Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The birds and the bees

There is a lovely moment, early in John Logan’s new play Peter and Alice* when the octogenarian muse for Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland stories comments on the technological changes that have occurred in her lifetime.

Cinema, telephones, cars, the “wireless” – and oh how she longs to be able, as she could before all those things, to hear the bees.

For the “wireless”, one could, today, almost say the internet. No matter how wonderful it is, it does add a layer of ‘noise’ to modern life – with social media a particular culprit.

For all that the weather remains chilly – and the immediate prospect is a continuation of that – at least it has been dry for the last few days, a brief flutter of half-hearted snow apart, late on Saturday afternoon.

Indeed, the sun has actually burst through the cloud a few times, and blue been visible above. Last night, an odd star could be seen. This morning, the morning moon was visible through the skeletal plane tree in the park, hanging in a field of pale blue.

But frankly, the most wonderful part of the last few days has been the peace and quiet.

Our little bit of Hackney is never as quiet as on bank holiday weekends. The traffic immediately outside and from beyond the park behind is vastly reduced; people have gone away and even the improved weather hasn't brought the noise of activity to the public areas.

You can hear the birds. You can hear yourself think. Both these, in the city, are a blessing.

I’m trying, with the aid of the RSPB website, to learn to recognise birds by their song. I’m not doing particularly well, although I can spot the little ‘bark’ of robins.

Of Alice Liddlell’s bees, we don’t get many in the tiny patio garden – with the cats around, that’s a good thing for all concerned. But I have some seeds that, once it gets a bit warmer, will be sown in the beds in the carpark and are apparently good for them.

And bees need our help.

The biggest help that we can give them is by not using chemicals in our gardens.

There is a growing body of evidence around that suggests that declines in bee populations since 2005 have, in part at least, been caused by the introduction of a new type of pesticide, neonicotinoids, which hang around for a far longer time than previous products.

It seems that some suppliers have now decided to act: both B&Q and Wickes have announced that they are withdrawing certain products that are harmful to bees.

Yet only this last weekend, Bayer has been spotted offering free packets of flower ‘seeds for bees’ with bottles of pesticides. Presumably, the company hopes that customers will know that helping bees is good, but not realise the connection between pesticides and the bees' plight.

It’s difficult to believe that Bayer – and other companies – don’t realise the link.

The EU is considering a ban. The US is dragging its heels.

Yet according to the New York Times just last week, the US Agriculture Department says that a quarter of the country’s diet depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests, means higher food prices.

Bees are not some sort of creature that needs help for the sake of sentiment alone.

And if pesticides are affecting bees, what are they doing to other insects, many of which are beneficial to farmers and gardeners?

There is no need to use vast amounts of chemicals. There are options, from companion planting to organic solutions – try a little dilute (eco-friendly!) washing-up liquid sprayed on aphids etc.

And then there’s weedkiller.

And this is far from the only story about the kind of damage done by GM products.

Yet gardening magazines carry plenty of adverts for weedkillers – and they appear regularly on television too.

Such products are a bit like convenience food – people have been convinced that they don’t have the time, the knowledge or the skills to do something, a situation that can be exploited very nicely by the company that sells them a packet that promises to do it all for them, regardless of what’s in it and whether it’s good for them or the bees or anything else other than corporate shareholder dividends.

Advertising ready meals and weedkiller depend upon convincing people of those inadequacies.

The most glaring food example is the current spate of adverts from fast food organisations ‘comically’ stressing how you can’t/don’t want to cook.

In gardening terms, how often do you see tools for, say, weeding advertised? (There is one at present, but it’s the exception) Yet weedkiller appears up on a regular basis.

Of course, it’s also the case that such products usually cost more than if you declined the invitation to use them.

The more I get into gardening, the more I realise that weeding is not the horror that it is generally considered. Do it regularly and it’s easy. It’s part of the ‘pottering’ that is itself so theraputic.

I can’t speak about lawns – ’though honestly, can it be that hard? – but a Dutch hoe makes easy work of beds, and pots simply require regular checks.

Anyway, the weekend did provide the opportunity for some essential – and chemical free – gardening.

Broad beans (left) and peas.
The pea and broad bean plants desperately needed repotting out of the individual seed cells in which they’ve been growing for the past six weeks.

It was my first attempt at repotting and went blissfully well – helped by remembering Monty Don demonstrating it and explaining how to lift young seedlings by the leaf and not the stem.

The peas and broad beans were hardly seedlings, but they came out well, with plenty of root development – and now they have much more space in coir pots for those roots to spread and grow.

It’s still getting very cold at night – to the point of frost – so they’re staying inside two layers of plastic for the time being. They’ll need hardening off before eventually being planted out – something I now imagine won’t take place for another month, given the weather forecast. But at present, the main concern is to protect them from the cold.

The radishes are doing well too: the first batch – sown on 16 February with the peas and beans – are now developing their mature leaves. The plan is to repot these in a big pot and cover with a plastic cloche.

Elsewhere in the grow house, the chard and the gem lettuces are coming on. The first batch of spring onions are even showing. But most remarkable of all, or so it seems, three of the Toscana strawberry seeds have germinated and popped pin-head-sized leaves above the compost.

All this, in site of the efforts of the weather, and without any chemical aids.

And if I can do it ...

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