Archive for September, 2012

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER (NOT)

A HUMBLING experience this week when a commercial strawberry grower in the neighbourhood invited us to come and pick our hearts out for a morning before he destroyed his crop.

The strawberry harvest has been a bumper this year, so there’s a glut, hence low prices make them uneconomical for our neighbour to pick and send to market. All that planting, tending, watering, watching, growing and blooming – for nothing.

We have luscious fruit for desserts, breakfast bowls, pavlovas, strawberry milkshakes, smoothies, tarts and jam.

But the grower has nothing. Just bills, disappointment, dismay at market forces that punish him  – and others like him-  for doing too good a job. And uncertainty where to go from here.

We probably won’t again see his stretch of neat rows of ripening strawberry vines  when we pass by,  more’s the pity for us.

The laws of supply and demand rule in economies and a surplus of commodity for the market wanting to buy it forces prices down. I get that. But I am sick that powerful supermarket chains can dictate abysmally low prices for their suppliers. And am saddened that people see the 90c a punnet prices there and won’t pay $3 or even $2 for the same at smaller outlets, a price which more accurately reflects the sweat and time the crop cost the growers and which they can reasonably expect to deserve.

I hear elsewhere the same is happening for other food like potatoes and carrots; growers of beautiful produce ploughing it back into the soil because picking and getting it to market won’t return their costs, let alone make them a profit.

Someone is sure to comment that the alternative to this free market operative is protectionism and that does industry efficiency no good in the long term. But I know many people who would gladly pay more than $2  for two litres of milk and $3 or $4 for a punnet of beautiful local strawberries if it kept the farmers in business. The alternative scenario  is importing everything cheaper from who knows where and grown under who knows what conditions.  That scares me.

But on a happier berry note, our own mulberry tree bore plentifully this year and I beat the marauding birds and flying foxes to the fruit this time. A healthy bowl full transformed into two jars of mulberry jam. I love fresh mulberries, but they are a messy fruit and the juice stains hang about for a while.

First crop of mulberries

I always think of my mother making us strip our backyard tree of fruit when mulberry season  came around, because the fruit bats used to feast on it and then poop all over her washing. The unripe specimens must have caused their digestive tracts some upset, because the mess on the sheets and towels on the clothesline was formidable.

Lovely friend and organic fruit tree grower Phil Ryan gave me this hint about keeping the mulberry tree in an attractive umbrella shape and preventing the boughs from getting too tall. I tie bricks or large shards of terracotta to hang off the longer branches,

Mulberry tree shaped by weights on branches

weighing them down and forcing them to grow horizontally rather than vertically. Result is a pleasing shaped tree and I can reach all the fruit without too much stretching.

SPRING ROLL

I often underestimate my garden. I see profusion of colour and blooms in other’s and think mine deficient. This week when I had to gather a spring collection vase for Garden Club, I suffered the usual self-doubt. ” I don’t have enough; I wont be able to make a decent display etc” .

But walking around the yard, I found gathering a bit of everything in flower made up more than a handsome vasefull. It didn’t win the club’s monthly  bench competition, but I was pretty pleased with my assembly and even if it wasn’t in true florist formation, it was a wild and wonderful array of blooms that smelt a treat and reflected a sense of happy profusion  and excitement that spring always bring to mind.

My motley spring crew ready for judgement

I collected stalks of  scarlet and some white bougainvillea, abelia, tibouchina, clivia, white May ( spiraea),  seaside daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus ), a groundcover that is taking over my herb patch,  some bromeliad spikes,  nasturtiums and a couple of branches of grevillea for contrast. See pic left.

So a garden is the sum of its parts, see?

Next month the club is featuring hippeastrums. It will be tricky because mine are flowering right now, but may not be in four weeks, when they need to make the grade.   I have a stack along the driveway  and in pots, a legacy from a friend who was rebuilding her patio area a few years ago and discarding them by the truckload.

Red hippeastrum opening for business

I think I have about 40, but wish now I had grabbed the same number again. I love watching them push up through the ground and open up in all their red and variegated splendour. They don’ t flower for long, but they are a magnificent sight. If ever you doubt there is a master architect at work in nature, just gaze into a hippeastrum bloom. The structure and colour and intricacy of shape and texture is truly ( and I hate this over-used word, but appropriate here) awesome.

Show stealers; variegated hippeastrums

Hippeastrum means literally  “horse’s star”. It is a genus in the family Amaryllidaceae with 70-75 species and more than 600 hybrids and cultivars. The genus is native to tropical regions of the Caribbean, Mexico and South America.  If I can just make them prolong their show this month, I am sure to impress at the next club show and tell.

Happy gardening this lovely spring.

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WHAT’S THE BUZZ

IT goes without saying that someone like me, who blogs about gardening, gets a buzz out of working in the soil, growing things and being among plants.

Therein lies the rub. On  walks around my garden early mornings this week, there was a noticeable lack of buzz – that is, bees.

There were a few on the nasturtiums and on the blossom of the Indian hawthorne, some hovering around the abelia ( honeysuckle) and callistemons, but none elsewhere. Nature is essentially  about the birds and the bees, so felt somewhat unbalanced with my discovery.

I was on a search mission,  having recently watched a disturbing film about the disappearing honey bees in the US, attributed to hive collapse. The cause is the use of pesticides in vast tracts of mono culture, which the bees are picking up when collecting pollen on sprayed crops, carrying back to their hives and infecting and distorting the tracking systems of the developing young bees there. Once these affected bees leave the hive,  they can’t find their way back  – and disappear.

