Friday, June 25, 2010

How The Garden Grows

Buck in our new berry patch. We only have to dig once!

Our second year garden at the Homestead

It's been a long cold lonely Winter and not much better of a Spring in Western Oregon. Summer? What's that?

As a gardener, it's been a great lettuce and peas kind of summer. Only because I do raised bed gardening. Otherwise I'd be waiting with all the other gardeners 'till the end of June to rototill a mucky wet plot. There's no standing water on a raised bed.

If you see this book at a thrift store GRAB IT! It is out of print and is selling for $35 at Powell's. If you have to pay that for the book- it's worth every cent! But check your library first.

I have my Mom and Peter Chan to thank for starting me on the ancient technique of Mound Gardening. Peter Chan's book "Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way" ( Garden Way Publishing) has been at the core of our gardening since Mom read it in 1977.

Mr. Chan, who worked at Portland State University at the time his book came out, taught Plant Pathology at an Agricultural College near Canton. He also worked in research on methods of adapting plants to various terrains, improving soil conditions and increasing plant yields., before he came to Portland Oregon with his family in 1967.

My Mom knew a good thing when she saw it. She was a brave woman. It's no small thing to throw all the trappings and dogma of generations of row croppers out and embrace this foreign way of doing things. While others looked on with scorn and criticism, I might add.

For her and then me, Mr. Chan's book has been a godsend on these years of the never ending wetness. No digging necessary! Just throw more mulch onto the beds in the fall to keep the spring weeds from forming. Then in the early spring ( we're talkin' March 1 or earlier) just make little holes and plant the peas and lettuce. Then when the lettuce begins to bolt and the peas have almost peaked, put in the rest of the garden just the same way.

Look at this yummy soil! Well, if you're a plant of course.

Poke a hole in the mulch and put your seed or plant in and cover it over. Water it in, think happy thoughts, done.

Some people are resistant to this approach. I can't figure it out. I suspect they think I'm lying! Or that I have a secret ingredient in the mix. But I swear it's that easy. Somewhere along the line someone managed to convince the public that growing food is very hard and beyond mere mortals and their lowly landholdings.

My two rows of lettuce in my Community Garden plot. After all the harvests so far!

The sheer amount of food I get from one 25x25 foot plot is mind boggling. This year I have harvested 6 grocery bags of baby lettuce from TWO 10 foot rows of lettuce (just thinning the rows). And we took an additional 15 mature heads to the food bank last Wednesday. I have that much more still to harvest this week from those same rows! Even while dealing with a perpetual multitude of baby slugs and hail storms in June.

What I love most; it is so low tech. Anyone with even the most meager of resources can do it. No lumber to buy (pressure treated lumber is expensive and dubious for organic gardening). No rototilling (who owns one, who fixes it, who pays, and how do we get it there?). The worms do all that work!

Have rocks in your soil? Just dig them up once and use them as decorations. And KEY to my love for this style of gardening is, plants thrive in the uncompressed, humus rich soil.

Every once in a while I revisit this fine book, as I did this spring, with Mr. Reynolds photographs of Mr. Chan's lovingly tended garden and I feel excited all over again. He makes it all so simple and, well, kind of sacred. Like your garden is a temple. And like a temple, you tread softly, tend thoughtfully and breath deeply. There are so many fewer worries in a raised-bed garden.

Another rainy day is forecast for July 1. Oh well. I have an impressive batch of baby carrots and potatoes coming in soon, the tomatoes are holding their own and I have enough lettuce and peas for anyone who wants them!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bee Day Is Here!

Here are the BaBees! 2 pounds 15 ounces!

After driving around with a full swarm-catching-kit in the back of my car for a couple weeks I got THE CALL to let me know the bees had swarmed. Not only had they swarmed, but the hive had sent out not one but two swarms! I think that is pretty unusual- twin swarms.

Buck and I got our light colored clothes on and high tailed it out the door. When we got there, Bee Mom and Bee Dad pointed out the swarms. One was in a Magnolia tree above the roof of their house and one was in a Conifer in the front yard.

