On being ... a beeliever

By Ingrid Sapona

Over the years I’ve grown flowers and herbs on my balcony. A couple years ago I tried growing tomatoes but was disappointed. I think I got four tomatoes from it all season and I felt I must have done something wrong. The following year I tried growing a mixture of lettuces. My godmother always has a big bowl of it growing on her patio. Since I love salad, I thought I’d give growing it a try. The lettuce grew and filled out the container, but I was never sure how or when to harvest it. So I found that experiment disappointing too. 

This year – in a utilitarian mood – I planned to stick to herbs because I love having them for cooking. So, in May, I went to the nursery to get the herbs I wanted. While I was looking around, I noticed a little plant I hadn’t seen before. The tag said “Everbearing Strawberries”. Given my track record with tomatoes and lettuce, I figured in my case “everbearing” would end up being a synonym for “never bearing”.

Well, in a moment of weakness (and pricing savvy by the nursery, with three plants for $7 the strawberry plant would be my sixth), I added one to my cart. When I got home, I dutifully re-planted it in the largest container I had. The small clump in the middle of the big pot looked woefully lonely.

The following week a friend and I were driving around in wine country and we stopped at a farm that was selling heirloom tomato plants. The tags showed pictures and described the unusual varieties. So, despite my previous underwhelming crop, I broke down and bought one of them too. As soon as I re-planted it, it became something from Jack in the Bean Stalk, growing inches per day.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed a friend who has a master gardener designation for advice on tending the tomato plant, given my previous experience. She said she thought the heirloom plant would be fine, “so long as bees can find it”. Hmmm… bees.

I told her I’ve seen bees on the balcony before (I once had an African basil plant that the bees loved), so I assumed they’d “find” the tomato plant. She then said, “Well, you can always pollinate it by hand – all you need is a craft paintbrush.”

By hand? No way. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t know where to begin (well, I guess you begin with the blossoms), I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. Though the prospect of heirloom tomatoes is appealing, I couldn’t see myself out there with a craft paintbrush. I decided to have faith that the bees would find the plant. Besides, at that point, the plant didn’t even have any blossoms.

Despite being knocked over during a few windstorms, and seeming a bit waterlogged after a few heavy rains, by late June all the plants were thriving. The little strawberry plant was especially beautiful. It filled the pot and its lovely, shiny dark leaves created an elegant crown that – to my delight – was dotted with lovely little white flowers that looked like precious gems. It’s such a handsome plant, I didn’t care if it ever yields any berries.

Meanwhile, a few little yellow blossoms had come out on the tomato plant. So, all I needed were some bees to find the strawberry flowers and tomato blossoms. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time on the balcony, but – unlike in previous years – so far I haven’t seen a single bee. Friends of mine have a farm and have hives and I know that something like half of them died over the winter, so I know bees are in short supply. Given that my balcony is five stories up, and given the dearth of bees, I figured it was understandable that I’ve not seen any.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed something remarkable: little white strawberries had sprouted where some flowers once were, and many of the yellow blossoms on the tomato plant have become little tomatoes! I couldn’t believe it. It was like magic! A few days later, when I saw that one of the strawberries had turned red, before picking it I took a picture of it. I wanted proof of the miracle, just in case it was the only one that ripened.

I’m pleased to say that to date I’ve harvested about a dozen of the little treats – and more are well on their way. Though they’re all on the petite size, they are delicious. But, the best thing about them is that each one seems like a personal gift from Mother Nature to me.

As ridiculous as this may sound, the fact that the bees found my plants and worked their magic has changed the way I see produce in stores and markets. Now, whenever I see a piece of fruit or a vegetable, I think about the anticipation the farmers must have had – and their fears about what bad weather might do to their precious plants, not to mention the concern they must have about whether there are enough bees. I blithely ruled out the paintbrush-pollination my friend mentioned, but what if in the future there are no bees left? Sadly, we can’t rule that out.

If you’ve ever grown any fruits or vegetables, I’m sure you know the thrill I’m talking about. If you haven’t grown anything you can eat, give it a try. Doing so offers rewards – and appreciation for Mother Nature – well beyond any morsels of food the plant may yield. 

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


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