Thanks to the honeybees

My husband started keeping bees early this spring because, thanks to quarantining and no business travel, he suddenly had the time. I jest, but I’m happy to report many good things have come from staying at the meadow. One of them is our garden–both vegetables and flowers!

We’ve had a little more rain than usual, the summer has been hotter, our beds are more established … all of these things are true. But I think we can really attribute much of Mother Nature’s success to honeybees. I did a little digging. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service states that “Roughly one of three bites of food is dependent on the work of honey bees and other pollinators, mostly wild native bees.” And according to the American Beekeeping Federation, “Many of the country’s crops would not exist without the honey bee at bloom time. Crop yield and quality would be greatly reduced without honey bee pollination.” I concur.

Perdue University’s horticulture program has an informative guide on the use of bees with vegetable crops, and according to them, our cucumbers and squash greatly benefitted from the bees. Our okra and pepper “set fruit without bees, but bee activity has shown to increase yields.” And our snap beans and tomatoes apparently got nothing from the honey bees other than having their pollen and nectar collected. But I don’t believe that, because my tomatoes have been more productive than ever this year.

So whether you’re relying on wild native bees, or are a practicing beekeeper, keep on providing a safe space for honeybees in your area. Their direct and indirect hard work pays off. Check out today’s tomato haul: 20!

Optimistic Gardeners in the News

We’ve long been fans of Jim Gaffigan, and this morning’s piece on CBS Sunday Morning was made all the more charming by his delight at finding success in the garden.

– – > Jim Gaffigan goes green

So, if a city boy with no experience with vegetable gardening can do it, so can you. We’re coming to the end of the summer growing season, but there’s still lots of hot weather left in most of the lower 48, and then fall, and then … well, you get the idea. Get out there and dig in the dirt!

Behind the Scenes: Zinnias

This week I caught up with Maggie Zwilling, with her beautiful zinnias, artistic aesthetic, and laissez faire attitude. She’s a badass. “I’m not a tidy gardener,” Maggie told me, “nor do I care if colors don’t match.” See what I mean?

Maggie is a big chronicler of butterfly and moth activity, and plans her garden with them in mind. Check out some of this summer’s swallowtail visitors from her garden:

Zinnias are easy annuals to plant and care for. They add vibrant pops of color throughout your garden, whether they’re the centerpiece or sprinkled in. Plan ahead to make sure you have enough for a cutting garden, so that even when you’ve got a bouquet of zinnias indoors, there’s still some gracing the garden.

For more information on zinnias, check out:

Bumper Crop: Tomato!

Last summer I couldn’t get any of my tomatoes to ripen, and this summer we’ve got tomatoes out the wazoo. I’m not complaining, mind you, because there’s nothing better than fresh field tomatoes. But we can only eat them so quickly. I decided to put some up for the winter, and am super surprised at how easy it was.

I used what we’ve got: Roma, early girl, and big boy. I tried one batch with citric acid, at the suggestion of my friend Karla. And I tried one batch like Vivian Howard, with lemon juice, salt and sugar. Both were super easy, so I think I’ll stick with Vivian’s because we always have lemons, salt and sugar on hand. I borrowed a large 16 qt gumbo pot from some friends down the way, but am going to get one to have on hand. The process was the same either way, and because it uses a hot water bath rather than a pressure cooker, you can consider me a forthcoming regular practitioner of canning.

Sterilize your jars and lids, either in the dishwasher or in the pot where you’ll be canning. Wash your tomatoes, then score them on the bottom. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then submerge your tomatoes for 30 – 45 seconds (I typically put them the water, then roll them around a couple times with my strainer spoon) and shift them over to a water bath. Peel, core and then quarter them. Add the quarters to your sterilized jars — I filled them to the top and pressed just a bit to make sure they were nicely filled. Run a knife around the edge to make sure you get out any air pockets. Then sprinkle 1/4-tsp of the citric acid over the top — or, if you’re using Vivian’s recipe, add the lemon juice, salt and sugar to the bottom of the jar before you add the tomatoes. Screw on the lid and place them down into the hot water, making sure you’ve got an inch or two above the top of the jars. Karla said to keep them at a low, rolling boil for 75 minutes, which I did, and it worked. Use jar tongs to remove the jars, and place them on drying racks on the counter. Leave them for 12 hours, and then move them to the pantry. I like an easy recipe, and this was definitely easy.

For more information:

Rain lilies

In May, my friend Maggie brought me a bunch of gladiolus and rain lilies. The gladiolus have since bloomed and faded, but the first little rain lily has finally shown her face. And, oh, how pretty she is! FYI, just ignore the bare ground … Mr. Sickles and I are in desperate need of mulch, but at this point we’re waiting for the fall.

Pink rain lilies (Zephyranthes carinata) are perennials native to Mexico, Colombia and Central America. They’re vibrant and delicate, and a shocking pop of color in an otherwise green portion of my garden. One great element of this little beauty is that we won’t have to dig her up to winter indoors, thank you baby Jesus. And with rain on the horizon, the rest of the bulbs are likely to bloom this week, too. Hurricane Isaias is forecast to head this way in some capacity, so batten down the hatches and stay safe, y’all.

