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Bumblebees Love Purple

 by Sandy Swegel

I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday.  It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome, and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.

Bees were everywhere.  Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass.  In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighboring. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds.  But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur.  Curious, I  asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation.  They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason.  Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.”  I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers.  He assured me they had watched the field for the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for purple flowers.  And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.

I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees preferred purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.

I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best.  But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color.  In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food.  Very clever bees.

More info: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/21/bees-can-sense-the-electric-fields-of-flowers/

Too Many Zucchini? Eat the Flowers.

by Sandy Swegel

The zucchini in our garden is just starting, so there’s not too much of it yet.  So far, it’s still a nice dish to have sauteed or lightly grilled zucchini and yellow squash.  But I know the day will be here soon when there’s too much zucchini for any normal person. There’s one really good way to avoid too many zucchinis:  eat the flowers. New flowers form right away so you don’t have to worry about not having enough zucchini.

I first learned about eating squash blossoms from my friend Alfredo who grew up on a ranch in Mexico. Squash blossoms were one of his favorite foods as a kid so his eyes still light up when he sees the bright yellow flowers. Squash are ready in Spring in warm Mexico so he remembered eating flores de calabaza stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried for the Cinco de Mayo holiday.  Yum.

Here are some popular ways to eat squash blossoms:

Mexican Squash Blossom Quesadillas You saute the squash blossoms with the onions and peppers to make a great quesadilla filling.  And you get to use LOTS of squash blossoms because they cook down so much.

Batter-fried Squash Blossoms Dip into a flour batter and fry. Crispy and flavorful.

Squash Blossom Frittata Another good use for all those eggs from backyard chickens.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms Squash are great for stuffing.  Stuff them and then pan fry or deep fry them. Good stuffing variations are goat cheese and fresh herbs or sauteed mushroom, onion, garlic and ricotta.

Here are more details on five recipes you can experiment with. http://www.seasonalchef.com/recipe0805b.htm

The absolute cutest squash blossom recipe is one that waits till small yellow squash are formed but before the blossom falls off before taking the flower. It’s a great Cajun recipe that pairs the squash with catfish.  Down South, there are about as many catfish as there are squash….so it’s a great way to use the abundance of fish and food! And so many good Louisiana recipes are just an excuse to eat stuffing!

http://rvcooking.cajunville.com/?p=3161

Honey Bees vs Native Bees

by Becky Hansen

Bees are one of our agricultural industry’s most important resources and indeed one of our planet’s most important resources and the survival of the human race is in the hands of the pollinators The pollinator issue is a hot topic these days, but, there is more to pollinating a crop than meets the eye.  There is great complexity in the relationship between the bees and the plants in an agricultural setting.  The needs of the plant species and the pollinators must match up pretty closely.  When it is all working together everybody benefits!  The farmer has successful crop yields and the bees are happy, healthy and well fed.  The flower structures, pollination method, pollen size and shape, nectar content are just some of the plant qualifications that a bee species looks for when ‘shopping’ for food and nectar.

Some bees such as the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) are polylectic which means that they will be able to find good food sources from many different plant species.  That is why a wildflower mix of several species is really great for the Honey Bee, as the time when nectar and pollen sources are available is lengthened.  Other bees are oligolectic, like the Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata), that is very picky about the plant species that it chooses for its nourishment.  In fact, these bees primarily like alfalfa.  The Honey Bee has specialized pockets on its hind legs where it stores the pollen which it then takes back to the nest for food storage.  The Leafcutter Bee has special hairs on its front where it collects the pollen that is used and stored in the nest where the eggs are laid.  The honey bee is a social bee in that it lives in colonies with males and females with differentiated duties.  This allows for the nests to be collected and moved to various crop locations.  The leafcutter bee is a solitary bee in that, after mating, all females, individually, collect pollen and nectar and build their own nest for eggs and protection. But because they prefer to build their nests in close proximity to other leafcutter bees, they can be lured to man-made nests and can also be transported to other crop locations.

