For moms everywhere, the last year has been a tremendous challenge. In addition to juggling the routine demands of family life, many were called upon to manage daily child-care duties and the ups and downs of remote learning all while trying to hold down their own jobs. Mother’s Day, May 9th, is a terrific time to show your Mom a whole lot of love and appreciation. Scroll below, and you’ll find a broad array of botanically inspired gifts. (For order deadlines for all of our Mother’s Day gifts, click here).
1. Lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ in Pendu Pot
2. Burgundy Compact Moth Orchids in 5″ Ceramic Cachepot
3. Lavender Fields Wreath
4. Grace Bouquet
5. Serenity Bouquet
When in Doubt, Delight Mom With a Gift Certificate to White Flower Farm
If you’re not certain what your Mom might like most for Mother’s Day, you can always delight her with a gift certificate to White Flower Farm. Our gift certificates never expire, and they invite your Mom to choose whatever she’d might like from our wide array of garden plants, houseplants, garden decor, decorative accessories and gift items. A gift certificate also welcomes her to White Flower Farm, where our knowledgeable, friendly staff will be happy to answer her garden questions. Gift certificates valued at $50 and more are 10% off. Click here to order.
When it comes to growing tomatoes, it seems every gardener has an opinion about how to get the biggest and best harvest. A recent staff discussion focused on techniques for amending the soil prior to planting tomatoes. The idea is to give the plants all the nutrients they need to produce a bumper crop of tasty fruits, a practice that’s particularly important for gardeners whose plots are smaller in scale or whose properties make it difficult to rotate planting beds.
Last year, one of our staff members did a good deal of poking around on the Web, which, while sometimes a hazardous pursuit, inspired her to try some traditional but more recently underused ideas. She decided to take a few chances with amendments that are more common to the kitchen waste bin or compost heap than the nearest big box store. The result? She enjoyed her highest yields ever on a varied crop of tomatoes that ran the gamut from cherries and paste tomatoes to slicers and beefsteaks. She feasted on salads, BLTs, gazpacho, and stuffed tomatoes all summer and still had plenty of beautiful, ripe fruits for making sauce and roasting tomato wedges with basil (for a bruschetta topping). She froze chopped tomatoes to use in soups and chili recipes, and froze tomato sauce, as well as the aforementioned bruschetta topping. (We’ll be running these recipes later in the season.) Needless to say, she made some of us a little jealous with her wintertime lunches. Determined to enjoy similar results and to share her rediscovered techniques with you, we ran her list of amendments by our nursery manager Barb Pierson, another champion tomato grower. Pierson applauded some of our adventurous colleague’s amendments but voiced concerns about others. What to do? We thought it best to set it all down, and let you make your own decisions based on circumstances in your own backyard.
Soil Amendments Used Successfully by Our Adventurous Colleague
Since Tomato plants are deep-rooted heavy feeders and thrive in highly organic soils, the ground must be well prepared with nutrients to sustain them throughout the growing season, optimizing growth and fruit development. Everyone has their own recipe for improving soil with organic matter, but here’s what our adventurous colleague tried with great results:
She dug deep holes (at least 15” deep, if possible. Note: this is not the depth for planting a tomato but rather it’s a hole deep enough to accommodate the amendments before planting). Into the hole, she added the following:
Fish heads (or frozen fish fillets, if you can’t get fish heads): Put 1 fish head or the equivalent in the bottom of each hole. You also can add a handful of fish and kelp meal to help boost the nutrients.
Crushed eggshells: These add calcium to prevent blossom end rot. Throw a couple of handfuls in each hole.
Bone meal: This promotes strong root growth and abundant blooms. Add a handful to each hole.
Composted manure: This provides a slow release of nutrients over the growing season. Add a couple of handfuls to each hole.
Compost: It will add basic nutrients and improve soil structure so the soil drains well yet retains some moisture. Add 2-3 handfuls in each hole.
Please note that the 15” hole will be partially filled with the amendments, which should then be partially buried by some of the soil in your garden (think of the hole as a big mixing bowl). This process of amending can be done prior to planting your tomatoes when the soil temperature is still on the cool side.
