Dear MOTHER: Improving Pollinators

Letters from our readers about family heirlooms, planting potatoes, and getting through these trying times.

article image
by Doreen Knapp

Remarkable Rebirth

After reading Editor at Large Hank Will’s “Feral Bees, Take 2” editorial (August/September 2019), I had to share some positive experiences of bee survival in my area. We’ve been having difficulty trying to prevent bee losses. Lots of beekeepers have reported losing at least half of their bee colonies. I’ve lost bees to what I would contribute to colony collapse disorder. Usually when I lose my bees, it’s late in the season, with all bees disappearing from the hives as well as an absence of any honey, brood, or dead bees. The hives are completely empty and void of evidence of any bee activity ever having existed. But last year was different. Late in the season, as I was treating my bees with formic acid, the surplus super on one of the hives was partially full, and later, when I removed the treatment, it was empty, as was the upper story of the bees’ honey stores. I fed them to ensure their survival, but for some reason, they used very little of what I’d given them. So, I figured they were doomed and gave up on them. During the month of February, we had an unusually warm day. As I was at my woodpile splitting, a bee landed on me. I just knew it couldn’t have been one of my bees, but I went to inspect the hive anyway, and I saw activity. I have no idea how they survived with little to no food stores, but for some reason, they wintered through and are doing well. I’ve since added a second surplus super, because the first was almost full of capped honey. Plus, I’ve started a new hive this year, and today I added its first surplus super, since the bees have their upper story full of capped honey.

Two years ago, I had an empty hive with no bees, and one day, I noticed activity at the entrance. I decided to open and inspect it, and I saw that a swarm had taken up residence. That was $130 worth of free bees!  And recently, as I was walking back to the house from the garden, I noticed a swarm of bees just overhead in my apple tree. I quickly put together a hive box and brushed as many into it as I could, and then I left the box on a stepladder. Sometime later, they were all in the box. More free bees! At least that’s a positive experience. I’m always interested in your articles because they’re packed with helpful and interesting information.

Gary Paine
Pomfret Center, Connecticut

A Transformative Tree

I was a 20-year-old college sophomore in 1971, when I suddenly became acutely mentally ill. More specifically, I entered the nightmarish world of full-blown schizophrenia. I was wracked with hallucinatory pain and anguish and unable to think or function. Every waking moment became a living hell; there was no escape from it, day or night. After a couple of months as a couch zombie, my mother, bless her heart, took me to Lexington Gardens, a large nursery and greenhouse. There, I saw a bonsai tree sitting on a bench in the corner. It was a perfect little tree with nice green moss. That tree awakened something in me; it reached into my soul, grabbed me, and said, “Johnny, hold on, you’re still in there.” So, in spite of the cacophony in my head, and the pain and impairment, I forced myself to try to grow a bonsai tree. After several months, and in fits and starts, my illness gradually went into remission, and I was able to pick up the pieces and go on with my life. Fast-forward 49 years, and after helping to run a family business, I’m now retired and have turned my lifelong passion into a small bonsai nursery. Bonsai isn’t just a hobby, it’s an art form, and even a way of life that helped to save mine.

John Ramsdell
Verona Island, Maine

Dig Dirt

I’ve enjoyed your magazine for over 25 years. Nothing makes me happier than your gardening articles. I’ve come to realize that I also like to grow beautiful things I enjoy and can use through the cold winter months here in New York. When I go to make a nice soup or hearty stew and I use the herbs I’ve grown and dried, I feel the love and passion that keep me digging in the dirt.

Harvesting beautiful ornamental corn is like Christmas every time I open and husk it. Smelling the lavender I’ve grown brings me back to when I first planted it. Gardening takes heartfelt drive and hard work. But love for our beautiful world makes it easy. Thank you, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for keeping me looking for the next issue.

