Warning – this is a long catch up-post.And for anyone quick off the mark, we’re holding a “pop up” Garden open day for charity for the National Garden Scheme, this Easter Saturday at 2.30 pm – but you MUST contact us asap by phone or email if you’d like to book one of a very limited number of parking slots for this.
Please don’t just turn up.
Several big benefits here from the continuing B***** impasse. The most significant being even less inclination to switch the radio on for what currently passes as “news”, and instead get outside to enjoy the delights of early spring.
The recent big bag vegetable garden rethink has seen the greenhouse filled with many plants started off in the benign environment there. The many water filled bottles help to create warmer night time temperatures, which has meant that we’ve already eaten our first lettuce. Early mange tout peas are planted out, and spring cabbages are advancing nicely.
Terry Walton’s inspiration and concept of regular sowing of small numbers of pots of salads and other crops has also been a surprisingly simple system to adopt. Early Nantes carrots in deep pots have been moved outside this week under enviromesh to free up space for increasing numbers of growing plants inside the greenhouse, including a range of annuals which we’re hoping to plant out as mid-season nectar and pollen sources – Cosmos, Cerinthe, Salvia, etc.
Many of the vegetables have been pre-germinated inside after a warm soak, and in the case of squash and courgettes, I’ve been really impressed by how quickly even old seed has germinated after this approach, aided by brief bursts in the added warmth of the stove’s oven once it’s finished its morning cycle and is cooling down. Though I’ve had to set timers to remind me to remove them before it comes on again at 5 pm!
The challenge is to harden things off under enviromesh, particularly given the arctic South Easterly winds which blasted us for 2 days this week and also to ensure that this year’s rabbits can be kept away from them.
It’s been a real delight to have eked out last year’s yellow ‘Jaune D’obtuse’ carrots, kept in the ground until early April under enviromesh, and find that almost none have run to seed, and the flavour and texture is still great. (Interestingly I’ll record that none of the on-line dictionaries seem to note the fact that “eke” also has a recognised noun meaning within the field of beekeeping – one of a range of new jargon words I’m grappling with – where it describes a simple open box frame which can be filled with other devices in a beehive).
Even better, although now slightly wrinkled and not exactly blemish free, for the first time I’m still eating our own apples, which will probably take me into May, having been stored in our cold stone stable since harvest. Again the flavour and texture of these late “keepers” has been wonderful.The other B-benefit, at least for me, stems from the bee hive, shown wrapped up for a few days this week, courtesy of horrendous chilling South Easterlies, which brought down huge amounts of debris onto the croquet lawn. In what’s (generally) been a fairly benign end to winter and early spring, it’s been a revelation to see how quickly levels of honeybee activity have built up, in spite of the first three weeks of March which saw rain every day, generally cool temperatures, and gusty winds. Our bees are frequently out and about at temperatures around 6 to 7 degrees C, even in strong winds. Most texts say bees need 10 degrees C or higher to forage. This shows the huge advantage of having a strain adapted to local conditions.
Although we have a number of excellent Skimmias in the garden, which have the most fabulous honey scent in flower right now, and get lots of bee visits, this clearly wasn’t the source of the yellow pollen – there simply were insufficient bees on the bushes, and the pollen is more of an orange/buff colour. So I was intrigued to discover where the bees were sourcing this bright yellow dust from. A glance around the landscape showed the very first Pussy willow, Salix caprea, blossoms opening down near the stream, about 300 yards away.Walking down to these confirmed that this was indeed the origin. Large numbers of honeybees (and bumbles) were busy collecting the vast quantities of pollen from the often enormous, examples of Salix caprea, which are found throughout the landscape of our valley and hedgerows.
Sitting at our terrace table later I could see the bees flying overhead and back to the hive with remarkable frequency. What I didn’t realise before researching whether willows provide both pollen and nectar (which they do) was that willows are dioeicious trees, so different trees produce exclusively male and female flowers. The wonderful golden tassles being the showy male flowers – the female flowers are a much less impressive green form.
Suddenly a light bulb moment occurred to me. All the years I’ve spent observing insects in the garden and detecting apparent sudden declines in numbers and wondered why this might be, probably simply reflects the fact that there are sometimes many more plants in the wider landscape outside our garden which are of greater bee appeal. Or at least in greater numbers to divert the bees away from whatever we grow.
In this regard, we are truly fortunate living in this part of the world, since we have many areas with hedgerows which are unflailed, and copses of mature and varied trees. In particular masses of the early spring flowering Goat willows.
At this point I’ll bring in the fantastic research which scientists at our local National Botanic Garden of Wales have been carrying out into bee foraging habits.