In the millions.

The situation there is frightening because bees—beyond producing honey—are prime pollinators of roughly one-third of the crop species in the U.S., including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. Massive loss of honey bees could result in billions of dollars in agricultural losses. There are now not enough honey bees in the US to pollinate the orchards for food production, so they are importing bees from Australia.

It was a distressing story, not just for the plight of  beekeepers whose livelihoods are being destroyed, but for the long term food production.  If we don’t maintain and support good bee population, we cannot grow fruit and vegetables and will be mere producers of crops like wheat, oats, corn and rice. The rest we will have to import  – that is, providing it’s available from countries who don’t need it to feed their own.

As for anyone who has experienced an “Oh sh#*” moment, it was a breathtaking realisation. It also had me thinking how and what I should plant to encourage and support bees in my patch. I had always thought where there were flowers, there were bees, so presumed the amount of colour and bloom in my garden indicated a healthy level of buzz. Until I really started to listen and watch. And having discovered that I am bee-deficient – and for that matter,  bee-ignorant,  I thought I’d bone up on them some.

We have 10 major groups of  native bees in Australia – about 1500 species.  They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green, even black with blue polka dots. They can be fat and furry or sleek and shiny. The smallest is the Cape York quasihesma bee, less than 2mm long and the largest is the Great Carpenter bee which can be 24mm.

Commercial honey bees ( apis mellifera) are not native to Australia. They were introduced from Europe about 1822.

Stingless native bee trigona

Most Australian bees are solitary bees which raise their young in burrows in the ground or in tiny hollows in timber.The small black native honey bee, (Austroplebeia and Trigona) of which there are 10 species, are stingless. They live mostly in the warmer northern and eastern areas of the country.

They are brilliant in the garden and they produce honey. You can draw them in with things like rosemary, sage, asters, borage, goldenrod, thyme, mint chives, oregano, marjoram, black-eyed susans, lamb’s ears, granny’s bonnet (aquilegia vulgaris),  zinnia, salvia and coleus and snowstorm ( bacopa sutera cordata) – a little groundcover that never stops flowering – flowering fruit trees like apple, peach, avocado, orange and plum and flowering vegetables like pumpkin, melons, cucumber and squash. Stingless bee honey is a delicious bush food and stingless bees can be good crop pollinators, so they increase the security of food supply.

They like a diversity of bee-friendly flowers with large patches of each kind of flower. So to bring more into your garden, plant several of each type of plant close together rather than planting them singly or spread out. Plant flowers that bloom at different times so you have pollen and nectar sources during all the seasons. Leave dead branches for bees to colonise and allow weeds like dandelions and white clover to flower.  You can pull them up before they go to seed. Place shallow pans of water about. Bees need to drink and bird baths are too deep.

Honey bees love snowstorm

Granny’s bonnet attracts honey bees

The Australian native blue-banded bees ( Amegilla) have distinctive  glittering stripes of blue or whitish hair across their black abdomens. They are  an especially efficient pollinator, as they perform a special “buzz pollination” .

Blue-banded bee approaches a tomato flower

Where flowers hide their pollen inside tiny capsules, a blue-banded bee can grasp it and shiver her flight muscles, causing the pollen to shoot out of the capsule. She then collects the pollen for her nest and carries it from flower to flower, pollinating them as she goes. Blue-banded bees will ensure any plant you grow in the tomato family – chilli, eggplant, capsicum and tomato – will set fruit, so they are  a great asset in the food garden. And many Australian native flowers, such as hibbertia and senna, need buzz pollination to reproduce, so they are a vital part of our native bushland.

To lure the blue-banded bees, plant begonias, lavenders, abelias and antirrhinums ( snapdragons – remember squeezing them to snap the dragon’s mouth?), tradescantia pallida (purple hearts) and a tufted succulent bulbine frutescens. 

Snapdragons a blue-banded bee lure

Blue-banded bees love lavender

One native species  – I know I have it because it leaves its calling card – the leaf cutter bee ( Megachile), makes neat circular cuts in rose, buddleja and bauhinia leaves, where they have taken the material to build their nests.

Leafcutter bee at work on a bauhinia bush

Disturbingly – and this is what put the bee in my bonnet, so to speak,  after watching the plight of the US hives – our bees to are susceptible to chemical pesticides applied within several hundred metres of their home and foraging environment.

Imidacloprid, an effective nerve poison, patented by Bayer Cropsciences, has been banned from sale and use in Holland, Germany and France and on Long Island USA, for its harmful effect on the bees, but is widely used elsewhere in the U.S. In Australia, it is used as a seed dressing (Gaucho) and as a foliar spray ( Confidore)  for control of red-legged earth mite and blue oat mite in canola crops.

Farmers claim its use has increased their yields by up to 74 per cent. The pressure to keep this high yield increases as the demand from Europe for bio-diesel, using Australian-grown canola, climbs. Australia was set this year to plant its biggest ever crop of canola  – an increase of 10 percent on last year.

Imidacloprid is also used in flea and tick collars for dogs and cats, in  solutions  for termite control and across the counter treatment for everything from lawn grubs to azalea lace bugs, aphids and thrips.

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was on the money when he said:  “Science never solves a problem without creating 10 more.

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