Reflections on natural growing in the company of bees

I find it difficult to come to terms with the extent and rate at which we are devastating life on our earth. WWF’s living planet report has just revealed that in the last 40 years the Global Living Planet Index shows a decline of 52% for vertebrates and 45% for invertebrates. Quite shocking isn’t it?

another visitor
A bumblebee resting on my finger

Sat pondering these crazy figures and reflecting on the six months I spent learning about how to grow ecologically in the Schumacher College gardens, I stumbled upon this scribbled into a corner of my notes from the apprenticeship …

“It was a while before I understood, but the bees were simply doing what bees do: acting as the gardeners of the world and making their incredibly generous gift of the landscape.”

I didn’t record from whom or where I happened upon this quote, but it somehow helps me to articulate the hopeful and reassuring quality of the experience I had day-to day of working in a vegetable garden so full of bees simply doing what bees do.

The synergistic vegetable garden at Schumacher College; a place full of bees … plus ducks!

This is the mandala shaped synergistic vegetable garden we planted during the course of our apprenticeship [with four lovely ducks for slug control]. The garden consists of curved, raised beds and adopts a no dig system developed by a Spanish lady called Emelia Hazelip who pioneered natural farming techniques initially written about by the hugely inspiring Masanobu Fukuoka from Japan.

“People interfere with nature, and, try as they may, they cannot heal the resulting wounds. Their careless farming practices drain the soil of essential nutrients and the result is yearly depletion of the land.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

In his book, The One-Straw Revolution Fukuoka tells the story of his life dedicated to exploring methods of natural farming. Out of decades of careful observation of the natural re-wilding of plants, insects and animals on his land, he developed a ‘do nothing’ approach to growing food there. His approach worked in harmony with nature, offering an alternative to practices relying on monoculture planting with high inputs of pesticide and fertilizer. Both Fukuoka and Hazelip recognised that it’s possible to achieve yields similar to that of modern farming methods by embracing natural processes and growing an abundant polyculture in a wild state with an undisturbed, living soil full of fungi and bacteria.

Honeybees on Chrysanthemum amongst a polyculture of Chamomile, Cabbage, Salad leaves, Peas, Beetroot & Calendula

In this garden the soil is left undisturbed and only the edible parts of plants are removed so that roots and outer leaves are left to compost insitu providing the organic matter needed to maintain fertility in the soil. Mulching is used to maintain soil structure and moisture, enriching the earth so that prepared fertiliser becomes unnecessary. The approach to disease and insect control is to grow crops that can exist together as part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem and create habitat for natural predators who can maintain pest populations. The understanding is that over time nature, undisturbed, becomes a self-regulating balance.

Bumblebee face peering over some Borage next door to Calendula and Courgette 

The garden is a polyculture of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers and the result over the summer was a garden packed full of honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. The number of spiders, beetles and other jumping, scurrying things in this garden is also quite amazing.

male cuckoo bumblebee on calendula

An old male Cuckoo bumblebee visiting Calendula with Onion and Courgette beyond

Most popular amongst all of the bees were Borage, Cornflower, Calendula, Garland Chrysanthemum and Poached egg plant along with Courgettes and flowering Globe Artichoke as firm vegetable favourites.

Carder bumblebee visiting Cornflower

I had many serene moments working in this garden while the bees, themselves hard at work, merrily buzzed around me as I wandered through the sculpted circular pathways. Their constant presence meant that my rusty bumblebee identification skills developed fast and throughout the year I was able to notice when each new species emerged from hibernation.

Woodchip pathway lined with Chamomile leading through the centre of the garden

There were lots of curious but heartening moments working in the mandala where I would find a bee resting on me, as if the excitement of the garden was all too much for them. Staying for minutes and in some cases much longer, they would rest before gathering the strength to continue their journey amid the flowers, back to their nests bearing sweet nectary gifts from the garden. In these moments I had the sense that I was working with the bees and for a same cause; to initiate life, to encourage beauty, to be productive and to be fed.

me and a bee

A bumblebee taking a rest on me

It is widely accepted that our modern agricultural practices are having a negative impact on the health of the soil, ecosystems and the quality of our food. So could this way of growing that more closely mimics what happens in nature become a viable alternative? The garden certainly did produce some beautiful food this year but at Schumacher College we had the luxury of experimenting with these methods without the commercial pressures involved in producing food. With the garden in its first year and a booming slug population, it is yet to be revealed how productive it might be in the long term. For our sake and the sake of the bees, I hope this way of growing is more widely used in the future and its definitely what I will be working with in my own vegetable patch.

Carder bumblebee on edible Chrysanthemum

There is such a huge potential for food growers to provide habitat and forage for bees and it’s amazing how quickly they will begin to congregate when there’s something sweet on offer. Working in this vegetable garden gave me a hopeful glimpse of what it would feel like to be in a world animated with biodiversity. Agricultural land really shouldn’t be as barren and lifeless as it is. It should be alive and bustling full of scurrying, buzzing and blooming things so get growing naturally and enjoy watching the bees do what bees do.

If you’re interested in finding out more about synergistic gardens,

check out this video by Emilia Hazelip