet is legal! It is the stamen (pollen bearing filaments) of Crocus sativa or Saffron, so named because in Tudor times, it was grown in Essex around a town named Saffron Walden.

These bulbs may sit nicely in a productive area next to, say, Wild Strawberries, between 3-6 inches deep in fertile, free-draining soil with plenty of potash; you could mulch the area with comfrey leaves and keep weed-free, or (RHS advice) grow in a bulb-frame or alpine-house in a mix of equal parts loam, leaf mould and grit. When these crocuses appear, in winter, they only bloom for one day, so keep a close watch. Pick, pluck (dry) and padlock!

Jobs for September
• You can start to clip back or prune hedges, as from now until next spring there should be few or no fledgling birds left in nests which would otherwise be disturbed. If it is particularly warm, wait another month.
• Plant Spring-flowering bulbs, ideally ones that can be naturalised into a wildflower meadow or grass, such as: Anemone nemorosa Wood Anemone (partial shade and moist soil)
Chionodoxa luciliae Glory-of-the-snow
Crocus chrysanthus (yellow crocus)
C. sieberi (crocus mauve with yellow stigma)
C. tommasinianus (crocuses lilac to purple with yellow stigmas)
Narcissus asturiensis (Dwarf Trumpet Daffodil)
N. bulbocodium (Hoop Petticoat Daffodil – for damp soils only)
N. cyclamineus (Cyclamen-flowered Daffodil)
Eranthis hyemalis (Winter Aconite, also flowers in spring)
Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrops)
• Plant out all potted hardy perennials and biennials. This is the ideal month to establish most plants in all grounds; there is still plenty of growing season left and it tends to be wetter.
• Also plant out trees, shrubs and climbers too. Remember to mulch plants that need to be kept moist on establishment, such as Leptospermum scoparium (Manuka), it is also a good trick when treading-in to leave a depression in the soil around the base of the plant to attract rain.
• Sow hardy annuals for next year, such as Calendula, Papaver rhoeas and hardy perennials, particularly those which need winter chilling to break dormancy, such as Sucissa pratensis and Melittis melissophyllum
• In the kitchen garden plant out garlic bulbs (garlic needs cold temperatures to begin growth) and spring cabbages.
• When tidying your garden, move all dead leaves to a compost pile, so they do not attract fungal infections. Remove all mildew-infected prunings and burn these rather than compost.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

October: Going Wild 10

Going Wild – Wildlife Hotels and Hazards  

‘Wildlife’ hotels are not a new concept. All inclusive, local cuisine, beautiful countryside, garden walks and secluded spots to enjoy the sun, with a variety of entertainment in the vicinity… guaranteed to be the perfect holiday… if you are a slow-worm, hedgehog, dormouse or solitary bee. Honeybee hotels (‘hives’ to you and me) have been around for donkeys’ years, and without the pastoral care this offers, they would be in even more trouble than they already are. Wildlife benefits from hotels not only to be monitored, fed and helped from time to time, but to escape the ravages of human activity, as there is little wilderness left that does escape it. Anywhere wildlife finds itself it may be in danger; in the countryside, from machinery, chemicals, monoculture; in towns, from people, traffic, cats.

During the start of late summer grass-cutting, I had a full week of mourning. I hung up my garden fork and strimmer, and didn’t even want to look at them. It was one of those unforgettable accidents. Strimmers are dicey at best, but in a split second they can literally obliterate. I was manoeuvring the head at an angle to cut a neat path edge (the grass was long) in the herb garden. As soon as I saw it, it was too late. There before me, lay a stricken slow-worm, a gash down one side. I could not believe my eyes. As I knelt I could see several baby slow-worms wriggling out of this gash (it is a little-known fact that they give birth to live young in August, lying in the sun beforehand to raise their body temperature). She was about to give birth, and like one rescued only last spring when the adjacent field was cultivated for sowing wildflowers. She was alive, but badly wounded and all I could do was gently cover her and her babies with grass. I cried. That evening I returned, to find at least a couple of babies very much alive. I rushed off to find them some tiny snails, compost and a sheltering piece of wood. In the morning, I lifted the wood; there lay an empty snail shell, and one alert baby shot its head up for a moment (the mother who had died was removed and buried elsewhere so as not to attract predators).

