Fairy gardens need these Fairy Flowers

fairy garden flower fairyEvery fairy garden needs a few fairies flitting around to make sure all is growing well.

The best fairy garden fairies — the ones who make a gardener’s wishes come true — are those made from the garden’s own flowers, like hollyhocks.

It takes just a few minutes to transform an ordinary hollyhock blossom and bud into a fairy flower all dressed up in a ballgown and ready to dance around the garden.

Fairies made from hollyhocks are a bit elusive because of the plant’s biennial nature; they have a two-year growth cycle. The first year they develop deep roots and a rosette of leaves and the next year they send up a flower stalk. That’s the perfect time to get your hands on one of these flower fairies.

 

hollyhock flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For each fairy flower you’ll need one hollyhock in full blossom, one hollyhock flower bud that is ready to open and a toothpick or sharp stick.

fairy flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step one: Peel away all the green leave-like foliage (called sepals) from around the bud. Be sure to leave the colored petals intact. Use the toothpick or sharp stick to widen one of the V-shaped indentations into a larger opening. The other indentations will become the fairy’s eyes.

fairy flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step two: Pinch the tip of the open flower stem to create a point.

fairy flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step three: Insert the pointed stem into the widened indentation on the flower bud. Place your flower fairy in the fairy garden — and then make more fairies to keep her company.

 


 

 

How to plant peppers in your vegetable garden

pepper assortmentI’ve never met a pepper I didn’t like. Hot, sweet, fried or dried, I’m crazy about them all. That’s why I plant at least a dozen different pepper varieties in my garden every season.

There will always be several jalapeno plants, but each year I enjoy adding new-to-me varieties. I’ve been known to pick a pepper plant just so I could grow enough chiles to prepare a single recipe. ‘Holy Mole’!

I’m drawn to peppers because they’re versatile in the kitchen and grow in so many different sizes, shapes and colors. There are baby bell peppers, slender green Thai chiles, long red paprika peppers and even black edible ornamentals.

Then, of course, there’s the thrill of the unknown when taking that first tantalizing bite.

Has a pepper ever made you cry or cause steam to vent from your ears? That painful burning sensation is nature’s way of letting you know you’ve had too much capsaicin. Capsaicin is the flavorless, tasteless alkaloid compound that stimulates the pain receptors in your mouth.

Thanks to Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacologist, there’s a way to tell the relative heat of chile peppers before chowing down. In 1912 he developed the Scoville Organoleptic test to measure the amount of capsaicin in peppers. Pure capsaicin registers between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 heat units on the Scoville scale; bell peppers have 0.

Because capsaicin is manufactured in the pepper’s ribs, you can put out some of the fire by removing the pepper’s seeds and veins before eating.

How to Grow Peppers

Peppers are one of the easiest plants to grow, even for beginning gardeners. In most areas, garden centers start stocking pepper transplants in spring. Choose healthy-looking plants and give them plenty of room to grow in the garden. If planting in containers, one plant per 12-inch container works well.

When starting plants indoors from seed, allow at least 8 weeks for seeds to sprout and become garden ready. Then take them outside to get acclimated before planting in the vegetable bed or container garden.

Peppers grow best in full sun and a rich, well-drained soil. Mulch around the base of the plants, keep soil moist and fertilize about every 4-6 weeks. Peppers are ready to eat whenever they reach their preferred size, although if left on the plant they’ll ripen to brilliant—and delicious—little gems.

Must-Grow Varieties

No matter where your taste buds fall on the Scoville scale, there’s a pepper for you, whether you buy transplants or start from seeds. Here are 10 varieties from mild to wild to help you get started:

Mild
‘Red Mini Bell’. A miniature sweet bell peppers that has no heat, but plenty of color to light up the garden.
‘Patio Red’ Marconi. This sweet pepper grows on compact plants and ripens to a bright crimson.
‘Tequila Sunrise’. The name perfectly describes the striking color of these sweet peppers with a slightly sexy shape.