We started with the Magnolia swarm because it looked the easiest AND the roofers were due any minute. You can see all of this captured on the beautiful video that Buck very deftly filmed and edited together.

The Conifer swarm was a little trickier. One limb needed to be cut to clear the area.
Nice Neighbor invented a fabulous "box on a stick" to catch the Conifer swarm. Bee Mom (wearing a full bee suit) stood at the top of a small step ladder while I steadied it. She held the box up high on the stick. Nice Neighbor shook the limb and voila, the second swarm came raining down- mostly into the box, but a lot fell out too. We closed the box and waited.... YES we got the Queen! Little bees were fanning their pheromones into the air at the entrance. They do that to let the other bees that are still flying around know that the Queen is inside the box.

We set the box in the shade nearby so the rest of the bees could find their way into the box.

It was a beautiful day and although both swarms were high off the ground we captured them both with only a little fuss and only one sting- Buck got it on the arm when a bee stung on impact from such a long and sudden fall out of the Conifer.

The whole experience was crazily wild in concept and oddly calming. Buck and I took home the Magnolia swarm and Bee Mom kept the Conifer swarm. She emailed me later and said that after we left yesterday afternoon, she got her car out of the shop, raced to the bee supply and bought a second hive. Upon her return, her husband assembled the hive while she and Nice Neighbor went and got paint.

She painted the new hive and then, since the cardboard box (built on the fly since she had only built ONE box in anticipation of ONE swarm), didn't look like it was going to hold out, she dumped the bees into their new home at 9PM last night. Whew. I felt like my day was pretty low key next to that.

When Buck and I got home it was pretty hot out and so I set the bee box in the middle of the living room and just kept squirting sugar syrup in the screened windows.
You could tell when they were done eating each serving because they would start humming super loud and would get quiet when I squirted more in. Three sneaky bees got out and I caught them in a glass jar and took them with the box.

When it cooled off outside we took the box-o-bees to the hive and I just winged putting them into the hive from what I had read in books and online. You'll see in the video "Rehiveing" that I whack the box a couple times before I unceremoniously dump them into the new hive. That's because you need to get them into a clump so most of them will land in the hive, increasing the chances that the Queen will land in the hive too.

Because, if the Queen is left in the box as a straggler and she up and flies away... sooolong swarm! All the bees will just pour right back out of the hive and fly off to follow their Queen.

But I got her in and she apparently approves, since the workers were happily buzzing in and out getting supplies for housekeeping this morning!

When I went to bed last night I kept hearing bees buzzing for some strange reason. It was as if their buzz had imprinted on my brain.

I had a hard time going to sleep.

The ReHiving

Here is part 2 of our big bee adventure.



Phoebe's bees swarmed! Or rather, the swarm she had been waiting for swarmed. So off we went, first thing in the morning. The hive had actually split into two swarms. One was in a tree, one above the roof. It was decide the rooftop swarm was the place to start...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Plan B(ee)

Every day when I drive up the 1/4 mile driveway to the homestead, which gives one plenty of time to think, I vacillate between excitement and dread.
"ooh maybe some bees have moved into my hive!" and "oh... maybe bees have moved into my hive."

Even as I have built my hive, researched for months AND taken a class on keeping honey bees I have found that there is a definite part of me that feels a little fearful. Not so much, I think, about getting stung. I think it's more about the sheer weight of the task. Once I start bee keeping I will always be a bee keeper. And if I am suddenly not a beekeeper it because I have failed as a beekeeper - i.e. I let my bees die. Because, really, all I know is what I know and there is a lot more to know!

When I was having my teeth cleaned a couple weeks ago, I was chatting with my dental tech. about her new house in the country. When the subject of bees came up, as it always does with me these days, she lit up. She had started her first hive this year. She assured me that before she received her bees she had felt nervous and worried too. But now she feels it is all going very well and she has no trouble working with her bees.
She very kindly invited me over to her house to experience her bees.

