Electric Wonders

I had intended to write about the use and destruction of soil by ancient civilizations for another couple of weeks, but the stories will still be there next month; I think I’ll take a break from farming follies.

A big thunderstorm hit last night. I forgot to bring my trays of seedlings indoors and expected them to be beaten down this morning; but the tiny plants were fine. Perky. Lightening is good for them; they like it, like I like expensive cheese or fine chocolate. Can’t live on it– but it makes life better. Plants probably know electric and magnetic energy surround us and use it when they can.

Charged particles are a part of the air we breathe. We live in a gigantic magnetic field that extends from Earth’s interior into Space. This field protects us from the solar winds, cosmic rays, ultraviolet radiation and certain destruction. Beyond are the Van Allen radiation belts, pictured to the right– “giant swaths of magnetically trapped, highly energetic charged particles that surround Earth.” Getting through these belts is a big problem for NASA. http://www.space.com/33948-van-allen-radiation-belts.html.

Within our magnetic soup bowl, lightening forms. It produces hot electric charges in clouds; then Nitrogen and Oxygen come together to make nitrogen oxides that descend on their own or in raindrops. Although Nitrogen is all around us, (almost 80% of the atmosphere) plants can’t use it until lightening works its magic.

I don’t like this diagram, it makes a series of grand events look banal. But I love circles and the circle below describes Nitrogen’s trip through our soil and back to the heavens.

Gardeners are always anxious about the nitrogen in the soil. Other elements stick, but not Nitrogen. And atmospheric nitrogen fixation that occurs during thunderstorms only contributes 8% or so of Nitrogen used by our plants, but we are greedy and take what we can get. I think all these charged particles created in a rain storm have value beyond the quantification of 8%; that soil and our plants might engage in activity we don’t understand–yet. I am by no means the craziest gardener on the subject of electricity in the garden.

We are counseled to drive wooden stakes into the garden and run copper wire around them to attract static electricity. Another suggestion to attract static electricity is to use metal stakes for plants like tomatoes and to tie the plants to the stakes with pantyhose. Since pantyhose were undoubtedly developed in some dark place in the underworld, it makes me happy to picture them on a stake in the hot sun. http://www.veggiegardener.com/how-lightning-benefits-your-garden/

Like I said, gardeners take what they can get. I wrote last week about the Chinese at the turn of the 20th Century. No labor was too hard, no conservation too extreme if it improved their soil. They added their clothes to the compost pile. Considering all the work and aggravation associated with improving soil, it is a wonderful thing to sit on the porch and watch a storm. I like to watch the lightening improve my soil while gently moving my rocking chair and sipping a glass of wine.

Dirt–Can’t Live Without It. Part 2

I don’t see farmers growing food on terraces. We don’t have to plant on hillsides, since, something over 300 million of us rattle around in our enormous country. We can leave scrub lands to the deer. But in China, the population count has been biting hard for hundreds of years. So we find extensive use of terracing there. The photo above is of the remarkable Dragon’s Backbone Terrace built by hand 650 years ago to grow rice.

Asian farming practices, such as terracing, are described in by F. H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries, a book that proves the dullest subject can be a rippin’ good read in the hands of a real storyteller. To say King was wildly enthusiastic about Asian farming would be an understatement. He was a highly regarded soil scientist in the early 1900’s and he strongly believed farmland could be healthy only if nutrients were replenished. He worked for the USDA Bureau of Soils and the head of the Bureau, Milton Whitney, insisted that soil was indefinitely productive and natural processes would maintain soil’s good health without additives. Refusing to be associated with what he believed to be heresy, King resigned and traveled to the East.

I will focus here on King’s writings on China. There, he found farmers who added everything they could get their hands on to keep their soil productive — as they had for 4000 years. They used chaff from harvested grains, cuttings from vegetables and fruits, rotting trees and plants, human excrement, animal excrement, clothing. King watched human waste from Canton and Hong Kong applied in diluted form to a field of leeks at a rate of 16,000 gallons per acre–all carried on the shoulders of workers in pails. Another laborious practice was the exchange of soil between mulberry orchards and rice fields since this increased production of both plants–all done in buckets by hand.

