Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To Bee or Not To Be

In February of 2008, Haagen-Dazs launched a campaign to bring awareness to the plight of the honeybee. Complete with an absolutely adorable website,viral video and a donation program, the company helped spread the word about the problem with Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. CCD is when (for reasons we haven't completely determined) honeybees abandon their hives leaving only immature workers and the queen. The hive eventually dies out and it is assumed that the workers that leave do so as well. First appearing in the United States, the problem has spread to Europe and Great Britain. In 2007 a beekeeper in the UK noted that 44 of his 70 hives had suffered from CCD.

But why is CCD so worrisome? Because of the critical role the bees play in pollinating our agricultural crops. Albert Eistein once predicted that if the honeybees died out, man would follow within 4 years. Forget the Armageddon that has the planet covered in ice or bursting into flames. Our demise may come quietly with the silencing of the buzzing bee.

What exactly causes CCD is still being studied. In 2007, however, a limited study at Landau University found that bees will abandon their hives when an operating cell phone is placed next to the hive. German studies have also suggested that colonies near power lines show erratic behavior. With an estimate of almost 70 percent of the commercial bee population already being lost on the East Coast and about 60 percent on the West, finding a cause and solution is crucial.

It is also important to remember, however, that the European honeybee is not our only pollinator. Native bees also serve to pollinate our crops. Long before European honeybees were imported to the States, scores of native bees were completing the pollination work quite well on their own. Unlike their European counterparts, native bees tend to live solitary lives, eschewing the comforts and demands of a hive, thus making it impossible for farmers to move them from crop to crop. Native bees, however, with a little planning, can be encouraged to visits and take care of the task at hand quite nicely.

There are about 1,500 different varieties of bees in California alone. Some look similar to their European cousins, where others look more closely related to flies. Many are active earlier in spring than the typical honeybee and can pollinate more flowers because they are faster fliers. In 1996 The Forgotten Pollinators by Buchman and Nabhan, delved into the topic of alternate pollinators for plants and raised the alarm much like Carson's Silent Spring. And today, programs are emerging to help nurture a thriving native bee population throughout California.

At a community garden in San Luis Obispo, California, plot holders are participating in a native bee study lead by Dr. Gordon Frankie at UC Berkeley. By planting flowers that are attractive to bees and forgoing mulching (native bees lay their eggs in the ground and layers of mulch make it impossible for them to dig burrows), the group at Emerson Garden found a whopping 59 different species of bees visiting their plants. Far exceeding their expectations much to the delight of the participants.

Creating a garden that is friendly to native bees is not at all difficult and being one of our most beneficial insects, it should be our top priority. By planting attractive flowers, removing mulches and forgoing insecticides, you can go a long way towards increasing pollination, the production of your crops and the health of our native bee population all at the same time.

For more information please visit Guide To Bee-Friendly Gardens - The World's Star Pollinators

Here Comes the Sun

I always forget how quickly arugula seedlings come up. Much like lettuce, you merely blink and they are sprouting. I was checking my seedlings a few days after planting for water. I pulled them off their perch on top of the refrigerator (I find that I get the most warmth up there) to find these little guys frantically seeking the sun. So I took them out of their warming tray and placed them on the window to get their first peek at the world.

Arugula is one of my favorite greens. Most people will add it to a salad, where as I will make a salad entirely of arugula. Add a little oil, vinegar, salt and perhaps some crumbled feta and I'm a happy girl. I also love just picking a leaf and munching on it in my garden as I go about my chores. It's slightly bitter taste is both refreshing and addictive.

Obviously quick to start from seed and easy to grow, arugula's only drawback is it's tendency to bolt in warm weather. I find that planting it in a partial sun location can greatly slow down this process. Also planting more than one crop assures I will have arugula through most of the season to satisfy my cravings.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Steamin' Bag Of ...

