My Garden ~ a Kiwi's take on life

"I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills," William Wordsworth


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My Garden ~ the bees aren’t buzzing like they did last year

The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others. St. John Chrysostom

Bees seem to have vanished from my garden. I’m not getting much of a buzz. My orchard is a feast for the senses. The plum, apple and quince trees are smothered with sweet nectar-filled white blossoms. The calendula, broad beans, borage and lavender and other companion plantings under my fruit trees are gaudy in their their orange, yellow, purple and blue scented array. Spring has well and truly arrived here. In my blog (September 2007), I couldn’t ignore the buzzing in my garden. But now, one year later, I see and hear only a handful of bees working among the blossoms. Where is the rest of the horde? It has been the wettest of winters. And I know the varroa mite has wreaked havoc on the nation’s hives. The silence in my garden scares me.

 

Transfixed as we are by the seriousness of  economic woes and global credit crunch fallout, there’s a serious ecological problem that has just as far-reaching and potentially devastating consequences for people everywhere. We must pay attenion to the chain of events happening in our food producing habitats. Prescient words echo down the decades in a quote (15 April 1964) from Rachel Carson’s obituary published in The New York Times.

 

“Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” 

www.rachelcarson.org/RachelCarson.ASPX

 

Earlier this year when Mum was dying of cancer, my brothers, sister and I recalled how when we were kids, DDT was mixed into the fertilizer that was spread by agricultural top-dressing trucks and planes in white billowing dust clouds over the local farms. I can still ‘smell’ the DDT as I write this. There was the economic imperative to develop farms in those days. I’m not exactly sure what made Dad change his farming practice, but he did so by the 1960s. Others in Mum’s age group in the district have succumbed to the same cancer. We haven’t been able to get conclusive answers that may link the cancer to DDT. There seems to be a wall of silence. I have digressed somewhat from the vanished bees. One consequence of the application of this insecticide is that DDT remains in the soil. It may be residual DDT is part of the explanation for the silence of the bees.

 

The health of honey bees is critical to the well-being of humans. In my blog (September 2007), I mentioned how Mum was buoyed by a book The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter. So I was interested during my web search to read Joe Brewer, (25 August, 2007), Rockridge Institute, Berkeley, CA. Bee Keeper’s Wisdom for Human Flourishing.  www.celsias.com/article/bee-keepers-wisdom-for-human-flourishing.

 

Back to bringing a buzz back into my garden. I’m not alone in my concerns about vanishing bees. An article (October 8, 2008) gives pointers and describes Californian farmers work in re-developing native bee habitats.

 

“With honeybee populations weakened by disease and the mysterious malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder, farmers place new focus on work to benefit native pollinators. Decisions by farmers and ranchers to replace bare ground along irrigation ditches and roadways with native plants, trees and grasses, in order to encourage beneficial insects and eliminate weeds, have evolved into a movement to bring native bees back to the farming landscape.”

www.cfbf.com/agalert/AgAlertStory.cfm?ID=1147&ck=A1D50185E7426CBB0ACAD1E6CA74B9AA

 

I trawled the net for advice and insights to the nature of my gardening problem with the thought there must be something further I can do in my backyard. There’s any number of websites and blogs about colony collapse disorder and bees.

 

NZ newspaper item (6 October 2008) Fears that bee colony disease is here.

www.times-age.co.nz/localnews/storydisplay.cfm?storyid=3786935&thesection=localnews

 

National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand (25 September 2008) posted a Radio NZ report on the declining bee numbers. www.nba.org.nz

 

Linda Moulton Howe (31 August 2008) wrote about the poor health of honey bees. www.earthfiles.com/news.php?ID=1466&category=Environment

 


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My Garden ~ too busy in the vegetable patch to write about much else

It felt hotter outside than the official 20C today. The ground is dry and surface cracks indicate the need for rain. Never-the-less, early summer is here and this gardening month is busy with successive sowings, cultivation and harvesting.    