Medium
‘Nu Mex Heritage’ and ‘Joe E. Parker’. The familiar long, green peppers are usually roasted for savory southwestern dishes.
‘Cayenne’. Grow this pepper and get two plants in one—it’s an attractive ornamental and it produces flavorful peppers, too.
‘Hungarian Paprika’. A sweet, spicy pepper that’s meant to dry and grind into a splendid seasoning.

Fiery
‘Tabasco.’ The small green hot peppers that turn red and are used for the famous Tabasco pepper sauce.
‘Mariachi’. An All-America Selections winner in 2006, ‘Mariachi’ is a hot pepper that ripens beautifully from a creamy white to vivid red.
‘Kung Pao’. A long, Asian pepper variety that turns red to create Kung Pao recipes.
‘Fresno’. Tasty, hot fruits grow pointy-end up on medium size plants and ripen from green to orange to fire-engine red.

Unbelievable hot
‘Bhut Jolokia’. With a Scoville rating of 855,000, the Ghost pepper is the hottest commercially cultivated chile. Plant and eat at your own risk.

A great resource for the chile pepper lover is the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


 

 

How to make aerated compost tea for your garden

compost for teaIf you’re a gardener who’s been conscientiously composting your kitchen waste and using the rich, crumbly material as a soil conditioner in your garden, it’s time to take your composting to the next level.

By mixing that earthy concoction with water and allowing it to steep, you can create a beneficial tea loaded with the nutrients that plants love.

Digging compost into flower and vegetable beds is an important part of any gardening program, but why stop at adding millions of beneficial bacteria to the soil when you add billions of bacteria instead?

The process of brewing compost into tea not only makes the organic matter more effective, but it improves its usefulness, too.

Compost tea can be used as both a foliar spray and a soil drench.

  • As a foliar spray, the tea’s soluble nutrients give the plant a healthy boost and help control plant diseases like black spot and early blight.
  • As a soil drench, compost tea builds healthy soil by increasing microbial activity and providing soluble nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

There are two methods for brewing compost tea: passive and aerated.

Passive compost tea results in a compost extract like the one farmers have used for hundreds of years. Small batches of compost extract can be made by filling a burlap sack with compost and steeping it for about 2 weeks in a bucket filled with water (using a 1:5 ratio of compost to water). The compost extract should be used immediately for best results.

Aerated compost tea uses an inexpensive aquarium pump to keep oxygen circulating in the compost and water mixture. Research shows that this method significantly increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the tea.

Gardeners can buy ready-made compost tea, but it’s less expensive (and more fun) to brew up a batch using your own home-made compost.

Materials list:

Two 5-gallon buckets
5-8 feet aquarium tubing
1 aquarium-size pump
1 gang valve to split tubing into three outlets
3 air bubblers
Decomposed compost (do not use manure)
1 stirring stick
1 ounce unsulphured molasses
Burlap sack, cheesecloth or old nylon stocking

Instructions:

1.  Run the bubblers in a bucket of water for at least an hour to remove the chlorine.
2.  Fill the second bucket ¾ full with compost.
3.  Attach one length of tubing to the pump and the other to the gang valve.
4.  Cut three lengths of tubing to reach from the bucket rim to the bucket bottom.
5.  Connect each piece of tubing to a port on the gang valve; connect each end to a bubbler.
6.  Place the valve on the rim of the bucket and bury the bubblers under the compost.
7.  Fill the bucket with water; start the pump.
8.  Add molasses to the mixture; stir well. Reposition the bubblers if needed.
9.  Aerate tea for three days; stir several times each day.
10. Unplug the pump and let the mixture settle for about 30 minutes before straining through the burlap into a bucket.

For best results, plan the three-day brewing cycle so that you can apply the tea as soon as it’s ready. Be sure to sanitize the equipment before making your next batch of tea.

Aerated tea can be used to help prevent damping-off in seedlings, as a fertilizer for newly planted garden beds and as a spray to keep insect pests at bay.

Some experts say using compost tea not only makes plants healthier, but it enhances the flavor of fruits and vegetables, as well.


