Bee Mindful, Practical Gardening Series


Have you begun vegetable gardening? Me? Not for another 60 days. My big-garden days are over. I still include a couple tomato plants, pole beans, and bush zucchinis among my remaining border beds.

A decade ago the fruit set was about a third more than it is today. Extra plants are needed to get the same amount of food. The issue is not with the cultivars, and the problem is pretty straight forward—no bees.

And no bees, no food.

It doesn’t matter if you’re growing in containers on a patio or running a multi-million dollar farm. Without pollinators—I’m talking about insects—fertilization and fruitfulness doesn’t happen. No apples or oranges, no cucumbers or tomatoes.

A virulent insecticide known as neonicotinoid (pronounced, nee·ō·nic·ō·te·noyd) became internationally used at the turn of this century. Shortly after its introduction efforts were made to remove it.

The use of some members of this class has been restricted [or eliminated] in some countries due to some evidence of a connection to honey-bee colony collapse disorder [this insecticide breaks down the bee’s immune system so they are no longer resistant to common viruses]. In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority stated that neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies’ claims of safety have relied may be flawed.

Organic Gardening writer Jean Nick shared that over 50% of plants at big-box stores are contaminated with this insecticide. What’s worse, the retailers are marketing the stock—vegetables and flowers—as “bee friendly”.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth purchased “bee-friendly” plants from three major big-box retailers around the country and had them analyzed at a laboratory. Seven of the 13 plants tested contained neonicotinoids, a type of synthetic insecticide that is poisonous to bees.

Neonicotinoids are especially dangerous to bees and other insects because they are absorbed into plant tissues and distributed to new growth, including pollen collected and eaten by bees. This class of insecticide is known for its persistence in plant tissues and the environment, remaining deadly for months or even years. An increasing amount of evidence links neonicotinoids to the decline of bee populations worldwide.

Buying plants at big box stores is convenient and cost about 20% less than from independent growers. I ask that you consider if saving a couple of dollars is really worth the tradeoff of essential pollinators.

I’ve experienced first-hand the loss of bees. I’ve hand-pollinated when vegetable plants failed to set fruit, and remove deformed veggies and flowers that lacked full pollination.  I’ve listened to friends, neighbors, and clients bewildered over the lack of fruits and veggies in their properly fed and watered gardens.

My attempts to encourage gardeners to purchases from independent growers has had minimal results—and more so, the same people blissfully spray pesticides with little concern. After all, they say, what difference can one person make.

What matters is that you try. That you encourage others to try to be better stewards and gardeners. Being organic is not always easy. Looking out for the littlest of God’s creatures is a challenge. But keep in mind that the end results are pretty straight forward—no bees, no food.

God had a plan when he designed nature, and we need to get with his program.


A Tatting of Green


I’m not fond of mud season, but this year I look to it with eager anticipation—it’s been a long oppressive winter. The snow, ice, record lows, and lack of sunlight stretched most of us to our limit. We all have had enough.

Over the course of a week I watched the snow cover and banks recede. I hoped that, just maybe, there wouldn’t be another winter storm. But it is only mid-March and winters have held their place well into April.

When accumulations of snow are over twelve inches, the soil and the organisms within it are protected from changes in air temperature and prevented from freezing. Beneath the snow in unfrozen earth roots continue to grow. They develop as they seek water, expanding incrementally. Solid frameworks of roots are important when dormancy breaks.

For now, it is the time of dirty snow. When all the accumulated dirt scooped up in the plowing and shoveling condenses on the melt.

Most winters bring a period of warmth, as in the January thaw, when the crud of winter reconnects with the earth. This winter—I live in central Michigan—the thaw didn’t come until the week before St. Patrick’s Day. With so much dirt in the snow banks, along the drive were mounds of mini-glacial till. Soon enough I would shovel the till for the gardens.

I wonder if there is a hidden purposefulness for the grime at the end of winter. The dirtiness creates a longing for what is fresh and clean. The darkness of days, the inactivity of our lives, the dingy greens and dulled browns can make a person ache for new growth, for life affirming change.

There are moments in life when dirt accumulates between the flurries of prayers. Times when religion lies dormant and I am unexpectedly rude, or as Elizabeth Scalia had written, failed to see The Holy in others. In the melting away of coldness in the heart, my grime becomes apparent.