Pierson does not recommend fish heads or bone meal because “they would attract critters and most likely your plant will be dug up.” (It should be noted that a family of raccoons in the neighborhood of our adventurous colleague left her tomato plants alone, but depending on how many critters live in your area and how well your vegetable garden is fenced, you may wish to select and tailor your amendments accordingly.)
Pierson agrees that compost and eggshells add beneficial nutrients to the soil, but she isn’t sure the quantity of eggshells noted above would be enough to provide calcium throughout the season. Perhaps the thinking should be that that every little bit helps.
Pierson ends by saying, “Preparing the soil should focus on: Did you have problems the previous season? And practicing good sanitation [i.e. disposing of plants and clearing the garden beds] at the end of the season so that disease issues don’t start again. Moving your garden location is essential if problems were severe.”
But the main thing Pierson stresses for successful tomato harvest is soil texture. “Soil texture is important – turning the soil, adding high quality potting mix and focusing on drainage are very important. Roots need air to breath and to take up nutrients, compost creates air pockets in the soil. Having a light well-drained soil is the most important thing.”
So there you have it. An array of options, some or all of which are bound to improve your tomato yield. Our best advice is to take into account the conditions in your backyard and vegetable patch, and choose the amendments that work best for you. Some trial and error may be required, but that’s just the way things go in a garden. As Pierson put it, “I like the idea of trying things, that is what growing is all about. There are no right or wrong answers, only what works for you in your particular environment.”
Its graceful 2-3′ stems bear masses of 2½″ flowers all summer, in an extraordinary shade of lavender blue. An outstanding middle of the border plant with Achillea, Alchemilla, Alstroemeria, Antirrhinum, and Astrantia.
Also knows as Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is one of our favorites because of its upright habit and good manners. It forms neat clumps of foliage 18–24″ tall. In June, the toasty brown, feathery flower spikes rise up to 5′ or more. By August they are narrow shafts of a buff color. Consider summer and fall-blooming perennials as companions: Achillea, Rudbeckia, Helenium, Asters, Monarda, Perovskia, Phlox, and Oriental Lilies.
The Black-eyed Susan, is a glorious and traditional highlight of summer. While the native plant is enchanting, ‘Goldsturm’ improves upon an already good thing by providing more and bigger flowers in a consistent bright golden yellow on upright plants that reach 40″. Plant with Salvia, Phlox, Asters, or Perovskia.
Topping out at 30-36″, this hardy, compact Russian Sage is a great choice for anyone whose garden is too small for the original Perovskia atriplicifolia which can grow to 3-4′ tall. Stems of silver-green foliage with small purple flowers erupt in a lilac haze in midsummer and the color lasts until fall. Companions include: Hydrangea, Salvia, Phlox, & Echinacea.
We find real value in this popular variety. The petals are an especially vibrant carmine-rose shade and are held almost horizontally, making a more open face than the shuttlecock shape of the species. Lovely with the blue wands of Perovskia.
Every garden needs a sampling of easy-care, late-season stars to maximize the season of bloom and carry the garden into fall. A number of the plants on our Late Season Interest Plants page also provide essential food for pollinators, who need nourishment and support as the season nears its end.
Need a shrub or two to complete your late season garden? Hydrangeas are at their best in summer and fall—a quiet time for most woody plants—and are worth having for that reason alone. You’ll find the full range of Hydrangeas we offer here.
One of our favorite sights and scents in the garden is the yearly parade of Peony flowers that happens each June at the farm in Morris, CT. These gorgeous, and often fragrant, plants are very easy to grow. Below you’ll find some basic information about Peonies along with keys to success that will help you grow your best Peonies ever.
What’s the difference between Herbaceous Peonies and Tree Peonies?
Herbaceous Peonies naturally die back to the ground in fall. Tree Peonies, which aren’t “trees” but shrubs, have a woody structure that remains above ground through the plant’s dormant period. The woody trunk and branches should never be pruned to the ground.