I first encountered the Chinese devotion to their fields in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. It is the only movie I have ever seen that was better than the book. I watched 20-year old O-lan bear her first child, strap him to her back and go back to work in her field. There are no words. So many people on so little arable land.

According to King, it was common to see three crops on one field, one ready to harvest, one just up and one in growth. In other areas, fields which had matured two crops of rice were planted with grain, cabbage, peas and beans, producing three or four crops a year. This intensive, continuous cropping can work only by heavy fertilization and irrigation.

China at the turn of the 20th century had at least 200,000 miles of canals for irrigation. The canals also provided fertilizer, the nutrient rich mud was removed from the bottom of the canals and put on fields–at a rate of about 70 tons an acre. I have a creek and a pond, but have never considered using the rich mud to fertilize my pastures. What an undertaking that would be, but King observed that, in China, no labor was too much to keep food on the table. Waste was brought from stables, allowed to percolate in the canals and then dipped out of the canals to fertilize plants. Clover was planted in pits dug three feet deep and when it blossomed, it was cut and stacked, allowed to ferment and then spread on fields. The photo here is of a levee made of sausage-shaped baskets of woven bamboo filled with stones held in place by wooden tripods.

King writes, that he walked by a pigpen with  a smooth, well-laid stone floor. It had just been washed scrupulously clean, like the floor of a house. “I have little doubt” he says, “that the washings from this floor had been carefully collected and taken to some receptacle to serve as a plant food.”

Of course, now, China uses the practices of Big Agriculture. Most of the ‘civilized’ world shares the practice of drenching our soils with herbicides, pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers. Not that there is anything wrong with a bag of high quality organic fertilizer used in combination with organic matter like manure. Pest controls used thoughtfully are a good idea. The question is the same one raised by King. Can we kill our soil? Do we need to consider aeration, texture and the microbes? Or will it regenerate indefinitely. It’s only dirt.

There is a scene during a famine in The Good Earth when hungry bandits see smoke from O-lan’s chimney. They burst in, see the children at the table, rush to the cooking pot and leave disgusted.What was cooking was dirt.


Dirt–Can’t Live Without It. Part 1

Historians have not spent much time looking at land use and its relationship to human civilizations. Much of the ground around me is very rocky, very degraded and I cannot find any reference about its history. I was told by one thoughtful and well-informed person that there used to be a couple of feet of soil on these hillsides and another thoughtful and well-informed person disagreed. I have no basis to judge, no contemporary diaries, letters or research that I can find.

What I can do is wonder at the repeated human destruction of natural resources that produce their comfortable lives. In a 1955 publication by the University of Oklahoma, Tom Dale and Vernon Carter point out that strong and wealthy nations have plenty of natural resources; but many poor and weak nations “once had plenty.” Topsoil and Civilization

Greece, of course, is fine example. Ancient Greeks produced educational methods and philosophy that remain unsurpassed. Their architecture, art and statuary are the envy of the world. Their well-equipped armies and navies are legendary. But with civilization, the land on the Greek peninsula and surrounding islands was spoiled; the extensive old Greek forests felled, large fertile grasslands degraded.

Like the rocky soil in my neighborhood, little has been written about Greek soil management. Historians are city dwellers according to Dale and Carter, so “…we must use modern soil science and logic to figure out what happened in Greece.” One historical mistake made is the assumption that Greek soil had always been poor. But modern soil surveys have revealed that, for example, in Attica, early on there was deep clay loam that created high yields; and, even on steep slopes, the soil was thin but fertile. Topsoil and Civilization.


