The Joy (and Benefits) of Growing Bee-Friendly Flowers

I always thought of freshly cut flowers as a luxury, something expensive yet does not last. My husband used to buy bouquets for the house, but since I never made much of a fuss over them and eventually said my thoughts out loud, he stopped.

When I first grew plants on my balcony, it was all about practicality. I went for herbs and fruits for our consumption. I did have some tulips, narcissus, and lavenders but they were gifts. I enjoyed having them, and I did take care of them, but growing flowers only became my conscious choice until this year.

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In the spring, Ian and I started a beekeeping course. We learned to keep bees in a biodynamic way so that we could assist them in their honey making and surviving as strong colonies rather than interfering with their activities to get the most honey. As it would take us a year to learn and god knows how much more time to get our place and keep bees ourselves, I looked for another immediate way to help the bees. The answer was as simple as it should be: growing more bee-friendly flowers.

Before the course, I didn’t know that not all flowers were bee friendly. Some industrial bred flowers have complicated petal systems that prevent the bees from getting the pollen. Also, if farmers use pesticide on their flowers, the chemical gets to the bees and could harm them. However, with a quick search, you can easily find lists of bee-friendly flowers for where you live. Our teacher also gave us some seeds so that I could start straight away.

So I set out in early spring, and here are the highlights of my first year as a flower grower who wants to help the bees.

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Cosmos

Cosmos

Cosmos is the winner of this year for me. It comes in many vibrant colours, and it lasts for a long time. On my balcony, cosmos was the first to flower at the beginning of June, and the last to go away in mid-November.

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Cosmos in mid-November

The plant is easy to grow and resistant to ill-treatment, such as overwatering or extremely dry. Over the summer, I took several trips abroad, a week here and there. At first, I set up a watering system for all the plants, but it was a lot of work. Eventually, only the tomatoes and herbs were hooked up, but the cosmos survived just as well. So if there is one thing for sure, it’s that I will grow more cosmos in the coming spring.

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A sunflower and a bee

Sunflower

Sunflower is awe-inspiring. A sunflower plant in a pot can grow taller than 1m60. The flowers are of vibrant yellow and brown colours. It’s also super fun to watch bees waddle among the disk flowers

Sunflower is picky, though. It doesn’t grow well being repotted. Because of the size of the mature plant, you will need a 40cm+ diameter pot from the start. When it grows over 50cm or during the height of the summer, you need to water it twice a day. Also, most plants, despite their giant size, often have only one flower head. A lot of work for one flower head, I would say. This year, I had six containers, but perhaps I will reduce it by half next year to make my life a bit easier.

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Can you spot the bee?

Going wild for the bees

I have a few pots with random flowers that I didn’t know the names. These seeds were either given to us by our beekeeping teacher or from mixes I got from the local store, specifically for bees and butterflies. Many of them I have never seen before, but the bees, butterflies, knew about them and sought them out on our balcony all the time. We even had a damselfly visiting once.

They are flowers that grow naturally in the wild, strong enough to stand harsh conditions with no care. You might need to water now and then, but that is about it.

And you will be welcome each morning with beautiful surprises like this one:

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Or this one:

 

When I decided to grow more flowers, it was just for the bees. I didn’t know that I would enjoy seeing more colours in my garden so much. Also, the joy of seeing bees on our balcony was priceless.

When the bees visit you, it isn’t just for socialising. They collect pollen and pollinate flowers at the same time. Thanks to them, you get seeds, like sunflower seeds, and fruits. Also, the smell of some flowers can scare harmful insects away. Marigold, for example, is beautiful, bee-friendly and its fragrance keeps away the insects that harm your tomatoes. So, everyone is happy.

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Marigold – Tomato Cohabitation

 

 

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How to Care for Cherry Tomatoes from Your Balcony

When I was a teenager growing up in Vietnam, I watched this Korean soap opera. I can’t remember the name or much of the plot now, but it’s probably a tragic love story. It almost always was with Korean soaps of the 90s. They are still very popular in Vietnam, but I have lost touch with home television, so I don’t know if the topic has widened.

Anyway, Korean producers have the knack of romanticising small little thing, and in that series, it was a tomato plant. For years, I really wanted to grow tomatoes.

As I became older and moved away, I kind of forgot about the idea until one day. I was given a little box at the supermarket counter. In the Netherlands, when spring comes, supermarkets like AH give out boxes with seeds in some compost. You might not know this but the Netherlands is really into growing food. This little tiny country is feeding the world.

