Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire

Rosybee 2013 progress


During this last season rosybee has evolved from a pilot operation to a small but thriving business. I am sure that all the publicity surrounding neonicotinoids helped to bring the plight of bees and other pollinators to the attention of a wider audience and probably helped to boost sales. I continue to be very gratified by the number or clients who want to engage on what plants will work best for bees in their gardens and who even send photos to show the plants they have purchased once they are established. We added slightly to our plant range and also continued our research to see what else we can find that really works both for the garden and the bees. One of the years highlights was attending a workshop at the Laboritory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex University to see both their research methods and also their findings on plants they have been studying. Thier method is simple; count how many bees visit each plant type and keep counting every week throughout the season.  Because the bees will only visit a plant is they are gaining nectar or pollen then this simple count quickly give a season-long value assessment from the bees perspective.  I was delighted to find that we stocked almost every one of the top performing plants but also found one which we will add to our range for next year.

We are slowly still developing our site although the main focus this year has been to improve the soil - and reduce the weeds - in our ploughed area (its about 1 acre) so that the phacelia and borage we grow as a seed-sown annual crop germinates more successfully and we can increase the quantity of nectar it provides for the bees right through summer. This years flowering was better than last and now we have gained a bit more experience with our new harrow we hope that next year will better again.


Nursery irrigation in action

We completed the installation of our irrigation system back in November but we did not need it active over the winter as our stock is minimal at this time of year. Now we are starting to pot-on seedlings and plug plants into the trays we sell in and the volume is about to expand very rapidly so this week I have been working out how to operate the water. Our irrigation comprises:

* a big tank that holds rainwater that is captured on the roof of the polytunnel

* a small feeder tank underground where the water is pumped from and any surplus drains back to

* a fairly powerful pump

* 34 flood trays where the plants live and are watered from below when the trays flood

* a controller which luckily comes with a booklet that is written in standard English rather than techie jargon

The latter and I have been getting acquainted and after a lot of button pushing and head scratching I have managed to get the system set to come on at 9am on Mondays and Fridays and pump water into the trays.  The tricky bit is working out how many minutes it needs to pump water for and then how long the water takes to drain back out of the trays.  It turns out that we can fill 17 trays (it fills half at a time) in just 6 minutes but was then taking over an hour to drain out. The plants seem to be able to take up enough water in about 45 minutes so I resorted the very high-tech solution of drilling bigger drainage holes to speed up that stage.

Now I need to check it again and keep adjusting till the balance is right. I also checked that all the trays are completely level, which is really only possible when they have water in them to show any high or low points. The trays sit on rails made out of scaffolding poles that in turn are supported on simple U-shaped brackets with a screw fitting that enables them to be adjusted up and down by turning them.

Its all a bit time consuming but when its done it will save hours every day of watering and the plants will be much healthier watered from below as it avoids compaction of the compost. Overall, I am quite pleased with myself for managing to work it all out.

Talk to local gardening club

We have now been developing rosybee as a site for 18 months and as a business and research for a full season so are beginning to have some interesting stories to tell as well as the knowledge gained over years as plant grower and beekeepers. With that in mind, when our local gardening club asked if I could give a talk I readily agreed.  I have always intended to add talks, presentations, training sessions and site visits to the repetoir of activities we undertake and so this gave me the perfect 'kick up the backside' to get some material together. I really enjoyed the preparation for the talk because looking back through all the photographs forced me to reflect back on how much we have achieved in a relatively short time.

The talk went well with lots of questions, requests to visit the site and some excellent feedback on how interesting it was. So, on the crest of this wave of success I am happy to annouce that we are open for bookings on any of the following range of topics:

  • plants for bees in the garden
  • starting a plant nursery
  • beekeeping and the plight of our bees

End of Season 2012

This is our last week of trading for this year. I am aware that some of you are still browsing and looking for plants from the list, so apologies if you cant find what you want but we have very limited stock left. After this week please email us if you are looking for something specific. I am really pleased with how this first year of trading has gone; I have had dialogue and feedback from quite a number of customers and even some repeat business.  We will be re-opening with fresh stock in March to take advance orders for deliveries from April next year.

In the mean time if any of you have questions or feedback about how your plants are doing we are always delighted to hear from you.

Rosybee construction: the final phase - irrigation

It has been just over a year since we finally got planning permission and started construction. I cannot say that I have enjoyed this aspect of starting the business; so much of what we have been doing is sufficiently unusual that the various trades struggle to give exact quotes and timeframes. In short, except for the elements that have been done by specialists its been of working very closely with our contractors and solving the problems as they arise. This week we have had the digger back on site to both dig some drainage channels to let rain water flow away from the polytunnel and also to lay some of the plumbing to provide water for the irrigation system.  Best of all we got the sump tank set into the ground; this was tricky as you have to get a very heavy tank set at just the right level to allow the water feeds in and the overflows out; all done - phew.