Both of these bee species are so different from each other but both are commercially used to pollinate different crops for just that reason.  They don’t compete with each other for the resources available. Take a bit of time to learn more about the pollinators in your pollinator gardens and look at the flowers that they most frequently go to for food.  Find out their ‘favorites’ so you can plant more of those.  All l those hardworking critters are “‘busy as bees” helping to ‘save the human race’ by making food and agriculture products for you and me.

Watch a movie on setting up a new Honey Beehive: http://youtu.be/tqjP3-6prwM Great learning video about the lifecycle of bees: http://youtu.be/sSk_ev1eZec Watch a Leafcutter Bee making a brood cell: http://youtu.be/EjsZ419lmMY

Making a Leafcutting bee house: http://youtu.be/chCu-pQxpB0

leafcutter bee photo: http://www.ars.usda.gov/images/docs/14415_14609/ALCB1.gif

How to get your Neighbors & Friends Interested in Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to educate other people to care too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?  I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.  It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff. It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Make Your Own Mud Puddle

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better.  So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.

Bugs are Our Friends

by Sandy Swegel

“Stop! Spiders are Our Friends” is the phrase I’ve been shouting lately.  A young teenage house guest has been alarmed at the wolf spiders (big but harmless to us) that seem to make their way into our bathtub.  I’ve been in another room in the house and heard a high-pitched squeal and a quick fumbling around for a weapon of destruction such as a shoe.  My house guest can’t help it…she’s grown up in a city condo and isn’t used to the wild ways of my semi-rural house. I’m happy she hasn’t noticed the cricket who happily lives beneath the steps by the water faucet.

Spiders and all kinds of bugs really are our friends.  Not everyone of course, and I’m not suggesting you invite black widows spiders to live with you.  But I cringe when I am in public places and notice people enthusiastically killing bugs and spiders because they think they are bad.  Ants, in particular, seem to be the target of children who stomp on each one with glee.  Nearby adults usually take no notice because they think of crawly things as something to be destroyed.  The shelf space at the local hardware store devoted to weedkiller is matched only by the shelf space of bug killer.  Here at BBB Seed, we educate people a lot about pollinators and we’re especially protective about bees. But we also respect the other lesser known pollinators like flies and ants.  When we respond to crawly things as creepy and something to be feared and killed, we actually hurt the environment by disturbing the natural balance of insect life and the many creatures that work hard to pollinate our plants or eat the bad bugs.

One of my top garden rules…don’t pull any weed if you don’t know its name…applies to the insect world as well.  Don’t kill any bugs if you don’t know their name and what purpose they serve in your little ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean I think your house has to be crawling with bugs.  Just as the garden has designated “no weeds here “zones,” I think you can declare the house a “bug-free” zone. But the world around you doesn’t have to be bug-free.  And you can teach your friends and your kids the difference.  If you are killing an insect (more often I catch them with a glass and put them outside…it’s easier than cleaning smooshed bug), act with a clear purpose to remove it from your home not because all bugs are evil.

My rule for bugs is that they have to respect my space and play well with others.  No flies or ants in my kitchen, but ants and native flies outdoors are great pollinators.  A few aphids, or even a cabbage worm or two are fine in the garden because the predators usually come to eat them. But if the plants start suffering, the insects lose their right to stay. Aside from a few miscreants, most of the time the garden world is a zoo of beneficial insects.

Name Your Garden!

by Sandy Swegel

A friend told me years ago that everything should have a name, even inanimate objects. She was helping me garden one year and within just a couple of weeks, everything we might ever have a need to refer to had a name. The big orange wheelbarrow, of course, was “Pumpkin.” The red bargain shovel was “Scarlet.” My little hand shovel was “Scout.” Soon my old truck had a name (Zohar) and it just went on and on from there. Her premise was, that if you’ve named something, you take better care of it. This must be true because I lost my good pruners that season, most likely because they were anonymous.

