As I left the greenhouse and walked toward the house, I heard a loud puh-
hh-HUP behind me. I twisted around and took two steps toward the ocean, just in time to see an orca whale’s dorsal fin disappear below the surface.
I’m always humbled by gifts like this; surprise snippets of life. Like this morning when I looked up from doing dishes just in time to see the gibbous moon appear between puffy clouds. My hands paused in soapy water.
Or last spring, when I was outside, horizontal on the grass, inspecting the purple blooms of a primrose. I was using a 10-p0wer loupe to get a close look at the yellow center when suddenly everything lit up as if on fire. I yanked the loupe from my eye and backed up to see what was going on.
The sun had popped over the horizon, sending a shaft of light through the base of the primrose. I bolted to the house to get my camera and macro lens.
And four weeks ago, another surprise: I saw my first bumblebee. Just one, probably a queen, grazing on crocus pollen, her first real food of the spring after hibernating for months, curled into a heat-saving ball. Then it got cold and rainy so I suspect she retreated to her comfy nest. (If you know, dear readers, where there’s a bumblebee nest, please contact me.)
This is a critical time for a bumblebee, by the way, as she emerges from their winter sleep, for this begins a new cycle of bumblebee life. Like a bear, hunger drives her outside in search of early blooming plants like crocus, primroses and snowdrops.
Bumblebees are very important pollinators, and early flowers are their lifesavers. These early queens, the largest ones you’ll see all year, will be joined by others, sisters of the same and other species; each of them are entirely alone in the world, and all of them carry the promise of a new bumblebee colony and the future of their race in the sexual organs of their bodies.
Every other member of last summer’s colony died over the winter. The main goal of the now-deceased bees was to prepare new queens to carry on the species to the following spring.
Once the queen has fed well enough, the egg laying begins. But first she must find a proper home for her brood. It might be inside a woodpile, in the corner of a tool shed (as we discovered) or behind a compost bin of pallets. As soon as she settles on the perfect home, she carefully fixes its location in her memory. She does this by running a sort of expanding trapline, or locating flights of gradually widening circles.
So whenever you observe a flying bumblebee in the early spring, follow her flight path. It might seem erratic, like a wandering gypsy, but she is engaging her natural GPS to memorize the flight home.
In the process of observing a variety of small snippets of life in the garden, I’m reminded of John Muir’s statement of connectedness: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Garden fair Saturday
Speaking of hitching to everything else, let’s hitch up to the upcoming garden fair, scheduled for Saturday, April 18, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Kodiak Public Library. This lively collection of speakers and topics is hosted by the Kodiak Garden Club. Jeff Lowenfels, the Dr. Seuss of plants, is flying in from Anchorage to share his humorous and helpful talk, How to Think Like a Plant. Jeff boasts the longest-running garden column in the U.S., and is author of two bestselling books, “Teaming With Microbes” and “Teaming With Nutrients.” This garden event, which is free and open to the public, is the ideal format for shaking off the winter blues and launching you into spring.
Meanwhile, here are a couple questions that have come up this week.
Q: We burn wood and have been saving our ashes. How can I use them in the garden?
Wood ash is one of the many garden-right resources you can find around Kodiak. Ash is an excellent source of lime (which raises soil pH), as well as potassium and trace elements that keep soil and plants healthy. It’s best to add ash from a woodstove directly to the compost heap where the nutrients will bind to organic matter and humus particles in a form that plants will be able to use. If you apply wood ash directly to the soil, do so a couple weeks before transplanting seedlings, as it is quickly leached out of the soil. Always add wood ash on a calm, wind free day. Otherwise you’ll look like Casper the friendly ghost.
Q: Does it matter if you orient your raised bed gardens north-south or east-west?
There is no correct or magic way of situating raised beds, except to prevent lower profile crops like lettuce and radishes from being shaded out by planting tall crops (kale) on the northern end of the bed. By the same token, be aware of setting raised beds near solid or semisolid fences that may cast a shadow. Too much shade can delay soil thawing out for weeks.
Q: Got any tips for gardening smart so I don’t injure my back?
Let’s start with proper digging. This is an art form and doing it right makes it much easier and less strenuous. Here are a few things to keep in mind, no matter how old you are:
• Do some simple stretching and warm up exercises before you start.
• Always use sharp tools.
• Use your foot, not just your arms, to push the blade of a shovel or hoe into the soil. And always wearing strong shoes or boots.
• Limit your digging time to manageable sessions, say 30 minutes at a time.
• Stop occasionally to straighten up, and with hands on the lumbar area, bend gently backwards, then forwards. Repeat, often.
• Bend at the hips, not the waist. When lifting, bend your knees and keep your back straight.
• After a session of gardening, take a banya, hot shower or bath.
One final surprise I’d like to share: A couple springs ago, I was working outside near the woodpile when I noticed a bumblebee sunning on a log. Because of the cool air, she wasn’t moving much, but I could tell she was making an effort to warm her body and raise her metabolism. I placed my open palm next to her and within moments she climbed aboard! I sat there for a good 10 minutes. Then she took off. I like to think she found nourishment in a clump of primroses.