How To Bee Free In Your Garden

When Bees Are Not Invited

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about how to attract bees, keep them safe and make them happy. However, a reader who is deathly allergic to bees (and about 5% of the population is) wonders what he might safely plant to reduce his garden’s attractions for bees. He doesn’t want to do anything that would harm bees, but is understandably interested in limiting his exposure to potentially life-threatening situations.

Fair enough! For starters, busy bees are really not interested in people and can be amazingly tolerant of humans’ inadvertent interactions. Things may get a little dicey when bees accidentally get  trapped inside a house or car and become confused and frightened. Bees will also react when stepped on (surprise!), but bees don’t sting lightly, because stinging costs them their lives.

Avoid Bee-loved Plants

Fortunately for those who need to limit their exposure to bees, they can avoid uncomfortable encounters by planting things that bees don’t find compellingly attractive. For example, bees greatly prefer simple single blossoms rather than deeply ruffled and/or doubled flowers, which are more challenging to pollinate. Bees also choose yellow, purple or blue flowers over red ones, probably because bee eyes don’t perceive red shades very well. Also, there are some flowers bees just don’t like, for whatever reason. Thus, double red petunias would be almost guaranteed not to invite bee visits.

However, there are no guarantees, so let’s say up front that nothing but a glass bubble will keep bees entirely out of your garden. Still, bees are smart and they remember where the good stuff is. If trips to your garden are unproductive, the bees will stop coming to yours and visit the neighbors’ instead. Remember, too, that bees are not interested in plants that are pollinated by wind, birds, or insects, a limitation that offers bee-averse folks hundreds of attractive (to humans) options.

Choose Bee-reft Bushes

Like what? Well, conifers like compact firs and dwarf pines are obvious choices, as are foliage plants that bloom scantily, or can easily be sheared to remove blossom buds. Consider creating lovely contrasts of color, shape, and texture by combining foliage shrubs, ferns, bamboos and grasses (which are wind pollinated). Such a garden does not depend on flowers for its beauty and can be surprisingly colorful through much of the year.

Which shrubs fit the bill? Evergreen or deciduous, euonymus comes in numerous green, gold or even pink-tinged forms, from ground covers to shrubs. Diablo, a near-black cousin of native ninebark, blooms briefly in late spring but provides a dramatic backdrop for golden or chartreuse foliage well into autumn. Smoke bush boasts foliage in old gold, deep purple, soft green or rusty red, with fluffy plumes of insect-pollinated blossoms in midsummer. Heavenly bamboo (actually related to barberries, but not bee-pollinated) has  feathery foliage in soft or bright colors, from jade green to plum purples or firecracker reds and oranges.

Fewer Flowers, More Handsome Foliage

You don’t need to avoid flowers altogether, but to keep bee visits to a minimum, concentrate on those that aren’t nectar-rich. Japanese anemones, begonias, and zinnias are good choices. Shade-loving impatiens is also low-nectar and not bee friendly, perhaps because bees prefer to forage in sunshine. Shade tolerant coleus, a basil relative, comes in a remarkable range of colors, with varied leaf size and shapes as well. Coleus will occasionally flower, but any flowering shoots should be pinched off anyway, since the plant will be bushier and produce more foliage if not allowed to bloom.

Though most fragrant flowers attract bees, intensely scented flowers often repel them. For example, bees avoid chrysanthemums, geraniums, marigolds, artemisias and feverfew. They also tend to ignore late bloomers like evening primrose and angel trumpets that are pollinated by bats and/or night flying moths. Hummingbird pleasers like fuchsias, trumpet vine, and columbines seem to baffle bees as well. If all else fails, you could do as one lovely gardening friend did and garnish the garden with unfailing color from plastic flowers. When the garden seemed dull or party time approached, she’d head for the dollar store and stock up on geraniums, peonies, roses and so forth. Back home she artfully wove them into her evergreen matrix for a playfully festive effect that brightened the garden without attracting a single bee.

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A Plethora Of Pumpkins

On Beyond Pie

Pumpkins are just plain beautiful. Round or elongated, warty or smooth skinned, tawny or palest cream, they stand out like glowing lanterns in the browning fields. Carving pumpkins has always been one of my favorite fall activities. Some years, I gently scratch patterns on my growing pumpkins in late summer, so the scar tissue makes images of flowers and foliage, birds and animals as well as the usual funky faces.

