Another Reason to Love Dandelions

We Aren’t The Only Ones Who Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.


Soapy Water: The Answer to Most Problems

Easy Solution for Small Garden Pests

We’ve been grateful all week for pollinators of all shapes and sizes and how crucial they are for feeding us and for making a beautiful world of flowers and trees.  We know you understand our first priority to help pollinators by which is to create a habitat with the plants they like.

The next most important thing you can do for pollinators is to not kill them accidentally when you are trying to control other pests in the yard.

That’s where soapy water comes in. A simple squirt of castile soap – Dr. Bronner’s is most people’s favorite – in a spray bottle will take care of most small garden pests.  (It doesn’t help much with the bunnies and raccoons.) Add in a tablespoon of baking soda and you can take care of most fungus too.   Soapy water works on what it’s sprayed on but doesn’t hurt most pollinators who come later to the plant. So many commercial products get into a plant “system” and kill good bugs who visit the plant later.  Or they get into the soil and kill soil microbes.

The simple recipe for insect control is:

1 teaspoon Dr. Bronner’s soap, any variety. 2 cups water. Spray bottle.

Turns out using soapy water to save pollinators is a lot cheaper too.  One key to using soapy water or any pest control is you have to repeat the process in another week or so to get the next life cycle of the insect.

Another use for soapy water in the garden is to have a bucket of soapy water for putting the big pests like squash bugs and cutworms that you collect by hand.

So thanks for loving our pollinators and creating beautiful, safe habitats for them!

Links: Entomologist Whitney Cranshaw on soap:

Why you don’t add vinegar to soapy spray: 

Natural Recipes for killing pests and fungus:

The Not-So-Dangerous Bee Swarm

Why to Respect these Valuable Pollinators

It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies and spine-chilling stories — a swarm of bees attacking everything in their path. Mad, ruthless, and vicious buzzing creatures covering whatever strikes their fancy (usually a person) until they succumb to the deadly stings! This is how a swarm of bees behaves, right?
Well, not exactly.

First of all, let’s discuss what a honey bee swarm is and exactly why they’re swarming. A swarm is an entire colony of bees looking for a place to start up housekeeping. It includes a queen and up to 30,000 of her pals, the worker bees and drones. They do this without any anger, aggression, nor any plans to sting people.

Usually, a young queen is born into a colony and she takes the place of the old queen (no one said life as a queen was easy). The old queen sees the writing on the wall and starts packing for greener pastures. Don’t worry, she has some loyal subjects — she ends up taking about half of that colony with her to hang around a new castle.

The entourage is led by the queen bee and her pheromones — which has them following her beyond all reason. When the queen finds a comfy bush or tree branch, the swarm will settle there, as well. Ultimately what they’re looking for is an unoccupied cavity in which to call home. This is the time when a savvy beekeeper will place a beehive below the swarm to attract them. If the colony approves (and by “the colony”, I mean the Queen) then someone just got themselves a brand new hive, pollination team, and honey processing plant!

Let’s back up a bit. There’s a thick, black, buzzing cloud going through your yard and you’re supposed to believe that these guys don’t have your name at the top of their tiny, bee hit-list, right? That’s exactly right. And the reason that they don’t have stinging on their mind is that honey bees typically defend two things: their young (in the hive) and their honey (also in the hive).

They tend to get irked when you mess with these things — as well they should. In the honeybee’s defense, if you’re going to go into a hive and take either of those things, well…that actually makes you the aggressor.

That said, personally, I wouldn’t grab a broom and start flailing it around trying to swat at the swarm. I mean that probably falls under the definition of provocation, am I right?

If you find that a swarm of honeybees has landed at your home, garage, or porch and you not only don’t believe a word I’ve written here, but are getting ready to sue me because these bees are certainly going to kill you in your sleep…all I ask is that instead of taking matters into your own hands, please contact a local beekeeper to have them gently removed. Honey bees are one of our most valuable pollinators and they’re having a terrible time staying in existence.

Trivial Note: I’m not a honey beekeeper. Although, I am a Western Blue Mason Beekeeper, which isn’t of any importance to this article at all. I only mention it for the record.

Early-Risers, Hardworking and Charming Personalities!

No Longer Ignore These Pollinators

Blue Mason (Osmia lignaria) or Orchard bees who have previously been all-but-ignored by the general public have recently enjoyed a newfound popularity. And why shouldn’t they? The non-aggressive little pollinators are not only top-notch pollinators, but they’re also early-risers, hardworking and some of the friendliest bees anywhere. Mason bees are docile by nature and the females are the only gender that has a stinger — and she isn’t very interested in using it.

