The Accidental Homesteader

BeekeepingI’ve always liked to garden, and I absolutely adore hanging out in the backyard reading a book or writing or eating something hot right off the grill. But the reality is I’m pretty lazy. And I’m very busy. I have a day job, and I’m a writer and blogger as well. I don’t have much time for a labor intensive yards. And yet… I’m a homesteader of sorts. An accidental homesteader, and I totally blame the bees. No, seriously.

Most people are aware that bee populations have been plummeting, with the honey bee particularly hard hit. Without bees our diets would be a hell of a lot less interesting, so when we moved into this house, setting up a hive was at the top of my hit-list.

So in the spring of 2015 I took a class, bought a hive and some bees, and have been a happy beekeeper ever since. I did it mostly for the bees, but I figured I’d also get a better fertilized garden (better harvest), maybe some honey in the fall, and a bee sting or two (hopefully not!).   I did not expect becoming a beekeeper would forever change me, but it did.

Bees survive on the pollen and nectar that flowering plants produce to procreate. The bees process nectar into honey and store it in honeycomb to feed the hive through the winter months. The pollen is a critical source of protein for bees, helping them stay strong and healthy. Bees cannot survive without sufficient amounts of both. No flowering plants providing pollen and nectar, no bees. No bees, no fruit, no nuts, no veggies, no coffee. Or chocolate. This would be very bad.

When you look at suburban or urban areas from the perspective of a bee you soon realize the large green expanses of grass so favored by humans are actually a vast expanse of desert. Grass sucks up an awful lot of water, but it never blooms, provides no pollen and no nectar, and produces no food for anyone or anything else either. It takes up the bulk of the land in the suburbs but provides no nourishment for those who live there.

Adding insult to injury, people are quite fond of applying herbicides to their lawns to make extra sure nothing interesting can grow there. Pesticides are also very common in these areas, and these chemicals kill off the good insects as well as the bad.

Even if you take pesticide/herbicide use out of the picture, when you stroll through an urban or suburban neighborhood it’s easy to see why the bees are struggling. Most yards have nothing flowering in them at all. Those that do typically have small patches of flowers, tiny islands of color in a sea of short green grass. To add insult to injury, many GMO flowers are made to be infertile, meaning they create neither pollen or nectar. There is literally nothing for a bee to eat in all those miles and miles of suburbs and city blocks.

If I’d have thought about it I would have realized it long ago. But frankly, I’d never even considered it. Until I got the bees.

In the class and in my readings I realized how little food was available for wild or honey bee populations, despite all the land available in urban and suburban areas. I also realized how easy it would be to change that. Planting low maintenance shrubs and trees that bloomed instead of plainer and less interesting non-blooming options like junipers is easy and inexpensive. Planting perennial plants in beds around your house means no maintenance and very little cost as these plants come back on their own every year. It also means a much more interesting and beautiful home, as well as food for bee populations. Another very simple option is replacing that kentucky bluegrass with clover. Clover is durable enough to handle foot traffic, requires less water, and turns your lawn into a beautiful expanse of red, purple or white flowers every spring. Beautiful, and good for the bees too!

I love my suburban home and my yard. I also love chocolate. I can have both without a lot of work and without a lot of expense, all it requires is a bit of fore thought. The bees made me realize I could create a more sustainable, beautiful, and healthy yard with little cost or effort on my part. Why wouldn’t I do that?

In the Beginning…

Front Yard 2015We moved into our new-to-us house in January of 2015. The front yard was a vast winter wasteland of grass, an Ash tree, a black walnut tree, and a perimeter of brown bark. The back was also a long stretch of grass, punctuated only by a couple of trees.

We loved the house, but from the outside, it was not much to look at. The trees were old and in rough shape thanks to years of neglect, and ‘trimming’ that was so poorly done we’re not sure the trees will survive much longer. The only interesting thing in the entire yard was a black walnut tree whose time is limited thanks to the poor trimming done in the past. An arborist has already recommended we cut it down and plant a new tree.

We have limited time and a limited budget of course, and the move was expensive, but we wanted to get started right away. So, in the summer of 2015 we planted a peach tree, a plum tree and an apple tree, which are just visible in this picture to the left. Fruit trees take years to mature so we wanted to get them in quickly.

We also wanted to get something in along the foundation of the house to add some color and some character to the property. My goal is to plant beautiful things that are useful, either to us or to a healthy and sustainable environment, and it took quite a bit of research to find things to plant here. The house faces north east, so anything along the foundation had to grow well in shade and had to be hardy enough to survive the much colder micro-climate of a north facing bed.  We settled on an Elderberry bush which we planted to the far left of the image above, four Currant bushes along the non-bricked portion of the house, and several Lyda rose bushes in front of the bricked portion of the house. (I adore roses, particularly varieties that have flowers like wild roses.) In front of the roses we put in a large bed of strawberries, leaving them plenty of room for runners. The hope is they’ll fill in the rest of the bed and provide excellent (edible) ground cover.

All of these plants are shade tolerant and cold hardy (good in zone 5a), a must-have for a north  facing bed. They also all produce food of some sort. The elderberry and currants have delicious berries that will feed us and the birds, as well as provide early season forage for the bees, important for helping to stop plummeting bee populations. The Lyda roses explode with beautiful pink flowers all season long and produces pollen and nectar for the bees, rose hips for us and the birds, and edible flowers (rose petal jam anyone?).

Equally important for working professionals with little time, all of these shrubs are low maintenance. And finally, the roses and the currants are drought tolerant. Denver is a very dry place. We cannot in good conscience plant anything that requires abundant water. Elderberry does tend to want a bit more water, so we planted it in a low spot in our yard beneath a downspout, so this spot has a very wet micro-climate.

backyard raised beds

In the backyard we had heavy clay soil, not great for gardening. So we decided to go with raised beds to give us a jump start with the soil. We put in four raised beds total in the summer of 2015, the image to the left shows the first one.

We built them four feet wide and eight feet long, keeping them narrow so you could reach into the center of the bed from either side. We spaced the beds far enough apart that it is easy to walk all around them even when crops are in full growth.

That was a lot of work for the first summer in the house! After these projects we were out of money and out of energy! With the yard, as with just about everything, it takes a lot of effort to get something started. The good news is none of these beds will require any additional work from this point onward, other than collecting and eating the delicious fruit!

It’s early February, but I’m already planning steps for this summer. Are you already giving thought to your garden this year?