Monday, 21 February 2011

The grace of invertebrates


We live by the grace of invertebrates. They work around the clock, collect and dispose of our waste, replenish the soil, feed animals above them on the food chain and allow plants to return each spring. Most importantly, perhaps, bees, butterflies and other insects deliver valentines between plants, which must procreate but cannot move, and so rely on couriers. Flowers grow for the benefit of these pollinators, not us, and bloom in more colours than we can see – only insects’ superior eyes can see all their shades and patterns.

Now, of course, humans have changed the face of the world; we have levelled forests, eliminated thousands of species in a field in favour of a single crop, and sprayed those crops with a cocktail of exotic poisons never before seen on Earth. After several decades of this, bee populations are collapsing around the world, and while we do not know the specific causes, we know that areas that have been heavily hit with pesticides have also seen serious collapses. In a few areas of China, farmers have begun laboriously pollinating cash crops like pears by hand, taking brushes from flower to flower – a method that would not be feasible for most survival crops should the problem spread.

This time of year, as those of us in the northern hemisphere plan our gardens and sow our first seeds, we must remember to invest part of our garden to reimburse the armies that work for us. What sorts of armies you have, and what payment they accept, will vary depending on where you live: our forest here has bluebells and my Missouri hometown had mimosas, but the principles should remain the same.

You could bring pollinators in by the box-load if you keep bees, and you get honey and wax from the arrangement. Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, a backyard, a balcony or even a rooftop, so long as the bees’ flight path to and from their headquarters is located away from humans’ personal space. They tend to like simple flowers with an easy landing pad, like poached-egg flower, daisies or dandelions, and our local beekeepers recommend putting out water for them as well.

Honeybees, however, are only one of 20,000 species of bee in the world, and we can encourage the rest of them as well. They don’t give us honey or wax but they do pollinate our gardens – sometimes more effectively, according to some experts – and many are stingless. Dozens of species are bumblebees, which live in small colonies, but most are solitary, often named according to where they make their hole – miners, carpenters, masons and plasterers.

Depending on the type of bees in your area, you might want to leave a rim of unmown weeds around your property, or plant or maintain a hedgerow that can give ground bees a place to shelter. Some gardeners give bees a pre-made home --boring holes in wood or stacking reeds or bamboo for carpenter or orchard bees, stacking adobe bricks for mason bees or building a small, cotton-lined box with a large entrance hole for bumblebees.

If you want to plant for bees and other pollinators, you need to plant foods that bloom in early spring and late autumn, the off-season months when bees struggle to find enough food. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are emerging now in our gardens, giving bees their first taste of nectar for the year as honey stores run low. Ling heather, the plant used to make thick heather honey, does the opposite, blooming after everything else has gone. Ivy, similarly, grows up every tree and building here, and blooms as late as Halloween.

One of the champion bee flowers, in our experience, is borrage – our bees go nuts for it. It also makes a great herb to add to salad, with a tangy melony flavour. We find that verbena draws legions of bees and butterflies--- my wife and mother-in-law bought some from a garden store after seeing one covered with them last spring. Almost all herbs, in fact, make great bee fodder – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage and mint.

Hedgerows, the ubiquitous borders here, often provide the best source of bee flowers. Blackberry brambles, in hundreds of varieties, grow widely here and make another flower beloved of bees, and of course they grow in the margins where their thorns and the bees are out of your way. Sally or pussy willows seem to be a particular favourite of bumblebees in our observation – at times we have seen dozens of bumblebees on a single tree near our house. They also love hawthorn, which grows rampant here and usually starts flowering in May – it’s sometimes called the May bush.

Come summer, whole fields here erupt with red and white clover, which have many uses -- bees love them, we and animals can eat them, and they actually put nitrogen back into the soil. They like moist earth and warm days, and beekeepers say that, once the flowers emerge, their beehives start filling up with honey. Oilseed Rape, which Americans call canola, has been widely introduced as a biofuel crop here, and turns some fields a brilliant yellow every spring.

Bees and other bugs use many other flowers common to our area, and which our local beekeeping society recommends – poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, zinnias, wallflowers, bellflowers, dahlias, hellebores and roses. In exchange they service many vegetables, including artichokes, lamb’s ears, asparagus, brassicas, broad beans, cucumbers, cherries, apples, currants, gooseberries and courgettes.

You can draw insects other than bees to your garden, of course, but you want to be choosy about which ones. We all love butterflies, but they spend most of their lives as the caterpillars that we spend picking off our crops, so you want to encourage only those species that eat the plants you don’t want anyway.