Our irrigation involves capturing the rainwater off the polytunnel roof into a great big storage tank (pictured above), then feeding a sump tank in the ground (now in that hole that you see full of water) from which a pump will flood the ebb-flow benches and gravity will return the surplus back to the sump. This entails a lot of pipes, pumps, values, filters and eventually a control panel where I hope I can just push a few buttons and the rest will happen. Or at least that is the theory but we have a lot of pieces to fit together ....!

Barn build complete

A year after we started the construction work at rosybee we now also have secure storage and office space in the form of the barn. It has turned out to be a much more pleasing structure than I had anticipated as our builder has done a really quality job and the wood is lovely both inside and out. The doors you can see in the picture indicate where we have designed space for a small tractor, standard storage of bulk goods such as compost that will be delivered on pallets and the small glazed door accesses an area where I can have a desk and make a cup of tea.  The doors now make me think of the 3 bears.

Now we just need to paint the office area and get some flooring laid so we can move in.

The new barn - summer 2012

Much as I love my polytunnel and it has the advantage of being good value space, it is not secure for storing anything of any value and also not great for storing anything that needs to be kept cool. Therefore, we had always planned to build a barn as well; and now its beginning to take shape.  This will provide us with storage, garage for a future mini-tractor purchase and a loo and office space.  My husband also tells me its his new home so he can be nearer his sheep (and further from me?) which will be especially useful at lambing time.

We hope it will be completed by the end of this month but the rain keeps adding to the timeline.


Installing 'flood benches'

The operational plan for rosybee is for my time to be spent doing research and sales and marketing activities rather than watering and moving plants about. Therefore, slightly early in the life of the business, we have invested in flood benches, also known as ebb-flow trays. These are essentially tables with a recessed centre where water can be pumped in and then drain out again to water the plants from below. This has many advantages:

  • Its great for the plants, as they soak up as much or little water as they want and avoid getting thier leaves wet.
  • It is very labour efficient as the watering is completed automated and the benches also move so you can add new stock at one end and take off stock that is ready to sell at the other end.
  • It is also recycles the water and so you use much less.

I managed to get this system second hand which saved quite a bit and made it posslbe to install it now rather than later.   This lot took us two days to install with the help of the very nice man from KG systems.

Polytunnel filling up - April 2012

This is how this seasons stock looks in our new polytunnel. It has plenty more space for us to expand as the business develops but now most of this years crop is assembled and ready to begin deliveries. Its really great to see and to imagine what the place will look like when full. So far we are growing 24 different plant types which is plenty to ensure continuous flowering and bee-food supply. We only stock plants that we have tested and have witnessed the bees will go to. So I now need to get the new trial beds into action so we can add to the range.


Propogation for our first season

Here is how the our greenhouse currently looks; I love it all full up like that. This year, due to delays in getting the construction finished I produced our stock using a blend of seed sown propagation and some support from other suppliers in the form of mini-plugs which I have then potted on to the bigger cells.  However I  still managed to do enough propagation to have worked out the growing times and a production schedule ready for larger scale next year.

This season has been further complicated by not having electricity at the main site yet (costs of installing are shocking!) so all the plants are spending the first few weeks on hot-mats back at our house in either the greenhouse or conservatory. Then once they have their root growth started we move them into the polytunnel where the all-day light is fantastic.

Covering the water tank - not easy!

Over the past week or so it has been very mild for February and I was conscious that we had not yet got round to covering the water tank.  This is essential to stop algae growing and turning the water to green slime. The main reason we had delayed was simply because we were not sure how to approach the job. But we decided to tackle it on Saturday armed with downloaded instructions.  It turns out that for bit tanks like ours (6 meters across and almost 3 meters high) that it comes with a central support pole from which you attach supporting ropes - a bit like a maypole. The ends of the ropes are tied round the outside of the tank and then the cover is slid over the structure. Well that sounds easy enough; ha ha.

The first thing we found when we popped our heads over the rim was that the algae had already started to grow so I was dispatched to get a fishing net. After that the challenge was to get into the tank and then endure the very cold, waist-high, water and place the 'maypole' in the centre. I left this job to my very brave husband.

We did eventually get everything in place but I guess it took us about 4 hours. But now it is done and another job off the list

Our plants - designed around bees

Our plug plants are now all potted up and are either growing away slowly in the polytunnel or sitting on heat-mats back at the house to accelerate root growth.  All of our plants are grown in trays of 10 cells; each cell is 7cm square which is a about the same size as those 6-cell trays that annual plants tend to come in.  The reason I chose to grow in units of ten is encourage people to plant the way bees like to forage. Bees like to maximize efficiency and look for a clump of the same flower type so they can fill up with only a short distance between flowers. 

They never mix pollen or nectar from different flowers types so they may never bother to visit a single plant with only a few flowers. Honey bees, in particular, take this so seriously that they are prepared to go a longer distance from the hive if they find a good crop when they get there; this is why they will fly up to 5 miles to visit the oilseed rape when it is in full bloom.

