Anne Hailes: Bee wise and keep your garden buzzing
EVEN in the garden, danger lurks, putting one creature at risk - the invaluable and busy bee. As we see weeds suddenly spring up and take over, it's easy to make a trip to the nearest garden centre or supermarket and invest in a weedkiller. The alternative is back breaking but much kinder to wildlife.
Take the honey bee, for example. As we move from the yellows of April onto the purples and blues of May, the dandelions will hang around giving food for these amazing little creatures.
In spring this flower - not a weed - is the bees' first food, so please, don't spray them because this plant continues to be important until later in June when flowers and fruit trees are fully in bloom.
Cotoneaster is the food of choice in our garden and it's a joy to see hundreds of bees rummage around amongst the crimson flowers gathering pollen, a literal hive for the honey bee. The red berries of autumn provide a feast for blackbirds so it's a good shrub to have in the garden.
WEED FREE ZONE
There won't be many weeds around Antrim Castle Gardens this weekend (Friday April 29-Sunday May 1) when the Garden Show Ireland takes place with an estimated 10,000 visitors a day.
This year there will be experts on hand to help with queries, live jazz, stilt walkers, crazy golf and dog shows and, of course, all that's best in the world of horticultural.
On arrival you will be greeted by the residents of Scarecrow Avenue created by local primary school children using a combination of recycled or borrowed materials. Schools have also been encouraged to create miniature gardens in anything from a bucket to an old boot to attract and support birds, bees and butterflies, a good challenge for all the family this coming weekend,
CHECK THE TIME
Perhaps the highlight of the festival is The Clockwork Garden being built by Diarmuid Gavin, billed as the renowned 'celebrity gardener', though this doesn't do justice to this hard working and imaginative man.
His creation is a permanent celebration of the Platinum Jubilee, the first such residency in any garden in the UK and visitors can watch it being built and hear Diarmuid talk about the project.
There is mystery to be uncovered as the inventor explains: "Every 15 minutes the garden actually comes to life and engages in a short performance which certainly surprises spectators and creates a few smiles.
"It has been my dream to bring it home to where it belongs and Antrim Castle Gardens is that place."
Diarmuid has engaged students from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise to help him build the project, as he says these young people are the next generation of horticulturalists and this experience will encourage them and feed their enthusiasm.
It's a real day out and visitors are advised to bring a basket as there will be much to tempt the taste buds as well as the gardener. In the Food NI Food Pavilion chefs demonstrate with samples available from leading artisan food producers.
A courtesy shuttle bus will operate from The Junction between 10.15am and 6.15pm each day and there'll be a plant and produce creche available for visitors who want to store their garden purchases.
Tickets cost £10 and can be purchased online at gardenshowireland.com. Children under 16 go free.
Since lockdown gardens have become more important. There are lanes and alleyways which have been taken over by residents - gone are the unsightly piles of rubbish and overgrown paths to be replaced by colourful hanging baskets, benches and artwork.
Which brings us to the NI Amenity Council Best Kept Awards. The council is inviting nominations and entries for its Best Kept Village, Town and City awards.
During the pandemic home gardening blossomed around the world with nurseries and garden centres reporting an increase in plant sales.
As Doreen Muskett, president of the NIAC, says, if one good thing has come out of lockdown it's gardening.
"Gardening became one of the heroes of the crisis. It is heart-warming to learn that taking time in the garden helped so many and so many people were able to gain a sense of peace and wellbeing through nature and our amazing community champions continued to make their areas better places to live and work throughout this tough time," she says.
"We're hoping to see this new found love of gardening translate into lots of entries from people and communities who have experienced all the positive benefits of getting into nature and growing flowers, fruit and vegetables for the first time."
This year will also see the Best Kept Awards join with Tidy Towns in the Republic for the 25th year to celebrate 'Ireland's Best Kept Town'. Joint celebrations will be held at Titanic Hotel Belfast in June.
The closing date for Northern Ireland's The Best Kept Town, Village and Housing Area Awards is May 1; more information at bestkeptawardsni.com or telephone the NI Amenity Council on 028 9040 3681.
Finally back to bees. If you find one in the house or in the garden looking sluggish or you might even think dead, it's possibly just resting after a busy day and carrying a heavy load of pollen.
Either put it gently on a flower, preferably a dandelion, to get its breath back or mix 50/50 white (not brown) sugar and water to give it an energy boost. A drop or two on a surface in a shady place and it will thank you by eventually flying off to join its family and the important job of fertilisation.