That is when I decided to build these baby slow-worms a hotel, right there, in the herb garden. It feels as if all wildlife is teetering on the brink of survival; surviving only when we stop our constant cutting, rotovating, strimming, spraying, obsessively, cutting back the natural world.

How to Build a Wildlife Hotel
The hotel consists of a stack of pallets, five is an ideal number. The lower pallets can be loosely filled with some old bricks (the sort with holes) around the edges, and filled with friable garden compost, dead leaves a few stones and the lower sides planted with herbs like Wild Thyme and Oregano. The top pallets (at least one metre above ground) should hold drain-pipes or open ended plastic bottles, stuffed with hollow sticks or bamboo 3-5mm in diameter; this will suit Red Mason bees (who are more efficient pollinators than bumble bees), some larger diameter hollow sticks will suit Ladybirds and Lacewings. Holes drilled in solid blocks of wood also serve well. For protection, a slightly slanted and secured roof (perhaps covered with sedums) will top the hotel.

Strimmer Operators Please Observe the Following Rules:
1. ALWAYS KEEP THE STRIMMER HEAD PARALLEL WITH THE GROUND.
2. NEVER CUT LOWER THAN 3 INCHES (10CM) – also important for wildflower meadow plants.

Earlier this year was yet another accident with said strimmer: a young Wild Cherry tree, planted 3 years ago and growing beautifully. In clearing the sea of nettles around it (a job best done by hand), one gentle thrust a little too near the trunk and the delicate young bark was stripped off two-thirds the way round. If left, this could have meant death to the tree. However, some nifty first-aid was at the rescue.

First Aid for a wounded tree
We hunted in the shady hedgerow and found a handful of fresh, moist Spagnum moss, and in the kitchen found one black, plastic rubbish bag and a pair of scissors. A long strip about 2 inches wide was cut down the length of the bag and unfolded. The torn bark was put back in place and the moss held over it, while the plastic was bandaged around the trunk (some excess at the start used to tie a knot at the end). This stayed in place for five or six months, and when (just last week) I took off the bandage, it was almost impossible to tell the tree had ever been wounded (if kept moist, bark can regenerate and heal itself like skin, as long a it is bandaged immediately).

Jobs for October:
• Build a leaf-mould cage. This can simply be four posts creating corners of a square, and chicken wire wrapped all the way round. It is good practice to gather up dead leaves which otherwise harbour slugs, snails and mildew. Leaves rot down in a year or two and the resulting leaf-mould is lovely organic matter, good as soil conditioner, for seed-raising or potting compost.
• Prepare ground for (bare-rooted) tree planting in winter, or vegetable beds, by turning over the top few inches and leaving clods for ice to break them down.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

November: Going Wild 11

Going Wild – Looking Beyond ‘Silent Spring’

50 years ago this year, in 1962, ‘Silent Spring’ by American biologist, Rachael Carson was published. It highlighted environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT, questioning the logic of releasing chemicals without fully understanding their effects on the ecosystem or human health, and suggested they were causing cancer and threatening wildlife. It marked the beginning of the environmental movement by alerting the public to these dangers, led to a public outcry and resulted in DDT being banned in the US in 1972 (and subsequently banned worldwide under the Stockholm Convention).

Is the environment today a safer place for wildlife? Less toxic chemicals replaced the DDT which, it transpired, aphids became resistant to and led, in the 1990’s, to a new generation of pesticides (neonicotinoids), which at first seemed safe, however it has emerged not only that they affect bees in sub-lethal doses, but that guttation drops which bees drink are a still more concentrated source.

