Thursday, 8 September 2016

Living in the bee-loud glade

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

I've always loved W B Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'.  It's a love song to Lough Gill, in his native County Sligo and anyone who feels homesick for woods, or water, or countryside will identify with it.  It has a special resonance for me, because Yeats wrote it after walking down Fleet Street one day, and seeing a small water feature or fountain in a shop window which reminded him of the lake water lapping on the shore.
I spent 35 years working in Fleet Street, both in the street itself, and in the metaphorical Fleet Street, as the national newspaper industry is still known. During that time, I would often sneak out of the office for half an hour or so in search of grass and trees and a bit of peace and quiet. Now, of course, I live in the country and keep bees, and live in my own bee-loud glade.
I've never quite been sure where my interest in bees comes from. When I was a child, I had a book about a bee called Buzzywing (by Edith Ellen Ellsworth), which I adored. It was basically the story of the honeybee's life cycle, and I found it fascinating.
During my 12 years on The Independent, my colleague Mike McCarthy was one of the first national newspaper journalists in the UK to highlight the problems facing honeybees, and challenge the claims of the big agri-chemical companies that their products were bee-safe.
As a gardener, I was shocked by his stories about the spread of varroa, or colony collapse disorder, and the various claims and counter-claims regarding neo-nicotinoids. Every single major problem that honeybees face today seems to have its roots in human intervention of some kind, even if it's just people throwing honey jars away without washing them out, which is one of the most quickest ways to spread two of the most serious bee diseases: American foulbrood (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB).
I currently have three hives - two at home (or rather in my neighbours' paddock, the other side of the wall from my garden), and one at the Cirencester and District Beekeepers Association apiary.
I've also just passed my beekeeping Basic Assessment, one of the exams and modules organised by the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA). Not that this makes me feel like a real beekeeper at last; beekeeping is a bit like gardening in that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know.
I'm not a natural beekeeper. I'm impatient and clumsy, and I really admire the experienced beekeepers I meet at C&DB, because they all seem so calm and unhurried. And they are all so good at woodwork! Being handy with a hammer and nails is a great asset in beekeeping.
Needless to say, I've learned a lot. I would really recommend joining your local beekeeping association if you are thinking seriously about keeping bees, because if things go wrong (as they invariably do), you'll find other people have had the same experience. This is very comforting if you have just lost your hive to wasps, for example, or your bees failed to make it through the winter.
And when things go right, you'll have honey from your own hive. W B Yeats knew a thing or two about what really matters in life.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Trouble in Paradise

As most of you know, the village where I live is, like Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way". Occasionally, however, a small black cloud appears in the sky over Bibury, and most of these small black clouds seem to follow in the wake of tourists in large hire cars.
We live on a narrow lane, where there is no public parking. It's a dead end, or what we call in the UK a No Through Road. There's a sign at the entrance to the lane that clearly states this, and another sign that warns the lane only gives access to residents. Yet every day, and especially at weekends, there is a constant stream of motorists driving up the narrow lane in search of Arlington Row, Bibury's world-famous cottages, or a parking place.
The lane leads to Arlington Row, but by the time it gets to the cottages, it is a footpath, not a road. It seems to be impossible to convince someone with a sat-nav that it is a dead end, and not only that, but a dead end that becomes a footpath. They just refuse to believe you.

Visitors admire the old cottages of Arlington Row in Bibury The yellow car belongs to one of the residents

The sight of people trying to do a three-point turn on a steep, narrow road with stone walls in every direction would be amusing, if it wasn't for the damage that these vehicles do to the walls and the grass verges. Unfortunately, it very rarely is a three-point turn; it's usually a 17-point turn.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind tourists. I quite enjoy meeting tourists and giving them directions. It's a small price to pay for living in such a beautiful village. However, the village won't stay beautiful very long if it is constantly being worn away by tyres.
Some visitors seem very aggrieved about the lack of parking. Someone complained to me the other day that Bibury should make provision for all these cars. I told him I thought it was disgraceful that the 12th-century masons who built our beautiful parish church didn't throw up a multi-storey car park while they were at it.
My neighbour opposite has had her dry-stone wall knocked down twice within the past 12 months. The verge along my wall, which I would like to plant up with spring bulbs and perennials, is constantly rutted with tyre marks. We have both tried putting logs or lumps of stone along the boundary in an attempt to stop people reversing over the grass, but it doesn't seem to work.