 

 

Improve your Small-Space Vegetable Gardening with this Special Summer Discount

tomato basketAt my house, summer gardening dreams are all about growing a bountiful vegetable garden — one filled with a variety of ripe and juicy heirloom tomatoes.

All of these tomatoes, from the smoky Black Krims to the small yellow pear tomatoes, grew in my small-space vegetable garden.

Some grew in the postage-stamp sized 6 x 8 vegetable bed, but most were harvested from my patio container garden.

After years of experimenting with growing vegetables in containers, I’ve learned what works best.

I’ve also learned that gardeners can grow just about any fruit, vegetable and herb in a small-space garden.

All of those tips and tricks for growing vegetables in small spaces are packed into my Craftsy online gardening class. In seven video sessions, I share all of my gardening secrets.

To celebrate summer, I’m offering my class at a special discount. Just follow this link to sign up now and you’ll save $20 on Vegetable Gardening: Innovative Small Space Solutions!

Would you believe several thousand gardeners from around the world have already taken my class?!

I’ve heard from small-space gardeners as far away as Italy and Germany and as close as New Mexico, South Dakota and Florida.

They’ve asked questions, shared pictures of their gardens and reviewed the class giving it a 4.5 out of 5. Here are just a few comments:

“This class is so full of delicious techniques and tidbits, I can hardly wait to get started on my own little garden!”

“I could look and listen to this video over and over again.”

“I learned so much in this course! I especially loved the bit on indoor gardening.”

“Great instructor and class for beginners.”

“It’s full of information, yet also quite accessible.”

“What a great way to learn this gardening technique right here on the couch!”

If you’d like to see a preview of the class, please view this video trailer.

I hope you’ll take advantage of the special summer discount — and then let me know how your small-space vegetable garden grows!


 

 

Plant Spinach in July for a Fall Harvest

spinach in containerHere’s a little known gardening fact: If not for a misplaced decimal point, Popeye the Sailor Man might have gained his incredible strength from eating kale instead of spinach.

The comic book hero helped build spinach’s reputation as a power-house vegetable because of a chemist’s simple mistake.

Instead of recording spinach with 3.5 milligrams of iron per 100-gram serving, he wrote 35 milligrams. With that much iron, it’s no wonder Popeye sprouted instant biceps whenever he squeezed opened a can of spinach.

Even with the decimal in the right spot, spinach is still considered one of the healthiest superfoods around. These good-for-you greens are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium and, of course, iron.

Spinach is an easy-to-grow cool-season vegetable that belongs to the Goosefoot family with beets and chard.

One of the other great things about spinach is that it grows as well in fall as it does in spring. So get ready to plant your spinach in mid-July.

Because spinach grows so quickly, harvests can begin in as little as six weeks from planting.

Savoy or semi-savoy type spinaches have dark green creased leaves and are good choices for fall planting because they tolerate temperature extremes.

Look for quick maturing varieties (40-50 days), that are slow to bolt and offer good disease resistance. Some favorites for fall planting include Tyee, Bloomsdale, Melody, Olympia and Winter Giant.

Sow seeds directly into the garden or containers from mid-to-late summer. Time the harvest by counting back six to eight weeks from the average date of the first hard frost for your area. This ensures the tender rosettes are a nice size before cold temperatures stop plants from growing.

Spinach seeds can be picky about germinating in warm soil, so it helps to refrigerate them between moist paper towels for about a week before planting. Another option is to start seeds indoors and then transplant spinach into the garden — or buy spinach transplants at the garden center.

It’s a good idea to keep the garden spot watered and mulched before planting, too. Then remove the mulch and plant seeds ½ inch deep and space or thin plants to 5 inches apart. Seeds will sprout in 5-10 days.

For the best spinach, keep the “cool” in this cool-season crop. Protect spinach from intense summer sun by planting in a partially shaded spot or use taller garden plants to shade seeds and young plants. You could also cover tender plants with shade cloth until the weather starts to cool.