Plato left us a contemporary record. He recognized the degradation of Greek soil as early as 360 B.C. He writes about the luxuriant forests and pastures of the past, then he gives a grim description of his present: “… in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.” http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html

The Greeks cut down trees for planting crops. They plowed up hillsides for crops. Then they overgrazed what was left of the pastures and found it necessary to clear more forestland for destructive, unmanaged grazing. The cleared land eroded quickly in the heavy rain and winds that hit during the winter. To get more production, the Greeks stopped using a system that left fields fallow in alternating years. Greek engineers began draining marshes, but eroded silt filled streams near the sea as fast as the engineers could drain them. Mosquitoes then descended carrying Malaria.

Seeking more food and a better life, emigration became a fact of life for the land-starved. One bright spot was that after 600 B.C., the Greeks found grapes and olives would grow well in lean, rocky soil and began exporting these crops or the refined versions of these crops, to other countries for cash. Unfortunately, most of the olive trees were chopped down by invading armies during the Peloponnesian War. By the time of this famous war, most arable land ruined, Greeks became traders, merchants and industrialists, the income of which allowed the purchase of food for Greeks from Egypt and Sicily. This is always a tenuous existence, and Greece declined to its present state, living today on credit supplied by European bankers, a mountain of debt and no natural resources.

The average life expectancy of a civilization is 800 to 2000 years, after which the civilization declines or is forced to move because humans ruin the environment that helped develop the civilization. Topsoil and Civilization The Greeks enjoyed about 10 centuries of power and plenty before they began their fall.

.Next week, Part 2, will feature China who amazingly managed to keep their soil, healthy alive and productive for 4000 years, 40 centuries.



Asparagus, Milk and A-I

I was thrilled to find asparagus in the garden yesterday. If someone asks me what to plant first in the garden the answer is always asparagus. There is a three year wait to harvest but then one has asparagus for two months each year for thirty years.

And my milk cow gave birth to her calf last week so I have fresh milk each morning. Milking is an easy 15-minute job. The cow and calf are separated during the night so the calf doesn’t drink the Plantswoman’s share of milk. The calf sleeps in the barn on a comfortable pile of hay.

I let her out first thing to run over to her mother and start nursing. The cow will not ‘let down’ her milk for me, but she floods her bag for the calf. After a minute or so of nursing, I open the barn door and the cow knows her sweet feed and alfalfa are waiting for her in the milking stall. She tears into the barn well ahead of the calf and I slam the barn door in the calf’s face. The high point of this comedy is the calf’s face is almost white with milk and milk foam and calf slobber. I milk my quart I use for my coffee, cooking and making cheese while the cow eats her breakfast. I then let her out of her stall and she heads back outside to her waiting calf.

During and after the calf’s breakfast, my mother cow cleans her baby…thoroughly. More thoroughly than I have ever cleaned a child. She uses her big black tongue, it’s just like sandpaper to my skin, but she starts with the back, tail and backside; then cleans the eyes, ears, chin and the belly. I have no idea why this little creature stands still for what looks like a pretty rough cleaning treatment. Perhaps she is just full of hot milk and a little woozy; perhaps on some deep level she is hard-wired to know the dirt and germs and microbes have to go. Even the most cursory internet search of the medical problems of calves reveals a list of maladies that makes an episode of The Walking Dead look like Happy Time. I have never had a sick calf and I credit my cow for her maternal diligence. It is generally accepted that she can provide nutrients and antibodies in her milk to combat diseases that her calf might contract. An extension of that theory, is that, IF she loves her human, she can intuit health problems of her human and provide necessary curative elements in her milk. This idea always, always makes me smile.

Escaping predictions by both sides of the political spectrum that the tumbrils are approaching, I have spent this week reading about artificial intelligence. I find I am surprised at the confidence expressed by AI designers of creating a real robot, which I, probably unfairly, take to mean one like the beautiful Rachel in Blade Runner. On the most basic level, engineers just want a machine that can perform as “a flexible rational agent that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of success at some goal.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_intelligence

I am not sure humans can measure up to this standard set for machines, but I have long been skeptical of the search for AI since I am not sure AI engineers and scientists spend enough time thinking about the workings of the natural world. The AI work always seems so human centered. I am not sure they are anywhere close to making a machine as thoughtful and intelligence as my milk cow. She has close social interactions with the dogs and sheep. She can solve problems, routinely getting into fenced areas where she has been forbidden. She can reproduce herself. She meets all the above criteria better than, for example, an inkjet printer or the current versions of self-driving cars. For that matter, the asparagus plants in my garden perform as  flexible rational agents, producing in late January when the weather has been to their liking. The plants send up shoot after shoot, some harvested but others turn into beautiful plants that set seed for their future. I am not sure about their social life, but hope they are encouraging the carrots that are barely surviving.