At great cost to insects and the environment, conventional economy-driven agriculture has been ‘over-producing’ in most parts of the world (using high fuel, high chemical input farming); and there are still recurring grain-mountains, butter-mountains, and wine-lakes in Europe, Russia, USA and India,

By Whitney McFerron – Nov 9, 2011:
Global stockpiles will total 202.6 million metric tons by the end of May 2012, up from 202.37 million forecast in October 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today. The average estimate of 14 analysts in a Bloomberg survey was 202 million.

Reuters report: By Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI | Sun Jul 1, 2012
Officials say that, in all, about 6 million tonnes of grain worth at least $1.5 billion (955.5 million pounds) could perish. Analysts say the losses could be far higher because more than 19 million tonnes are now lying in the open, exposed to searing summer heat and monsoon rains…the record stockpile of wheat that has accumulated after half a decade of bumper harvests in the world’s second-largest producer of the grain.

In the UK, Set-aside became compulsory in 1992 as a means to reduce the grain-mountain as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. In order to receive payment on these set-aside entitlements, an equivalent number of hectares had to be removed from agricultural production. This was successful in reducing over-production, and only recently were these measures lifted.

Clearly, the time has come for us to wake up to this madness and see sense and facts which point to a new mode of food production which is both sustainable and safe, and as a recent United Nations report outlines, ‘Agroecology’ (in essence organic farming) is the only way we are going to be able to feed a growing population, when all factors are considered including our need for pollinators:

United Nations, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter:
…Increasing food production to meet future needs, while necessary, is not sufficient. It will not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest – particularlycsmall-scale farmers in developing countries. And short-term gains will be offset by long-term losses if it leads to further degradation of ecosystems, threatening future ability to maintain current levels of production. It is possible, however, to significantly improve agricultural productivity where it has been lagging behind, and thus raise production where it needs most to be raised (i.e. in poor, food-deficit countries), while at the same time improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and preserving ecosystems.
The full report can be downloaded from: www.unscn.org/en/announcements/conferences/?id=650 from the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition website.

According to this report, in just ten years, using organic principles, we could double food production. Agroecological practices mimic natural processes and rely on biological symbioses rather than synthetic chemicals.
Organic farming nurtures pollinators on which our food production relies, while chemical farming destroys them. Conventional farming pollutes water courses, relies heavily on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, while organic farming builds up self-sufficient land, safeguards clean water, recycles nutrients and leaves us with a cleaner environment.

In a 30 year study comparing organic with non-organic crops, the Rodale Institute of USA found the following:
• Over the 30 years of the trial, organic corn and soybean yields were equivalent to conventional yields in the tilled systems.
• Wheat yields were the same for organic and conventional systems. (Wheat was only added to the conventional system in 2004).
• Organic corn yields were 31% higher than conventional in years of drought. These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically engineered “drought tolerant” varieties which saw increases of only 6.7% to 13.3% over conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.
• Corn and soybean crops in the organic systems tolerated much higher levels of weed competition than their conventional counterparts, while producing equivalent yields. This is especially significant given the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds in conventional systems, and speaks to the increased health and productivity of the organic soil (supporting both weeds and crop yields).

These findings can be viewed on: ://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst30years/yields Even in the face of a rising global population, organic techniques provide a more secure, more stable, and more sustainable food system. A food-production system based on organic principles is the only hope the world has. Organic has the strength to not only feed the world, but feed the world well. For a system to be sustainable, it needs to be able to feed our global population not just now, or ten years from now, but one hundred years from now—and longer.

The original arguments for GM foods, that: “It will feed the world, reduce the need for pesticides and are no different to non-GM crops” have been shown to be nothing short of lies. “Research (in the US) comparing crops requiring bee pollination, has shown no pollination deficit in organic crops; a slight pollination deficit in conventionally grown crops (grown with pesticides); but huge pollination deficit in GM crops. Likewise, bees were most abundant in organic crops, and least abundant in GM crops, indicating that bees do not like GM technology” (The Big Earth Book by James Bruges).