How deep should Peonies be planted?
Herbaceous Peonies that are planted too deep will fail to bloom. If you are planting a potted Peony (one that has top growth), set it in a hole so it sits at the same level it’s at in the pot. (In other words, do not sink the plant so deeply that soil must be mounded against the stems.) If you’re planting a bareroot Peony (a bareroot is just what it sounds like: a section of the plant’s rootstock with bare roots and “eyes” or growing buds), dig a shallow hole and arrange the crown so the growing buds or “eyes” are facing upward and are covered by only 1–2″ of soil in the North, barely 1″ in the South. (See diagram below for how to plant a bareroot Herbaceous Peony.)
When should I stake my Peonies?
Double-flowered Peonies (which have layers of petals so the blossoms tend to be fuller and heavier than Singles) generally need staking. Set the stakes and string in place when plants are a few inches tall, so they’ll grow into and hide the framework.
Are ants bad for my Peonies?
As Peonies produce flower buds, you may see ants crawling on the unopened buds. The ants do no harm. They simply like a sticky substance that covers the buds.
What if I see black leaves on my Peony plant?
In a wet season, botrytis, a type of fungal disease, may blacken the flower buds
and cause stems or leaves to wilt. Promptly remove and dispose of any infected plant parts. Clean up all foliage in the fall and place in the trash, not the compost. (Ridding your property of any diseased foliage will help prevent the disease from wintering over and returning the following year.)
What can I plant with my Peonies?
Peonies are exceptionally long-lived, and even after bloom, they provide a mound of handsome foliage that adds structure and presence to borders and beds. Allowing for good air circulation, plant Peonies with Baptisia, Nepeta, Clematis, Roses, and Siberian Irises for a glorious June show.
Woodland Strawberries are about the smallest you will find. But don’t let their diminutive size fool you. These oblong berries, each about the size of a small almond, pack a remarkable amount of flavor, a burst of true, scrumptious Strawberry that puts the taste of many bigger berries to shame. You won’t find woodland Strawberries at the grocery store for the simple reason that they don’t keep. They should be picked when deep red and ripe, and eaten right away. At the farm, we love the variety called ‘Red Wonder,’ which produces intensely flavorful berries all season long.
‘Red Wonder’ also has great value as a garden plant. It does not produce runners, which are common to many Strawberry plants. Instead, it grows in neat, low mounds. Strawberry ‘Red Wonder’ flowers all season long, but in a very hot summer, it may take a break before blooming again as the nights cool down.
Tree Peonies are magnificent, long-lived woody shrubs that no garden should be without. Some varieties reach 4–5′ in height, and plants are capable of bearing fragrant flowers up to 10″ in diameter from mid to late spring. Tree Peonies are disease resistant, and deer generally leave them alone. These treasured plants are also great for cold climates. Most of the varieties we offer can be grown in regions that get as cold in winter as Zone 4. Not sure what your zone is? Click here to find out.
Where do Tree Peonies come from?
Tree Peonies, also known as Moutan, are native to China. Dating back to the 6th century, they were originally grown for medicinal purposes. They are widely used today because these hardy shrubs produce exquisite floral displays.
Where to plant your Tree Peony?
Plant Tree Peonies in fertile, well-drained soil with a neutral pH of 6.5-7. To prevent the peony root from rotting, avoid planting in a soggy area or an area that has standing water for any length of time.
Although Tree Peonies will thrive in the full sun, the large silky flowers will fade quickly. Light shade from hot afternoon sun is necessary to protect the flowers, and in China and Japan, small parasols are set over the plants to block the sun’s rays. We suggest growing Tree Peonies in filtered sunlight or an eastern exposure that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. Growth will be a bit slower than in the full sun, but the flowers will last longer, especially in the South and warm areas of western Zone 9. Tree Peonies require a year or two to mature, but they are more than worth the wait.
How deep should I plant a Tree Peony?
How do I protect my Tree Peony flowers?