The Joy of Seed and… Hope

My mailbox fills with seed catalogs this time of year. Dazzling pictures and promises of bounty, leading one down the garden path to the hope that ‘this year will be different.’

‘Cheddar’ Cauliflower

One of my favorite garden writers, Steve Solomon, advises that starting seed at home might be more trouble than its worth and he recommends looking for quality transplants instead. Lots of good local nurseries make this easy, although, I have to be careful of impulse buys in big box stores since they now have labels that announce their plants have been treated with neonicotinoids —a pesticide that will kill my bees. Unsurprising to fellow gardeners, Solomon is of two minds about transplants. The mind of a gardener is so often fractured. He writes that purchased transplants are hothouse grown and he believes sturdy little homegrown plants fare much better in the garden. I have found that to be true and I have settled on ordering from two seed houses this year: RH Shumway https://www.rhshumway.com and Johnny’s Selected Seeds http://www.johnnyseeds.com

I am thinking of breaking away from my preference for open-pollinated seeds (that I can save and plant next year) and ordering the F1 hybrid cabbage ‘Ruby Perfection’ from Johnny’s. This Maine nursery is not only highly rated by experts, but it arrogantly publishes the germination rate of its seeds. Red cabbage struggles in my clay soil and this one is said to mature just as summer begins, a good thing in my Southern garden. I imagine the beginning of summer is different in Maine, but this is all still imaginary anyway. I have settled, I think, on two heirloom tomato cultivars, ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Brandywine’. The first, Johnny’s says, is great for processing; the second, a slicer, is supposed to grow to a pound or more and is “rich, loud and distinctively spicy.” Three superlatives are nothing in the seed catalogue world where extravagant praise is the norm.

From RH Shumway I am considering ‘Early Copenhagen Market’ cabbage with heads that are “uniform, solid and superb.” See what I mean? And I will likely order an old favorite, ‘Goliath’ broccoli, that has not been in the trade for a while and is said, somewhat redundantly, to bear very large heads. I will try ‘Cheddar’ cauliflower because I like the yellow color, even though it is pretty indifferent to my attentions. I harvest about one small head for every four plants I put in. But January is the month of hope. And Shumway, a seed supplier since 1870, tells me this cauliflower is “packed with almost as much beta carotene as carrots” and that its flavor is fantastic and the “texture guarantees gourmet enjoyment.” So there.

The Moon. It Touches our Imaginations, but Can it Help a Gardener?

“Drink in the moon as though you might die of thirst.”― Sanober Khan

In earlier times many sophisticated societies such as the Greeks, the Romans and Native Americans considered the Moon central to their lives. They lived by a Moon Calendar — not the Gregorian Calendar we use today. The full Moon tomorrow night, our January Moon, was called the Full Wolf Moon by Native Americans because in this lean month, starving wolves howled around their villages. http://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-names The hungry wolf along with the grim reaper are common images in our folk lore, representations of how bad things can get when food runs low. If starvation was the penalty for bad gardening, it is easy to see why our ancestors reached for the Moon as an ally.

Some of the best modern gardeners I know engage in the practice of Moon gardening. I have promised myself from time to time that I’ll try it. I haven’t yet for several reasons. First, critics grumble that there is no scientific evidence to support it. I would pity anyone trying to apply the scientific method to a garden; every year is so different. There is invariably an early killing frost, a tree-bud-destroying heat wave or some other variant that gardeners live with day after day, year after year.