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I humbly try to feed the two of us with my balcony garden 😀

When I took the tomato box home that day, I thought of a fun idea. I brought it to work the next morning and started a tomato pot on my desk. It’s a shame to admit that I neglected it. No, I didn’t come into work at the weekend to water the tomatoes. Even on work days, I didn’t always spare much attention to the plants. Somehow, the pot kept going for a couple of months.

That summer, I left the office. The plants went home with me and were repotted into container three times the size. As the branches grew out, I used a broken chair to support the skinny arms.

 

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To my amazement, I had some cherry tomatoes later that year. There weren’t many fruits, but considering the lack of care, I was more than happy to see any at all. I have grown more cherry tomatoes with better results ever since.

Care for Cherry Tomatoes

Sowing time

Do it early in spring if you live somewhere that doesn’t get much sunlight, like the North. This year, I sowed my first seeds in early April, and I had the first fruits in early August. Some of my fruits didn’t become ripe by late September, and with much less sunlight, they never did. Next year, I plan to start in March, maybe sowing indoor first to give them a head start.

If you live in the sunny south, it’s a different story. My Dad even sows seeds in August and still have fruits before the dark days come.

Sunlight

The more sunlight the plants have, the sweeter the fruits are. That means putting tomato plants in the spot with the most sunlight for the longest time in the day. That also mean trimming off leaves that cover young fruits.

Water

Give tomatoes plenty of water. It makes sense as the fruits are full of water, right? If you see nasty cracks on the beautiful shiny round surface, it indicates that you didn’t water your plants enough.

Support

Support your plants when they grow and especially when it’s fruiting. There are many ways of designing your supporting system, depending on the space you have. If your balcony doesn’t have a lot of sunlight, a fan-training trellis is a good option. It sounds intimidating, but it basically means splaying all the branches evenly out against the wall so the sun can easily reach and ripen the fruits.

I didn’t do this but here’s a photo I found on Pinterest:

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This year, I opted for a dwarf tomatoes and didn’t have to prop them up, which made life quite a bit easier. It’s hard to see how tall these plants were but they were about 30cm and hardly needed any support despite being super laden with fruits.

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Use of Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. So I like to eat the little ones like fruits, raw and fresh. One of my favourite salads is made with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and red onion in lime and fish sauce. If not eaten raw, I save my precious home-grown for this salad only.

Tomatoes are versatile, though. You can do many things with them from pickling whole or sun-dried to making a sauce.

And a trivial thing

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. It’s also the name of time management method that I use every day, twelve months a year, unlike the fresh tomatoes which are only available in my garden for a couple of months in the summer.

 

Growing Coriander in Pots: The Fun and the Rewards

I started growing coriander because of my food waste aversion. As I cook a lot of Vietnamese and Thai dishes, the leaves of a coriander plant (or cilantro in American), is often needed but not in a substantial quality. The fragile foliage doesn’t keep well in the fridge, though. After three or four days, coriander leaves might not have gone black and mushy but are likely to lose their signature smell.

One day a few years ago, after throwing away so many half-used, supermarket-packed coriander bunches, I decided it was enough.

The first transition was to buy coriander pots from the supermarket. They did last a bit longer but hardly over a week. Ian told me that those containers were designed to give shoppers the maximum leaves in the smallest areas. They look like they offer good value for your money, but that’s all. You often can’t keep grow those plants. It’s a good job I married a country boy, right?

My problem was left half-solved.

One day, on the spur of the moment, I bought a big plastic pot and some soil from my local florist and repotted a supermarket pot. Somehow, the plants flourished. Perhaps it’s my beginner’s luck as later when I started to read all the gardening guides, they often say corianders don’t take repotting well and usually bolt to flowering.

I put the repotted pot out on our balcony, watered it and untangled the fragile branches after each windy day. They grew taller, thicker and so fragrant that I decided coriander was my new black.

I went back to the florist, got some more soil and cheap plastic pots. The seeds I bought from the supermarket, nothing’s fancy. That’s how it all started.

My corianders aren’t always strong and healthy. Many died before reaching 20 cm high. Some didn’t exactly give me as many leaves as I hope for, but all in all, growing coriander gives me so much joy and allows me to be more spontaneous with cooking and more generous with garnishing my stir-fries, noodles, salads and so on.