Doreen Knapp
Stanfordville, New York

Perfectly Practical Potato Planter

Old meets new. After years of planting seed potatoes by hand, and being physically worn out after that chore, I was fortunate to find an old horse-drawn potato planter at a farm auction. I won the bid. It looked pretty rough, but all the mechanical parts seemed to turn. The drawbar that was used to hook the planter to a horse was broken, so I attached a new bar so I could hook it to my tractor. Much to my surprise and delight, the planter worked perfectly, and has been doing so for the past 10 years. Now, planting 300 to 500 pounds of seed potatoes takes only about half an hour. It’s a credit to the manufacturer that this planter, which is at least 100 years old, still performs like it should. Every spring, when the potatoes are planted, my back muscles are appreciative!

Leslie Witte
Bland, Missouri

Digging Up Deep Roots

Readers, we received a number of responses to Editor at Large Hank Will’s “Roots Reconnected” editorial (February/March 2020). Here are some of our favorite letters from you. –MOTHER

Potatoes for Posterity

I really enjoyed Hank’s editorial. I, too, grew up in a rural setting on a small farm, where we gardened and preserved most of our own food. As a child, my parents allowed each of us to have our own small garden where we could choose to plant whatever we wanted, as long as we took care of it. My plot was full of pumpkins, gourds, and flint corn, along with a few other vegetables.

I’m still gardening at age 60. Among other plants, I grow an heirloom variety of sweet potatoes. I don’t know what kind they are, but they’re bright orange, have no strings, and are very flavorful. I remember my parents growing them when I was small. My parents were given starts of the plants from my aunt and uncle, who originally acquired them from a farm couple who lived nearby.

Each year, we started new plants off the sweet potatoes we’d saved from the previous year. All those people in my life have passed on, but I’m still keeping the heirloom sweet potatoes going. If I don’t, they’ll be gone forever. So, I always grow extra and share them with others, teaching them how to start their own plants. My hope is that when I’m gone, others will still be able to enjoy the bounty, while also knowing the history of where the potatoes came from and how to keep them growing! Thank you for sharing your touching story.

Donna Steinbauer
Fremont, Ohio

Garden of Growth

Hank, my heart went out to you when I read your editorial. My husband had the biggest and best vegetable garden in our area. It provided us with food year-round. The garden was a source of pride, fun, and frustration. Like all vegetable gardens, it nourished us and connected us to the earth and to our realities. We planned, planted, and harvested the garden together, while he cultivated the soil and I processed the food for winter. This routine worked for us. He died in 2016, and I kept his garden going through grim determination.

But, I discovered I had to make adjustments. It’s a little smaller, and I’ve added more mulch, which means less weeding. I no longer operate the big rototiller. I made some permanent beds. Somewhere over the course of these past few years, I stopped “keeping his garden going,” and instead started cultivating a different vegetable garden — a garden that’s relevant to me now. It feeds me all year, just the same. It’s still fun and interesting, but now it brings me peace and contentment. It was built on his strength, but now produces on mine.

I’m making my own plans for it, taking it in some different directions that he might not have. It’s uniquely mine now, and it’s keeping me connected to my roots and smiling as I look toward the future.

Isobelle Marsden
Parksville, New York

Sustaining Squirt Beans

I love MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and I read each issue cover to cover — even though I’ll never build a sauna or raise cows — because the articles are always interesting!

My family’s plant story starts with my great-grandpa’s neighbor doing missionary work in Japan and bringing back soybean seeds that my family started growing. Each season, we made sure to grow enough to eat and freeze, but also to save seed for the following summer to keep the variety going. My dad continued the job in our backyard garden.

As a kid, I hated when it was time to pull the pods off the plants, because it was such an annoying job! We had to do it twice: once for eating and preserving for winter; and again after the pods had started to dry, but before they dropped their seeds. The family recipe was to boil the soybeans in heavily salted water until they became soft. When my dad was a kid, he called them “squirt beans,” since the flesh squirts out when the bean is squeezed. My sisters and I called them this too, until I was in my early 20s and ordered edamame at the local Japanese restaurant and realized that’s what I’d been eating my whole life!