Place a layer of mulch, such as dry untreated grass clippings or straw, around plants to help maintain soil moisture.

Be sure to keep spinach watered—don’t let the soil dry out or plants may bolt and flower prematurely. For a continuous spinach harvest, sow seeds every 10 days until the weather stops your gardening efforts. These later plantings may overwinter to give you an early crop in spring.

Start harvesting leaves when they’re about 1 inch tall by clipping from the outside of the plant, allowing the inner leaves to keep growing. You could also wait until leaves are 3-4 inches tall and either cut off all the leaves or pull up the plant while the greens are still young and tender.

Use fresh spinach by tossing into salads, baking into frittatas, sautéing into stir-fried meals or steaming and serving as a healthy side dish. Blanched spinach also freezes well to save for those times when you need a little extra muscle.


 

 

Companion Gardening Expands Options for Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

companion plantingThere are just some things in life that make ideal combinations.

It’s peanut butter and jelly for lunch; cookies and milk for dessert.

When it comes to the garden, there’s tomatoes and basil; radishes and spinach.

These combinations of vegetables and herbs make perfect partners when grown together in the garden, especially if you’re gardening in a small space.

Basil makes the tomatoes tastier and radishes attract destructive leafminers away from the spinach. These botanical buddies are two examples of how plants team together to help each other.

Companion planting is the art and science of arranging combinations of two or more plants to benefit one another. Planting certain crops together saves garden space, controls pests and encourages healthy gardens.

Native Americans practiced companion planting for centuries by growing corn, beans and squash together. These vegetables are called the Three Sisters because they complement each other when planted in the same hill.

The corn provides tall stalks for the pole beans to climb. The beans help replenish the soil with important nutrients. The large squash leaves serve as a living mulch to maintain soil moisture and choke out weeds.

Since the early 1900s researchers have tested the idea of symbiotic plant relationships and found that some plants have a positive influence on their neighboring plants. You can follow nature’s lead and plant a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers to create a beautiful and beneficial ecosystem in your garden.

The saying “opposites attract” explains the basic approach to matching companion plants. Deep-rooted plants grow with shallow-rooted plants, scented plants mingle with unscented plants, and leafy plants mix with root crops.

Short, shade-tolerant plants benefit from protection provided by tall, sun-loving plants. Lettuce likes the shade it receives when planted with a tall flower like Nicotiana (flowering tobacco). The one requirement is that each plant’s soil, nutrient and water needs are similar.

Organic gardeners use companion plantings to prevent insect pest problems and to reduce the need for chemical pesticides. Some plants act as natural pesticides by emitting insect-repelling chemicals through their leaves or roots. Anyone familiar with the distinctive odor of marigolds understands why pests choose to stay away from that pungent flower.

Marigolds also help control nematodes, a microscopic soil pest, by secreting a substance through their roots. Plants that are susceptible to nematode damage, like tomatoes, benefit when marigolds are sown close by.

Insect pests that locate their food by smell can be confounded when gardeners also cultivate strong-smelling plants. Garlic, onions, chives and other heady herbs provide a good disguise to protect tender greens. Leeks and carrots also become good friends in the garden. Planting these two vegetables together means the plants can join forces to repel each other’s pests.

While some plants produce odors or substances to drive pests away, other plants provide nectar or pollen for attracting beneficial pollinators into the garden. Bees will be invited to linger longer if bee balm is in close proximity to the garden, especially near the tomato patch.

Companion plants also provide essential nutrients to help each other thrive. Peas, beans and clover are well-known for their ability to produce usable nitrogen which helps feed their neighbors.

Decoy plants are another example of garden allies. Nasturtiums attract aphids and keep the pests from attacking roses if planted a distance away from the rose beds. Nasturtiums also provide a comfortable habitat for beneficial insects like spiders and ground beetles.

While some plants do better when grown together, other plant combinations don’t work as well. The following table lists some common vegetable crops with their companion pairings and their incompatible plantings.