In Nebraska, Monsanto’s GM corn (developed to be Roundup-resistant to allow for herbicide spraying) has led to the development of herbicide-resistant “super-weeds”.
A report by Matt McGrath, science reporter, BBC World service, 19th September 2012:
To see how bad the weed problem can get, I travelled to an experimental plot near David City run by the University of Nebraska with Prof Stevan Knezevic…
We stand in a cornfield surrounded by towering green plants. But there is not an ear of corn in sight. The stalks that surround us are Giant Ragweed, one of the “dirty dozen” weeds that have acquired resistance to Roundup. So powerful have these monster weeds become that even spraying them with 24 times the recommended dose of Roundup fails to kill them.
These plants suck the light and the life from the crops. Just one resistant weed every 10 square metres can reduce the yields from productive plants by 50%…
On the farm in southeastern Nebraska, GM farmer, Jeremy Leech is carefully cleaning his combine harvester to make sure he does not transport resistant seeds from one field to the next. He is also sceptical that a new GM 2, 4-D resistant crop alone is the answer.
“To me, it’s a short-term fix. I think 2,4-D will work fine, but what I’m afraid is what’s going to happen 4-5 years down the road if we keep using it. I think we’ll have the same problems we have now with Roundup.”

According to Professor Philip Howard of Michigan State University, USA (who published a study in 2009 entitled Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996 – 2008), the father of GM technology is prepared to stop at nothing to build their multinational empire:

“The trend in agriculture is towards corporate dominance with a truly shocking hostile takeover situation. Real competition in the seed industry has been systematically deconstructed over the years. Besides blatant industry consolidation and takeover by drug and chemical companies, many farmers have simply been willing to accept the latest seed technologies, even when it has meant having to give up their seed saving freedom, and being forced to rely on the intensive use of chemicals and other synthetic interventions. Today, Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company, and the transnational behemoth continues to acquire various independent seed companies that are still in existence. It means that the already-disturbing oligarchy that controls the seed industry is shaping up to become a total monopoly. As transgenic technology continues to develop, which forces farmers to either go with the flow or leave the business, there may soon be no other choices in farming besides seeds which depend on chemicals (and which cannot be saved).”

In the UK, we need to understand the value of our old open-pollinated, heritage vegetable seed varieties, grow and save them before we lose them, as is happening the world over. Here the ‘Plant varieties and Seed Act 1964’ which disallows their sale, seemingly favours F1 cultivars which cannot be saved. We also need to grow wildflowers and wild species plants in our gardens, because more of these each year, are becoming extinct, and their habitats’ disappearing. The United Nations have concluded in another report:

Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators:
“…Meanwhile an estimated 20,000 flowering plant species, upon which many bee species depend for food, could be lost over the coming decades unless conservation efforts are stepped up”.
The full report can be downloaded at:
://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/Global_Bee_Colony_Disorder_and_Threats_insect_pollinators.pdf
This affects us all. We all need to speak out, and beekeepers especially need to add their voice. The facts are now incontrovertible, and steps must be taken immediately, otherwise the slide into extinction of all pollinators, will continue towards the point of no return. While we still have time, we need to cause such a public outcry. We must demand change of government policy, and demand it NOW:

• Intensive chemical farming practices in countries over-producing should be limited.
• Using the ‘Precautionary Principle’, all agri-toxic chemicals should be proven irrefutably safe, by independent scientists.
• Chemicals which independent scientific evidence proves are toxic to pollinators, must be banned permanently.
• GM technology is heavily pesticide-dependent, exacerbates over-production, damages farmers’ livelihoods, damages pollinators’ and human health, pollutes the environment. It should be banned.
• There should be an immediate ban on cheap imports of GM crops or by-products so that EU growers of non-GM crops will not be financially damaged.
• Governments should not be influenced by corporate profiteering at the expense of the environment, pollinators, human health and our ability to farm sustainably on this planet.
• The crime of “Ecocide” should be recognized worldwide.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012

 

December: Going Wild 12

Going Wild – Planning your 2013 Bee Garden  

As the year enters its coldest phase, there are a few things that need to be done, as preparing for the worst cold can go a long way to saving vulnerable, young or borderline-hardy plants, and wildlife braving the winter in our gardens (see jobs below). Is it not also time to snuggle by a hearty fire and only venture out when the garden crisply sparkles almost warm in bright winter sunshine; as your bees will be doing?