Part of their relaxed demeanor may be due to the fact that they don’t make honey. In fact, they’re quite solitary and don’t even live in hives. With no hive dripping with the sweet stuff, there’s not a whole lot to protect. As an educator, I feel very comfortable letting kids get up-close-and-personal with these attractive little fellows. Kids enjoy watching insects as they go about their insect lives and bees can be especially fascinating.

These native bees live all over the United States and throughout Southern Canada. Orchard Mason bees are 1/3 of an inch long, blue-black in color, and have a metallic sheen to them. They have two pairs of wings and the boys are smaller than the girls and have a hairy-white face. While you may have seen them buzzing around flowers over the years —  you may not have recognized them as bees.  They tend to look more fly-like than bee-like.

There are a number of things that make Blue Mason bees stand-out both for home orchards as well as commercial types. The first thing is that these bees pollinate earlier in the season. They’re early spring pollinators and will fly around doing the pollination dance in cooler temperatures while honey bees hang out in their hives waiting for warmer weather. This makes Mason bees ideal pollinators for early blooming fruit trees.

In fact, they’re most attracted to the stone fruits such as cherries, plums, and peaches. But are great for apples and nearly everything else. The fact that the pollen is collected all over the mason bee’s hairy little bodies is another reason that they’re such effective pollinators.

If you’re considering purchasing (or attracting) mason bees for your home garden or orchard, you’ll want to provide them with a special mason bee house of straws where the female can deposit her eggs for next year’s bee population. The native mason bees around your home may or may not have an acceptable place to call home, so you’ll want to provide them with one.

Why are they called “mason” bees? Well, when the female lays her eggs in a straw (or another cavity in nature) she collects some mud and makes a wall at the back of the straw. Then she flies off to gather pollen and nectar and makes them into a little “loaf.” This loaf is placed onto the straw and an egg is laid on the pollen-nectar loaf. She makes individual cells by partitioning off the egg and pollen with another mud wall. After the straw is filled, she makes a final mud plug to protect her future kids that sleep inside. “Mason” seems to fit this industrious little bee.

While I’ve been going on and on about the spring Blue Mason Bees, it’s interesting to note that there are over 125 different species of mason bees out there just waiting to be invited into your yard or garden. So enthralled was I to learn about these endearing dudes that I decided that I had to have my own little colony at my home.

Last December is when my mason bee adventure began. To learn more about mason bees and possibly get some for yourself, check out what the experts have to say at Crown Bees.

*If you or a child is allergic to bee stings, take the same precautions that you would with any bee. Sweet-natured mason bees do very little stinging, however, the potential is there.

Who’s Crawling Around your Garden?

Getting to Know the Guests in Your Garden

Besides you, the gardener, that is.  We are enduring record snows this month in Colorado.  We’re thrilled for the moisture but weekly snowstorms have delayed our gardening season significantly.  As soon as the snow melted in my yard, one of the long-sleeping dandelions woke up and put out its first dandelion flower.  Yippee. We’ve been worried about the cold and not having dandelions because they are often one of the first significant food sources for pollinators like bees. Our bees haven’t had natural food since last November and their food stores of honey are likely used up.

It’s not just bees we’ve been worried about going hungry…it’s all the pollinators that are normally awake by now.  Yesterday I got to see my favorite pollinator/beneficial insect/overall cute and entertaining bug in the garden – the Ladybug.  I was cleaning out leaf debris under roses and out crawled a rather groggy little ladybug.

“Snow’s coming” I hollered, “Go back to bed.”  That’s because I wrongly thought that ladybugs just ate other bugs like aphids….and I knew I hadn’t seen any aphids.  As usual….nature has a better plan than I knew.  It turns out that ladybugs overwinter as adults….they do a quasi-hibernation called “diapause” and wake up when the days start getting longer or warmer.  Naturally, after their diapause, they’re hungry….and they like to eat pollen and insects eggs (like aphid or mite eggs, yeah!)  I think these two ladybugs chose this place to winter because it’s a rose garden, so there were lots of aphids in the summer and lots of aphid eggs now.  In the Fall, oregano flowers provided pollen and nectar well into November.  And then little crocus and violets and dandelions open early in the Spring.  Without a human really planning it, there was a great ladybug habitat here….big leaves to hide under so the birds didn’t eat the ladybugs…and spring flowers for food.

