Thursday, 21 February 2013

Herbs for Pollinators

I've noticed that my herb garden is starting to look a little neglected and so I've plans this year to revitalise this corner of the smallholding.  I planted my herb garden when I first created a vegetable patch and many of these early herbs are still flourishing.  But when I planted them, I did so with an "I think I'll probably need this" approach and now, thirteen years later, I know a lot more about the herbs I'm regularly using in the kitchen and the herbs I don't use at all.  At the same time, I'm now looking at growing herbs for other reasons; I've learnt more about their uses in companion planting (so that pests are lured away from the fruit and vegetables) and I'd love to try using herbs in homemade hand creams, shampoos or even old-fashioned medicines.  But, most of all, I'm keen on growing herbs for my bees and other pollinators.  Many herbs provide excellent forage for pollinators and I have a vision of creating drifts of herbs that will hum and buzz with pollinators for almost every month of the year.

As well as the herb garden, I also grow herbs in other areas on the smallholding (among the cottage garden flowers, the wild flowers and in pots by the back door).  I've started to sketch out a plan of where my herbs are and whether they are still in the best place i.e. are their growing conditions ideal.  Most herbs prefer full sun and well-drained, moist soil - and over the years, some of the herbs I've planted are now being overshadowed by other plants. My mint is one of the offending plants that is now overshadowing others; it's flourished a bit too well in its current position and will have to be moved.

I've made a list of the herbs that I would like to grow for pollinators, but I also have to consider that pollinators love herbs when they flower - and the leaves of some flowering herbs can taste bitter.  So when I'm looking at these herbs (like basil) that I want to use in the kitchen, I'll have to keep some flower-free and let others go on to bloom.

I've decided to grow the following herbs for pollinators in the herb garden; chives, hyssop, sweet marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme.  This list includes some must-have herbs for bees; rosemary is a good, early source of nectar and pollen for bees when there is little else about and flowering thyme is one of the best of all bee plants.

Honeybee on borage
In the wild flower area; I'm going to grow one of my favourite plants; borage. The lovely blue flowers of this plant produce nectar that flows like a spring for honeybees. I'm also growing comfrey in this area, which is loved by bumblebees.  I always like to find a few moments, first thing on a sunny, summer morning, to watch the bumblebees busily foraging on the comfrey plants.

In my cottage garden flower area; I'm growing bergamot - a favourite bee herb.  On the edge of this area I'm growing lavender (I've chosen lavandula angustifolia "munstead").  Lavender is loved by different pollinators.

Other herbs I'll grow in pots (like the invasive mint) or in the greenhouse - basil, for example, I'll grow both in pots and in the greenhouse as a companion plant to my tomatoes.

I've made a note to regularly look at where and how my herbs are growing and to spend more time tending to the herb garden; I won't leave it for another thirteen years (adding herbs here and there in the meantime).  Herbs are going to be an important part of the smallholding, for so many reasons, from now on.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Willows and Water

Willows growing by the local canal

The willow has to be one of the most beautiful trees in the landscape.  My favourite willow is salix babylonica - the weeping willow.  In summer, I love to see weeping willows by streams, trailing their leaves in the water, while this time of year, the branches, caught in sunlight, are a shining gold.  In folklore, the willow is a tree associated with grief and lost love (although the gift of a willow on a May morning is said to be lucky).  However, I associate willow with being young, because at home we had a large weeping willow in the back garden and it was wonderful for lazing under on hot days.  It's become, I suppose, the tree of my childhood.

With so many happy memories, I had to plant a weeping willow on the smallholding a few years ago - and now it's kept trimmed by the sheep, who love to chomp away at the lower leaves and branches.  A handful of willow is always a good bribe when I want the sheep to follow me somewhere - and we protect the trunk from them (as we do all our trees at risk) by using four wooden pallets tied together as a kind of shield. 