Yesterday when I went about starting some seeds, I noticed some fungi growing in a new bag of supposedly sterile seedling mix. I knew you could sterilize soil in the oven, so I did some Google research and came across several methods of sterilizing them in the microwave. Since the oven method would take about 20 minutes and the microwave method was only going to take 2.5 minutes, microwaving it was.

I followed the instruction that I found here. I piled some soil into some freezer bags and popped them in the microwave. I did read the warning on several sites about the soil creating a bad smell, but I figured, "How bad can it be?" I love the smell of damp soil so I merely opened a window. Within two minutes time of cooking, however, the kitchen was filled with a nasty odor that I'm still trying to identify. It wasn't electrical fire smell, but on the same intensity level. It wasn't burning plastic smell, but lingered just as long. It didn't smell like rotting food, but made me gag in the same way. It was a totally new smell. A totally new, awful, smell.

So be forewarned. when they say it smells, they mean it. Open plenty of doors and windows before you hit start on the microwave. And, by the way, it is supposed to smell worse when you do it in the oven. Thankfully I was pressed for time.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

When A Pumpkin A Not A Pumpkin

Last night I was finally getting around to cutting and roasting some of the pumpkins leftover from Halloween in order to save the seeds. (Yes, I know that was in October. And Yes, I know it's March. I just can't kill them before their time). I was trying to determine what varieties I had, when I came across a disturbing fact. The pumpkin in canned pumpkin doesn't look anything like a pumpkin! It looks more like pumpkin's deformed cousin, the butternut squash and that's because they are related. The pumpkin in canned pumpkin is the Dickinson (C. moschata) variety. It's actually a cross between pumpkin and butternut squash. And rather than getting the beautiful traits of it's mother, the round body, glowing orange skin, it got all the traits of it's father, except for taste. Take a look below. Isn't that a spitting image of a butternut squash. Sure does taste like pumpkin though.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Truth About Garden Remedies

The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why by Jeff Gillman is certainly worth keeping on your bookshelf. The book is a terrific guide in regards to "what not to do" in the garden. Examining old wives tales that have been passed on from gardener to gardener over the generations, Jeff tells us what works and what doesn't.

With a rating system of one to five flowers, Jeff examines everything from using beer to trap slugs & snails (four flowers) to hydrogels for water retention (a whopping don't-waste-your-money- one flower). His testing and research on why these make your own garden products don't work is excellent. He does, however, seem to be a little biased against organic controls in general. I find his testing on actual organic products that might work to be almost non-existent. Instead he merely leaves it up to the gardener to figure out. Still, knowing which concoctions might actually hurt my garden more than help and how not to waste my money is definitely worth the purchase price of the book.

Despite all the technical information that needs to be conveyed in such a book, Jeff's writing style is enjoyable and easy to read. Each section contains enough science to give us a basic understanding of what is going on and stops short of droning on and on until our eyes glaze over. Sprinklings of historical trivia (for example did you know that Forsythias were named after William Forsyth who served as King George III's gardener?) keep the book from being dry.

Although I would have liked to seen more research done on which organics might work,The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why is a good start. Jeff sums up my philosophy best in his final take home message with the following:
"Even if you don't remember what I've written about deer repellents, beer, tobacco, or baking soda, remember this take home message: Search for the why behind everything you do for your plants. Do not settle for unexplained recommendations."

The Kat's recommendation 3.5 fishes!

First Bloom

The buds of my newly planted Pink Lady apple are finally starting to open. The Pink Lady was hybridized in Australia and is a cross between a Lady Williams and a Golden Delicious. One of the later blooming apples here, it ripens in mid-October. I could say that I made my selection based on that since spring rains can drown out the blooming period of earlier blooming apples. It requires very little chill hours which is another good reason to grow it in my climate. But honestly, I picked it because it's so darn pretty. From it's delicate blooms to it's pinkish green fruit, I think it's just adorable. I can't wait to see tiny apples on the tree.

Companion Plant List

The image left is a list of companion plants for vegetable gardens. Click on the image to view full and print if you like.