Headed up by Dr. Natasha de Vere, who was behind the garden team which DNA barcoded the whole of Wales’ native flora, (the first country in the world to do this) a detailed study has been conducted to see which flowers have been visited by bees from some of the Garden’s hives, by using an analysis of what plant species’ pollen has been found in honey samples. Click here for the full paper, (“Using DNA metabarcoding to investigate honey bee foraging reveals limited flower use despite high floral availability”) from Nature magazine, which is well worth reading, perhaps skipping some of the methodology.
In brief summary, some of the important findings from their study conducted during the critical early season foraging months of April and May were that:
- During this period, in the study area of around 1 km from the hives, a total of 437 different genera of plants were found to be actually flowering at some point, by a group of knowledgeable volunteer plant spotters. Being a National Botanic Garden, the site actually holds over 8,000 different flowering plants on site, so has a nearly unique and vast diverse potential range of food sources available to their bees.
- However traces of pollen from only 11% of these species were actually found in the honey samples analysed, which were taken from 3 different hives in the garden’s apiary.
- And pollen from only 10 of these flower types (identified to taxa level, not always down to individual species) was found at more than 1% in the honey samples.
- In April the only plants found at greater than the 1% level were in order of decreasing significance: Willow (Salix spp)., followed by Prunus spp., ( probably mainly blackthorn and cherry), Ulex europaeus, (Gorse) Helleborus/Caltha, (Marsh Marigolds?), Fraxinus spp., (Ash), Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion), and the Crataegus/Malus/Cotoneaster (Hawthorn and Apple) group.
- In May, the only plants featuring above the 1% level were: Crataegus/Malus/Cotoneaster,(Hawthorn, Apple, Cotoneaster) followed by Acer spp., (Maples/Sycamore), Ilex aquifolium,(Holly), Quercus spp., (Oak), Salix spp., (Willow), Taraxacum officinale, (Dandelion), Prunus spp., (Blackthorn and cherry), Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Bluebell), and Ulex europaeus (Gorse).
- Each hive had different mixes of some of the less frequently visited flowers
- The pollens detected didn’t represent the closest flowers to the hives, simply those that the bees presumably preferred to collect – there are excellent images of maps in the paper showing where the plant species tended to be located within the environs of the apiary to help asses this.
- The major pollen sources tended to be both native and woody trees or shrubs with the exception of bluebells, dandelions, and Hellebore/Caltha. This may reflect the fact that there is simply a much greater biomass of these particular plants in the environs, or an actual preference for their nectar and pollen, or indeed a mix of both. It’s known for example that Acers and Dandelions have particularly high sugar content in their nectar, whereas bluebells don’t.
- Pollen also varies considerably in its protein and major amino acid composition, and other research work has suggested that bees prefer a mix of diverse pollen with high protein features.
- Pollen also provides the major lipid source for bees, and again levels vary hugely between different pollens.
As an adjunct to this research, and indeed my own observations of insect friendly flowers, click here, I’m also going to include a link to the most useful assessment I’ve yet found of the relative bee popularity of several widely available garden flowers. Collated from 5 years of observations, it’s only based on which plants the nursery owner actually grows, but her methodology of ranking the merits of each flower in an easily accessible visual display is an interesting and probably worthwhile concept to use. Click here for Rosybees research data.
Linked to an intensive course of instruction from my brilliant bee mentor and local beekeeper; a struggle to grasp and settle on which of the numerous potential hive options to choose; and undertaking to construct a couple of these along with ancillary bits of kit, has meant a quite exhausting period of physical and mental activity here. Probably a familiar story for any of the 0.07% of the British population who have ever ventured into the science, art and myth of the apiarist.
Fiona has sensibly commented that she hopes I become a little less intense on the subject of bees, or she’ll regret me ever getting them. She has a point. And certainly for blog readers, this little bee related piece is (nearly) already long enough. I’d hate to become a bee bore!
Before the bitter gale force winds which swept up from the South East this week, I’ve had many late afternoons when not one, but three, Common lizards, Zootoca vivipara, have climbed the standpipe and together basked in late afternoon sunshine, soaking up some heat and rays, before retreating for the night amongst the dry rocky space of the berm built to give a little wind protection to the vegetable area.
Whilst moving around they seem to delight in creating reptilian knots and patterns strangely appropriate for these interesting political times. The weekly prevarications and entanglements of our politicians have left most in complete despair about their ability to resolve even just the first phase of any (pledged) B***** deal, any time soon.
Next year is the tenth anniversary of me picking up a camcorder to record life here in the year 2010 before any industrial wind turbines were constructed on the hills surrounding our immediate valleys. Even before I started this blog. Click here for more.
Is this a likely pattern to be repeated with our eventual status within, or without, the political structures of Europe? A decade later, will we still find that every day it’ll only be knocked out of the news coverage by an event as tragic as today’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral?
Keep it simple.
