For an outdoor enthusiast, there can be no better job than to work outside but if you’re an herbalist working for an open-minded apple farmer, your job description may have a very different skill set.
Recently my supervisor offered me a new job responsibility. In addition to pruning, picking and packing apples, I was asked to plant, specifically, pollinating plants, no alliteration effect intended. The apple farm is doing well but the bee hives they used to help pollinate the trees were dying like so many others. Colony Collapse Disorder, the name given to mass loss of bee hives, has no specific cause but is a term for a wide variety of possible causes including, mites, parasites, bacteria, viruses’ and chemical exposures.http:// http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0006481 The farm is not completely organic but operates under a minimum use of chemicals to maintain crops with one developing organic section. This does not account for other farm practices in the area as bees may travel up to a mile or more for pollen. My supervisor wants to protect the health of all the farm. My job…. find, purchase and plant a variety of blooming herbals to keep the bees close to their pollinating source hoping to minimize exposure to unknown sources and improve hive health.
To begin, I did a quick survey of what plants the farm had already. There were the winter remnants of dandelions, nettles, milk weed, plantain, white clover, evening primrose, garlic mustard, and lamb’s quarter. There is a new section of blueberries and another small section of plum, peach and cherry trees in addition to the 8-10,000 apple trees. Apple blossoms seem to be the most obvious source of nectar for the bees. What was missing were flower gardens. There was only one garden that decorated the front of the apple sales barn and a small raised bed for vegetables. The summer/fall flower season was essentially absent from what I could survey.
Next, I took a walk around the 200 acres of the farm. Aside from the apple trees, the farm was surrounded on the back side by wooded hills filled with birch, oak, pine, maple, sumac, and raspberry bushes. Again, not a lot of flowering plants. I did find areas throughout the farm with open fields making a perfect spot for planting new gardens. Farms on both sides and across the road grew corn crops.
With the goal of extending the blooming plant/nectar season, using local native plants whenever possible, herbals that can be medicinal/edible and most important for me, easy to maintain; I began my research. Here in Winona, Minnesota, we have a group of avid gardeners and a special group called “the Pollinators” that is trying to encourage people to include plants in their home gardens just for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects http://www.facebook.com/WinonaAreaPollinators/photos/a.260391037491620.1073741828.259479174249473/342733119257411/?type=1&fref=nf&pnref=story. They provided me with a list of possible choices. Next, I spoke to a local landscape company. I thought if we are going to use plants might as well put them in a great design. This helped me to narrow my search. I also wanted to provide and encourage the wild spaces in the farm for Mother Nature to take over. Here is the list I developed thus far;
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpura) Beautiful showy flowers all parts of this plant can be used medicinally. It spreads via rhizomes and needs little care.
- Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) A personal favorite, this has a spicy flavor throughout the plant, loves sunny areas and is a great local plant to treat sunburn or anything that burns. It self-seeds.
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) This can grow to bush size and has a fabulous mint-like flavor. This plant is known as the protector and is often hung in homes. I chose this to not only add pollen but for protection!
- Aster (Symphyotrichum naae-argliae) This particular variety likes the cooler climates. This also self seeds, is drought resistant and deer resistant and can bloom late in fall.
- Borage (Borage officinalis) Not native to our region but a favorite of bees, I had to include this. It has a wonderful cucumber-like flavor which makes an excellent addition to salads. Maude Grieves, says that borage is “exhilerate and makes the mind glad” lifting the saddest of spirits.
My research continues. In the meantime, the orchard is starting to wake up, small buds are beginning to form. Winter has said good-bye with one last dump of snow but warmer weather and planting time will soon be here. I can’t wait.