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Care for Pot Corianders

Most plants need sunlight and water, but the specific details depend on where you live and how much space you have. I’m growing coriander in the temperate area of Northern Europe. It means a sunny and fairly warm summer, a wet and cold autumn but little snow over the winter. I put my coriander plants in medium-sized, plastic pots so that I can move them indoors when the weather is too cold, wet and windy, which is not uncommon in this seaside town.

Sunlight

Coriander likes the sun, but it can bolt and start flowering if it’s too hot. Some shade in the afternoon is good if you want bigger foliage.

Space

Most coriander seed packages would tell you to space the seeds out every 12-15 cm. I don’t do that really. I feel like the coriander plants are too small and fragile and they would be lonely being so far from each other. I usually spare 5-8 cm in between each seed.

Deadheading

This term sounds dreadful, but all it means is that you should cut off the top of a plant when the leaves grow smaller and flower buds appear. People do this to prevent seeding and prolong the leave harvesting period.

In my experience, when a plant starts to show the sign of wanting to flower, it’s not much you can do to stop it. My plants do this randomly as well, not depending on how old they are or the conditions they are in.

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I found it’s more efficient sowing the seeds every couple of weeks instead of deadheading. If some plants start to flower too early, I just let them and harvest the seeds instead. For the leaves, I always seem to have a backup by growing new pots regularly.

Untangling

I treat untangling coriander leaves like therapy. It clears my mind. I have a feeling that it helps my plants but never really did an experiment to prove it or read anything claiming the benefits of untangling.

The Use of Coriander

Leaves

I use coriander leaves for salads, noodle soups, salsa and guacamole.

Seeds

The seeds can be used to grow the next batch of coriander or in Indian curries. I do the former, and my husband does the latter.

Roots

The use of coriander roots is a recent discovery to me. Lately, as my eating has become a bit picky, I tried to cook the most known dish in Vietnamese cuisine: Pho.

Most Vietnamese eat pho in a market stall or in a restaurant. My family never cooked it at home, and I didn’t know anyone who did when I lived there. Since I am away from home, the options are a lot more limited, but the idea of not cooking pho at home is so ingrained that I only set out to try to prepare pho myself in the 8th years I lived abroad. And the discovery: coriander roots make the Pho taste. Man, I have eaten and loved the dish my whole life, and now I know 😀

Pho is another reason for me to love coriander.

Winter Coriander

I haven’t tested this practice yet, but I read about it from my favourite garden blog Vertical Veg. Mark wrote that coriander doesn’t bolt in the winter and would come out with a much stronger flavour in spring. You need to sow the seeds before mid-September and don’t do any cutting until spring. Don’t be tempted by the fragrant leaves. Keep them out of the wind and cover up if there are snow and frost.

 

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Here is one of my winter coriander pots, which I keep indoors to admire on a daily basis. The rest is currently outside suffering constant November rain. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Before I go, I just have to share the tango between coriander and mushroom. This is not why I grow coriander but I treasure the spectacle all the same:

 

The Other Wedding Tale

It was 7pm the night before the wedding. I was sat in a taxi with Mandy whom I’d just picked up from the airport after two flights totalling ten hours. We hadn’t seen each other for five years and Mandy needed to go back to Xian in two days, so I really wanted to make every minute count, catching up and having fun. There was a problem, though: I felt like throwing up.

7pm in downtown Hanoi means chaos. People drive carelessly in the half-light, trying to get home before meal time. It is not at all good for those with travel sickness like me. The fever that I had for the last few days did not exactly help either.

My stomach turned each time the driver slammed on the brake. My throat itched, but I dared not cough, terrified it would start off something nasty. I had to stop talking to Mandy because of nausea. I felt bad not being friendly, but I was more exhausted.

Somehow I survived the journey. Mandy and I got back to find my parents’ house in quite a state. Chairs, tables, and tea cups took up the ground floor without presenting an order. Water buckets stood among the chaos for some bizarre reason.

“Tap water is off. You can’t take a shower for a few hours” said Dad, taking Mandy’s suitcase into the house.

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Dinner was ready at eight, plenty of food. My family tried hard to send me away full but had failed to anticipate the taxi journey.

The nausea was overwhelming: I couldn’t eat a thing. Weakened by the fever, I stayed ten minutes at the dining table before crawling away to bed.

The following two hours were blurry. I drifted in and out of sleep. Whenever I awoke, I tried to apologise to someone: Mandy whom I took to my home and left sitting in my room without any companion; my soon-to-be husband who worried sick about me on the phone; and my family who insisted on me eating at least something before the wedding day.