Perhaps our politicians should observe instead, the industry of a beehive, and contemplate the wordless busyness of these “simple” creatures, and what can be achieved through daily, productive toil.
With the soothing low frequency, low volume, benign hum of activity.
A few months back I had the idea of using some form of light shade to hide the frankly cheap ‘n cheerful LED lights which mark the four corners of our shepherd’s hut. (Click here). After seeing Cariad’s stall, and samples of their work at the Aberglasney Christmas Fair last year, we felt we’d found the perfect local firm to commission to design and make these shades. So once the snowdrop season was finished we popped over to Chris and Justine’s studio in nearby Llandysul to have a chat about what we had in mind. We’d taken along a simple but accurate taped together cardboard sheet profile of the dimensions we thought would work, since the shades would have to cope with both flat and feathered boarded side walls, as well as a curving roof. We knew this was likely to be a strange request!
Chris was really helpful and explained that he thought they could make a shade using their traditional leaded glass technique, to the size and form we had in mind, and we discussed how we might fix them in place – in the end Chris incorporated tiny brass ferrules on the shade edges, through which screws could be fixed.
So much for the structure, but what about the designs for the panels?
I thought the theme of a different image for each of the seasons might be appropriate since we go up there most days, whatever the weather. Over to Chris’ partner Justine, who does the art work and design. Their process is very careful and detailed, and fully involved us as clients. Justine’s initial overview of suggested designs with basic colour themes for the glass selected was emailed over to us. They use a huge range of coloured and textured glasses which they source mainly from the U.S.A. apparently, since there’s sadly no UK producer of sufficient quality and diversity.
Then discussion of what motifs could be incorporated onto the design panels. Justine had some great ideas, and we added in a few additional thoughts. Then a short wait until we had the email that the shades were ready, so we popped over to pick them up, and, as often with such a project, there was a certain amount of trepidation about whether we’d like them or not.
Back home we were really keen to see how they’d look, so climbed longevity hill with the box of shades, carefully unwrapped the first one from the bubblewrap, held it up to the light and switched on the bulb.
Outside the reason became clear. Something, probably an inquisitive rabbit, had chomped through the thin supply cable about a foot off the ground. Fearing that the battery might have been wrecked, since apparently leaving it fully discharged for more than a few days can damage it, a speedy connector repair was made and an anxious day followed while the sun shone and we waited to see if the battery would recharge.
By evening the fully charged battery indicator LED light was back on green, and at last we could switch the system on. The fixing system has worked really well, and we’re delighted with the results, though I’ll need to fiddle a bit with altering the angle the light bulbs rest at, to create a more even light distribution through the shades when I get a chance – a bit more awkward woodwork will be needed to achieve this, so it might be a job which gets left for a quiet rainy day.
Many thanks indeed for Chris and Justine for some wonderful creative work. They have completed commissions all over the UK, for all types of leaded glass, both large and small, new and restorations, and even run popular one day courses. Do have a look at their beautiful website, to get more ideas of the range of their talents. Click here.
I had one of my sudden moments of excitement in the garden this week. Walking out onto the “magic terrace” after a busy day, I was simply looking down and studying the numbers of different types of plant foliage – perennials, bulbs and ground cover, which are present in a typical square metre of this part of the garden. I’ve worked really hard over many years to exclude all grasses and weeds from this area of the garden so that it has become a fluxing flower meadow effect, changing in emphasis every week, but just without the grass.
The great thing about many native orchid leaves is that their rosetted form really looks different to most other plants or weeds, and the icing on the cake for easy observation is the dark leaf blotches – even without any flowers.
I now know that these will have taken several years from the tiny dust like seed falling on the ground and germinating, then linking up to an appropriate fungal mycelium strand which nourishes a gradually enlarging underground orchid protocorm, before eventually it has sufficient mass to produce its first leaves. Click here for when I first wrote more about this marvellous symbiosis.
That this is now happening on our magic terrace, as well as with 2 rosettes found along the cobbled path, is really exciting. The more so, since when we started work on the magic terrace garden about 23 years ago, it was created as simply gravel over smashed up concrete. Really quite inhospitable terrain for such exotic plants. But a key factor has been our (fortunate) decision to never use any phosphorus containing fertiliser on the garden (just wood ash and seaweed), since this is devastating to the viability of the required fungi.
Not to be outdone, a day later in a few neglected, and nearly dried out small pots I discovered several seedlings of the giant Himalyan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum. 18 months after the seeds were sown. However, I’ll have a long wait to see these monocarpic giants ever produce a flower – probably well over 5 years. Then after flowering once, the main bulb, which will have produced a flower spike up to 3 metres tall with enormous fragrant lily type flowers, will die!
Gardening sometimes requires patience even greater than any politician.