It always seems a shame to waste the pumpkin innards that get removed to make room for candles. Most of the slimy goop can go straight into the compost heap. In fact, I often clean pumpkins on a picnic table near my compost, so it’s easy to toss what I don’t want right onto the pile. I clean the inside of my pumpkins with a trowel or a huge serving spoon, getting all the stringy bits out. If the sides are scraped as clean as possible, the inevitable rot will be slowed down. I pick out as many large, ripe pumpkin seeds as possible, putting them in a bowl of water to rinse off the sticky stuff.

Home Grown Pepitos

Pepitos or pumpkin seeds are tasty and nutritious, and we use them often as snacks, in salads, as garnish for soups, and in rice or pasta dishes. I also use them in pestos, where they replace pinenuts, walnuts, or almonds. To make your own rinse the seeds well and dry in a single layer on parchment paper. When dry, toss with a little olive oil and sea salt, then place them on parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 325 F. until crisp (8-12 minutes). Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months.

Roasted Pumpkins

There are so many ways to enjoy eating pumpkins that pie is almost the least of them. For instance, you can roast chunks of pumpkin with potatoes and carrots, then toss in mild curry powder and sea salt and serve as a savory side with chicken or fish.

For a delicious entree, saute diced pumpkin with garlic, onions, and sliced kalamata olives, then toss with hot pasta. Sprinkle with soft goat cheese and lots of pepper and serve with a green salad garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Baby Pumpkins

Cook mini pumpkins whole in the oven or microwave, poke a few holes with a fork, then cook until barely tender (about 20-30 minutes in the oven, and 3-4 minutes in the microwave). Cut off the top, remove the seeds and refill with something yummy for individual servings.

For a savory version, fill tiny pumpkins with spicy chili, topped with pepperjack cheese and fresh cilantro. For a sweet-hot treat, mash in a spoonful of orange juice concentrate and some chopped ancho peppers. For a totally cute dessert, fill little pumpkins (raw, and cleaned) with pumpkin pie filling and bake on a rimmed baking sheet until set (about 30 minutes).

Pureed Pulp

I use my Squeezo Strainer to remove the strings from cooked pumpkin, making a smooth pulp with lots of tasty uses. Adding pumpkin pulp to curried chicken boosts both flavor and richness as well as coconut milk without adding any fat. Stir pumpkin pulp into chili, adobo, or pork stew for a new take on old favorites.

You can also make lovely pumpkin soup, flavored in a dozen ways, by sauteeing onions and garlic, then adding pumpkin pulp and water or broth with various combinations of herbs and spices. Ginger, coriander, and cumin give an Indian flair, while chipote flakes, cumin, and oregano add a Southwestern twist. Rosemary, lemon zest, and fresh basil give it Italian overtones, while cilantro, ginger, soy sauce and hot chili oil give it Asian flavor qualities.

Sweet Treats Too

On the sweet side, you can add a cup each of pumpkin pulp and chocolate chips to your favorite bread pudding recipe with delightful results. Make pumpkin bread using a banana bread recipe and 1-1/2 cups of pumpkin pulp, adding ginger and nutmeg as well as chunks of crystalized ginger for extra zip.

Roasted Pumpkin Soup

A beautiful centerpiece, this rich, spicy soup makes any meal feel festive.

1 large (8-10 inch) pumpkin
1 head garlic, broken into cloves, not peeled
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1-2 teaspoons powdered ginger
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth, hot
1 cup organic heavy cream, warmed
1/4 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Remove top inch of pumpkin with stem and scrape out seeds. Place pumpkin cut side up in a baking dish, tuck garlic cloves inside and bake at 425 until tender (about 30-45 minutes). When tender, gently scoop out pulp, taking care not to damage outer shell.  Mash pulp with peeled roasted garlic  and salt, pepper, and ginger to taste. Stir in broth (start with 1 quart and add to almost fill pumpkin shell). Stir in cream and serve at once, garnished with cheese. Serves 4-6.

Custard Cups

Gently sweet and softly spicy, this tender custard can be baked in small cups or one larger dish. To make it dairy free, use almond or hazelnut milk.

Pumpkin Custard

2 cups cooked pumpkin pulp
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1-1/2 cups whole milk OR almond milk
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extact

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Whisk together all ingredients and pour into a baking dish. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes (25-30 minutes for smaller cups) or until custard is set and a knife comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves at least one.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

Buttermilk gives these tender treats a delicate texture. If you don’t have any, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice to regular milk and let it clabber for 10 minutes before using. This is one of my family’s favorite treats, and they taste even better the second day (if any are left).