What’s really important to remember about ladybugs is that they don’t always look like what we think of as ladybugs.  Right now they have cute black spots on red shells, but soon, the babies these ladybugs have made will be larva and look less cute.  Don’t accidentally kill the larval forms of the ladybugs….they’ll grow into adults that you recognize.  And the baby larvae eat lots and lots of the bad bugs we don’t want.

So here’s what to watch for in the coming months:  ladybugs under leaves, ladybugs on early spring flowers and dandelions, and gnarly exotic looking ladybug larvae!

We love our pollinators….especially the cute ones.

University of California,

Armies of Cutworms are on the March!

How to Control These Pests

In Colorado and the high plains, pest specialists say it’s going to be a banner year for cutworms and their adult form, miller moths.  Most nongardeners think miller moths are a nuisance because they fly in every open door and window on summer evenings, hovering around all your lights.  Gardeners, however, know cutworms as the horrid creatures that spend their late Spring nights decapitating your young garden plants. They especially like broccolis and cauliflowers but are happy to eat through the stem of your young tomato plants and peas too.

The easiest way to control cutworms is to pick them up and throw them out to birds to eat or dispose of them in some way.  These larvae are quite large and light colored so they are easy to see if you happen to be crawling through your garden.  They are most fond of overwintering under broadleaf weeds in your garden….so weeding your garden thoroughly in Fall is a good deterrent.

If you’ve had problems with cutworms in the past, you may want to grow broccoli and cauliflowers indoors to transplant rather than direct seed in the garden.  When it’s time to plant out into the garden, a  small collar around the stem of the plant is all it takes.  Saving all those empty toilet rolls is the most common collar, although plastic collars cut from water bottles or yogurt containers are also popular. Simple Dixie cups with the bottom cut out works well. Why do collars work? The cutworm doesn’t just start eating at one end of the stem and eat through…it wraps itself around the stem and then chews.  All you have to do is keep it from wrapping around the stem and your plant is safe.

If, alas, you go out and find some plants decapitated, take a moment to look through the top inch or so of soil around the plant.  You should find a nice fat cutworm resting from its big meal.  Pick it out so that at least that cutworm won’t be a threat to the neighboring plants.

A video from Oklahoma on controlling cutworms:

Extension Slide Series

Spicy Tofu Tacos with Cabbage Slaw

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

from the garden and kitchen of Mike Scott

Ingredients:   Spicy Seasoning: 2 teaspoons paprika 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon onion powder 1 tablespoon chili powder 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper 1 & 1/2 tablespoons cumin 1 teaspoon sea salt * This is enough seasoning for more than one meal. I use 1 tablespoon of the spicy seasoning for this recipe and save the remaining seasoning for other meals you want to spice up.   12 ounces firm tofu, drained and cut into 1 inch cubes 4 cups cabbage, chopped 3 to 4 radishes, thinly sliced 1 small red onion, chopped 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped  2 limes, 1 zested and juiced, 1 cut into wedges 8 corn tortillas 1/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 2 tablespoons olive oil Sea salt & pepper to taste

Directions:             In a large skillet heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add tofu, 1 tablespoon spicy seasoning, and 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce. Cook until the tofu is a light golden brown.   In a large bowl, add cabbage, red onion, cilantro, radishes, lime zest, red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and half of the lime juice, and toss. Mix the remaining lime juice with the yogurt and season with salt and pepper.   Serve tofu and cabbage slaw on warm tortillas and drizzle with yogurt lime sauce. Serve with lime wedges. Enjoy!   Fresh from Mike’s garden: cabbage, red onion, radishes, and cilantro

Garden Journals – A Compromise

Keep Record of Your Garden

There’s nothing like April 15th, Tax Day, to remind us how much we wish we kept better records. I have matching boxes of good intentions. A box of receipts thrown together from the year with barely decipherable notes that need to be turned into reliable tax deductions. And a box of empty seed packets that I intended to turn into a nice scrapbook with dates of germination, bloom and pictures of blooming flowers.

April 15th is the day to make the best of good intentions and turn all those scraps of paper into a tax return.  Today also happens to be an unexpected snow day so I can put some efforts into making a garden journal.

If you are an organized person who can follow through with a journal, there are few things more inspiring than a scrapbook of data and beauty and I encourage you to go ahead.  But if you are the sort of person like me who has lovely abandoned journals with four pages of writing, I encourage you to find shortcuts.  My digital camera has made it possible to keep a garden journal.