Light shade from hot afternoon sun is necessary to protect the flowers, and in China and Japan small parasols are set over the plants to block the sun. If you don’t have the parasols or the time to create shade for your plants, choose a planting site that will be protected against drying winds in summer and winter and will receive afternoon shade.
How often should I water my Tree Peony?
Tree Peonies are very drought tolerant once established. Do not overwater and do not plant near an automatic irrigation system. Wait until the soil has dried down to 4″ before watering deeply. Watering too much will kill the roots and is a common reason for failure.
Should I prune my Tree Peony?
Never prune Tree Peonies back to the ground as is done with Herbaceous Peonies. Prune out any damaged or broken stems after plants leaf out. Once your plant has some age and is growing vigorously, you may want to open up the center a bit to encourage flowering on the taller stems and increase air circulation. Tree Peonies are grafted onto Herbaceous Peony roots and occasionally a shoot from the rootstock will arise from the base of the plant. These should be removed immediately.
The very word Daffodil is magic, for these rugged and cheerful blooms are the first major flowers of spring, and they light up the landscape on even the dreariest day. Many gardeners know the familiar yellow Trumpet forms but have yet to encounter the many and varied shapes, sizes, and colors now available in the genus.
Daffodils (also known as Narcissus) possess three enormously valuable attributes that contribute to their vast popularity.
They will thrive in almost any location that offers decent drainage and half a day of sun, and will actually reproduce spontaneously in a site they like. Most strains are reliably hardy from Zones 3–7, with numerous forms, including the fragrant Paperwhites that prosper in Zones 8–10.
They are extremely long-lived in any setting, making them ideal for long-term and naturalized plantings, where they often outlive the proprietor.
Daffodils are immune to disease and pests, INCLUDING DEER WHICH WILL NOT TOUCH THEM.
Daffodils bloom reliably each year, and many hardy varieties can also be successfully forced indoors—a lost art we hope to encourage.
Keys to Success with Daffodils
Fertilize: The best time to fertilize bulbs is in the fall. The next best time is in early spring, just as the foliage begins to emerge.
Leave the leaves alone: Allow the foliage to mature after bloom. Do not cut, braid, fold, or mow the leaves. Remove only after they turn brown.
Garden Design Ideas for Daffodils
Plant Daffodil bulbs in a woodland garden that is sunny until the trees leaf out.
Tuck bulbs between the crowns of Daylilies or other perennials in a mixed border, where the leaves of perennials will hide the fading Daffodil foliage.
Most of us think about our gardens and outdoor spaces with a keen eye toward how they look during the day. This year, we’ve been thinking of more ways to make our gardens shine in the evening hours.
The first item to think about is outdoor lighting for your plants, and we’ve got several ideas for you to choose. Then there are the plants themselves to consider, and we have a list of those too. We refer to them as Moon Garden plants, and have chosen them specifically because they are gorgeous during the day, and have an enchanting glow at night.
Having spent four plus decades in the world of plants, I am familiar with honey bees as companions in my garden, orchard, meadow, and, briefly, in a pair of poorly managed hives near our house. Their background murmuring and frenetic activity on warm days are a central part of the sights, scents and sounds that constitute nature as experienced in a temperate climate. Or, to be more accurate, they were.
With my son taking over our small plant nursery in northwest Connecticut, I was looking for a way to keep busy and stay out of his way during the six months each year that I live on the property. Like most Americans, I’ve been uneasily aware of declining bee populations and a related phenomenon called “Colony Collapse Disorder” for some years and lazily linked the reports to a combination of habitat decline, agricultural chemicals, and climate change. Since the former two scarcely exist in our area, and the latter has so far produced mainly milder winters here, and because bees’ seasonal pattern is much like mine (active outdoors mainly above 50 degrees), the idea of keeping some hives to produce and sell both bees and honey became compelling and even seemed mildly rational. Perhaps there was a genuine opportunity for doing well while doing good, sustaining a family business while supporting the population of a crucial pollinator of crops and gardens and the only producer of harvestable quantities of honey. That’s when my homework began.
