The Garden of Elder

By Daniel Bodden

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Sara Elder and her father walk out of their house into their backyard on a chilly October afternoon, scissors and pliers in hand. Birds are chirping and eating

from their feeders. The sun is shining down brightly all around. Don’t be fooled: winter is coming.

They know.

They turn to the right and head for the bog, a pond-like water feature in their yard. They see that some stones are out of place, and the fish look upset.

“It must have been a raccoon or an opossum,” father Willie Elder says.

Willie digs the rocks out of the frigid bog. Next to the bog are some strange looking plants — pitcher plants. They’re carnivores: meat-eaters. They lure in bugs to eat. They only want rainwater. And they have to have acidic soil, which is why Willie couldn’t grow them before.

“I made the bog around four years ago because I wanted to grow pitcher plants, and they have to grow in an acidic bog,” Willie says.

The Elders begin to get the bog ready for winter. Sara cuts down the miniature cattails in the back of the bog into small pieces and tosses them into the compost pile. They then put the screen down over the pond and turn their attention to the left of the patio.

Here, a hot tub used to sit. Days of relaxing in the warm water have given way to days of a different kind of pastime: a greenhouse. To some, watering and weeding might seem like a chore, but to Sara and her father, it’s more than that.

“I like doing this with my father because we don’t really share any other interests,” Sara says. “Because I’m the oldest, he thinks of me as the “boy” child. Whenever he has projects, he always asks me to help out.”

Right now, about a dozen pumpkins sit inside the greenhouse. Sara’s sister Rachel, a freshman at North, is using it for her science experiment on how Windex affects pumpkins. Nothing to work on here.

On the back fence of the yard are three Mason bee houses. The Elders got two of the houses three years ago. Sara made another house as a project two years ago.

“It was actually for Biology sophomore year,” Sara says. “We had to build something for nature and explain how it helps the environment, so I built the bee house. It made a really good project.”

The bees are dormant now, but in the spring the fly-looking bees come out to pollinate the backyard. The Elders bought the bees online. When the tube of bees was delivered, they put it in the fridge. Then, they just put the tube into the house to defrost. A little while later, the bees emerged and started pollinating.

The Mason bees won’t sting. But the Elders do have another kind that will. On a property in High Hill are their honeybees. That’s where those big white bee suits with the netted sun hats are worn. That’s where the smokers send the bees into panic mode. And that’s where they get the honey that can’t be found anywher

e else.

“The honey depends on the harvest,” Sara says. “Last year, we got a ton of it. It tasted like apple cinnamon.”

But the taste comes at a price. Sara has been stung five times, mostly when she was little, and she still gets nervous when handling the bees.

“I’m scared, but I try not to show it,” Sara says. “You’re supposed to be calm, but I’m usually screaming on the inside.”

Bees don’t have it easy either. The process of getting honey involves smoking the hive so that the bees believe it’s on fire. This causes them to start eating the honey to prepare for a long journey. They won’t even pay any attention to the “alien” collecting all their precious food.

In addition, a new problem is spreading: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This happens when an entire hive disappears for unknown reasons, leaving only the queen bee. This has become a huge problem globally, with a 10% rise in U.S. honeybee losses in 2011. A few years ago, this epidemic may have hit the Elders’ hive.

“We had a hive die. We don’t know what it was, but it had all the markings of CCD,” Willie says. “We just went out there one day and they were all dead and gone.”

Back in their yard, the work is done for now. They will still have to drag all their tropical plants inside, but that can wait a few days. They stand to look at the yard once more before going inside.

“My favorite part is it’s nice and looks pretty,” Sara says. “I have people over, and it’s always a fun discussion, like ‘have you seen my backyard?’”

One of those people is FHN junior Morgan Stock, who has known Sara for 12 years and helped to build a Mason bee house.

“I think it’s pretty cool because not a lot of people have greenhouses in their backyard,” Stock says. “It makes the neighborhood more green and it helps the look of the neighborhood. It makes the neighbors want to do something.”

The Elders’ house and yard have many other unique features like a bat house on the roof, grapes, strawberries and bird feeders, most of which take little time to take care of, other than watering the plants. Sara and her dad work on these projects as hobbies because they think it’s fun, and they have an interest in nature.

“It makes you environmentally aware,” Willie says. “You can see how everything interacts.”

They know everyone doesn’t have the time or patience for this, but still believe anyone can help out.

“You can go out and plant trees or flowers,” Sara says. “You don’t have to build a greenhouse. You can just help in small ways.”

But for them, the work is finished. At least for now. Their yard will survive the winter and be ready when spring comes. Sara and her father put the tools away and head inside.

 

 

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