New Year

This between time is a rare chance to catch up with some thoughts, and both reflect on the previous year and look forward to the one coming. The more I read/hear/watch about the world we are living in, the more I keep reverting to a stance of resilience and working with natural systems rather than going against them either from ease or some sense of needing or executing more than is naturally possible. This collaborative approach is how I work with my bees, and this year I am also going to relate this to my garden and apiary. I have always been happy to let things run a bit wild and jungly, but I am going to apply a bit more intention to how I manage my plants and soil in order to both maximise its productivity and potential for wildlife and my bees.

I have free-range chickens in my garden, so I have to be very selective about how I grow plants, and which are most suited to such a punishing environment! One thing that has worked well in the past few years is to train squashes and other curcubits up and over the coops, growing the plants in bags of composted bedding from the hens. I like this permaculture approach as it provides shade for the chooks during the summer, uses the arisings from mucking them out in a productive way, and the flowers from these plants provide valuable nectar and pollen; all this before you even get to the fruits themselves and their parasite-preventing seeds.

Comfrey is another great plant as it provides the most abundant flowers, the hens will eat the seeds and leaves, and being so deep-rooted, is mineral-rich and nutritious. Nutrition is something I will be focussing on with my bee planting this year, as it is something we don’t necessarily think of but is of course extremely important for colony health. It’s a bit of a thug but you can hack it back on frequent basis.

I love sweet peas but trying to train them up any sort of structure becomes a magnet for investigative chickens, so I grow them in the borders, letting them trail through the perennials and cutting them as I find them to perfume the house. Tempting though it is to binge on new plants at a garden centre, the truth is that it is far far better for the environment and the plants themselves to take cuttings, divisions, or sow from seed.

I am buying my seed from Seed Co-operative this year, as the production methods and marketing of the seed produced by the big manufacturers is about as far from permaculture as can be. As we so often find, in trying to do the “right thing” we end up supporting industries who are actually nearer the other end of our good intentions spectrum. Think of the impact buying bee-friendly plants from a large horticultural business using heated and irrigated greenhouses, peat compost, plastic pots and labels, shipping, distributed via centres hugely subsidised by the cafe, trinkets, resin garden ornaments in the name of wanting to help bees. We all do it, but I am really trying to rein in that urge this year. Open pollinated seed means they are cross-pollinated naturally out in the open, and consequently have more genetic diversity, and the seed can be saved. If you continue to sow your saved seed, your own personal population will begin to develop, far more resilient and capable in your garden than anything you could buy from Thompson and Morgan. It is only relatively recently that we have become so dependent on national suppliers for these things, so perhaps it is just reminding ourselves that we can do what our grandparents did?

Another nod to permaculture is that I keep rabbits and guinea pigs to work in the garden (although I don’t eat them!). My ground is so uneven it’s difficult to mow and they are my lawnmowers – it’s great as they work round bulbs in the lawn so I can keep my daffodils and crocus flowering but the grass gets a trim. They also do a fantastic job with brambles and apple tree prunings, although the guineas will tackle buttercup and the bunnies won’t, and of course they love vegetable peelings. I grow willow for its early pollen, but the sappy young branches make fabulous protective structures for plants as they are growing, and I can cut thicker bits for the small furries so they can chew the bark and keep their teeth in good shape. Willow, like comfrey, is robust and difficult to kill so I use that habit to my advantage. Guinea and rabbit bedding makes brilliant compost as it is less hot than chicken manure. I get rescue rabbits and guineas as so many need homes, and often live a miserable life with no access to grazing or sunshine. I’m not suggesting you should get a pet furry but I think if we can utilise what we have to serve a purpose which benefits both us, the environment and the animal instead of seeing everything as separate, it’s a good thing to do.

This year I will be growing squashes in the homemade compost bags, topped up with worm casts from my Worm Cafe (that is vermiculture – don’t be alarmed!), and sweet peas in the borders. I will try some climbing beans on the chicken coops too. My raspberries are free-ranging and they do very well, but as most of the flowering plants I have are perennials, I will be making divisions and allowing them to self-seed, and see what pops up.

Please remember that bare earth between plants or on veg beds, despite its perceived desirability, is absolutely NOT an aspiration from a soil health point of view, so save your back and your precious substrate by growing cover crops and green manures. Many of them are beneficial pollen plants if you let them flower.

More information and discussion about this can be found on my new course, Gardening for Bees and Wildlife. See the “Courses” section on this site for details. Remember that those of you who are Wayward Bee Academicians get any of my courses for half price…

Happy New Year! Thank you for your continued support, comments and follows 🙂

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