February 26, 2011

Forcing Forsythia For February

If you have a Forsythia bush you can also have some quick and easy spring color inside while it is still winter outside.  This early spring blooming shrub sets buds on old wood, meaning last year's branches.  You can see buds already formed in the winter.

Cut branches and bring them in to force their early flowering.  I like to get long branches for a graceful look in the vase.  I also look for those with the most buds.  If you can, gather a lot of them for a full look.

Crush or cut the branch tips again when inside.  This helps the branches take up water.  A little warm water at first can give them a boost.  After it has cooled, add in room temperature water.  Change it often, especially if there are buds on the lower branches below the water line.

Within a week I had these fully bloomed branches brightening up my home during a grey winter.  Forsythia blooms come out ahead of the leaves, hence the intensity of the color.  Green leaves unfurl and you can keep the branches when they take over or discard them. 

This is an easy, quick, and free way to bring spring inside.  It has become an annual tradition for me and a real pick-me-up.  I think you'll enjoy it, too.

Chicago Garden Events For Spring 2011

February in Chicago begs for some color and the hope of spring.  Here are some events you can attend for a reprieve from the grey, and for ideas on ornamental and edible gardening.

Garfield Park Conservatory Spring Flower Show

Chicago Flower & Garden Show

FamilyFarmed EXPO
GreenNet's Green and Growing Fair

February 20, 2011

What's the Buzz...Tell Me What's Happening

Well, in the ever increasing urban beekeeping world, a lot is happening.  I had a chance to learn from a panel of beekeepers at an event held at the Chicago Downtown Farmstand in the Loop last week.

"Buzz About Bees" was moderated by Judith Hines, the Director of Culinary Arts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.  Panelists included Michael Thompson, beekeeper for the city's eight hives; Julio Tuma, Beekeeping Program Coordinator at Garfield Park Conservatory; Aza Quinn-Brauner, beekeeping hobbyist; and Donna Oppolo, hobbyist turned mentor and founder of the only beekeeping group in the city - Pilsen Beekeepers Association.  Each panelist explained their role in Chicago's beekeeping community, and discussed the challenges that face urban beekeepers.

One challenge is space.  Finding a place to keep the hives can be a problem for city dwellers. Aza keeps his two hives at his mom's house which means he has a trip just to get there to check on them. This limits him to weekends and therefore lots of work. But his philosophy is it's better than disturbing them too often, which disrupts honey production, so he let's nature do her thing. Donna went from one hive to five, utilizing her landlord's property and the roof of a bar.  Now she has some of her hives at the growing station at Pilsen's community garden.  Michael is also a co-founder of the Chicago Honey Co-op on the west side where they have 60-80 hives, and offer beekeeping workshops.

Another challenge is getting the honeybees through Chicago winters.  Ideally you want to keep honey at the top of the hive so they will come up for the heat.  Whiles the bees do adapt to the cold, shelter from wind is advised.  Hives can also be moved to an unheated shed.  (If you need to move hives for any reason, winter or early spring is the best time because they are lighter).  Honeybees won't fly if it's freezing and they need to fly to stay alive.  Fact is, they need to relieve themselves and will only do that outside the hive. 

Also, as you may have heard, there is a widespread occurrence of honeybees disappearing.  Many beekeepers find that the adults are suddenly and inexplicably gone. Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to this mysterious problem. But it has not been classified as a disease, and no specific cause has been determined.  I've heard theories from global warming to pesticides.  Julio feels that it is a combination of stress factors, especially from their industrial use. 

Commercial pollination is a business that many of us may not be aware of. Some people with a large number of hives will ship their bees to whichever parts of the country need them, and when they need them, to pollinate for our food supply. There are not enough local pollinators in these areas. Approximately one-third of what we eat comes from honeybees' efforts. Migratory honeybees are sent to help produce almonds in California, for example.

The travel, the contact with imported bees carrying parasitic mites, and the monoculture diet all contribute to weakening the honeybee's immune system. Also, university studies have found bacteria and viruses in bees.  It has become difficult to find queen bees and many are imported from hot climates, so they often do not survive our cold.  Plus the more contact, the more disease is spread. 

It is still a mystery.  But an ever increasing problem.  Starting in 2006 people started to notice higher than usual losses.  Instead of 15-20%, it was 50-90%.  We currently have about a one-third loss nationally and this is occurring in Africa, Australia, and South America as well.  Garfield Park lost 80% of their honeybees last year.

The good news is that more and more people are choosing to keep bees, including city gardeners, urban homesteaders, and nature lovers. Whether in their backyards or in community areas or on a rooftop, their urban bees add to the growing need for more pollinators, and may just be the answer to keeping bees in our future.  And as a result, a beekeeping community has developed to offer support and education on the methods, reasons, and rewards associated with keeping honeybees.  Fresh, local honey is of course one of the big benefits!

All the groups can be found on facebook.  Also, you can contact Donna at:  pilsenbeekeepers@gmail.com

Website links:

February 1, 2011

The Safe Seed Dance

Yep, winter in Chicago is when we fantasize about warm weather and sunny skies.  And when we gardeners fantasize about our gardens, plan for them, fantasize about them some more, then order seeds.  Then fantasize again, and then order more seeds.  This post is about edible plants and safe seeds.

Most of us are aware of the presence of genetically modified organisms (e.g., GMOs) in our food. You may or may not be aware that this means many seeds for sale are also genetically modified, and it is not always obvious who is who in the seed biz.

Monsanto is the big player in the modified crop game, producing not only future Frankenfoods but Round-Up Ready crops.  These are resistant to the popular chemical weed killer so spraying can be done for other weeds without harming the desirable plants.  In other words, altered DNA is in the food supply and in the soil.

This has lead to more people growing their own food to be sure it is GMO and chemical free, hence the "safe seed" moniker.  There are other reasons to grow your own food.  It is cheaper, it is environmentally beneficial, and it is fun. 

Heirloom plants have become quite popular along with the edible gardening boom over the last few years.  These are old-timey plants that often produce unusual and colorful fruits and veggies, and are known for their great flavor.  Much of the produce in grocery stores is grown to travel well.  So you may have a pretty little cherry tomato, but when you take a bite, it's like trying to bite in to a rubber ball.  Probably bounces pretty well, too.

Heirloom plants are open-pollinated, which means nature does it's thing.  It also means they will grow true to seed unlike hybrid plants.  So you will get a plant that looks and acts like the one you grew.  Hybrids, be they ornamental or edible, are hand-pollinated or produced by tissue culture.  So far I have not heard that any bees are capable of doing that.  Then again, why should they.  So if you save the seeds of heirloom plants you will be able to reproduce what you grew.  This is a plus for keeping your favorites, and for keeping diversity in our food supply. 

One more point.  Besides checking on the parent of a seed company, you need to check on their seed sources.  The folks on the catalog cover may look all homey or hippie, but there could be a Monsanto connection or another corporate parent.  Seminis is wholly owned by Monsanto and is the largest grower and marketer of vegetable seeds in the world.  Seeds of Change is owned by Mars, Inc. and in 2010 they let staff go and moved from Santa Fe to LA.  It is up to you if you are OK with any of that or not, but I think everyone should know who they are ordering from.  So do your research.  It may change with the seasons.

With that background, let's get to my recommended safe seed companies for 2011:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Botanical Interests, Inc.
Husdon Valley Seed Library
John Scheeper's Kitchen Garden Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Renee's Garden
Terroir Seeds (Underwood Gardens)

I'm sure there are more.  Please share your favorites here.