How to keep a virtual garden photo journal Take pictures of all the plants and projects and designs that interest you.  Make sure your camera’s internal day and time is set to the current time.  That’s all the upfront work you have to do.  When you are inside on a cold or snowy day, you can use your computer’s picture organizing software to do the rest.  I do a search for pictures to take in April.  The computer picks all the Aprils out of my photo files and I can see the date the dandelions covered the field next door, or when the wildflowers bloomed.  Wondering what to add to the perennial beds?  I pull up files from July and can see where there might be holes.  In Fall when I want to put more bulbs in, I pull up the April and May photos to see where the tulips bloomed so I don’t slice through them trying to plant more bulbs.  If you are ambitious, you can tag your photos with plant or location names so you can do more focused searches.

Take your pictures to the next level. Now, this is radical for people like me with thousands of files of great photos.  Print some of them out! A friend of mine puts them in a scrapbook she keeps on a table where she serves ice tea to guests. Like so many gardeners, she is always apologizing for her beautiful garden not looking as good as she’d like.  We share tea and look at pictures of flowers that bloomed last month or will bloom in the Fall. We’re amazed at pictures of the garden when it was bare dirt or the children were little.  Photos are easy and happy to wait in your computer till you search out the beauties and wisdom of the past.

Keep a record of your garden and the natural world around you. The pictures don’t have to be great…they just have to be enough of a record so that your memory fills in the details.

Fill your hummingbird feeders!

Why You Have to Keep the Hummingbirds Fed

Hummingbirds are on the move.  Do you have food for them? Fill your hummingbird feeders!

I learned a new thing about hummingbirds this week.  If you had a happy home for them last year with food and water, it is quite likely the very same birds will come back from their winter migration to your yard again this summer.  I didn’t think about how early they come here. I love our mixed wildflower seeds to attract bees and birds because it produces so many flowers, but heavy March snows and colder weather this year means our dandelions aren’t even blooming yet, meaning none of those nice tubular flowers hummingbirds like.

I love the internet for many reasons but I especially enjoy how one bird enthusiast can help all of us help the earth and its many species.  Here’s a website where people all over the US and Canada report the first Spring observations of the ruby-throated hummingbird. I can see they are getting darned near my house so I better get the feeder out if I want last year’s birds to stop at my house and not keep flying!

Favorite hummingbird trivia for the day: We don’t think much about where hummingbirds go in the winter, but it turns out they’ll often go to the same yard there, too. One lady in Florida has watched a banded Rufous hummingbird come back to her yard every winter for seven years!

More Info:

A Simple Act of Planting a Tree

Plant A Tree.

“Only caring individuals can restore the places we inhabit. The ‘simple act of planting a tree’ not only restores the places we live, but makes us whole and powerful again.”– Paul Hawken, Smith and Hawken

Queen Bee Becky of BBB Seed and I were talking the other day about how many fruit trees we’ve planted in our somewhat nomadic lives and how we never seem to live in the same place long enough to enjoy the fruit. And yet we compulsively continue to plant trees!

Planting a tree is an outrageous act of belief in the future, of belief in our connectedness to nature and to people not even born yet who will one day sit in the shade of our tree or enjoy its fruit.  And trees are the joyous gift we receive from people who died before we were born but who loved us and our world enough that they planted the trees that now tower high in the air.

A favorite saying of mine is that “Hope Springs Eternal.”  And for me, Spring always brings great hope.  Some people delight at the first robin as a sign of Spring.  My beekeeping friends yearn for the first dandelion because it is one of the first sources of food for bees.  But me, my heart jumps when I see the first dormant trees for sale. This year my first experience was at Costco where each year they have magnificent bare-root fruit trees for less than $15.  I stand in awe in front of the display and text all my gardening friends that the Costco trees are here!  On my way home on the highway, I see the trees at the Garden Centers have arrived.  I quickly take the exit to get up close to these trees in 2 gallon pots (i.e. I can lift them and move in my car). The trees I suspect are a bit befuddled after growing up in Oregon, finding themselves in a concrete parking lot in Colorado, but with some careful planting will thrive in their new homes.

Each year, even though it’s a bit absurd since I rent or sometimes live in the city without a yard, I plant three trees. I pick a place where they are likely to thrive even if they don’t have man-made irrigation, because I’m planting for a future that may have water insecurities. Some years to make it easy on me, I give the trees as a housewarming gift to a friend with a new house and they have to dig the hole.  I just keep planting, knowing that children whose parents haven’t even met yet will play under those trees.  And hungry strangers will snag the fruit.  Hope for the earth and hope for people springs eternal under trees.  Do it for Arbor Day or Earth Day or just because there’s a really good sale! Plant a tree.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

-Martin Luther