Now is the perfect time to reflect on the season gone by in our garden, the successes and failures, though we are all aware of the drawbacks of 2012 with its unprecedented rainfall, mollusc population explosion and not enough sun. All amateurs and professionals alike, experienced loss and lateness of crops with lack of flowers, fruit and seed. Probably none felt this more acutely than the bees. So all we can do is our best, and with this thought, armed with our trusty planting spade, fill in those flowering gaps we noticed in 2012, with more plants that promise (sun permitting) to provide a sumptuous flower-feast for your bees in 2013 and beyond.

Here is a quick guide, to help you busy people, showing the flowering times of a selection of my favourite bee plants. These are all ‘species’ or open-pollinated bred varieties, because only they are capable of ‘coming true to seed’, thereby benefitting both the plants and their pollinators, by that old process called evolution! And incidentally, this is THE ONLY WAY to ensure the survival of these and all plant species, and thus, the survival of pollinators, not just for our lifetimes but another million years at least (only when any species breed naturally can they remain healthy and adapt to climatic changes).

However, there are lots of other wonderful bee plants, and I implore all you bee-minded gardeners to notice what your bees like to feast on (I mean really feast) in your gardens, identify the plant species (perhaps take a sample of the plant if you’re not sure of its identity), the flowering dates, your rough global positioning, and email these observations in to me. I will include them (with credits to each of you), on a database which will go live on the www soon. This will help to clarify which, exactly, and why, our bees choose some flowers over others, and help us (all over the world) fill our gardens with the right plants for bees.

Jobs for December:
• Bring borderline-hardy young pot plants such as Rosemary, Manuka, Bay Trees, inside to a polytunnel or unheated greenhouse.
• If you have recently planted in situ this sort of (borderline-hardy-when-young) plant, and you want to make sure its first winter outside isn’t going to shock it (especially in colder areas), mulch around its base generously with straw, and secure with hessian pegged down (using U-shaped pieces of wire), or tie horticultural-fleece or bubblewrap loosely around the plant from base upward but leaving the top free (like a tree-guard).
• The roots of herbaceous perennials can similarly be covered with straw and hessian if you are unsure about its hardiness in your area.
• Feed the birds! (“Tuppence a bag!”). They are our best allies in the garden (us strictly organic growers), and even if they do sometimes eat some of our fruit, they surely deserve that for gobbling up all those pesky slugs and snails. At this time of year birds struggle to find enough hedgerow fruit (when too many hedges are cut back hard) and this year, the Hawthorn berries were already nearly gone in October, when usually they’re still around in November. Install a proper bird-feeder and keep topped up (with nuts and seeds).
• A dish of water, bird-bath or pond is just as important (dehydration is just as harmful as hunger) for birds and bees, so always crack the ice, and remember to dangle in rope for bees to climb out.
• Prune! Now is the time to prune all standard apple and pear trees (and all deciduous trees and shrubs, such as currant bushes, gooseberries, quince, medlars, kiwis, and especially grapes and figs which must be fully dormant otherwise they ‘bleed’). Only lightly prune to remove dead or diseased wood, crossing or rubbing branches, opening up the centre of the tree for good aeration. Do not just hack back!
• Bring well-rotted manure into your vegetable garden, leave in lumps and spread on top (January is the optimum time to do this).

Have a Happy Christmas, and let’s not forget those almonds and cherries for our Christmas cake, lovingly pollinated by our friends and allies the honeybees.

Sarah Holdsworth 2012