Rescue only came at 10pm. Miki – my best friend and my guardian angel – showed up with some salted plums for my travel sickness. She also took Mandy away leaving me to rest without feeling guilty. Finally, my dad managed to fix the water, so no smelly bride.

After a shower and many salted plums, I started to feel human again.

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7am the day of the wedding found me sat on the back of Miki’s scooter going to have my hair and makeup done at the salon. I would rather have had two more hours of sleep. Who could make me look pretty when I felt like such a heap of mess? Three hours before the groom arrived, I still ran a fever, cough heavily and breathed through a stuffy nose.

By 8:45am, I was back at the house. My hair was braided with playful curls and my lips were bright red to match my shoes.

I was supposed to have the photographer follow my taxi from the salon to my house, but he was nowhere to be seen. “I hope he’ll show up as I don’t really a plan B”, I told Miki over the phone. She went to have her makeup done with other bridesmaids.

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Miki, on my wedding day

 

Downstairs, the house was packed with relatives and family friends. Most of the men stood outside, chatting away among themselves. They hardly noticed me slipping into the house.

I headed straight upstairs wearing my fancy red high-heels. Despite being very careful, I got the right heel caught in the back sleeve of the traditional “ao dar” I was wearing for the first ceremony. I heard a tiny tearing noise, but kept climbing.

The first floor was also packed. The women gathered to get changed and put each other’s makeup on. Each and every one of them seemed captured in that very moment, not noticing much else. I was happy to sit down at the edge of the bed, watching and taking it in. Then I realised the dresses for two of my bridesmaids were crumpled up at the far side of the bed. My bridesmaids were nowhere to be seen, either.

I remember a lot of phone calls following to make sure everyone who needed to be there would be (and that they would wear the right costume). I remember feeling so hot, though it was only April. My nose was sweating so profusely that I was never more grateful for an air conditioner and paper napkins.

When the clock hands moved into their 10am position, I was finally alone (waiting for my man to come rescue me). Everyone went downstairs to welcome the groom and his troop. Somehow none of the noise, neither the speeches nor a clap, traveled upstairs. It was all very quiet – the calm before a storm.

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It had been one year since the day the two families first sat down together and picked the rough date. Twelve months did not seem enough as the logistics were never ending.

My parents wanted to hold the wedding in Vietnam, so many guests – including Ian and I – had thousands of miles to travel. Visas, tickets, accommodation – you name it.

Communication was another challenge as most of two families speak either English or Vietnamese, not both. Not to mention that there was always someone who refused to listen to any reason.

For months, I kept telling Ian that if there was no fighting, no shouting and no-one leaving our wedding in tears, I’d call it a success.

Apparently it was a success!

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Even Gau was not crying in this photo

Everything went as planned, even though the three-hour schedule was tightly packed with three different ceremonies, two venues, one reception and quite some changing of clothes. The only minor delay was due to me not being able to change out of my “ao dai” and into the wedding dress in time. I had to get changed in front of ten other girls as there was no time to be spared for embarrassment. Four of them actually joined force to make the dress stay on me, yet still it took them like 20 minutes.

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You can’t come in yet, still changing…

 

Another time, I shall tell you why I had to wear a wedding dress on top of a traditional dress, but I can tell you right now that it wasn’t worth it. Despite how glamorous a wedding dress might look in photos, nothing is worth feeling overheated and afraid you might not be able to stand up if you sit down.

 

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“My hips hurt, actually!”

 

However, I did it. I smiled in most of the photos. My loving husband constantly padded my nose with a napkin to stop the streaming sweat from ruining my makeup, so I presumed that I looked pretty in all photos. The photographer did catch me in a weak moment drinking from a glass of terrible champaign, which is made solely for toasting purposes.

 

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Guess I drink this one then

Others said that the wine at the reception was nice. I didn’t have even a single sip. Instead, I drank horrific pink champaign out of pure exhaustion.

Others said the food was nice. I couldn’t eat. Besides, as a friend of mine pointed out, a proper bride was only  “allowed” to stand greeting and thanking the guests, not sitting down to eat.

Being proper or not, it did not matter to me then and does not now. What matters is that Ian did come to rescue me.  He held my hand tightly and nudged me forwards. His broad smile reminded me why I walk the line. When all were full, tipsy and ready to go back to their everyday life, he stayed and got back to being my everyday life. There is one thing that differs: he is now my husband.

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Guess who’s in my team now 😉