I checked the growth of my potatoes planted 30 September.  The Kowiniwini, Urenika and Maori  heritage potatoes are about to burst into flower. I was somewhat surprised to find the Swift (early variety for Xmas ) potatoes are almost ready to be harvested. Two-year-old Grandson who became an expert ‘tato inspector last year, inducted baby brother in the art of choosing the biggest and the best ‘tato for dinner tonight. He also picked the very first tiny courgette of the season (as you do) when you’re a connoisseur of baby vegetables. The early potato crop probably thrived because of the thick applications of mulch. The soil around the plants was friable, warm and moist despite no watering and drying conditions. We are careful how we use water because our domestic water supply is from rainwater collection. We pump water from the stream to the troughs for the animals. So gardening for me must be about conserving moisture and mulching. Our predominantly clay soil becomes rock hard in the summer – digging is a no go – hence I follow a permacultural approach to diversity and building up soil to encourage worms and beneficial insects.   

The Calendula are making a great show among the potatoes. With that in mind today, I filled gaps among the other vegetables with more heat-loving flowers as companion  plants Rudbeckia, Zinnia and French Marigolds. That should make the friendly insects giddy with delight (or confused should the pests have pesky intentions).  November here is a great month for flowers – I use different edible flowers in salads and drinks.  

I under-planted the sweet corn with a long green cucumber – my Dad used to do this as a living mulch so I though I’d give it a try this year as well as letting pumpkins sprawl under the corn plants.  I could have used beans – but I have these growing elsewhere. My last tasks today were to plant Sweet Peppers and to stake Beefsteak tomatoes – under-planted with Sweet Basil of course as I have visions of home-made pesto in mind.


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My Garden ~ planted trees today

Friend Trish and I finally got to the local garden centre’s sale yesterday.  Most of the fruit trees had been well picked over but there were other bargains still to be had.  I had my wish list drawn from the Northland Regional Council publication Trees for the Land: Growing Trees in Northland for Protection, Production and Pleasure  (pp. 30-31) A guide to planting native trees. My best buys included four Kahikatea Dacrycarpus Darydioides trees  at $5 each were normally priced at $29.95. Perfect for the swampy paddock I’m planting up. The garden centre owner said people weren’t interested in buying tall, slow growing, native forest trees.  I won’t see these trees in their maturity at about fifty metres – I’m planting for posterity. Kahikatea may grow about six metres in ten years. Next best buy was two Pukatea Laurelia Novae – Zelandiae at $10 each (half price). Another slow growing tree that is best planted in a wet situation.   Pukatea also grow about six metres in ten years.

In a previous post, I included a Rockyou slideshow showing trees planted in the swampy area. Today as we dug the planting holes, the clay was heavy and ‘gluggy’ and water welled up as we hit an underground rivulet. The Pukatea should lap up their new watery location. Digging holes for the Kahikatea was another story. We dug through the swampy clay loam and then hit the hard-pan clay layer beneath. We used the pick-axe to break it up. Worth the effort as the Kahikatea will be happy in the moist soil. 

Digging in the swamp was easy compared to the digging we’ll do tomorrow on an exposed sunny hillside which has poor soil, rock-hard clay. Why the effort? Pohutukawa Metrosideros Excelsa Lighthouse‘. I bought this tree as a living gift to celebrate the birth of 4-month grandson (sibling to two-year old pea-picker). I’ll also plant Puriri Vitex lucens (bargain price $7.50) as a solitary specimen tree and because the flowers and fruits attract native birds – the wood pigeon (kereru) and tui. Lots of compost will be added to give these young trees good drainage and a good start before next summer. 

The sale was a good start towards meeting my pledge to the UN Plant a Billion Trees Campaign. Trish bought lots of sale-priced trees and shrubs – she’s planting a sanctuary to complement the earthbrick home they’re building on their two-acre lifestyle block.     

