Friday, May 14, 2010

Helping Honeybees in Your Backyard

The kind people at Care2 recently asked me to write for their new sustainable food channel, Real Food. My inaugural post, published earlier this week explores how the mysterious honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and other environmental stresses currently affecting insect pollinators threaten not only honeybees, but also the sustainability of America's food supply.

Though honeybees were not originally native to the Americas — they were brought over the Atlantic from Europe by some early European colonists with a craving for honey — in the centuries since honeybees' introduction, they have become an integral part of the American landscape, and many common food crops depend on honeybees for successful pollination. In fact, about a third of the plant foods we eat every day in the United States are produced with the help of honeybees. Strawberries, watermelon, cherries, blueberries, and peaches are among the many foods that may one day become scarce if both honeybee populations are not protected.

Read my post over at Care2 if you'd like to learn more about our dependence on bees, and the current threats to them.

Over the past few years, I have taken several steps to make my own home garden more friendly to bees and other pollinators. I stringently avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides, not only in my organic vegetable and herb gardens, but also in my yard as a whole. I have allowed bee-friendly "weeds," like clover, violets, and wild strawberries, to creep in among the grass in my backyard to provide both honeybees and wild native bees with a good source of pesticide-free food.

And I have deliberately planted several herbs and flowers that attract and sustain both bees and butterflies with their flowers, including rue, hyssop, germander, thyme, mint, and lemon balm. Planting a wide variety of flowering plants that attract bees helps ensure that one or another sort of flower is in bloom in my yard from the earliest weeks of spring through the end of autumn, providing a steady source of healthy food for pollinators.

Working to make my yard an attractive and safe place for honeybees to rest doesn't just help the environment — the effort also pays off in my vegetable garden. After all, bees that come for the clover and thyme often stick around to sample the nectar of my watermelon and tomato plants. More safe, healthy food for the bees means more safe healthy food for me. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

Good Thing We're Growing Our Own Lettuce

Two summers ago, when the FDA issued a massive tomato recall over fears of widespread salmonella contamination, I said to my husband, "Wow. It's a good thing we're growing our own tomatoes."

This week, when I heard that 25 states had issued lettuce recalls as a consequence of several people being seriously sickened by lettuce contaminated with E. coli, I said to my husband, "Wow. It's a good thing we decided this year to grow our own lettuce."

Several summers ago, when I grew my first tiny homegrown tomato crop, I confess — I felt a little nervous about biting into that first ripe red fruit from my own garden. After all, I was new, a total amateur at this gardening thing. I wasn't sure I really knew what I was doing. What if my tomatoes had bugs inside them? What if there was something wrong with the soil? What if my pots had lead in them?

As I stood for a moment anxiously contemplating all the possible things that could be wrong with the lovely fresh tomato in my hand, I suddenly realized how absurd my feeling of nervousness was. I bought tomatoes at the supermarket every week without knowing what the growing conditions had been where they had come from, or how many hands had touched them along the way. And I ate those mystery tomatoes without a second thought.

Yet here I had in my hand the product of a plant I had personally watched over and cared for daily from seed to fruit, and I was actually nervous that something might be wrong?

It's amazing to me now, to consider how easily I used to take for granted my unquestioning trust in mass-produced fruits and vegetables from the supermarket, and how equally ready I was, once to doubt my own ability to grow safe food. I often wonder how many other Americans who grew up on store-bought, processed food would be more nervous about biting into a homegrown tomato just picked from a yard than a canned tomato processed halfway around the world.

I'm grateful, this week, that I got past my own hypocrisy on food safety, and found the confidence to grow my own lettuce.

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