I am severely allergic to bee venom, so I’ve always been careful when gardening to stay out of the flower beds during the times of day when bees are most active. Sadly, that’s been easy to do this year because there are no bees in my garden, save for some tiny, tiny bees that my grandma used to call “sweat bees.” There are no honeybees or bumblebees, just a lot of large scary-looking brown wasps that, like cockroaches, look as though they could survive an apocalypse.
Perhaps we are on the brink of one now. As gardeners, we see changes in nature up close in ways that others don’t. I can tell you (and I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too) that seven years ago our gardens were filled with bees and butterflies. In that short time, both have all but disappeared. Many of the gardeners I know are saying the same thing and, without exception, our talks reflect a growing mix of sadness and worry about the future. It’s one thing to read an article about how vital pollinators are to food production and quite another to walk out the back door to find normally bountiful tomato, cucumber and squash plants nearly devoid of fruit. Leaves for dinner again, anyone?
If you have ever thought about getting into beekeeping, now is the time to start. Ordinances vary by city and state, but in Minneapolis, beekeeping has been legal since 2009 and it really took off this year in May when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier for urban beekeepers to get permits. Ever since then, more and more bee boxes have been buzzing on rooftops across the city, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Weisman Art Museum.
Under the new ordinance, would-be beekeepers still need to get permission from the city to keep bees. But hives can now be installed on rooftops taller than one story without approval from neighboring property owners. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that required beekeepers to get permission from 80 percent of the neighbors within 250 feet. (To put that in perspective, in densely packed downtown, that could mean having to collect over 100 signatures.)
Honeybees are not aggressive, and backyard hives can be managed safely by trained homeowners. But rooftops are an attractive option for urban bees and their keepers because bees tend to fly up and out when exiting their boxes, lessening interaction with people down below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow beekeeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/) aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.
Citizen beekeepers to the rescue
The Bee Squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows homeowners and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves if they would prefer not to. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Those who want to manage their own hives can receive at-home training from a Bee Squad mentor through the Home Apiary Help program. Or, for a lesser fee, homeowners can attend training sessions at the Mentoring Apiary on the University’s St. Paul campus. (Additional information on both programs can be found here: (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/beekeepers/index.htm.)
If you’re asking yourself whether you really need training to keep bees, the answer is yes. Masterman explains: “Keeping bees is really hard. It is both an art and a science, and there is no way to learn to do it right from a book or a weekend class. It really helps to have somebody next to you watching and guiding you as you learn.” So, for the sake of the bees, and yourself and your neighbors, please take the time to understand what you’re doing before rushing into beekeeping.
I’m late, late, late with a post on new plants coming out this year. Sorry about that. It keeps slipping my mind because it’s still quite cold and rainy here in Minnesota even though we’re well into June now, so going to the garden center hasn’t been high on my list. I do think I’ll go this weekend, though, and here are some of the new things this year that I’m planning to try if I can find them.
Oso Happy® Smoothie Rose (Rosa Oso Happy Smoothie ‘Zlesak Poly3’ PPAF)
Bred by David Zlesak, a Minnesota-based plant breeder, hort professor and all around wonderful guy, Oso Happy Smoothie almost seems too good to be true. But it isn’t, and I know because I’m one of the lucky writers who got to test this Proven Winners introduction in my gardens last summer. Hardy, THORNLESS and resistant to black spot, this diminutive rose grows to 3 feet tall and offers up bright pink single blooms from June until frost. Mine still looked fantastic at Halloween, planted in a protected spot near the house. Sadly, the rabbits ate it over the winter and now I need a new one that I will definitely fence this fall. Full sun. Zones 4 – 9.
Brunnera ‘Sea Heart’ (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’)
Plants Nouveau is behind this pretty new brunnera, which their website touts as “Like ‘Jack Frost’, but on steroids’, which sounds creepy, honestly. But they go on to explain that in a side-by-side test with ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Sea Hart’ flowered longer and better handled the heat and humidity. Sounds good, and the pink and blue blooms look lovely, too. I’ll always make room for brunneras. Full sun to full shade. Zones 4 to 8.