There is also a long history of mistaken beliefs about the Moon. For example, the idea that the Moon causes insanity has been thoroughly debunked. Over 2000 years ago, Roman agricultural writer, Varro, wrote a lively and interesting treatise on country life, Res Rusticaes; but, unversed in genetics, he advises that cutting hair during a waxing Moon creates balding.

And my last reason for not yet gardening by the Moon, is simply that my life sometimes conflicts with the lunar planting calendar. Out of town for even a long weekend, I’ll miss a lunar window; or, unable to walk on my clay soil after many days of rain, I plant when I can.

On the positive side, and it is a big positive, gardening by the Moon connects us to the heavens. “We need emotional content….Don’t think, feel. It is a like a finger pointing the way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Bruce Lee Enter the Dragon. Life seems awfully short to miss any heavenly glory we might find in a garden.

And what about the connection plants might have with the moon? Humans do not have an exclusive claim on emotions; animals have rich emotional lives and I believe plants do too. Plants are sentient beings…I think so anyway, and I’ll post at length on that subject one day. But sentience aside, a powerful reason to believe that plants and the moon have a sophisticated and complex relationship is that plants have been around for 450 million years. We, “modern” humans, have been around for arguably about 200,000 years. Humans feel the mystery and magic of the Moon and we should at least entertain the idea that there are mysteries and magic going on between plants and the Moon that are beyond our comprehension.

In the end though, magical thinking is not necessary for Moon gardening; the practice has been boiled down to some very practical observations.

I am supposed to plant root crops from the day after tomorrow’s full Moon to the day before the new Moon on the 27th. This is lucky advice since I have carrot and beet seeds I had already planned to plant directly in the garden this week. The carrot seeds were purchased, I am sorry to say, from the grocery store rack (such a busy Christmas this year); the beet seeds are left over from the spring when I ordered from my favorite seed house, Johnny’s Seeds. I read that the gravitation pull is high during the full moon, creating more moisture in the soil; further, that when the moonlight is decreasing over the next two weeks, energy will flood the plant roots. This is a happy idea since root vegetables struggle in my clay soil.

Above ground crops should be planted after the new Moon. I am advised to plant such flowers and vegetables when the Moon is waxing. I have spinach, lettuce and snapdragon seed that I was planning to germinate in my kitchen this week. But the Moon will be waning beginning tomorrow; and I should wait and plant these seeds following the dark nights after the new Moon. When the Moon is new it is in line with the Sun and Earth and the gravitational pull of the Moon is at its height. The lunar gravity pulls water up and will, theoretically cause my little spinach, lettuce and snapdragon seeds to swell and burst. My problem is that January 27th, the date of the next new Moon, is a little late to start spinach and lettuce seeds. Of course, December would have been a better month to get the process started; and I have to laugh thinking of getting out the potting soil and seeds two days after Christmas, just before the new year celebrations. https://www.calendar-12.com/moon_phases/2017  Food shortages much less starvation is not an issue for us in our privileged world, but I imagine Moon gardeners in the past got their seeds going during their winter celebrations without a lot of complaining and hand-wringing.

The above and below ground instructions and many other more complicated concepts on Moon gardening are available in hundreds of books and on dozens of websites. Nifty apps for your phone remind you when to plant what. http://farmersalmanac.com/calendar/gardening/

Skeptics explain that Moon gardening works because it forces gardeners to plan ahead, to order early from a highly-rated seed producer instead of grabbing seeds off the rack at the grocery store. Moon gardeners are tuned in and think carefully about timing and that produces good results. Skeptics also suggest that if I have a really good crop this year, I may be enjoying the pleasures of Confirmation Bias. When a superstition interfaces with careful and attentive gardening or studying hard for a test or hours of practice before an important game, we see success. Confirmation Bias runs through our lives like a comforting song. We can relate success not only to hard work but to some token like a rabbit’s foot or some special routine or to the Moon. I am a lover of skepticism, but I am skeptical that Moon gardening is a superstition.

