The Furtive Beekeeper

By David Jensen | June 17, 2015
Image by David Jensen
by David Jensen
June 17, 2015

Welcome to a brand new feature at Gardening Know How – a weekly guest blog! Tune in every Wednesday to get a unique perspective on gardening from bloggers all over the world. This week’s guest blogger is David Jensen of The Garden Interior who is here to tell us how one inspired gardener turned an unexpected gift of wild honey into a delicious dish of crispy, Greek-styled roasted chicken! If you enjoy this blog post, be sure to connect with David on his blog The Garden Interior and be on the lookout for David’s forthcoming blog-based book, ‘The Garden Interior,’ early next spring.

The garden is bursting with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. A small but fruitful pod of irises, dark indigo and light blue, at the west end of the oval bed, is decked out with over 200 blooms in about 1.5 square meters or less, and already the first dozen or so are open. How well a dark rich color like that works in the garden, when you have masses of it. The first dark indigo clematis – the same shade exactly as the irises – opened today on the fat white porch column, while not far away in the arch bed the first, and one only so far, orange poppy also bloomed today. This pairing, not far apart, of dense indigo and intense orange, is very successful and captivating, and I make a mental note to see if I can establish some of those orange poppies in the porch bed so they can be more closely juxtaposed to the indigo clematis.

irises, darks and light blue

“A small but fruitful pod of irises, dark indigo and light blue, at the west end of the oval bed, is decked out with over 200 blooms in about 1.5 square meters or less, and already the first dozen or so are open…”

I also planted the four rhododendrons we got inexpensively at a local garden center, and laboriously dug half the canna lily trench by the neighbors’ driveway. The red and white azaleas in the front yard, the huge and very old ones, or old for azaleas anyway, are now somewhat past their bloom, and a giant infestation of bees, our annual visit, is trying to form on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom.

“Here is our venerable red azalea, still going strong, fronted by some large, lavender tree peonies.”

peonies and azaleasedited

We do love the bees, the helpful creatures, and try not to make their lives any harder, but they can be such a nuisance sometimes. It is a huge swarm, much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. A great mess, but very interesting and rather delicious, and we look on with wonder. The American garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence said (in 1959): “The hum of bees is the voice of the garden, a sound that lends new meaning to the flowers and the silence; music that has not changed since Virgil heard it and wrote of Heaven’s gift, honey from the skies.” And that is what we have just now, honey dripping from the skies, just as Virgil said. But how awful a world without bees would be; unthinkable, really.

beehives, Hudson Gardens

“If the gardener had his way, a corner of the garden would look like this, with thriving colonies of lovely bees. The gardener does not, however, have his way in important things like beekeeping.”

I once ventured to suggest to an important person who lives on the premises that I had a budding interest in bee-keeping. Well, that didn’t go over very well. A broad and colorful stream of language poured forth, much of it in what students of language, such as I am, would instantly recognize as the command form, together with a shadowing forth of numerous evil contingencies that would befall us, me really, if any further interest in bee-keeping of any kind was detected in the garden or in the gardener, and so on. In short, She Who Must Be Obeyed decisively put her tiny but perfectly formed foot down on my good-natured plans for beekeeping. I thought I even heard a loud crunching sound, but I must have imagined that. Well, we live in an oppressive time, it is sometimes felt and, when innocent helpful little creatures like bees have to become the object of such scornful and forbidding diktats, it is a sorry reflection of the mood of our times and the way of the world in general.

“One of the great glories of May is when the irises and the lupines bloom together. It hardly gets better than this.”

pink irises and blue lupines

So my golden dreams of a honeybee hive at the back of the garden were summarily shattered and had to be laid aside, for now at any rate. It is exactly the same fate that befell my former plans for a toad house and a bat condominium, though it is hard to understand why these delightful, interesting and useful beings should be persecuted in this cruel and prejudiced way. Brooding on these painful subjects, I sulked through the garden, cursing the evil era we live in and meditating on the shortcomings of mankind in general. It was prudent, I felt, to dwell on the shortcomings of mankind in general; I was not willing to come any closer to home than that.

orange poppies, Vail

“I am not a big fan of orange in the garden, as a rule, but I confess I have a fatal weakness for these loud orange poppies in spring.”

But then to my great joy I discovered on the internet that there are things you can do to help bees that are short of building a hive and becoming a beekeeper, as enjoyable as that would be. Take for example, mason bees. These creatures like to lay their eggs in narrow tubes and you can buy inexpensive cylinders about a foot long, each of which is filled with about 20 small tubes. Each cylinder will produce hundreds and hundreds of bees. You mount the cylinder perpendicularly on a tree in the garden and there they are largely unnoticed. Except by mason bees, to whom this is a great help and of the greatest possible interest. If asked about these harmless looking devices, I propose to say they are a humane method of repelling mice; when the wind blows through the tubes it emits a sound only mice can hear and it keeps them off the premises fairly successfully. The person who detests bees detests mice even more. Problem solved! Peace returns to the household, and the gardener has a spring in his step once again, knowing that he has become a beekeeper after all, despite unreasoning adversity and persecution, though perforce a furtive one.

But returning to the great swarm of bees at the high eaves of the house, dripping great, golden gobs of pure honey onto our patio: what on earth to do with this delicious mess? It seems to me that even a furtive beekeeper should be able to savor the taste of raw honey from time to time, even though usually it does not pour down from heaven in quite this amazing way. So I go out and scoop up a fairly clean looking half cup of this bee bounty and bring it inside to the kitchen, where it is destined to be an anchor ingredient in a simple but outstanding chicken dish. The secret to its tenderness is the long cooking time in a moderate oven, so allow plenty of time for its preparation.

Honey-Lemon-Garlic Chicken
8 large chicken thighs
2 large cloves garlic, pressed (or very finely minced)
1 ½ Tbsp. freshly chopped rosemary leaves
½ tsp. allspice
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ cup limoncello
Two bulbs of garlic
One lemon
½ cup honey (from heaven, if possible)
A loaf of really good artisanal bread

chicken thighs with honey, garlic and lemon

Pre-heat oven to 300. For the chicken thighs, by far the best is to use thighs with the skin on and the bone in, but you can suit yourself. Toss the first six ingredients in a large bowl until the chicken is coated. Pour the limoncello into a casserole dish and then arrange the chicken in the dish, skin side down, and grate a generous measure of fresh nutmeg over it. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. While this is cooking, divide the garlic bulbs into cloves and peel all the cloves. Yes, it will look like far too much garlic, but never mind. Cut the lemon lengthwise into eight wedges. When the 45 minutes have elapsed, turn the chicken pieces skin-side up and tuck garlic cloves in and around the chicken pieces. Put the lemon wedges among the chicken pieces too, with the yellow skins up. Re-cover and bake a further 45 minutes. Uncover the dish and collect half of the garlic cloves and 1/3 cup of the liquid in the chicken pan; set aside. Drizzle the honey over the chicken; this is the way they do it in Greece and it makes the skins extra crispy. Broil the chicken until the skins are crispy, about 5 minutes.  While broiling, process the garlic and the 1/3 cup of chicken liquids with a hand blender or in a regular blender. When served, use the hearty bread to sop up juice from the chicken and to spread the roasted garlic paste. Pure bliss, and something to buzz about.

For more blogs by David Jensen visit his website The Garden Interior.


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