I’ve continued the process of growing this bean. I’m the owner and sole employee of Emily’s Garden in Woodstock, Illinois, where I sell veggies to local restaurants. Every year, I save these seeds and am able to sell some to the restaurants for weekend specials. It’s such a treat to offer local, organic, non-GMO soybeans in an area full of conventional soy! Dad helps me with my plot, and we always plant the soybeans together and make sure we have enough for seed saving. We pull the plants just before the seeds fall, when the pods are a little yellow; we have to pick them off the ground if we miss that window by a couple of days. A few years ago, my dad sent the seeds to Seed Savers Exchange, and now everyone can buy ‘Fledderjohn’ soybeans (my great-grandpa’s last name). I have blanched beans in my freezer right now and dry seeds in my basement. My kids will be the fifth generation to continue this process (they hate pulling the pods too!), but we have to keep our squirt beans going.

Emily Zack
Woodstock, Illinois

Gardening Genes

I gardened in the front yard of my tiny suburban corner lot for a handful of years, but I’d never planted corn. I refer to this unconventional front yard garden as my “dirt therapy.” Corn was too tall, too ugly for modern suburbia, and too nutrient-needy for my clay soil.

In the summer of 2018, my family took a massive road trip from Fort Worth, Texas, to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. On the return trip, we drove through Hopi lands, and I saw their large family garden plots from the road. The conditions were hot and dry, with no visible irrigation. Despite this, the Hopi gardens were lush and green, and the corn was absolutely stunning. This trip set me off on a quest to understand the relationship between blue corn, the Hopi people, and the special conditions they use to plant and grow in the arid desert of the Southwest. The next spring season, I grew “social” clumps of Hopi blue corn with beans, squash, and towering bright-yellow sunflowers. That experiment has been the most fun I’ve had since I began gardening.

I plant tomatoes in my garden every year and think of my maternal grandmother, who would blissfully eat a BLT sandwich with a fresh tomato from her backyard every day of our infrequent summertime visits to her North Carolina home. I don’t even like raw tomatoes, but her love of tomatoes lives on in my son, who will eat homegrown cherry tomatoes by the bowlful. In spring, when my ‘Celeste’ fig tree slowly wakes from its dormancy, I think of my grandfather, who was convinced that he had to mercilessly chop his fig tree down to the ground every winter for the best summer fig preserve results. My paternal grandmother also had a green thumb, and kept an amazing garden and orchard in southern Florida.

North Texas isn’t nearly as generous a place to garden as North Carolina or Florida, but being in the sunshine around plants is in my blood. Working outside; carefully placing seeds in cool soil; the physical act of digging impossible holes in rocky, clay soil for fruit trees; moving countless wheelbarrows of wood chips; and the Zen-like weaving of cantaloupe and cucumber vines through vertical trellises have all given me peaceful refuge from unhealthy addictions, uncertain life changes, and painful losses. I can’t shake the profound connection to my own past, present, and future that gardening has so generously given me.

Alesha LaFleur
Fort Worth, Texas

Riveting Rooster

Here’s a photo of my rooster. Hope you enjoy!

Becky Robinson
Dilliner, Pennsylvania 

Chestnut Cake

Thank you for the blurb on making flour from chestnuts (Ask Our Experts, August/September 2019). For years, we tried unsuccessfully to do something with our chestnuts. Finally, with the advice you provided, we were able to make it! Making the cake was truly a labor of love. We’ve done it now for a second year. We’ve made the chestnut cake from the recipe you provided about three times this year. I even stored some flour in the freezer for a later date. Thanks again for the information!

Judy Messer
Greenwell Springs, Louisiana

Poring Over Pages

I enjoyed the 50th anniversary issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS very much (December 2019/January 2020). I found MOTHER EARTH NEWS back in the early ’70s. I pored over the pages, and was amazed and delighted at what I was reading. My journey with MOTHER began with that discovery. All these years later, and we’re still on the journey! Thank you very much for what you do. It makes a huge difference.

Nancy Karich
Bland, Missouri

Community in Isolation

I’ve been rereading old issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS while I’ve been cooped up at home during the coronavirus pandemic! So glad I kept them. They’ve saved the day.

Ronald Dubay
Lewis, New York

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368