One of the nice things about movies is the way they can unexpectedly connect you to someone halfway around the world, living an entirely different kind of life.
And so it has come to pass that my favorite movie “character” this year is a 50-something Macedonian woman named Haditze, star of the documentary Honeyland, which is showing at the Ritz Five. Her life as a harvester of honey means she lives in step with wild bees near her mountain home.
“Half for you, half for me,” she says, reaching into a hive for the raw honey she takes to sell at a farmers market, making enough money for herself and her aging mother. It’s a subsistence living but in its own way a comfortable setup, interrupted when a cattleman starts grazing his herd nearby. He takes note of the money Haditze makes and decides he could make some as well, disrupting and threatening the local ecosystem with a commercial hive operation.
In the end, we see that Haditze’s habit of sharing is not just a philosophy but a sound agricultural practice, and that attempts to manage the wild bees are counterproductive — a conclusion, by the way, recently reached by General Mills, which will encourage regenerative farming on its one-million-acre U.S. supply chain in part because it makes for healthier bee populations and more efficient pollination.
As Haditze might put it, the better the bees do, the better she does. I can relate, as someone who used to be indifferent to bees, and now spends about an hour a day in my front yard, watching them land on things that I planted. This is something I enjoy so much so that my neighbors stop their cars on the street to tease me about it.
What can I say?
I’m into bees, and bee habitats, a hobby I acquired despite being terrible at gardening.
I do not have a green thumb, though it’s somewhere in my DNA. My grandmother could take a cutting, stick it in cat litter, place it in a windowless garage next to her Buick LeSabre and within a month the plant would be 10 feet long and flowering.
Her talent may have skipped a couple generations. In fact, my incompetence with plants started the whole thing — a laurel bush died, then a giant rhododendron, and then I was informed I’d let ornamental shrubs grow too large, and they’d have to be removed.
This left me with a yawning gap of dirt that instantly became infested with the sort of plants that puncture skin or cause rashes.
Meanwhile, the universe seemed to be beckoning with an idea. There was a left-behind mail room magazine called Birds and Blooms, with a cover story about bees, and how much they need our help. And I thought, why not?
I began with no special skills, few expectations. But ended up, missteps notwithstanding, with a bee hangout that works stunningly well. Things grew, bees showed on cue, dozens of kinds. Also butterflies and moths in all shapes, sizes, colors. All humming and buzzing and flapping around in a colorful mini-Eden that smelled like licorice.
I found it to be the best kind of home improvement project — minimum effort, maximum payoff. I started with plants that would return every year, so I’d only have to do it once.
Based on what I read, I planted things that would roll out in stages, spring bloomers like hyacinths, the azaleas that were already there, my leftover rhododendron, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans. A spirea called bluebeard is great for the dog days of August. And so forth, all the way to asters that bloom well into autumn. Experts say you also want to mass things, so the insects can feast on a particular patch, so that I did.
I ended the summer with a patch of stuff that looks nice, grows in sun and shade, never needs water, and attracts pollinators galore. Still, I made some rookie mistakes, which I can help others avoid.
You have to cut things back. Aggressively. I have plants crowding out other plants, which will happen. Plants get “leggy” and grow sideways, so you have to “pinch” them. Thus, your garden becomes the only workplace where you can talk about pinching the leggy ones, and not get reprimanded.
Try to remember what you bought. My early research consisted of standing in a nursery, waiting for bees to land on a plant, then buying it. Now, I have no idea what half these plants are. Plumbago — is that a tropical disease, or something growing in my yard?
Another lesson: Google is overrated. You search for plants on Google, you get “results” offering to ship things to you, and who wants to get plants in the mail. Also, Google pretends not to know what’s available at local garden stores, or even that these stores exist.
You pop in to random garden centers, you get better info, better plants. I pulled into a place upstate on impulse, found a pepperbush that I needed to fill a shady spot and hole in my calendar for late July, early August.
The woman at the store was scrupulously honest (which is sort of the opposite of Google), and told me the plants are not as deer-resistant as advertised. A deer hopped her perimeter fence, strolled past all non-deer-resistant plants and immediately began eating the leaves of the very bush said to be repulsive to deer. I don’t have deer, but I loved the candor, and I bought the plant.
Another helpful garden center employee told me a lot of plants have been renamed, because the original, actual name includes the world “weed.”
I will buy anything with “weed” in the title. My Joe Pye weed is doing fantastically. Butterfly weed is growing eagerly though cracks in my driveway. It’s a non-native invasive species, and there are hard-core bee people who don’t like that, but I myself am a non-native invasive species, so I don’t judge.
Another tip: The big home improvement stores are giving plants away for free, essentially. They don’t always water their plants regularly, and they sell them withered (but very much alive) for a buck or two.
Withered but alive — as I drove away from Lowe’s with my wilted Mexican heather, I wondered if all gardeners end up buying plants that remind them of themselves.
Now, at summer’s end, I’m left with a robust garden, one that nourishes me as much as it nourishes the flying things.
It’s satisfying as few things are in these days of squabbling and dysfunction. Take a small piece of ground, a few plants, a hose, and in a few months, you’ve got a system that works perfectly, full of busy, grateful critters, and you are one of them.