         


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My Garden ~ soil health

Tonight I read an article Farms of the Future in my February 2007 copy of
New Zealand Lifestyle Block. In it, research by a Dr Anderson found “food nutrient levels in the developed world are deteriorating.”  The article quoted him urging farmers to “step off the treadmill of agricultural chemicals and onto a path of managing soils, crops and animals in a profitable and sustainable way.”
I also believe there is a link between the health of the food we eat and our own health. This article sparked childhood memories I have of the way my father practised farming (in the future 40 years ago, perhaps!).
In a previous blog, I described how my late father was a farmer a man who cared for the soil. The high level of soil fertility (of the farm) was a result of applications of liquid seaweed and dragging a chain harrow to spread the animal manure over the paddocks. This was in an era when neighbouring farmers were applying fertiliser such as superphosphate to promote pasture growth. He grazed fewer dairy cows yet achieved similar profitable milk production figures to other farmers in the district. Less stress on the animals – they did not have to compete for blades of grass. Each year, a different paddock would be cultivated, sown in turnips as a winter feed crop before being re-grassed – no agricultural chemicals used. Not like the current focus of intensive practices to achieve high returns from farms. Animals and soil are respectively dosed and dusted with agricultural supplements and chemicals that indirectly enter our systems and affect our health. Dad cared for the soil which in turn grew healthy plant life and in turn, healthy animals. It was the same for the vegetables he grew – no sprays. He worked hard, but he in tune with nature and understood how to nurture the soil that provided for our needs.  It is my practice to rotate crops and to build the levels of humus in the soil without chemical interventions. I’ll sow a nitrogen-fixing crop in a bare plot with the intention of composting the green crop later on in spring to prepare the soil for planting summer vegetables. It is do-able on a small lifestyle block to improve the health of the soil and of the food we eat.


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My Garden ~ beneficial insects

There’s a certain languor to the pace of living in this summer heat and humidity. The most energetic workers in the garden lately are the insects. Dragonflies hover and we find ourselves rescuing them from the swimming pool. The longer a dragonfly lives the more mosquitoes it can chomp the better. Himself says the mozzies have a personal vendetta against him as he slaps yet more insect repellent on each night. For some reason, I’m don’t seem to get bitten which doesn’t help Himself under siege. Bumblebees flit from flower to flower in their continual quest for nectar. Each has a useful ecological role in the garden. Once when Himself and I were clearing a large Buddleia (I think it’ B.davidii) which is an invasive weed plant here, we disturbed a colony of bumblees nesting in the ground among the tangled root system. Obviously the flowers were a great food source. The bumblebees didn’t sting us – they weren’t aggressive towards us that day unlike wasps. I have since idly wondered about how to  breed bumblebees as I understand they can be useful pollinators of plants grown in greenhouses.

None of this really prepares me for return to work tomorrow after the summer break. Insrect life will still happen and at the end of each workday I’ll escape into the garden.   


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My Garden ~ plums and possums

Our Luisa plum tree branches have a heavy crop this season. It’s a large cone-shaped yellow-fleshed fruit, sweet and juicy to eat  when ripe and picked straight from the tree. However, we have a problem. Possums! This animal is a serious pest in New Zealand. They roam distances and forage during the night and damage trees. We set Timms traps as we will neither use poison baits as we don’t wish to harm the environment nor shoot the pest for obvious reasons of safety of others. We check and clear possible nesting sites on our place. Our friend has three Jack Russell dogs. She says the possums don’t venture much onto their property because the dogs have strong hunting instincts. Though we enjoy the company of our canine friends, we don’t own a dog. Oh well, I’ll just have to pick the fruit and preserve it before we lose the lot. At least the courgettes and lettuces have been spared.

Luisa Plum    Ripening and undamaged Luisa plum fruit is large, red skinned and yellow-fleshed.

Luisa Plum   Half-eaten plum left on the branch by a possum. Often branches are broken as the animal clambers through the tree in search of the tastiest fruits.

 Possum damage to Luisa Plum   More possum damage. Plums are knocked to ground – often the unripe fruit.


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My Garden ~ surviving a hot day

 It’s been the hottest day this month – 26 to 27 degrees C at our place. My focus remains maintaining moisture. I use green mulch to cover the soil and to attract beneficial insects, and compost in raised garden beds – my answer to gardening on hardpan clay. Snapshots taken late this afternoon show some plants I’m growning.

Collage

Sweetcorn  Green Mulch Purple Sage Potato  Santolina       

New raised beds    Borage/comfrey     Purple Sage             Potato-‘Heather’          Santolina            

This year, I’m trying out a late potato variety called Heather. According to my garden centre info sheet  it has a purple skin, is oval shaped, has a smooth skin, is white fleshed and cooks well.  I’ll see how it goes.