 My neighbour's wall, which needs to be repaired for the second time in a year

How do we solve this? We don't want endless signs all over the place, and in any case any signs or markings are often ignored. An Australian family recently parked their car at the top of the lane, on a double yellow line. When I pointed out this out to them, they insisted that they couldn't see the double yellow line.
I said that even if they couldn't see the double yellow line, it was obvious that their car was going to block the road to other traffic, to which they replied that British roads were all narrow, and we ought to be used to it by now. They thought this was hilarious. And people wonder why Bibury residents occasionally get a bit grumpy about the tourists.

Eupatorium: a eulogy

The fashion for prairie planting, or the New Perennial style as some designers prefer to call it, may not be universally popular with gardeners, but it’s very good news for the honey bee.
Prairie planting is all about letting plants do what comes naturally. You don’t have to stake them, or prune them, or deadhead them. You choose things like asters, or rudbeckia, or echinacea, that will establish massive colourful clumps that sway in the breeze without collapsing in a heap every time it rains. Most prairie planting schemes incorporate lots of tall grasses, such as miscanthus, or pennisetum, or panicum, and even as autumn turns into winter, their bleached flowerheads still add movement and texture.

Eupatorium combines beautifully with late summer/autumn perennials such as asters and solidago, as seen heret in the herbaceous border at Waaterperry, near Oxford.

So what’s not to like? Well, some gardeners don’t like grasses - they think they look scruffy,  or weedy, and will run riot in the borders. I’ve never understood the anti-grasses thing, because I’m a lazy gardener and evergreen grasses such as carex, stipa and acorus form a year-round framework that saves me having to think of anything else to put in their place for half the year. They look just as good with tulips and daffodils in spring as they do with Michaelmas daisies in late summer and autumn.
To be fair, not everybody’s garden is suitable for a prairie planting scheme, because this sort of planting work best where everything gets its fair share of light - in an island bed, say - rather than in conventional borders around the boundaries. However, you don’t have to have acres and acres of space or, indeed, a prairie. One very good example is the High Line in New York, the converted overhead railway line designed by Dutch plantsman and prairie pioneer Piet Oudolf.
The plants themselves tend to be on the big side - a metre-plus in height on average, if not more - and one of the most impressive is Eupatorium maculatum, known as Joe Pye weed in America, where it is a food source for Monarch butterflies on their long autumn migration south to Mexico.
In this country, you will see Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum Group’ and Eupatorium purpureum listed in nurseries and catalogues. You may also see the name Eutrochium maculatum, because the botanists have just reclassified this plant, and in their usual fashion have come up with something that is even more difficult to pronounce. “Eutrochium” sounds more like someone clearing their throat than the name of a plant.
Matthew Wilson, a regular on the Gardeners’ Question Time panel, is a fan of Eupatorium purpureum because it is a good plant for blurring the boundaries between garden and surrounding countryside. Whatever the name, however, most eupatoriums look vaguely alike - dark green leaves arranged in a star shape around dark red stems, topped with domed clusters of pinky-lilac flowers. 
And they are all big. They form a clump of up to two metres in width and height, so definitely a choice for the back of the border, or at least somewhere they have room to spread out. Some varieties are more compact: ‘Gateway’, for example, which is stocked by Knoll Gardens, the grasses specialist in Dorset. However, “compact” is a relative term in this case - even ‘Gateway’ can grow to six feet, and the “dwarf” varieties such as ‘Little Joe’ and ‘Baby Joe’ will form clumps a metre high.
Despite this, they are not overbearing, in-your-face plants. Although they form big clumps, the subtle colours of the flowers produce a smoky, misty purple effect that recedes rather than intrudes.
So who was Joe Pye and why is eupatorium called Joe Pye weed? There are almost as many legends about the name as there are species and cultivars of eupatorium, but the generally accepted story seems to be that Joe Pye was a Native American, who used eupatorium as a remedy for typhus. Other stories say that Joe Pye is a corruption of jopi, or jopai, a Native American Indian name for typhus.
Whoever or whatever Joe Pye was, eupatorium was also used as a cure for gallstones or kidney stones (hence another of its common names, gravel root), and rheumatism. Traditionally the plants were dried, and put into to hot water to make a kind of bitter tea. Herbalists often added cayenne or ginger, and honey to make the drink more palatable. It is tempting to wonder whether it was the hot water or the ginger or cayenne that was really responsible for making you sweat, but eupatorium is still used by homeopaths as a remedy for fever.