Honey bees (properly known as Apis mellifera) are not native to the Americas whose abundant pre-colonial flora was for eons pollinated by a wide range of insects including solitary bees (they don’t form colonies), plus moths, wasps, butterflies, and countless other genera for whom the sugary nectar of flowers is an important food source. When Europeans brought the first honey bees, they were seeking an inexpensive sweetener, wax for candles, and a pollinator to boost the yields of their fields and orchards. In the ensuing five centuries, honey bees found their way into every corner of the Americas that provided enough rainfall for plants to grow and a tolerable winter through which they could sustain themselves by their uncanny ability to cluster together and generate heat by metabolizing their stored honey. Those conditions are available in a large percentage of both Americas, and the bees promptly escaped their colonial masters and went native, presumably displacing some indigenous competitors whose declines are not recorded.
The diaspora of hive bees into the countryside didn’t diminish the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers who preferred to secure honey by raiding their own hives rather than searching out and extracting wild colonies in the forest. The job of beekeeper was made infinitely easier by an American beekeeper (and minister) named L.L. Langstroth whose studies determined that it was possible to create a space that encouraged bees to form their comb (the wax network of receptacles in which they raise their young and store their honey) in discrete segments instead of a single mass. That insight, hatched in 1851, allowed the creation of hives using removable frames, permitting honey to be extracted without destroying the hives and often the tree cavity in which the hive was located. The Langstroth hive remains the basic technology of the bee industry to this day, a rare example of a design surviving the industrial revolution and the information revolution essentially unchanged. While there are modest variations in design and materials, the vast majority of domesticated bee colonies are thus housed to good effect. As we considered our path forward, this would surely have been our choice as well.
A bee colony is a miracle of social collaboration in which thousands of individuals, both males, known as drones and whose only role is reproduction, and females, known as workers, which organize to provide food and housing for an immensely productive queen bee and then for successive generations of her offspring. After a winter period of relative inactivity within the hive, a healthy colony can produce vast numbers of bees from newly laid eggs that develop through three stages to adult bees in roughly three weeks. These adults then set about gathering nectar and pollen to feed the colony, and caring for the queen. The adults themselves are short-lived, about a month for the workers and perhaps two for the drones, but the fantastic productivity of a healthy and well-fed hive can produce population increases that exceed the living space within a few weeks, causing the departure of part of the colony to find a new housing arrangement where they can establish a new queen and build a new colony. These swarms occur frequently and by anticipating and managing this process, a disciplined and observant beekeeper is able to create new colonies, increasing his collection of hives to either manage or sell to other keepers.
Established colonies have a second essential function beyond this abundant reproductive cycle, that being food gathering. Bees sustain themselves by collecting both nectar and pollen from blooming plants within in their foraging range (about 2½ miles from the hive). This activity has made them extremely valuable to mankind for two reasons. The first is that bees store their winter food supply in the form of honey which is essentially plant nectar from which the water content has been evaporated. Honey is an extraordinary substance, a richly flavored sweetener that seldom spoils and, many believe, is also an aid to human health when eaten or applied topically. Bees store their honey in exquisitely geometric wax combs they manufacture in their hives and then consume it to sustain them throughout the winter. Beekeepers seek to sharecrop this operation by periodically removing frames that are filled with honey and spinning them in a centrifuge to remove the honey, after which they’re returned to the hive for a refill. In the days before sugar cane and sugar beets were widely processed to make sugar, honey was a prized addition to man’s diet.
In addition to honey production, the foraging process also provides an extraordinarily important function which is entirely incidental to the mission of the bees but absolutely crucial to the well-being of their co-habitants on the planet. That process is the pollination of plants in which pollen, the male reproductive cells found on the anthers of plants, is transported from one plant to another, fertilizing the female organs (stigma) of the recipient and enabling reproduction by the creation of seeds. Bees don’t pollinate plants on purpose. They gather pollen, a form of protein, as one of the core elements of their diet and transport it back to their hives for storage and later consumption. In the process, pollen particles are attached to their body hairs and transported randomly from one plant to another. In pursuit of food, a colony of bees will visit literally millions of flowers and provide for them a crucial catalyst in successful reproduction. While there are many other insect pollinators, none of them goes about their business with quite the same intensity, probably because bees are uniquely committed to keeping a large community of individuals alive through the winter.