I love gardens. In the past few months, I’ve become so infatuated with making my garden look as amazing as humanly possible, and I’ve even managed to get my friends doing the same. Just the other day a friend of mine had new composite fencing installed by Ecomposite, whose fences are made from recycled plastic and wood. However, out of all of my friends, none of them have the passion for gardens that I do, to the point where I even have names for the gardens that I see.

Gardens just begged to be named. They even name themselves. The wild area with the chokecherries and wild roses is “The Thicket.” A client’s garden that is full of lavender and has the best mountain view in town is “The Anti-Depression Garden.” The part of the yard with two apple trees and a cherry is “The Orchard.” My names aren’t particularly clever sometimes, but they either convey the essence of the garden to me or they are a convenient way to talk to other people. Or most other people. A gardener who happened to be an engineer left me a message once asking me to weed in the “Ovate” garden. The what? I said. But ovate was very clearly the proper technical name for the shape of the bed.

You get the idea. You can name your garden after the plants that live there or the shape of the bed or the emotion the garden evokes. Garden writer Lauren Springer coined the phrase “hell strip” years ago to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street. Everyone knows what you mean when you say “The Hell Strip.” For years a favorite area at the Denver Botanic Gardens was the Red Garden…every plant, every foliage and bloom, was red.

Other gardens I’ve named are the grassy area in the back where I threw the wildflower/grass mixture, “The Meadow.” The small bed near the entry door to my house is “The Nursery” where I heel in all the plants I acquire but don’t know where to put them. My very friend Rosemarie’s garden beds are very practical and organized like the busy engineer and supermom she is. Her favorite bed though is a small strip we named “The Diva Garden” where she can plant outrageous purples and reds and those “OMG I have to have that plant” purchases to nurture her wild side.

I think the plants in the named beds do thrive better. Maybe it’s because once garden areas have a name, I have a relationship with them and take better care of them. I named my new pruners “Snippy” so I won’t lose them so fast this time. Now if only there were a way to link them to the ICloud so I could just hit the button “Find my Pruners” and they’d ring until I found them.

Less is More!

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite things to do is spend other people’s money.  Or better said, to go shopping with them and encourage them to buy the cool things they want to buy.  I always covet plants and yet I know I don’t have the time or space to buy as many as I want, so it is fun to live vicariously through others. “Yes that Japanese maple would look beautiful by your front door.”  “You just have to get this hand forged trellis, wooden ones are so dinky and break after awhile.” etc.

I’ll still encourage people to buy quality garden structures or funky garden art, but I’ve slowed down on encouraging them to buy lots of plants.  It was writing last week about biointensive gardening that reminded me. One of the themes of John Jeavons’ book is to create one garden bed and create it well (double dug, good soil amendments). Better to have one bed producing a lot of food than three beds barely eking out enough for dinner.

Plants need attention to establish, at least if you live in a difficult climate like Colorado.  You can’t just plant a bunch of plants and ignore them.  I know, I’ve accidentally killed a lot of plants that way.  You just end up guilty at the waste or feel like a failure as a gardener. So slow down before you buy out the garden center or plant out hundreds of seedlings. Just because it’s inexpensive to grow from seed doesn’t mean your work growing and planting isn’t valuable. We’ll leave for another day, and a bottle of scotch, the esoteric discussion of the karmic implications of killing plants.

How to Practice Less is More Focus on one section of your garden for new plantings Decide to spiff up just one area this year with new plants. I encouraged my friend to focus on the entry bed for now and later get plants for the rest of the yard. Many gardeners have “nursery” beds for new plants where they let them grow the first year.  They can remember to take care of the babies in the nursery.

Pick a learning theme of the year. I kept twenty new plants alive and thriving the year I made an herb bed and planted twenty different herbs just to learn how they grew. (FYI it’s easy to grow lots of ginger and one tansy plant is enough for the rest of your life.) Another year I focused on containers and planted containers of annuals each of one color in a matching pot.  So cute.  The focus on one kind of plant helped me be a better gardener.