Even the New York times writes seriously, if not uncritically, about the practice. “Moon planters believe that the same gravitational force that pulls the tides, the same cosmic rhythms that draw a horseshoe crab ashore to mate, also cause crops, especially those that bear above ground, to leap right out of the earth. And conversely, when the moon is on the wane and its light and gravitational pull are on the decrease, the earth’s gravity kicks in again, and roots burrow happily into the ground.” http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/02/garden/planting-by-the-full-moon-bright-idea-or-lunacy.html?pagewanted=all

While staring at the almost full Moon last night, it occurred to me that Moon gardening will lead to a relationship with the Moon. I would have to keep track of it; its movements will pop up on my phone. I think it would not be so bad to have the movements of a heavenly body pop up on my phone; to have a heavenly body in my day to day consciousness. I like the idea that when the new Moon comes around in a few weeks, it will raise the tides, millions of gallons of water; but it might also raise the water in the soil containers on my kitchen counter and bring the little seeds there to life.






Yaks, Fiber and Matresses

So many fibers. And all with a story. Cotton, of course, so cozy, so comfortable but burdened by its history of human suffering. Silk, made by worms, luminescent, beloved by royalty for thousands of years. Wool. Europeans and sheep breeders all over the world have worked to make wool that sits like gossamer on our skin. They succeeded too. But you have to pay the price. There is no forgetting the ubiquitous acrylics and polyesters. They are petroleum based, made from trees and plants that sank into the earth millions of years ago and with time, compression and heat produced the black gold that powers our lives. The venerable linen, made from flax, a plant that was spun, dyed and knotted by humans living in Southern Russia 30,000 years ago. That is not a typo; apparently even 30 millennia into the past, humans have wanted cute things to wear. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112726804

There is Angora from rabbits, cashmere from goats, but today’s story is about fiber from the Yak.

Yaks are beautiful animals, important to the nomadic herders of Tibet producing the majority of their needs as did the Buffalo for the Native Americans. Only recently, the soft undercoat shed by baby Yaks was discovered to be a source of high-end fiber now made into clothing, bedding and yarns.

Italian fiber artist, Paola Vanzo spent 20 years working with the nomadic herders of the Tibet. She and her company use small artisan mills in Italy to process the Yak fibers from Tibet. https://myak.it  Paola’s yarn, pictured here, is available at a wonderful Texas yarn shop where all products are highly curated—meaning sourced from suppliers who care about water, animals and the human beings who originate the fibers used. http://www.thesatedsheep.com.

The Tibetan herders are paid much-needed cash for the fibers shed by the baby Yaks and Paolo believes she is helping build a future for one of the world’s most ancient ways of life. The Yaks currently supply their human herders with very rich milk, horn, hair for tents, ropes, rugs and meat said to be of incomparable quality. As my readers may know, I believe domesticated animals adopted humans and not the other way around. The Covenant of the Wild, Why Animals Chose Domestication, Stephen Budiansky. I assume a Yak would have no better luck surviving the wild plains of Tibet than my little cow would have if she were loosed to fend for herself. But such an extreme interdependence between one animal and humans is hard to picture–for one’s life to revolve around one thing and to use every part of that thing is waste management at its zenith. Paola finds that after processing the baby Yak hair in Italy, she has a high percentage of waste product. She sends it back to Tibet. The Tibetans use it to stuff mattresses.

How would we even begin. To use everything we have, then use the waste.


Seasoning the Garden with Poetry

The animals, trees, insects, winter-garden plants, soil and all microbiotic life are oblivious our calendar changing next week to 2017. And correctly so–the change is a human convention with flaws that sophisticated use of math and astronomy can’t help. The Mayans, the Egyptians and pretty much every human civilization have resorted to the use of extra days or months every few years to sync their calendars with the Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun.

We start 2017 with the leap year behind us; we start with the adjustment made for the imperfect 365 days in our calendar. The 365.25 rotations of the Earth as it circles the sun ends each year with about a quarter of the final day still “on the books.” Until this past February we had been slowly moving out of sync with our seasons, out of sync with reality.