The pollination role provided by honey bees has been recognized through observation for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years and is, of course, crucial to the existence of countless species of native plants and the animals that depend on them. The stimulation of this process by placing hives in crop fields or orchards in an organized manner is far more recent. In modern agriculture, especially fruit and nut orchards, yields are vastly increased by locating or relocating hives in the vicinity of the trees and bushes at the time of their of bloom, which is typically two to four weeks. There are few commercial growers who don’t take advantage of this low cost and powerful ally to increase the yield of their crops. Indeed, the vast majority of bee colonies under management in the U.S. are employed in this manner, and pollination services, as the industry is known, represent the primary revenue source for most commercial bee operators, with honey production a distant second.
The most extreme example of this business is found in the fantastically large and profitable almond groves of California’s Central Valley. More than 1.1 million acres of near desert land are planted to almonds, with the trees receiving their water largely from trickle irrigation. In this environment, native plants and thus insect pollinators are few, and the crop is made possible by the introduction of roughly 2 million beehives maintained elsewhere and trucked in for a month to service the blooming trees. Needless to say, this practice is heavily dependent on the means of transport that are available, and that transport must be chosen and operated with care. That’s because bees, for all their apparent durability and abundance, are in fact dependent on their ability to sustain a very precise environment in their hive so as to maintain all their functions, and this consistency can be challenging on a trip that might often exceed a thousand miles. To repeat, individual bees, with the exception of queens, are very short-lived, and a hive must produce multiple generations of young (known as brood) each season in order to survive. For these cycles to occur, the inside of the hive must be maintained at close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with consistent ventilation and continual maintenance. Accordingly, rough handling or extreme temperatures or relocation during daylight hours when the residents are out foraging can do irreparable damage to a colony, causing it to drop below the crucial population density at which all the necessary jobs can get done. This means that hives need to be moved at night and/or in dark, temperature-controlled vehicles. So hundreds of temperature-controlled semis roll into the Central Valley in late January, and the owners of these bees receive close to $200 per hive for the visit, thus generating a large portion of their year’s revenues in four weeks.
This seasonal migration produces a bonanza for the almond growers and the beekeepers but is not without its downsides, especially for the bees. For all living creatures including ourselves, travel is stressful. Changes in climate, soil, diet, elevation, pests and predators, and even noise levels can disturb natural rhythms both for adult bees and for the brood under their care. In addition, the almond groves are frequently treated with chemicals for pest control and while that’s never intentionally done with the beehives in place, the local soils are inevitably saturated with all kinds of compounds whose effects on bees are unknowable but certainly not positive. A great irony of this specific crop is that the nectar of almond trees produces honey so bitter as to be unusable for humans, though it’s apparently acceptable to bees. And further insult follows, because the bees need to continue foraging after the almonds have ceased blooming, which means the hives need to be transported to sources of blooming plants elsewhere. This could mean fruit orchards in Oregon or Tupelo forests in Florida, and the shocks of relocation are repeated serially over eight to nine months until the hives come to rest somewhere for the winter.
Frequent air travelers know from experience that airplanes are an excellent place to acquire a cold or worse, and the impact of travel is the same for bees. By moving from place to place for most of a year, pollination colonies are exposed to every pest and disease and chemical that exist in each ecosystem, virtually assuring that somewhere along the way they will be severely stressed in the best case and effectively euthanized in the worst case. Equally important, they become the vector by which pests and diseases are transmitted from one region of the country to another, with an effect similar to the first year of school for young children. It’s a pretty gloomy perspective for this most diligent and useful natural creature and sadly the narrative has recently been expanded to include a new element with devastating effects.