 

Crop Companions Incompatible
Asparagus Tomato, parsley, basil
Basil Tomato
Bush beans Broccoli, kale, cabbage, beets, cucumber, sunflowers   Onion, garlic
Pole beans Corn, radish, eggplant, lettuce   Onion, beets, kohlrabi
Cabbage family (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi) Bush beans, beets, celery, onions, tomato, potato, sage, thyme, onions   Strawberry
Carrot Peas, lettuce, onions, leeks, tomato, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, leaf lettuce, radish, chives   Dill
Celery Bush bean, cauliflower, leek, tomato cabbage
Corn Beans, cucumber, melons, peas, squash, potatoes   Tomatoes
Cucumber Beans, corn, peas, radish, sunflower   Potato
Eggplant Beans, marigold, spinach
Leeks Carrots, celery, onions
Lettuce Beans, carrots, cucumbers, onion, radish
Onion, garlic Beets, carrot, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts   Bush and pole beans, peas
Melons Corn, pumpkin, radish, squash
Peas Beans, carrots, cucumbers, corn, radishes, turnips   Onions, garlic
Potato Bush bean, cabbage, corn, eggplant, peas   Cucumber, squash, tomato
Tomato Cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, mint, bee balm   Corn, fennel

 


 

 

An Herb a Day Keeps Mosquitoes Away

green leavesThe American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) wants you to know this is National Mosquito Control Awareness Week.

You are aware of mosquitoes, aren’t you?

That’s what I thought!

Mosquitoes are certainly annoying, but they can also spread West Nile virus. That’s why it’s important for gardeners to do all they can to control these insect pests.

“Over the last few years, the U.S. has had increased cases of mosquito-borne illnesses such as the West Nile Virus and other exotic diseases such as dengue fever and Chikungunya threaten our shores,” says AMCA Technical Advisor Joe Conlon. “To ensure the safety of family, friends and pets, it’s extremely important to make sure you’re taking the proper steps: first, reducing mosquito breeding through water management and source reduction, and second, reducing adult
mosquito populations.”

The AMCA says one of the easiest and most crucial thing to do is to remove any standing water around your property. Empty pots, tarps, tools and trash cans of any water that has collected as they are all breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

If a mosquito problem already exists, AMCA recommends controlling adult mosquitoes through mosquito traps, space sprays and vegetation management.

Another way to drive mosquitoes away is by planting some of the strongest-smelling herbs.

Although unproven by rigorous scientific research, gardeners have devised a list of herbs that mosquitoes seem to avoid.

One of those herbs at the top of the list is lemon-scented geraniums, often referred to as “citronella.” The leaves of lemon-scented geraniums are especially fragrant, and I know gardeners who pluck a few to rub on their arms to keep mosquitoes away while they’re working in the garden.

In addition to lemon-scented geraniums, there are other herbs that work against mosquitoes, too. Here’s the short list — see if you notice any common theme here:

  • Lemon thyme
  • Lemon savory
  • Rue
  • Lemon verbena
  • Penny royal
  • Lemon basil
  • Catmint
  • Lemon grass
  • Eucalyptus

Are there any mosquito-repelling plants that you like to add to your garden? Please add them to the list!


 

 

Defining Seed and Plant Terms Avoids Confusion

seed packetWhile answering questions after a recent vegetable gardening talk, a beginning gardener asked me to explain some common seed terms found in garden catalogs and on seed packets.

Because there’s a lot of confusion these days about seed and plant terms, I thought I’d share my answers to help you with your seed sorting, too.

Common Seed Terms Defined

GE—Genetically Engineered seed describes the method of incorporating genes directly into an organism. These seeds are not found in nature, but they are genetically engineered in the laboratory. Some examples of genetically engineered crops include corn modified to protect itself from corn borer damage and herbicide-resistant soybeans, canola and other crops. It’s unlikely that home gardeners will see any packets of GE seeds in garden centers or catalogs.