Repetition I love one plant of every kind, but a designer friend showed me how cluttered and unattractive that can be.  Pick a few plants and repeat them and your garden will look professionally designed.  For example, in a perennial bed, plant one kind of grass as a “bones” of the bed and plant a few native flowers around the base of each grass.

So enjoy the season and the new plants…but make “Less is More” your mantra. Unless of course you have a full staff like Martha Stewart does.

A Tip for Impatient Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

Gardening can be frustrating for people who hate to wait.  It’s not easy to speed Mother Nature along, so on a fine warm day, we find ourselves at the garden centers spending a lot of money on bedding plants or transplants.  Seed lovers know that is not always a good use of money.  Sure, if you didn’t start long season plants like tomatoes, it makes sense to buy a plant because you want lots of tomatoes soon, but here are some crazy plant starts I saw for sale this weekend:

Lettuce starts. Once the weather is warmer lettuce seeds will be growing in two or three days from seed.

Chard and kale starts. One grower was selling weak-stemmed red chard starts for $3. Sure they were organic, but you could buy an entire bunch of organic kale for less than that.

Bean starts. Beans germinate so easily that they are a reliable seed for kids to germinate for science projects.

Cucumber plants.  Another seed that comes up so easily all on its own.

Zucchini. Another plant that germinates quickly and then grows a foot when your back is turned. It doesn’t need a head start.

Pre-sprout your seeds if you’re in a hurry. If you’ve soaked peas overnight before planting, you’re already half-way to pre-sprouting your seed.  Take any seed and soak it overnight in water.  Then pour the damp seeds onto a paper towel or coffee filter and put in a baggie or put a plastic lid over it.  As soon as you see the first white roots coming out, you can (gently) plant them in your garden.  This works great for slow germinators like carrots, or old seeds.  My neighbor pre-sprouts all the big seeds like corn, beans and cucumber. She wants an orderly garden without having to do a lot of thinning…so when she puts pre-sprouted seeds every three inches….she knows that exactly where plants will come up.  This saves time thinning too.

Pre-sprouting doesn’t save me from spending some money on garden center plants. Besides tomatoes, I sometimes buy a winter squash that takes a long time to grow to maturity.  And I can rarely resist buying some flowering plants in bloom.  Little yellow marigolds and hot pink dianthus in full bloom are making my garden a happy place.

How to Transplant your Veggie Starts

by Sandy Swegel

You’ve done all the work of getting little seedlings started.  Maybe you’ve already hardened them off.  Now, planting them in your garden has a few tricks that can make a big difference in how many vegetables you get to eat.

“Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner” was one of the things I learned from a “mature” gardener who took pity on me when he saw the pitifully few tomatoes I had in my first garden.  This was something taught by the great biointensive gardener, Alan Chadwick. His idea was that if you raised little seedlings in nice light soil with fertilizer, like most of our seedling mixes, and then put it into hard not too fertile garden soil, the plants did poorly.  Instead, he advocated starting seeds in a flat with a good planting mixture, “Breakfast.”  Then he transplanted into a second flat of fresh soil for “Lunch.” Finally, he treated his plants to “Dinner”  when he put them in his loamy, fertile intensive beds.  The plants got over their transplant trauma because they were so happy about all the yummy things in their new home.

Transplanting like this actually stimulates new growth.  So before you plant your loved and coddled transplants, make sure the soil in their new home has compost and fertilizer and the soil has been loosened up so little roots can find their way.  And make big holes. No fair hurrying up to get the plant in the ground and just carving out a spot only as big as the pot you’re planting. You can see in the photos how big vegetable roots can be…you need to make sure that the whole root zone has good soil with nutrients.

Lots of food and minerals in well-composted soil will make your vegetables give you bountiful food!

For more info on “biointensive” gardens, I recommend the garden bible I use every year: “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons.  His techniques really work.