1 cup cooked pumpkin puree
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon double-acting baking soda
1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to bake 350 degrees F and line a muffin tin with paper muffin cups. In a bowl, stir together the pumpkin, brown sugar, egg, oil, and buttermilk, set aside. Sift dry ingredients together and stir quickly into the pumpkin mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and spoon into muffin cups. Bake until set and golden (about 20-25 minutes). Makes 12 muffins.

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Over-Wintering Edible Tropicals

Keep Those Tomatoes & Peppers Coming (Or Going)

A friend recently sent me a link to a hot pepper-grower’s site that offered suggestions on over-wintering your pepper plants. While I haven’t tried this with peppers myself, I have over-wintered tomatoes of various sizes. I’m fortunate in having both a glassed-in south-facing sunporch and a large, glassed-in west-facing bump-out in my kitchen. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a sentence with quite that many hyphens before. Huh.

Anyway, these sunny places allow me to grow temperamental tropicals indoors, where weather vagaries don’t harm the plants or diminish the harvest. Even during warm summers like this year’s, I keep basil indoors, where it flourishes better than on my sunny deck. After cooler summers, I often bring in a pot or two of cherry tomatoes loaded with unripe fruit at season’s end. Some years, the same plants have gone on to produce steadily for months. A few robust plants survived for several more years indoors.

Pruning Peppers

The hot pepper pros suggest cutting back pepper plants hard, leaving a framework of a main stem and one forked pair of side stems and removing all foliage as well. It’s obviously a lot easier to bring plants indoors if they are in pots, so they either pot or re-pot the pruned peppers, replacing spent potting soil in the latter case. Barring a sunny window, they keep their peppers under grow lights, watering monthly or just enough to keep them alive without forcing new growth.

The next suggestion is hugely important: spray each plant, soil, pot and all, with mild horticultural soap. Let stand for a few minutes, then rinse with luke warm water. That ought to take care of any pesky bugs that might otherwise sneak in past your guard. The last thing you want on any outdoor plant that’s coming inside is a cargo of whitefly, aphids, and so forth. When I bring in tomatoes, I give them a thorough shower first, but only prune lightly so I can keep as many of the unripe fruit as possible.

Or Just Bring The Bounty Within

When you have way too many plants to bring indoors, lots of unripe fruit can present a dilemma; do we pull the plants and lose the crop or leave the plants and (maybe) lose the crop anyway? In fact, both tomatoes and peppers will continue to ripen indoors if picked green. True, they won’t taste quite as terrific as those ripened outside, but they’ll definitely taste better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. Carefully gather as many unripe bell or sweet peppers and green tomatoes as you have room for indoors, where they will continue to ripen for several weeks.

I’d say now was a pretty good time, since night temperatures have been getting pretty low. A sharp frost will wipe out all tender tropicals overnight, leaving mushy, slushy compost material in place of those promising tomatoes and peppers. If you are bringing a few potted heat lovers in, give them a light, bright place. A south or west facing sunporch is ideal, especially if it has curtains to pull at night. (That minimizes heat loss.)

Let’s Take This Someplace More Comfortable

Though they flourish in summer heat, I never put my refugees in a super-heated situation. Given enough light and adequate warmth (60′s and up), cherry tomatoes will continue to crop well into winter. Thanks to my new ductless heat pump, my house now stays a cosy (for me, anyway) 66 degrees all the time, which suits basil and tomatoes (and presumably peppers) just fine.

If all your tomato plants are growing in the ground, pick over the lingering unripe, looking for good-sized, firm, and undamaged fruit. Green tomatoes that are mature enough to ripen will be a light, fresh green with a glossy skin. Any that are already starting to turn red will continue to do so indoors. Start hunting amongst the best looking, most healthy vines, taking the largest ones first. Smaller, dense or soft green fruit are better off composted. Avoid any tomatoes that have been damaged, investigated by bugs or birds, or look diseased.

Prepare For Ripening

Once you get your harvest to the kitchen, wash each piece carefully to remove dust or dirt, and trim any stems. When dry, the twiggy stems can easily jab holes into tender neighbors, a common cause of rot.  Another rot-inducer is moisture, so dry each one individually. It works best to place them on baking cooling racks to be sure they are completely dry on the bottom. Whatever you do, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator. The cold will turn the stored sugars unto starch and they”ll lose their delicate flavor in no time. Instead, store ripening fruit and vegetables on several sheets of newspaper, which help keep them nice and dry.

If your haul is a big one, store it in berry boxes or the shallow plant boxes you got at the nursery. Line each with newspaper and carefully layer in your tomatoes and peppers, making sure they don’t touch. If you need to make two layers per box, add several sheets of newsprint between them. Smaller tomatoes and peppers can be stored in egg cartons as well.