Just as people are preyed upon by ticks, bees are subject to parasites, but their natural behavior of hive cleaning, disposing of sick and dead bees, and swarming to new and better neighborhoods has allowed them to thrive in the vast array of ecologies offered by the North American continent. But that status changed about 33 years ago with the accidental introduction of a pestilential mite named Varroa destructor. This nasty parasite, probably native to Southeast Asia but familiar also in Europe for several decades, was first reported in the United States in 1986. It preys on the brood in the cells where eggs are laid and attaches itself to the emerging larvae and ultimately to the mature bees. Until recently, it was believed that the mites fed on the blood of the bees, but recent work by a Maryland PhD student named Samuel Ramsey has determined that it is, in fact, the fat of the bees that the mites consume, probably conveying various viruses in the process. Young bees are weakened and often disfigured, reducing their ability to forage and ultimately leading to their deaths. Because reproduction is continuous in a functioning hive, the mites also reproduce, maintaining pressure on their hosts while also hitching a ride to other colonies during foraging and breeding. A hives’ ability to generate winter warmth is weakened by reduced population, which means that in northern climates they enter winter like a drunk, in the worst possible condition, and many don’t survive. As a result, hive losses have been steadily increasing nationwide for three decades and have become so dire and persistent that commercially managed reproduction is essentially impossible in areas with cold winters. As a result, commercial production of bees is now concentrated in southern states or in the hands of operators who can afford to invest in temperature-controlled winter storage. In the former case, most bee colonies are concentrated in a few areas after which newly hatched spring bees are packaged and put on trucks north for sale. If you visualize stockyard cattle, you’re not far off. Of course, the large operators who can afford winter storage mostly secure their revenues through pollination services and the incessant travel that model requires. Accordingly, most bees in America have been around a lot and in direct or indirect contact with commercial and feral populations throughout the continent. This, of course, violates the most basic principle of epidemiology and selective evolution, which is isolation.
Despite the best efforts of science, the Varroa mite can only be partially controlled through various management techniques that range from chemical drenches to various forms of non-toxic or integrated pest control. But as the narrative above makes clear, re-infection and re-transmission is incessant due to the nature of bees and the industrial model to which they are harnessed. There is speculation that certain strains of bees may have or may be gradually developing some genetic resistance to the mite, but keeping a strain of bees pure is quixotic to say the least. When a queen sallies forth to mate on a spring day, she will find her way to an area with a dense concentration of drones (males) and will mate with several, all of unknown provenance. At the same time, there’s an excellent chance she will return bearing a mite that has piggybacked on one of the drones. It’s an impossible situation to manage, and it offers an extremely difficult future for bees and their keepers.
This reality became clear to me after months of reading and talking to professionals and academics whose lives have been devoted to bees. It had two obvious implications, one simple and self-referential and the second having appalling consequences for our continent. In the first case, it was clear that producing bees for sale in a northern climate would be a near certain impossibility as a business model because winter losses, typically averaging one third or more in the best operations, wouldn’t allow the creation of colonies for sale. Yes, it would be possible to purchase southern bees and truck them in for resale, but the logistics are difficult and expensive and risky, and guaranteeing the quality of the imported colonies is impossible. In either case, customers, mainly hobbyists, who bought our bees would inevitably be overwhelmed by mites and experience unsustainable losses in a year or two through no fault of their own. This would leave them with two alternatives: either replacing their bees annually with new purchases or simply abandoning the project. In either case, we would have sold them a dream but not a realistic prospect of success, which is not a prospect I could get comfortable with.
The much larger question is what this imported plague means for America’s vast agricultural infrastructure, huge portions of which depend substantially if not entirely on the services of bees to assure pollination. The answer to that question is not precisely known at this time but the trend is threatening in the extreme. A variety of experiments are underway to identify alternatives and they range from hand-pollination (which is widely practiced in plant breeding where genetics must be tightly controlled), to huge fans set up to blow pollen from place to place, to tiny mechanical drones which might one day learn to mimic the behavior of bees, absent the honey. In parallel, the commercial and academic communities are struggling to come up with tools to suppress or eliminate the mites, bee strains that can survive them, and management techniques that may offset the impact of this infection. Meanwhile, on the horizon, a new Asian mite has been identified which is larger and potentially more devastating. It has yet to be discovered in the Americas but eventual arrival seems inevitable, with consequences that one authority described to me as “unimaginable.”