But dormancy always breaks, spring always comes. There at the edge of the melt, a tatting of green,  new life beyond the thaw.


I’m Having Trouble with Penance

Image courtesy Ann Davich.

I am always eager for Lent to begin, literally so for the lengthening of days, and also for the increase of Light in my soul.  It was during those holy weeks before Easter that significant life changes occurred. The most recent event was becoming a Benedictine oblate.

In years past my offerings to God were challenging but not too hard to fulfill. I loved to pray, so doing more increased peace. Sharing is part of my nature, and charitable donations only need be varied from year to year. And I willingly fasted from wants…although the one year fasting from coffee nearly did me in! My attempts to observe Lent were not always perfect, but I was all-in in the effort.

This year Lent feels soft. I haven’t been able to feel the penitential nature of the season. I’m failing horribly at fasting. Each morning I promise to do better, and hours later haven’t. The added prayerful readings are more lackadaisical than focused; words float and drift in thoughts unrelated to the topic. And I have yet to begin a service to the poor.

I was preoccupied the first two weeks of Lent preparing spiritually for my final promise as a Benedictine oblate. My excitement overrode the “suffering” of the season. When I listened to Audrey Assad’s CD Fortunate Fall, O Happy Fault (Felix Culpa) filled my heart with such joy that diverting the happiness proved impossible.

I feel as if I have entered Easter without the Via Dolorosa.

This year I am being carried aloft in celebrating the Messiah and shielded from the ugliness of the road to Golgotha. Each time I try to turn down that dusty path, a Bible verse comes to mind. When Jesus said, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is [gone]…” (Luke 5:34-35). This year it is like that, a softening of rules while love is at hand.

The Vacare Deo of Lent, the emptying oneself for God, still abides. This is the Lent that the vacant space is filled with the gift of God’ love and not darkened by the suffering of Jesus. This is the year that the denying of self is replaced with charitableness—to be given out, full measure, shaken down.

It is a Lent not of giving-up but of taking-up. A more loving observance than I have ever known. And I keep thinking there should be some of that good-old-Catholic-guilt in all this. I pray my soul is not sleeping as I go along my happy, merry way.

My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.

(Kontakion from the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete)



After Glow

My final oblation was at hand. That night at vespers I would lay my heart and all my will upon the altar. My joy was boundless and barely kept in check. I cried as I prayed lauds, overwhelmed with love. I wanted desperately to commit “for the rest of my life” to service of God and neighbor.

Three hours before vespers Fr. John heard my confession. I know myself well—when anxious I fall mute—and had spent time writing out my sins. There is a powerful movement of the soul when the hand adds weight with leaded lines to the elusive sense of sin. I wanted the lines erased so I could stand in grace when professed.

We headed across the chapel to the sacristy to bless my cross. While Father retrieved the holy water and prayer card from the cabinet he asked what I felt about the upcoming ceremony. I gushed and flushed red with excitement.

It was like a wedding, I told him, but without the anxiety. I would be making a promise to God, a vow that He would always be first: my first thought in the morning, the last as I curled up to sleep, with me when awake in the night or moving through my day.  Fr. John is accustomed to my radiant exuberant joy, and smiled at my delight in a monkish sort of way.

Another novice, Michael, would also be making his final oblate profession that night. We were given our sheets that the Prior would read, and on which were highlighted the words we were to answer. I laughed at Fr. John’s impish comments of weddings, and was quickly shushed by the Prior. I have an infectious laugh that had obviously infected the monastic silence.

Vespers were spoken and I noted the cadence and tone of men. Their voices resonated and softened an old hardened scar on my heart. It was the will of God that drew me to the monks. According to The Rule of St. Benedict, it is though these men only would I grow in holiness. A terrifying and comforting thought in one.

Michael and I were called to the sanctuary where the promises were asked, and our promises given. As I approached the altar to sign my Formula of Oblation I wasn’t sure if I would cry with joy, tremble so hard that I couldn’t sign my name, or faint outright in glory.  I placed my hand on that holy table and calmed—the moment had arrived.