GMO—Genetically Modified Organisms are different from those genetically engineered. GMO is a broad term that refers to seeds produced through any type of genetic modification. This modification can be through modern genetic engineering or through traditional plant breeding. When plant breeders, working with conventional or organically produced varieties, select for certain desirable traits they are making the same kinds of selections that can happen in nature. This produces a type of hybrid. Examples include adding disease resistance to an open-pollinated variety or a hybrid cross between two cultivars. If you’ve ever enjoyed a seedless watermelon, you’ve tasted a genetically modified organism.

Heirloom—Heirloom seeds are typically defined as open-pollinated varieties that are the result of natural selection instead of controlled hybridizing. These are varieties that have been passed down over generations. Commercial seed producing companies now grow seeds from many heirlooms. Seeds saved from heirlooms will produce plants with the same traits as the parent plant. Some favorite heirlooms include ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes and ‘Kentucky Wonder’ beans.

Hybrid—Hybrid plants are often labeled F1 because they are the first generation hybrid. Modern hybrids are produced by cross-pollinating two distinct parents for their positive traits. F1 seeds saved and planted will not grow “true” like open-pollinated varieties. Examples of popular hybrids are ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Sungold’ tomatoes.

OP—Open-pollinated seed varieties result from being pollinated by insects, wind or other methods of natural pollination. Seeds saved from open-pollinated plants will grow the same plant as its parent plants, year after year.

Organic Seed—The term “Certified Organic” on a seed packet is a legal distinction. It means the growers are in compliance with all the rules and regulations specified by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic seeds are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetic engineering is prohibited.

Treated Seed—Treated seeds are seeds coated with a product, usually a fungicide. Seed companies will specify if the seed is treated to protect the seed from pathogens when being planted.

Do you have other seed or plant terms you’d like defined? Please let me know!


 

 

What’s so special about honeybees?

close up of a beeToday may be the official end to National Pollinator Week, but the work of bees — and gardeners — continues.

Please keep adding plants to your garden that attract bees with the nectar and pollen they need.

Stop using pesticides in your garden that can harm bees.

Register your pollinator garden with the Pollinator Partnership Network so we can reach 1 million gardens by 2016.

And while you’re at it, consider all the ways honeybees are special:

Bees evolved from wasps, but bees are chubbier and usually quite hairy.

All bees have some branched hairs on their bodies.

Cave paintings show that for thousands of years, people all over the world have risked physical harm in the pursuit of honey.

It’s safe to be around bees in the garden while they’re foraging for food.

Worker honey bees transform floral nectar into honey by adding enzymes and reducing the moisture.

The world’s smallest bee is the Perdita minima with a body length of only 0.078 inches long; Chalicodoma pluto is the world’s largest bee at 1.6 inches long.

Less than one percent of the U.S. population is allergic to bee stings.

Honey bees can fly over 8 miles from their nest, at 15 miles per hour, in search of food.

The queen bee may lay 600-800 eggs each day during her three or four year lifetime.

Bees make 5 to 12 trips from the nest each day.

Honey has been used for thousands of years as a topical dressing for wounds.


 

 

Behold Some Important Facts About Bees

bumblebee on sunflowerI hope the idea of National Pollinator Week has inspired you to consider ways to help the pollinators in your garden. If you’re looking for even more inspiration, there’s a book I’d like to recommend to you. “Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind” is a book from Dr. Stephen Buchmann, an important member of the Pollinator Partnership. The book (Bantam, 2005) will give you new insight into the hive and the vital role bees play in our history, culture and kitchens.

I had the chance to interview Dr. Buchman in 2005 when his book was first released. This interview originally was published in The Denver Post newspaper at that time.

The most overworked and under-appreciated garden helper is the bee.

Like their human commuter counterparts, bees leave their nests early each morning to go to work. Their day is spent flying from flower to flower searching for nectar and pollen. At dusk they return home to rest before the start of another busy workday.

Bees go about their business with little notice or fanfare. But what would we do without our fuzzy, flying friends?

Imagine a summer without tomatoes.

