I grew up in cities, well mostly, not entirely. My idea of a garden was spending my allowance on pansies for my mother. There was a nursery that was just a slight detour from my elementary school and I spent nearly all the 25 cents I got on elves and flowers for my mother. The only thing I ever grew from seeds was watermelon. Gabriel Howearth told me once that this was his first botanical accomplishment also! We both spent most of our childhoods in California, one of the most enigmatic states in our "union". If it were an independent country, it would be the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world and one of the largest agricultural producers as well. But how do plants really grow? Almond growers in California depend on about a million hives to produce abundant almonds and they pay beekeepers about $150 per hive so this is part of the cost of production and similar practices are used to grow other crops.
Basically, one-third of our food and 90% of flowering plants depend to some degree on pollination. Some of you watched my first attempt at a youtube video production. I was deeply moved by a photograph taken by Dr. Zachary Huang, an entomologist, in which a bee was inside a crocus flower. When I lived in the little village of Cundiyo north of Santa Fe, I made mental notes of what came into bloom and February 10th was usually the day I saw my first crocus flowers pushing through the snow. I realized also that this is first chance bees have to eat so I needed to plant lots of them in order to care for a species upon which we are dependent for our biodiversity and culinary pleasure.
When I took up the cause of bees, I asked experts for lists of plants they like, but in watching the activity in my own small garden, I realized that two additional matters are really important. First, with a short-blooming flower such as rhododendron, it's feast or famine. For a few days, usually in early June, there are lots of delicious flowers and the bees are happy, but then what? This year, I did not have a single flower on the rhodies. The only plant I have growing here that provides months and months of nutrition for the bees is figwort. Everything else is much more seasonal. Autumn Joy Sedum is beloved by them but as the name suggests, it flowers late in the season and provides nothing as dependable as the figwort. The flowers on figwort are tiny, hardly much bigger than a bee, maybe not even as big but the bees were skinny this year. However, tiny as they are, I saw hummingbirds on the figwort this year even though they seem to prefer bee balm (monarda) and crocosmia which are both really quite dazzling.
This web site explains a bit about pollination in user-friendly language:
If you enjoyed reading The Botany of Desire as much as I did, you might appreciate that plants have various methods of seduction and enslavement that are worth a good glass of wine and some conversation. A flower can be beautiful and/or fragrant and attract the attention of pollinators and cultivators. This assures their future. Plants can also be so delicious or nutritious that we are willing to work in the dirt to propagate them for our own dining pleasure. They can be medicinal or just interesting. However, to survive, they depend on wind, insect or animal intervention, and/or human effort. So, they make themselves irresistible in every way possible since they cannot buy plane tickets and move to an island without assistance from someone, a bird or bat or people.
As we know, plants begin as seeds, and seeds come in many sizes, from tiny to huge, the largest being the Coco de Mer from the Seychelle Islands, a place I have always wanted to visit. Seeds come from flowers and, as noted, some plants are pollinated by wind and some depend entirely on the industry of insects and small animals. Not being a botanist, I don't want the responsibility of explaining all this but many, many plants require pollination and this task is performed by insects, birds, and bats. The most celebrated of these are bees and butterflies.
Colony Collapse Disorder seems to have begun in Europe. I first heard about it in Germany around 2005. I am not 100% up to date on all the conflicting reports but last I reviewed the new information, organic hives were still not affected. To me, this seems to dispel the notion that microwave towers are responsible and more likely suggests that the problem is either with genetically modified crops (which do not require pollination because the terminator seeds are not like normal seeds that assure the continuity of the species) or pesticides. Many fingers have been pointed at Monsanto and I would like to believe that there will be a day when that company no longer exists.
What I have been learning through permaculture methods is that if flowers are planted near leafy food crops such as spinach and kale, the insects will be attracted to the flowers and leave your food alone. Nature is clever and likes diversity. Food was never meant to be planted in huge fields with evenly spaced rows. The moment we try to rearrange our natural world, we risk creating a major disturbance.
As you know, I am very committed to a revolution in how we use our precious land. Gabriel Howearth was the first person to impress upon me that protection of our biodiversity would be accomplished in urban areas that are farther from the GMO nightmares. Gabriel and Kitzia stayed in my home in Santa Fe for a few weeks just as I was vacating for the new owners. I learned a great deal from both of my guests, but I failed to find a new home before I had to leave the one where the three of us were powwowing. So, I hit the road with my seven birds and two dogs in my tiny RAV4. All I saw for thousands of miles were silos and railcars saying ADM. It was an eerie experience. If one flies somewhere and connects with locals, one quickly finds the health foods stores and restaurants, but if you drive on highways in the U.S., it is white bread all the way. Even the rice in Chinese restaurants tastes like fluoride and aluminum. I felt I was being poisoned and had no idea until then how challenging it is for many people to eat decent and nutritious food.
So, we are basically dependent on those who will grow our food for us or we have to grow some of it ourselves. I have tried to put into practice what I have learned which is actually very little so far, but it's all interesting and enriching. For instance, to hold the moisture in the soil and prevent disturbance, I planted various types of ground covers. Some have flowers and some don't. The ajuga is very happy and the bees like it, but it doesn't really look like it wants feet on it. Thyme also has tiny flowers and even the Scotch moss has some itsy bitsy flowers and bees find them. All of these are so much more beautiful than grass. They smell wonderful when you touch them and no mowing is required so it's calmer and more interesting to observe. Also, there must be just enough aromatic oils to repel most insects so the beetles, ants, and other terrors leave these plants alone. That means that when you plant these under something else, it keeps away the insects that crawl on the ground.
People who have been gardening for years probably know a lot more than I do but unless one gardens in a conscious way, some lessons may have slipped by without registering on the psyche. I have traveled a lot and lived in many different climatic zones so I have a broad view but not the same kind of expertise someone has who has lived in the same area since birth. This said, permaculture methods can be used anywhere and it seems to take three to five years to stabilize. Initially, I was doing really well but we have had two exceptionally cold summers now. The temperature hit 80 for the second time this year on Saturday. Yesterday was so windy that leaves blew off trees so it already looks like autumn, really challenging. For me, this means tweak, tweak, and tweak. Also, perhaps because I look through my windows rather than yours, I see which medicinal plants are thriving and which are not. This year, the immune boosting plants are not doing as well as the lymph cleansing plants. All of those are doing magnificently. The St. John's wort looks awesome also and I take that as a sign to flush out residues from contaminants in our food and water and maybe help with nervous depression. It's fascinating.
Last year, you remember, the wormwood looked really nice. It is doing almost nothing this year. It's alive but not apparently wanting to be noticed. Last year, I had terrible insect stings. I told you that I lanced the wheals and looked at the fluid and found blistered parasites in the fluid. These stinging creatures have not attacked this year and there is practically no wormwood. Countless years ago, I read that the cure is never more than six feet from where you are . . . if you would but recognize it. I might allow for a little more distance but this is a very special adventure so I enjoy sharing it with you.
Photo credit: Artemisia absinthium flowering tops
Ingrid Naiman, 5 September 2010, Poulsbo, Washington