Saturday, July 27, 2013

My friends the bees are in serious trouble, folks

It's such a gorgeous winter's day here in Sydney, sunny yet cool, the lavender is blooming and the bees are buzzing around every fragrant mauve bloom, collecting pollen. This is how it should be, and this is how it is going to be for as long as I can help matters. Yet there are forces at work well beyond both the bees' control and mine which are putting our little pollen-gathering friends in peril, not just one by one, but as a whole species here on the planet. New research just released paints one of those hopeless pictures, like when you hear a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. You know people can survive it and you hope your friend can especially, but you just feel helpless and sad, at least at first.

A useless bystander, all I can really do for the bees is hope and maybe at least practise what I preach about how gardeners, farmers and our society at large should work with nature, not poison and destroy it.

Here's the story which depressed me so much when I read it last night.

While I summarise what the article by Todd Woody at 'Quartz' says, I'll put my summary beneath some photos I've just taken of my little friends enjoying themselves here at my place. God I hope they never disappear.

It seems the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, where
whole colonies of bees die off suddenly, isn't due to one single
chemical cause, it's a combination of chemicals at work. The
article above calls it a 'witch's brew of pesticides and fungicides.'
And it's not always just the direct action of chemicals which
kills the bees; sometimes the chemicals reduce the bees' ability
to resist parasites, which then kill the bees. 
The surprise finding is that fungicides are playing a major role
in the decline of bee colonies. Up until now they weren't on all
that many scientists' lists of major suspects. Now they are.  
Bee pollen collected by researchers contained an
average of 9 different pesticides and fungicides.
Some samples contained as many as 21
different agricultural chemicals.
This is just my personal opinion, but the level of reform needed
in the use of chemical sprays in agriculture to reverse the
decline of bees is on a par with the task of convincing vested
interests to do something about climate change. And we all

know how slowly, and how badly, those efforts are proceeding.
So, please read the full article, as it's important to understand problems fully, no matter how powerless or depressed they make you feel.

At home, all we can do is encourage bees in our own environment. It's a genuinely good but puny start. No chemical sprays – definitely no fungicides! – plant lots of flowers and spread the word. 

By the way, if you're wondering what's the name of the lavender our bees are loving, it's a modern hybrid, two baby plants of which were given to Pam and I at a gardening event last year. It's called Lavandula x hybrid 'Little Posie Mauve'. Can't stand the corny name, but it's a nice little thing about 50cm high and wide that is currently flowering its head off in the cool winter sunshine, and it's as covered in bees as it is in flowers, which is how things should be.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wattle it be now

There's a couple of wattle trees outside a local school which always come into bloom a couple of weeks before ours does, and so when I saw the 'school wattle' in bloom a fortnight ago, I knew it was our turn soon. And today is the day it has started, and it'll take another week or two to be at its peak, but I can't wait until that happens. I want to talk wattles now!

Wattle blossoms are the most ethereal things close up. They
always look like they're in soft focus once you get close.

Our wattle is supposedly a 'groundcover' form of the well-
known Cootamundra wattle, Acacia baileyana. Compared
to the normal upright growing A. baileyana, which forms a
small tree 3-4m tall, our 1.5m tall spreader is a groundcover
of sorts, but a ground-hugger? No way. As soon as it strikes
a barrier, such as our front fence or the little lilly pilly hedges
on the side, it just rears up and over. I am constantly cutting
it back out on the street side, as it would eventually grow to
cover the whole pathway, then the street, if I let it grow.
Some people in our street love this plant, and
like to tell me so if I'm out in the front garden.
Others don't, and they tell me so, too. And there
is a phantom wattle-snapper who breaks off a
piece every time he or she walks past (to express
his/her displeasure, I presume) and leaves it
on the nature strip. I'd love to catch him/her in
action one day or evening! Aha – busted!

Some people say wattle blossoms give them
terrible hayfever, but that's a myth, because
wattle pollen is very large, heavy and dense
(well, for pollen it is). If wattle is in bloom
and people feel hayfeverish, they put one and
one together and come up with the very
understandable but mistaken idea that the wattle
is to blame. More often it's infinitely smaller and
finer pollen in the atmosphere from other plants
including trees and grasses, so very small
it isn't visible, that causes the sniffles and
sneezes of miserable hayfever sufferers.
Fortunately our wattle's bloom show doesn't
last long each year, and then it returns to its
11-month long gorgeous display of blue-grey
foliage, which never ceases to delight me.

It's said that there are so many wattles in this country that somewhere in Australia, on any day of the year, there is a wattle in bloom. At our place there's only one wattle growing here and it only blooms for a couple of weeks every year, but I always know it's midwinter here when the front fence is ever so briefly gilt with gold.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Catching dewdrops

Whoever thinks we only grow vegetables in order to harvest and eat them is missing out on a lot of fun and pleasure. Sure, I eat the crops I grow, but in many cases I spend weeks just admiring them as plants well before their delicious grand finale in the kitchen. And this morning the Florence fennel was doing what it does best: catching dewdrops.

It didn't rain last night, but the sky was clear and our little
digital thermometer said it was 5.9°C around sunrise, which
is very cool for Sydney. After breakfast I headed outside for
my regular 'lap' of the 7m x 9m Ponderosa I call Amateur Land,
and the fennel was caught in two halves. On the shady side,
pictured above, all the dewdrops turned the plant into a green
sparkly candelabra filled with crystals. On the sunny side,
pictured below, it too was green, but misty, fuzzy and sun-loving.
Here's a flavour combo to try both in the kitchen
and outdoors. One green strappy leaf in front is
garlic, the pot in the middle is of freshly trimmed
thyme, and behind them is the florence fennel.
The fennel bulbs are finally getting to a useful
size. When small their flavour is softer, much
more pleasing than the pungent over-muscled
whoppers so often sold in the shops.
I like the way fennel cooks and changes in a similar way that onions do: if cooked long enough both onions and fennel sweeten and caramelise, changing flavour entirely from their startling raw bite. Pammy likes to slice fennel finely and mix it with fine potato slices, olive oil, salt and pepper, then bake it slowly until it's like a gratin that can be scooped out with a big spoon. It's sweet and delicious, just right for these cooler months. I also like to see fennel as a bit like radish, as a salad vegie, using just a little bit very finely chopped or sliced and tossed into green salads, to add a bit of bite. Not too much, but just enough.

Here in the garden, the main growing tip with fennel is to start it off from seed, in autumn preferably (here in temperate Sydney), but depending on how warm or cold your climate, that sowing time might vary. But the one thing that won't vary is the need to sow it from seed. Fennel belongs to a big bunch of fuss-pot vegies and herbs (carrots, parsnips, parsley and chervil most notably) which do best from seed, hate being transplanted, and which perform erratically at best if planted as seedlings bought from a nursery. 

Aside from the flavour of fennel in the kitchen, the other great reason to grow it is to admire its beauty, and on mornings like this there are few prettier dewdrop catchers in the business.