Dim & Dry Works Best

Keep your harvest in a dim, fairly dry place with good air circulation, out of direct sunlight. A warm garage is fine, as is a kitchen or pantry shelf. A moist environment like a laundry room may encourage molding, while an overly warm, dry one can make tomatoes and peppers shrivel up. If you really want dried ones, use a real food drier; the results are a lot better.

You’ll notice that as the reddest tomatoes ripen, their neighbors do too. That’s because, like apples, tomatoes give off ethylene, a natural gas that promotes ripening in fruit. You can use this handy happening to encourage slower ripeners to catch up; just rotate your greenest ones closer to redder ones. Your most mature peppers and tomatoes will ripen over 2-3 weeks if your house stays between the mid 60′s and mid 70′s. Any cooler, and they’ll take another week or so (too cool–low 50′s–and they’ll taste lousy as well). If this sounds like too much trouble, simply slow roast the whole batch and freeze or can the results, which are fabulous in sauces, soups, and stews.

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Vegan Breakfasts & Snack Bars

Food For All Ages & Stages

Like so many of my peers, I thought that being semi-retired would mean lots of lovely leisure. Hmm. Between caring for my aging mom and my growing grandson, my life is as full as ever. Indeed, I find myself too busy for sit-down meals more often than I would ever have guessed a few years ago. That’s not a bad thing, because it means that I’m enjoying the company of my family, capturing a time  together that will never come again.

My mom recently observed that my grandson, now 15 months old, and her cat (a brisk 8 year old) are developmentally similar and interested in the same things: cupboard doors, open drawers, and anything shiny or easy to toss around. She mused that she, too, now has the attention span of a cockerspaniel, so that made three of them. She thinks I should write a book called The Kid, The Cat, and the GG (which is our family shorthand for great grandmother).

Pleasing All Ages

Mom also says that food has become increasingly important to her as the rest of her world has shrunk. My grandson is often indifferent to food, preferring the fascinating world of manipulable objects. They spend a lot of time sharing grapes, blueberries, and raspberries, the mastery of which now challenges both of them. They also love salmon, poached to velvety perfection in a lemon juice bath, which also makes a magnificent mess when eaten with fingers and enthusiasm. Bliss!

Start With Best Basic Granola

The rest of us are totally taken with new twists on granola bars. After spending a small fortune trying out the many new whole-foods, vegan, and organic versions, most of which were too sweet and/or gummy, I decided to make my own. I started with my favorite homemade granola, which is hearty, crisp, and very adaptable. This simple unsweetened granola is delicious for breakfast and makes a lovely topping for fruit crisps. Not surprisingly, it’s awesome in granola breakfast bars (see below), which also make a perfect fall snack. Change up the ingredients freely, trying different combinations of nut butters, nuts, and seeds. Dried fruit tends to get even drier if mixed into this toasted blend, so don’t add them until you fix breakfast.

Unsweetened Granola Mix

6 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1-2 cups raw almonds
1 cup raw hazelnuts
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1 cup raw sesame seeds
1 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place each ingredient in a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted: about 20-30 minutes for oats, 12-15 minutes for larger nuts, 6-8 minutes for seeds and coconut flakes. Combine in a large bowl and toss to mix. Store in tightly sealed jars. Makes about 10 cups (all those seeds fill in between larger stuff).

Better Breakfast (and Snack) Bars

Slightly sweet, delectably rich, utterly crunchable, these wholesome and deeply satisfying breakfast bars combine homemade granola with the kind of nut butter that has just 2 ingredients; nuts and salt. Use chunky organic peanut butter, almond butter, or hazelnut butter,  or make your own walnut or pecan butter for an unusual treat. (To make nut butter, toast nuts until crisp, then grind in a food processor to desired chunkiness or smoothness.) Use your favorite dried fruit, and add yummy extras like chocolate chips and coconut flakes for extra energy when hiking or biking.

Vegan Breakfast Bars

1/2-2/3 cup brown rice syrup
1 cup nut butter
2-3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups unsweetened granola (see above)
2 cups puffed rice or millet
1/4 cup flax seeds
1-2 cups optional extras
(nuts, golden raisins, chocolate chips, toasted coconut flakes)

Loosely line a large baking pan (13 x 9 inch) with parchment paper, set aside. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large saucepan over lowest heat and stir until blended. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients; mix will be thick and sticky. Dump it on the parchment paper, wet your hands and firmly pat to flatten. Cover with waxed paper and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour. When cold, cut into squares or bars, wrap in waxed paper or foil and freeze. Serves at least one.

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