Cricket Bat Willow (Salix Alba Caerulea)

Cricket Bat Willow

We don't use willow on the smallholding, but it is grown locally to make cricket bats. Because of this, the cricket bat willow is a familiar and lovely sight in my area - and this water-loving tree is found along the banks of rivers, streams and the canal.  One local, family-run business, J S Wright & Sons (established in 1894) - is the world's largest and oldest company supplying English cricket bat willow. Salix Alba Caerulea is suitable for cricket bats because the wood is tough but light (in contrast, say, to the weeping willow, where the wood is too dense and heavy).

Mini Cricket Bat (signed by the English team playing the First Test in 1953)

Watermark Disease

Watermark is another tree disease - and this one is a problem for cricket bat willows.  It's a bacterial disease which, it is believed, can be transmitted by birds or through root systems.  It certainly makes the tree useless for cricket bats and although some trees have been known to recover, other trees have been felled locally when the disease has been discovered.

Watermark Disease
A Willow Basket

I've always loved hand woven willow baskets and a couple of years ago David and I spent some time hunting around for one. David wanted it to use on a daily basis, so it had to be large enough to take some of the stuff he carries around with him and robust enough for him to sit on when he has a break out in the fields and woods (basically so he doesn't have to sit on wet ground). The hunt came to an end when we were on holiday in Cornwall a couple of years ago because we met a basket maker there who agreed to create a basket for us that met these requirements. So here it is; it's a beautiful but strong object that has really stood up well to outdoor life.

Our willow basket

With thanks to local business J S Wright & Sons for the information and photographs of the cricket bat willow and watermark disease.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Bees: The Beauty of Pollen and Homemade Beekeeping Equipment

Bumblebee with Visible Pollen Baskets 
One of the real pleasures of keeping bees has to be watching the bees return to the hive loaded with colourful pollen.  I often stand, very still, by the entrance to the hive (suited, of course, in case the bees object) - and watch the bees fly in with heavy pollen baskets.  Looking inside the hive, I can see that the bees have created their own rainbow of stored pollen in the frames.

I'm fortunate in that I've never suffered from hay fever - and so pollen has never troubled me.  Pollen is shed by flowers as part of their reproductive process and bees become covered in pollen grains when they forage.  The bees then pack the pollen into the pollen baskets which are on the outside of their hind legs.  Pollen is one of four things collected by foraging bees (with nectar, propolis and water) and it provides them with protein, vitamins and minerals.  When they return to the hive, they store the pollen near the broodnest where it is needed.  Early pollen i.e. pollen collected in early spring, is essential to feed the bee-larvae and build up the colony.

Snowdrop: An Early Pollen Source
Pollen sources in early spring include snowdrop and crocus.  Bees will also collect from hazel and willow.

I can work out where the bees have been from the colour of the pollen they bring into the hive.  Bees have favourite pollen sources; when they learn how to extract the pollen from a particular flower they'll keep going back.  Usually, from late March to May, I expect a large amount of pollen coming in to the hive to be bright yellow - because the bees will be foraging in fields of oilseed rape.  Bees love this crop and become quite excited in the hive when this is in flower.  They often return to the hive not only carrying oilseed rape pollen in their baskets, but also completely covered in the stuff.

Examples of the Different Colours of Pollen in a Hive

Homemade Beekeeping Equipment

A field of oilseed rape can yield a huge amount of pollen and nectar for bees.  Many beekeepers welcome this as it produces a large, early honey crop, but this honey also has to be dealt with quickly, because it rapidly crystallizes in the comb.  To liquify this honey (and any other honey) the honey has to be heated - and many beekeepers buy warming cabinets (or make their own) to achieve this.  To save money, we made our own warming cabinet when we replaced our fridge - we converted the older fridge into a warming cabinet by disconnecting the working parts and inserting a light bulb (to add heat) and a digital thermometer to give an accurate reading of temperature inside the cabinet.

Homemade Warming Cabinet
We've also made a very useful bee equipment carrier by buying a cheap folding trolley on eBay and adapting this by adding metal brackets to hold the brood boxes and supers which make up the hive.  A bungee cord over the top keeps them in place.  I've been carrying boxes up and down a steep hill for years - and so I'm really pleased with this piece of equipment.

Bee Equipment Carrier

I'm now looking forward to mild, spring weather, and the new beekeeping "season", when I can work with nature to care for my bees once again.