Few words sound less appealing than “parasite” and “wasp,” yet parasitic wasps can be very useful in the garden, preying on the bugs that would eat your plants and doing no harm to humans. Sally Jean Cunningham, author of Great Garden Companions, cite herbs like caraway, anise, mint, chamomile, dill, fennel, yarrow and cicely for drawing wasps, along with wildflowers like cornspurrey, lamb’s quarters, wild mustards, oxeyes, red sorrel and clover. Similarly, some gardeners buy ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) to unleash on their aphids, or even recommend planting nettles to attract aphids to attract ladybirds.

Finally, you can plant species designed to repel certain insects you don’t want – many gardeners recommend hyssop and thyme for cabbage moths, or marigolds for nematodes. Such recommendations often carry a high folklore-to-evidence ratio, though, so experiment in your own garden and take notes on what seems to work.

As David Attenborough once pointed out, if we and other large animals were to disappear, the vast majority of the world that remained would get along just fine. But if they were to disappear, the soil would become sterile, the lands desert, and almost all life would perish. As you walk through your garden, thousands of them are labouring like elves around your feet, unthanked and occasionally swatted. As you plant your garden this year, make sure to give something back.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

She has my number


Tonight I put The Girl in jammies, picked her up and gave her a kiss.

“Papa, I hate kisses.”

Okay, I won’t do that again.

She looked at me sceptically. “Papa … I know you.”

Yes, you do.

Photo: The Girl’s anonymous valentine to her Mama.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Patch of Somewhere Else


When people list history’s most world-changing inventions, they usually include fire, or guns, or computers. Rarely do people mention something so ubiquitous to us that it has become, literally, invisible – glass and transparent plastic. Glass was known to the ancients but rare -- Job 28:17 lists it with gold among the most precious of materials. In the Renaissance, though, when glass began to be sheeted and shaped in quantity and with skill, it created a boom in civilisation; microscopes and telescopes opened up the breadth of the world to science, spectacles doubled men’s intellectual lifetime, and windows allowed for the creation of the first greenhouses.

We spend so much technology and energy -- electricity, oil and coal -- to heat homes against the weather, altering it to suit our needs. Properly-placed windows, however, allow the sun to do our work for us, allowing light in and slowing the passage of heat out. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more important than in a land like this, a nearly subarctic island kept mild by the Atlantic current, where the climate usually hovers just below the ideal range for many vegetables. Here, greenhouses extend the growing season by months and create pockets of Italy or Illinois in, say, the cold bogs of County Kildare.

Here and in Britain, greenhouses, cloches and coldframes allowed Victorian master gardeners to grow a range of seemingly impossible crops: not just tomatoes and aubergines but melons, lemons, limes, grapes, olives and peaches. Pineapples, for example, became a status symbol among the manor-born, and banquets sported them as a centrepiece.

Greenhouses remain a worthwhile, albeit expensive, investment for most people in most climates. If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed, to keep in the warmth – we did both this year, and gave our plants such protection that our corn salad survived the month of snow and ice.

If you want to go sturdier still, you can build a coldframe, especially if you have old windows you can use. A coldframe is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do.

If spring and autumn nights get very cold where you live, you could insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam. People around here used to combine coldframes with manure composters; since manure gives off considerable heat as it matures into soil, they filled a coldframe partway with horse manure, put soil on top for the seedlings, and gave the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Polytunnels are an excellent means of creating a walk-in garden for a fraction of the cost of an old-style greenhouse. You can get one as small as a closet or as large as a warehouse, and most are guaranteed for a decade or two. We had to tear down our old one to build our house, but it had lasted almost 20 years, and we installed the new one two weeks ago.

If you have old windows, or sheets of glass or clear plastic, you could try building a greenhouse out of cob. To do this you would stack rocks to make a low wall – say, half a metre to a metre high, depending on how high the snow or moisture get – and then build upward with a well-mixed and kneaded blend of sand, clay and straw. The walls could be built upward with large holes on the south side, and the cob could be plastered around the glass to keep them in place. Such a project would consume a lot more time and labour – we have day jobs, and didn’t take this route – and it would not in as much light as an all-clear home. It has the advantage, however, of being potentially free and using all-local materials.

Since you put such care into creating a greenhouse of some kind, make sure you have good fertilised earth in it – many warm-weather plants, like tomatoes, also need a great deal of nutrition, and gardeners used to sprinkle potash and other supplements around them.

In years to come we might not be traveling as much as we used to, but with the help of a little store-bought or scavenged material, you can create, in your own land, a patch of somewhere else.

Photo: Greenhouse in County Mayo.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Brigid's Well


This is St. Brigid's Day, to commemorate a saint who built a learned and peaceful community here as the Roman Empire was experiencing its own Long Emergency. Her church was supposedly built under a great oak, so Cill (temple) + Dara (oak) = Kildare. Brigid's Well, not far from us, has drawn penitents for perhaps thousands of years, and the branches of the surrounding trees are thick with rosaries, flowers, photos of loved ones and other signs of devotion.