Signing my name at the altar changed my life, but not as in the earth-moved-under-my-feet. It had the sense of “I was that, and now I am this.” I imagined it to be much the same as a parent when a child is born. Or the way one feels after the marriage vows. The expressed reality of “I am no longer allowed willing to be as I was.” The time comes with a child or marriage for a decrease in self for the good of another. 

In the eagerness to be all as offered in my oblate promise, there existed a counter intuitiveness of becoming more of who I am in God and less of who I was as only me.

Fr. John Martin, OSB
Margaret Rose Hildegard Realy, Obl. OSB

I find the glistening of limerence still sparkles in the glow of the honeymoon. When all is seen in The Light and lightness carries the day. This is the time before the real work of the spoken promises–when the I do’s and I will’s with the help of God’s grace–haven’t yet begun.

Soon enough the work of the day will come. That after the ecstasy the meals will need making and the dishes done. For a little while longer I will rest in the quiet comfort of the honeymoon. I cherish the glow.


UPDATE: I just learned a small but significant detail about signing the Formula of Oblation on the altar. Prior Michael (above, at the altar) stepped several steps away once I touched the altar and he did not come forward until I had finished, and stepped away. He did that because the novice him/herself must lay the document on the altar and sign it without the abbot as intermediary. The oblate or monk is therefor the servant of God first and the subject of the abbot second.

Images Margaret Rose Realy, Ob;. OSB. All rights reserved.

St. Benedict’s Soup

It was the weekend before I was to make my final profession as a Benedictine Oblate. I wanted to honor St. Benedict in a personal way and created this soup as a briw.  In Old English the briw was the evening meal of soup or broth—a lighter fare, with the heavier meal consumed in the middle of the day.

The Benedictines had attached to their hermitages small plots called le jardin potager in which they grew an assortment of herbaceous plants. These gardens served a purpose beyond that of production. It was through its installation and maintenance that the monks or nuns were able to fulfill the manual labor component of their religious way of life—Ora et Labora, pray and work.

These small gardens had many of the same elements. There were vegetables and fruits, medicinal and utilitarian plants, herbs for cooking, possibly a fruit tree, and flowers for the altar. The potagers were often beautifully laid out with flowers and edibles grown together in a visually appealing manner conducive to prayer.

The foods eaten during 6th century Europe, when St. Benedict lived, were limited. The monks would have had cows to provide for cheese and butter—though rarely did they drink the milk—and possibly chickens and a fish pond. Commonly found in their potagers were pulses, being beans and peas, cereal grains such as barley, wheat, rye, and oats as well as many root vegetables like turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnips. Leeks and plants in the onion family were prevalent, and a portion of their diet included foraged mushrooms and native wild plants.

With this in mind, I created a soup that included mushrooms, leeks, dairy, and parsley in place of the often used carrots tops. Today’s carrot cultivars are bred for their flavorful roots, not their leaves. 

I like to think that St. Benedict would have enjoyed this soup for briw and offered to bring bread for our meal. 

St. Benedict Soup

2-3 tablespoons butter

1 ½ cups thinly sliced leeks, white and only a small portion of the green (about 4-6 leeks depending on size)

4 cups chicken stock (for Lent, replace with vegetable broth)

1 medium russet potato, cooked and mashed, or ½ cup instant potatoes

16-24 oz. sliced portobello mushrooms, or finely diced

¼  cup fresh parsley leaves, diced

½ cup cream or half-and-half

¼-½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper 

In soup kettle melt butter, add leeks and sauté until tender but not browned (about 5-8 minutes). Add stock, potato, mushrooms, and parsley. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and let simmer for 20 minutes. Add cream and pepper, heat through and serve.  

The precooked potato is used as a thickening. Leftover mashed potatoes can be substituted. In the 6th century, old bread would be used. The potato can be cooked in the soup; dice it into small pieces so it will cook quickly. Try using peeled, roasted, mashed parsnips instead of the potato for a distinctly different taste—though the soup will be thinner overall.   

As for the cream, sour cream works well but you will need to temper it slowly with warm soup broth before adding it to the pot—otherwise it may curdle when added to the soup. 

UPDATE: I mentioned bread…how about a loaf of soda bread? The delightful Elizabeth Scalia shares her recipe.