And in our hurry scurry lives, we are unlikely to consciously perceive this quarter of a day difference in the seasons. In the New Year, I intend to pay much more attention to the seasons and to play with them a bit. I am inspired by the ancient Japanese who named an astonishing 72 seasons in their year. http://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00124/

If we were living in Japan several centuries ago, the season of “self heal sprouts” would be just behind us and we would be in the season of  “deer shed antlers.” Looking forward we would have the season of “wheat sprouts under snow”, “parsley flourishes” and “pheasants start to call.” The ancient Japanese got their list from China and revised it to conform to their climate and geography. I plan to take this idea and start a list of 36 “seasons” that conform to my little world.

I am challenged by giving the number four another look. Worldwide the word, season, is flexible indeed; they have six seasons in parts of India and Australia. Two seasons, wet and dry, function well in many places, primarily near the equator.

My challenge will be to not name my seasons after the negative things I encounter in the natural world, such as, “the descent of the stink bugs” or “the fire ants cometh” or “the invasion of the prairie grasses”. Not a single one of the 72 Japanese seasons has a negative name. The link above lists them all if you are skeptical that gardeners can break a year into 5-day seasons without any whining. I will try to publish my list of “seasons” in January of 2018. To follow the example set by the ancient Japanese I must look more mindfully into the positive and the beautiful. I am doubtful that I can touch the poetry of the ancient Asian gardeners, but I think it will be fun to try.






Bees-Part 2

I had planned to use bees as a springboard to talk about human excess and then I had to laugh at myself when I read the final sentence of last week’s post expressing my desire for more, more, more honey.

Photo by Laurie Chessmore

We have much in common with bees; they, too, indulge in excess. They will overcrowd a hive until it is intolerable, at which point many of the bees leave looking for a new place to live. They apparently do not consider living within the means of the hive or ceasing to make new babies. Like humans. Many scientists and other imaginative people now puzzle how to leave Earth to populate Mars or other planets. Books, movies and TV routinely tell stories about humans escaping an overcrowded, ravaged Earth. At the same time, we stand by while 40% or more of our bee population dies annually to produce our food.

Bees have been around much longer than humans, 150 million years more or less, but they share with humans and with cockroaches and sharks, the ability to survive disaster and to adapt. When all the flowers and trees died during desertification in an area, they moved, when glaciers moved into tropical Europe, bees moved. Some bees adapted to cold weather, others to hot weather. They traveled the globe as opportunists, changing as necessary to fit the climate, the water supply and the food sources Like humans.

Photo by Laurie Chessmore

Historically, we love bees. Napoleon made the bee a national symbol, the bee as a metaphor for human society crops up in Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Shakespeare; ancient Greek and Hindu writings imagined honey on human lips as a conduit to eloquence; the Quran includes a chapter entitled, “The Bee”; bees signified immortality and were used by royalty of ancient Italian houses and the Franks.

Now we are working honey bees to death and poisoning them.

The annual honey bee loss is called Colony Collapse Disorder is reputed to have unknown causes. These losses are considered business as usual; just another part of American agriculture on a grand scale. Commercial honey bees lead grinding miserable lives; they are raised in factory farms to make up for the losses, then loaded onto trucks and used for pollination again and again. In conjunction with wild bees, these traveling honey bees pollinate about 80% of U.S. crops—value: $40 billion annually.

For almonds alone, more than a million bee boxes ship into California from all over the country on thousands of trucks. Other bees travel by truck to pollinate cherry, plum, avocado and apple trees; alfalfa, sunflowers, squashes, citrus, cranberries and blueberries– countless vegetables. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/migratory-beekeeping-mind-boggling-math/

The migratory practice shown in the picture guarantees the spread of viruses, mites and fungi between the hives; using the bees on a single crop limits their nutrition needs and exposes the bees to a wide variety of pesticides. The traveling bees have abnormal gland sizes, lowered protein in their heads, low lipid content in their abdomens and a high mortality of older bees. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2012/193029/

A study has found 35 pesticides and fungicides, some at lethal doses, in the pollen collected from bees that were used to pollinate food crops in five U.S. states. http://www.newsweek.com/bee-populations-vanish-usda-tries-keep-them-fed-230271 The British have linked neonicotinoid pesticide use and honeybee colony collapse. Neonicotinoid pesticides are banned in Europe but used widely here although these chemicals are highly toxic and will kill bees even in tiny amounts.http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/pesticides-killing-bees-study-shows-what-everybodys-suspected-20150826 Many of the plants at my Home Depot are marked as treated with neonicotinoids, which would, if I bought them, be a danger to my bees.