Behind the Scenes: Tomatoes

In this week’s Chatham News & Record, I talked about tomatoes. I’ve been reading Max Brooks’ latest novel, Devolution, which is why I mentioned I’d be willing to arm wrestle a sasquatch for the last tomato. That opinion stands yesterday, today and tomorrow … because even if the sasquatch eventually does me in, I’ll die happy with a belly full of tomato yumminess.

I also mentioned Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, you know what I’m talking about. I grew up on an Army base in Germany, and we didn’t get the same shows in the mid-70s as American kids did in the states. I love Sesame Street, but didn’t see that until we got back state-side. Before that was the Electric Company, which I’m certain heavily contributed to my ADD. Because, HEY YOU GUYS!

But I digress … we’ll blame it on the Electric Company effect. Back to tomatoes! I always ask my community gardening experts about fertilizing and pest control, and Kathryn Robinson said, “Early on, I use an organic tomato plant fertilizer every few weeks.” She’s also the unicorn of farmers because the Japanese beetles in her garden “don’t seem to like the tomato plants.” 

If there are any tomato-whisperers out there, hit me up. I’m always looking for ways to improve my tomato game.

For More Information:

Behind the Scenes: Fruitful Vegetables

The Optimistic Gardener | Fruitful Vegetables

By Dolly R. Sickles

This week in the Chatham News & Record I’m talking to my good friend, John Davis, whose wife Jean I’ve known for 25 years. John is just the coolest guy, with a totally interesting origin story

Born in Brazil to parents who were lay ministers with the United Methodist Church, John is a peaceful dynamo. Since his parents studied agriculture at Iowa State in the early 1950s, and their purpose in the small town of Lins, Brazil was to run the farm that supported the seminary school, I knew John would have great farming insight. 

You can read about his logic for planting in the ground versus raised beds, how he fertilizes, and the cool cistern watering system he developed in the article. I wanted to use this post for a true behind the scenes look at a childhood that was so very interesting and different than most of us. The Davis family lived in Brazil until John was 14, and during that time his peaceful father, Bob, turned out to be quite the radical Renaissance man.

In 1964, when the military took over the Brazilian government in a coup, Bob Davis stepped up to the plate. “Toward 1970, when we left,” John said, “dad was spending time with other people in the Methodist Church to get information out of the country, and to help get people under surveillance out of the country to safety.” They had a small apartment out back they used as a staging area to move people out, like an Underground Railroad. 

The Davis family constantly encountered exciting things—theirs was like a real-life Indiana Jones situation. There was the time when, one night, Bob was going to take a woman they’d been helping to the bus station so she could leave the country and get to safety in Argentina. Only, the police were there so she and Bob had to wait it out in the car. Another time John came home from school and headed to the vacant lot next door where he hung out, and noticed the ground was disturbed; he found a shovel and started digging. Turned out his dad and crew had been smuggling out documentation and information to US media sources that described the torture and imprisonment happening in the country. And then there was the period when Bob delivered the mail to missionaries and ministers in the field by plane—”a big, lumbering DC-3″ that needed a dump truck to start its propeller once. I kid you not, I could’ve listened to stories about John’s family for hours. 

And not to be outdone, Jean’s family also has an interesting history of gardening. Her mother worked for the famed Weston Nurseries in New England, as an azalea propagator. Jean also worked for Weston, though she was out with the garden crew planting bushes. “That was enough experience to know I don’t want to work in the garden again,” she said, laughing. “I like flower gardening, but I enjoy the fruits of John’s garden.” She turned out pretty good, farming aside, because she’s the President & CEO of MCNC. She’s basically a badass with a cool origin story, but that’s a topic for another day.

So let me assure you, the people around you are interesting as hell. You’ve just got to talk to them. Checking out their garden is a good way to break the ice. Get out there and be optimistic, people. And dig in the dirt while you’re doing it.

For more information:

Flying the Coop

Our cute little coop bit the dust a couple weeks ago. Seven inches of rain in three days tends to be dramatic, and in our case, our cute little coop couldn’t keep up. The side door collapsed, so we had to nail it shut. And that means our six chickens were not happy (or safe)–so we built a new one. “You should turn it into a AirB&B, and call it ‘Sleeping with Chickens’,” our friends said. LOL. All we have left to do is caulk it, paint it red, and add the finishing trim.

Twenty-Six Years of Optimism

We’re celebrating our 26th anniversary today. I always have such fond memories of our wedding, and the life I’ve built with my husband and son … but inevitably my mind drifts back to the flowers in my wedding bouquet. For years, Mr. Sickles gave me stargazer lily bulbs to plant in the garden. As a result, we had dozens of cut lilies to bring in on June 4. But when we moved four years ago, I didn’t bring any lilies with me — other than the fondant lily that was on a cake we had celebrating our 20th anniversary. That cake was the stuff of legends, the decorations included, and came from Once In A Blue Moon Bakery in Cary. I think it’s time to add some stargazers to this garden, since we have the perfect meadow for stargazing and, well, stargazers.