Heuchera Little Cutie™ Series
Terra Nova Nurseries introduced its mini coral bells series, Little Cutie, exclusively last summer. So I’m calling these plants new in 2013 because they are now much more widely available. The series includes seven petite, new heucheras, all bred for their outstanding colors, including ‘Blondie’, ‘Coco’, ‘Frost’, Ginger Snap’, Peppermint’, ‘Sugar Berry’ and ‘Sweet Tart’. Drought-tolerant and easy going as long as they’re planted in well-drained soil, these Little Cutie coral bells look best when grown in rock gardens or spots where they won’t get lost among larger plants. They also make great container plants, providing you heel them in before winter. Full sun to part shade. Zones 4 to 9 (depending on the variety).
Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’
I added hardy hibiscus to my gardens a few years back and they never fail to stop passersby who want to know, “What are those beautiful, exotic-looking plants?” ‘Midnight Marvel’ from Walters Gardens kicks things up a notch with this hibiscus, which grows to 48 inches tall and offers dark black-burgundy foliage with gorgeous red blooms that last from mid-summer to fall. Full sun. Zones 4 – 9.
Wisteria ‘Betty Matthews’ (Wisteria macrostachya ‘Betty Matthews’ Summer Cascade)
I stupidly bought a Japanese wisteria years ago that never blooms and will likely never, ever bloom in our climate. So I’m going to euthanize the poor thing in a couple of weeks and replace it with this new variety from Bailey Nursery. Touted as being fragrant and more reliably cold hardy than other wisterias, ‘Betty Mathews’ has showy, dark-lavender blooms that are said to appear on new growth in early June. Once the flowers fade, cool-looking seedpods form in late summer and last into winter. Heck, I’ll try it. Full sun. Zones 4 – 8.
Pros weigh in on the best plants and gardening practices for our changing climate.
Extreme Gardening, that’s the name of the reality TV show someone really ought to make about what it’s like to be a northern gardener. We’re already well known for our ability to cope with short growing seasons while making sensible, hardy plant choices and coping with dreadful-sounding issues like frost heave and snow mold. Now, climate trends indicate that we must add excessive heat, humidity, drought and torrential “rain events” to our list of things to think about before putting trowel to dirt. Surely all of that adds up to enough adversity, struggle and tears to make a successful show, right?
As you no doubt have noticed, our climate is changing. In January, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2012 was the world’s 10th warmest year since 1880. Closer to home, 2012 was the warmest on record for the United States and the third warmest for Minnesota. But increasing average temperatures are not the only climate trend affecting our region. According to University of Minnesota Climatologist Mark Seeley, the average number of days with a high dew point in also increasing, and we are also experiencing changes in the amount and type of rainfall we get.
Annual precipitation has increased over the last several decades and is expected to continue to do so. Heavy rain that sometimes leads to flooding is becoming more common. Yet between these events, we are experiencing long periods of drought. Complicating matters further is the rate at which changes are happening, Seeley says. Because it is possible temperatures may rise faster than we, or nature, can adapt.Read More»
It’s spring in Minnesota and that means male frogs and toads are out singing sweet songs to all the ladies. My husband Mike and I were fortunate enough to come upon a wetland filled with song the other day while on a walk with our dog, Lily. We recorded what we heard and posted it so you can enjoy it too.
A few weeks back I did a short presentation in Pine City, Minn., on how to build good, healthy soil, and a woman in the audience asked: “How do I know if the compost I’m using is safe?”
I’ve been wondering that same thing, I told her, explaining that I’ve been researching the topic so I have some answers, but many more questions, too. This prompted more people to weigh in on the subject, asking: Was it important to use organic compost, especially when growing edibles? How do you know that even organic compost is safe?
Does composted manure from conventional farmers contain pesticide and herbicide residue that could cause problems in their gardens? Should you have compost tested to find out what’s in it before you use it on food crops and, if so, where? And what about GMOs? Is it safe to use composted manure produced on conventional farms on which cows eat things like Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa?
Complex questions like these are difficult to answer definitively for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there aren’t many studies, if any, on a particular topic. Or maybe there are numerous seemingly reputable studies, but many of them conflict with one another. For example, as a journalist who interviews people for a living, I can tell you that for every scientist I’ve talked to who dismisses the French study that came out last year linking a genetically-modified strain of maize to huge tumors in rats, I’ve got another scientist saying the study should be given serious consideration.Read More»