Though it’s not at this point a useful speculation, it’s difficult to avoid connecting this series of events with similarly dangerous plagues under way in citrus, bananas, chickens and hogs, all of which are experiencing devastating losses from bacterial blights. The common threads, aside from timing, are obvious. One is globalization in which every person, dollar, idea, and germ has a good likelihood of finding its way to any ecosystem where it can survive. The other is monoculture, that modern form of factory farming in which economics drive everyone to concentrate on the same plant cultivar, strain of animal genetics, food source, processing system, antibiotic remedy, and marketing channel. With all the eggs, or chickens, in one basket, any trouble that crops up strikes everyone everywhere, with results that are predictably devastating. Is it too extreme to postulate that our food systems are truly in peril? That remains to be seen, and there are legions of talented people and vast financial resources committed to finding answers.
One of those answers has to be diversity, including crops, locations, cultivation techniques, and seasons. By creating discrete populations at discrete sites, all at smaller scale, the risk of a universal affliction is essentially eliminated. This is precisely the regimen advocated by locavores as a means to provide healthier and tastier food, and many consumers have chosen these products despite higher prices driven by much higher production costs. It seems improbable at the moment, but there may be a time ahead when these local crops are, in certain categories, all that is available. Whatever the path, it is glaringly evident that bees, the farmers that travel on their own, cannot be localized and must somehow evolve to deal with their mite infestation or cease to be an engine of reproduction for plants. More chemicals can’t be the answer, but an answer is badly needed.
These tools were selected from the Sneeboer line of durable, heirloom quality tools, which we discovered on a visit to England’s Great Dixter gardens. Made by the renowned Dutch company since 1913, each is hand forged from top-grade stainless steel then individually shaped, polished, and sharpened. These hard-working instruments are fitted with premium wood handles and are designed to last for years.
If you know someone who is moving into a new home, or who is ready to start their first garden, these tools make fabulous gifts. We’ve gathered the 5 most popular Sneeboer tools below. You can see our full offering here.
1. Hand-Forged Step Edger
Slice through turf with ease using this Dutch-made professional grade edger. The solid Ash handle provides a sturdy grip, and the sharp, stainless steel blade is topped by 2 “steps” for maximizing leverage. Built to last several lifetimes. Overall length: 37″.
2. Hand-Forged Weeding Fork
Get under weeds, shallow rooted plants, and loosen small patches of soil with this sturdy, durable weeding fork. Made in traditional fashion, it has a hand-forged stainless steel fork with 3 hammered tines. The Cherry wood handle is smooth and tapered to fit comfortably in the hand. As you can well imagine, we put our weeding fork to good use around the nursery. Built to last, this makes a nice heirloom to hand down to gardeners of the next generation. Overall length: 11″. Ships in a gift box.
3. Compact Pointed Spade
The pointed tip of this rugged spade is ideal for dividing perennials and working in tight spaces where precision counts. When used for transplanting, its narrow 5¾″ blade minimizes damage to the roots of both the transplant and its neighbors. Overall length: 22″
4. Hand Cultivator
The sharp, stainless steel tines on this indispensable tool take hold of weeds and debris, separating them from soil beds. The cultivator also is superb for loosening soil in gardens. We use ours each spring in our raised bed vegetable gardens, and throughout the season to turn soil prior to planting. The sturdy, durable handle is crafted of smooth Ash wood. Overall length: 29″.
4. Tight Spots Weeding Tool
Removing weeds that grow between patio pavers and brick walkways is one of the most tedious and backbreaking chores. This superb, thoughtfully constructed tool has a pointed steel tip that fits in tight crevices and gets under weeds to dislodge them. The Cherry wood handle is smooth in the hand and will last several lifetimes. Overall length: 12½″.