“Without bees we would have an entirely different diet, a very boring and bland one,” says Dr. Stephen Buchmann, president and founder of The Bee Works, an environmental consulting firm in Tucson. “Insects pollinate about 80 percent of the world’s flowering plant species and bees most of that amount.”

It’s estimated that one-third of our food supply is derived from insect-pollinated plants. Hundreds of fruits and vegetables would disappear if anything were to happen to the honey bee.

“We would survive on rice and bread and cornmeal, but we wouldn’t have the healthy, fun, and delicious fruits and vegetables that we enjoy,” Buchmann explains. “It’s been stated that if there were no bees and other pollinators, it’s doubtful that the human population could survive for more than a few months.”

An amateur beekeeper and associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Buchmann is recognized as one of the leading authorities on bees and pollination. He has researched bees, crop plants, and native flowering plants in 15 countries on three continents. He’s known for his pioneering research on “buzz pollination.”

Buchmann was drawn to bees at an early age. “I’m one of those kids who never grew out of the bug-and-dinosaur phase,” he says. “I grew up in southern California catching bugs and bees.” He’d catch caterpillars and raise them to butterflies in Mason jars he kept in his bedroom.

Those early experiences led to a lifelong interest in entomology and he has surrounded himself with bees—literally. In his new book, “Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind,” he writes about his exhilarating experiences running inside swarms of bees.

It’s easy to agree with Buchmann that bees are watchable wildlife. However, even the most experienced gardener can only identify a handful of bees.

“People typically recognize the honey bee, the black and yellow striped bumblebee, and maybe the sweat bee or carpenter bee. But there are tens of thousands of species of bees around the world and 4,000 known species in the U.S.,” Buchmann says. “There’s an incredible diversity in the shapes, sizes, and colors of bees.”

Gardeners may be surprised to learn the majority of bees are solitary, ground nesting bees that don’t make surplus honey. “The mother bee does it all on her own. She lays eggs in a bare spot in the soil or a vertical bank like an adobe wall.”

But our bee populations are in serious trouble.

Loss and fragmentation of habitat, and use of insecticides and herbicides are key reasons why bees are being threatened. In addition, honey bees are falling victim to two kinds of parasitic mites.

For the next 18 months, Buchmann will serve on a special committee for the Boards on Life Sciences at the National Academy of Sciences, studying the status of pollinators in North America.

“We’ll be determining if there are widespread pollinator declines, the causes, the consequences, and what to do about it.

“We’ve lost huge numbers of honey bees,” Buchmann says. “There were 5 to 6 million managed hives in the 1950s and now there are only two million.” In some parts of the country there are no wild or feral honey bees because of the mites.”

Each year colonies of honey bees are transported across the country, and from field to field, to provide pollination services to the agricultural industry. The almond crop in California depends on these bee visits to keep the almond industry growing.

The honey bee is the best of the pollinators and is the easiest to move from orchard to orchard. In the garden, there are dozens of other kinds of bees traveling from blossom to blossom. The variety of bees assures pollination of a wide-range of plants.

“Gardeners don’t realize that honey bees aren’t effective pollinators for all flowers in all crops,” Buchmann says. “Buzz pollination has to occur on plants like tomato, eggplant, blueberries and cranberries.” Buzz pollination happens when a bumblebee hangs on a flower and gives it a big bee hug, forcing out the pollen grains.

There are simple steps gardeners can take to increase the bee population in their gardens. “Gardeners need to have a certain tolerance for dead branches or dead trees,” Buchmann advises. Giant carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees, and mason bees nest in the beetle burrows of dead limbs.

Eliminating chemicals from the garden also helps. If gardeners must use insecticides, they should follow label guidelines, spray at night when pollinators aren’t active, or use chemicals less toxic to bees.

Gardeners could also learn to appreciate those circular snippets cut out of rose leaves. Native leaf-cutter bees need those round leaf wrappers to line their cells. Buchmann likens the leaf wrappers to baby blankets for young bees. That just might help take the sting out of having imperfect rose bushes.


 

 
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