So a mortality rate of 40% or more of honey bees each year is not really very mysterious. This death and misery is to produce our fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains; 30% to 40% of this food harvest is not consumed, but becomes food waste and ends up in the garbage dump. http://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm

Human excess. You can’t make this stuff up.


Bees– Part 1

Until about a year ago, when I thought “bee”, I thought “honey bee”. I had no idea North American bees did all the pollination on this continent until the Europeans arrived with honey bees, nor did I know honey bees aren’t very good at pollinating tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and watermelons, blueberries and cranberries, also natives. Native bees live in the ground, in logs and swamps; the majority are solitary. When I wrote in my earlier post, The Living Soil, that walking on the earth was walking on many forms of underground life, I had not thought about bees, who drill down and feed their babies in underground tunnels.

Of course, native bees are stressed by plowing, clear-cut logging and draining swamps. Along with their cousins, the honey bees, they suffer from toxic chemicals. Honey bees also currently endure disease and overwork when they are loaded on to trucks to provide pollination to big corporate farms–a discussion saved for Part 2, next week.

This week, I have to confess that my attempts to keep honey bees have not been a great success. Even though humans have been keeping bees for over 20,000 years, I have no feel for them, no instinct for their needs. I think I have more in insight into the needs of handful of dirt than a bee. After losing several hives, I now have a beekeeper, Tara Chapman https://www.twohiveshoney.com

Tara said this past week that my current hive is very vigorous and the bees have plenty of honey for the winter, but none to harvest. In October, she casually handed me four full frames, I stood each frame in a bowl, cut through the wax honeywith a butter knife and waited for the honey to flow out. Then I strained it (large strainer to leave in the pollen) and put the “raw” unfiltered, unheated honey in jars. Lovely. A gallon and a half.

Tara attends to the bees in jeans and a flannel shirt with her bee hat and gloves. The bees circle her benignly. It’s fun to watch someone Who Knows What They are Doing. You can see her pulling a frame from the hive here that is covered with bees. tara-with-full-frame

Do not imagine that I recommend anything other than a full bee suit for going into a hive. The favorite bee here and in Europe has been the Italian bee, docile and a producer over a long season. I have seen people caring for Italian bees in shorts. But in the 1980’s the tracheal and varroa mites began to decimate the bee population. That issue for me is mitigated by buying my bees from  BeeWeaver Apiaries, based in Texas. In the 1990’s BeeWeaver found their bee stock had been significantly affected by African bees, who were able to fend off these terrible mites. http://www.beeweaver.com/faq-cats/beeweaver-and-our-breed. The trade-off was that the “africanized” bees repel mites who come into their hive, but also humans who do so. BeeWeaver and other apiaries are breeding for a gentle bee that repels mites.

I have found that unless someone is going into their hive, my bees are perfectly good farm residents. Before I got my full bee suit, I was stung on several occasions going into the hive and did not find it to be a big deal; fire ant stings are much worse. My goals now are, first, to learn enough to be able to go comfortably into the hives and understand what I am looking at. Second, Tara and I have agreed that I have space for two more hives and she will set those up in the spring. If I have multiple hives I have to mark each with a symbol or paint each a different color so the bees will not mistake their home hive. I imagine pink and blue and yellow hives; maybe green. Carribean colors. And honey, I imagine lots of honey.

Note: Here is the website of a neighbor, very interesting and informative: http://blog.auldridge.org/2009/06/28/busy-as-bees/