Archive for Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Busy bees keep gardens growing

The new Lawrence Arboretum features two ponds, an observation deck, a gazebo, paved paths and a wildflower garden that includes this "Little Spire" that has caught the interest of a bee.

The new Lawrence Arboretum features two ponds, an observation deck, a gazebo, paved paths and a wildflower garden that includes this "Little Spire" that has caught the interest of a bee.

May 23, 2007

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From a Kansas gardener's perspective, Sunday was a perfect day. The temperature topped out just above 80 degrees, and a cool breeze combined with just enough cloud cover kept the sun from feeling hot. Even better, the forecast called for rain at mid-week, eight days after the last precipitation at my house.

If we could order up weather like pizzas, we would want late May and early June to be a series of days just like Sunday, with a rain shower every week or so.

When the temperatures are in the low to mid-80s, the ground warms to encourage germination and plant growth. Most importantly, vegetables like this kind of weather for producing blossoms, which is the necessary step for setting fruit. When temperatures pass the high 80s, this process shuts down for many vegetables - tomatoes included.

Even in indeterminate tomatoes - those that can continue to set fruit through the growing season - heat will flip a switch inside the plant, and blossom-setting will stop. If we have an extreme hot spell in early June, the tomato crop may be smaller than we are used to.

The other noteworthy condition Sunday was the breeze, which probably ranged from 10 to 15 mph where I was. A vegetable gardener cares about this partially because of what a breeze is not - namely a stiff wind that batters plants and dries them out. A gentle breeze also is one method of pollination.

The role of the breeze in pollination will be even more important when sweet corn in area gardens starts producing silks. Pollen from the tassels must be transported to the silks, and this generally is a job for the wind.

Even so, the main pollinator in any garden is the bee. Although when we think of the bee we usually envision the honeybee, many varieties of bees and wasps participate in pollination. Bees feed on pollen and, as they zip from one flowering plant to the next, they also make deposits that enable the production of vegetables. It's not called "the birds and bees" for nothing.

All vegetable plants that produce a bloom - squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers - depend to varying degrees on bee pollination to produce fruit.

For those of us who have spent our lives being fearful of stinging insects, this is tough news to hear. The idea that we should encourage bees to take up residence nearby has given more than one gardener pause. Certainly, people with medical sensitivity to bee stings should be extra cautious, even to the point of considering a different hobby.

As it happens, I am convinced that the threat of bee sting, even to someone who spends a lot of time in a garden, can be minimized. When bees are working a group of plants, don't weed there. Walk around the area rather than through it. This is just common sense.

In the 18 years that I have been growing vegetables and tending flowers, I have been stung just once, and it was a fluke. I was cleaning up the fence around my garden and buzzed the trimmer over an underground hornet's nest. I was swarmed and chased, just like in an old Warner Brothers cartoon, and I ended up in the emergency room. But I lived to garden another day.

The easiest way to make sure that bees frequent your garden is to lure them there with flowers they like. Monarda, also called bee balm, is easy to grow from seed and also can be purchased as a bedding plant. Some varieties will act like perennials; some will reseed. Sunflowers and coreopsis also are bee magnets. Almost anything that produces flowers will work. Because different kinds of bees like different flowers, it's best to mix it up.

Find a spot near or, better yet, inside your garden where you can establish a small flower bed. When those flowers bloom, you should notice an increase in bee traffic throughout the garden.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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