Therefore, our plants are designed to encourage people to plant in bulk blocks although I am very aware that this is quite different to how most people design their gardens.  Ten plants, planted together will make a very attractive destination for honey and bumble bees.

Open for Business

Today, after 18 months of planning, researching and building, our new on-line nursery opened for business.  That means that we published our products on the new look website and invited customers to make advance orders for April deliveries. I am writing this mid-afternoon and can report that we have had double the number of visits to the site and lots of people looking at our products. Its very exciting.

Our rainwater harvesting tank

Our rainwater harvesting tank is not a thing of beauty (especially from the perspective our neighbours) but it is doing a great job and I am so glad we got it up and connected while it is still the rainy season.  It simply take the rain off the polytunnel roof and stores it. So far its about a third full after a month. It will hold a staggering 54 cubic meters of water which should be enough to water the entire polytunnel, when full, and warm, for a month. It just seems criminal to use mains water when the stuff comes out of the sky for free. Oh, and our field has a tendancy to flood so any water that doesnt land on the ground is good!

It looks so big for our current needs that I was beginning to wonder if I had got my sums right but a very nice irrigation guy I have been talking to seems to agree it will the right size of a full scale operation.



Should a polytunnel slope?

As a new owner of a polytunnel I found this question quite a challenge.  Apparently, on a straight-sided tunnel, you need the guttering to slope so that the rain water pours off the roof quickly to avoid too much weight of water putting a strain on the building.  Unlike greenhouses, where the gutter  is separate from the walls, the gutter of a polytunnel is part of the structure that secures the roof plastic.  Therefore the entire roof line needs to be on a slope. We are planning to put in flood benches as a later stage therefore its quite important to us that the floor inside the tunnel is level. Yet, when we came to build the tunnel and needed to accomodate a 20cm drop over the 40meters.  Therefore we have had to accept that the roof is lower at one end than the other.  The result of this is that or walk-through side curtains are not parallel with the ground and when you drop them down one end reaches the bottom before the other.  This is not a major problem but also seems like a slight design flaw.  I guess most people either let the floor slope slightly too or only have flood benches in greenhouses.   Comments please?

Heating the polytunnel

No sooner is our new polytunnel fully built than we have to face the next challenge; heating it.  Our requirements are to just keep it above  freezing (preferably 5 degrees C) as all the plants are perennials. The aim is to keep a balance between enough warmth to encourage speedy growth and not too much so that they grow 'soft'.  A lot of our plants will have to live a harsh life in field margins or wildlife corners so growing them hard will increase thier resilience.

We will only use about 25% of the space this year so there is no point heating the lot. So, you will see that I have put up a bubble-wrap tent within the tunnel to reduce the area.  Another challenge is that we

have no electricity yet so I have chosen a basic propane convetor heater that does not have any electrical controls of fans; just a basic pilot light and thermastat.

In theory this heater is meant to be plenty 'man' enough for the job but so far the tented area is not noticably warmer than the rest of the tunnel unless I have it up full - in which case it guzzles the gas.

It appears that the tunnel is consistantly between 4 and 8 degrees warmer than outside. But....unfortunately when its -11 degrees, that still meant my poor little plants where temporarily at minus 3. Oh dear. Well they seem fine so hopefully they won't go too dormant.

Our first plants in the polytunnel

The first 300 plug plants have been moved from my greenhouse at home into the polytunnel.  The plants are two species of hardy geranium and I have grown them at quite low temperatures to ensure that they will cope if the tunnel does go below freezing. They only cover one very small corner of the floor and look completely lost, even though I have created a bubble-wrap tented area to cut down the space I need to heat. Its really great to finally be inside but it feels like moving into your first house before you have managed to buy any furniture.  Still, its another important landmark.

Inside our new polytunnel

Building work onsite continues, here's a quick peak inside the polytunnel.  Mike had some fun laying the concrete at either end of the polytunnel, but its all set and looking very smart.  Last weekend we (well mainly Mike) laid the paving slabs and membrane setting for our first delivery of plants.  (Longer term plan is to implement ebb-flow benches, but for now the plants will be on the ground). Its really starting to all come together now, we are all really excited.

The outer sheeting is on

On Friday the guys were able to get the sheeting on the polytunnel.  It looks great.  We still have the doors to be fitted and a final tidy-up, but the outer structure is nearly complete. Next up is the floor, electrics and irrigation, unfortunately hitting this cold spell is not very good for laying concrete, especially as it appears to be raining inside the polytunnel! We have a lot of condensation forming inside and so you get the occasional drip on your head. Fingers-crossed for a slightly warmer spell.

The polytunnel goes up

Here is our polytunnel being built this week. Its amazing how fast it happens, 4 guys put the basic frame up in a day and then needed to spend another 2 doing all the fiddly bits before a day of putting the main sheeting on the roof.  All done in just over a week.  Will post some more pictures of the finished polytunnel shortly.  This is amazing after it has taken us 4 months to get the site ready.