We met on a sunny afternoon at her 5 acre farmlet and after we took a tour of the Maltese "puppies" and the lonely Guinea hen calling for her friend the white hen (who had escaped their enclosure somehow) we strolled up to the shed and she handed me a net hat and took one for herself and some gloves. I put my hat on and braced myself for the swarm of angry bees!

It turns out she never even put on her gear. The bees, as far as I could tell, couldn't have cared less about their hive roof being lifted off. They went about their business without the slightest bit of aggravation. We calmly chatted and admired their inner domain as bees buzzed to and fro. It felt very calm there amongst the inhabitants of the hive. Once in a while a little bee would land on us as if we had suddenly appeared in their planned flight path, it would pause, do the bee equivalent of shaking it's head and then take off to try again.

It was so glorious! Finally I was sure I really wanted bees.

So on to Craig's List I went and sure enough a kindred spirit was advertising that their hive was about to swarm and did someone want to buy the swarm? YES! I did.

Now I am sitting on pins and needles waiting for that fateful call when I must come get 30,000 buzzing bees, help put them into a cardboard box, drive them home in my car and dump them into their new home, which I can only hope I have built correctly and supplied it properly with bee syrup and pollen patty.

Bees any day now. Yay!!!

Friday, June 18, 2010

One more step

The last day of the spring burning season was this week. We had just built a roaring fire to finish off the brush in the pasture area when it started to rain. I was amused to find that by piling up grass and blackberry on top, making a kind of fire hat, the fire would burn fine while it was raining.

It was suddenly so wet that the dogs, usually stalwart in the face of rain, took refuge in the hatch of the car.
I was able to get all the scrap metal out, a couple hundred pounds bound for recycling.

After I all the big stuff was gone, I raked the ash around, and hand picked the rest. The final step is to drag a big speaker magnet on a rope through the ash. This found much more small wire and nails than I expected, and I will have to do that several times before I feel good having animals grazing in there.

Now, where once stood two 9' high blackberry thickets we have clear, clean ground. Don't know how long it will take for the grass to grow back, but it is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

More fencing

Back to putting in fence posts. We have about 6 inches of nice topsoil, then we get into the rocks. Not big rocks, but persistent. Makes gardening and fence building challenging, but provides good drainage and, I hope, stable poles.

These are the rocks that came from this hole.

I am only going down about 26 inches. I hope that is enough, with all the rock, to hold things steady.

I put the native rock back in, and use gravel to pack the post tight, tamping it down solid. The most useful tool is a 5' long steel pry bar, with a pointed end and a flat end. We call it the bonger. It can break apart the rock, pry it loose, and pack it back in.Another corner finished.

I accidentally made the distance between two other posts slightly more than 8 feet, so I need to go the farm store, get a 10 foot pole for the horizontal brace and cut it down. Rats! I need more gravel too. Tomorrow I should finish the wooden posts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

All is not well; I doubt some foul play; would the night were come! - Hamlet

We've been very perplexed and sad lately about our oldest flock of chickens. There had been trouble in the hen house. It seemed one of the hens in our flock of Dominiques had taken up the foul habit of "egg eating". That's right, egg eating. It happens.

Well, if hens are eating their own eggs, there is just not much reason to have a hen. And it's a behavior that can spread to the other hens, so it must be stopped as soon as possible.

My dad has been tending this flock and he goes way back with chickens, so he knew the hen needed to be caught and cooked with... I mean dealt with.
He had a plan which involved painting a color onto the suspected culprit as she left the nest box, literally, with egg on her face and catching her that night on the roost.

I thought that was a great idea and dug through my painting supplies.

I had a long internal debate with myself. What color to use? They are black and white chickens so white was out.

Red? Too gory, though it may foreshadow certain events in her short future.

Blue, I decided. Blue would show well and be emotionally neutral.

The next morning I ask my dad if he painted the culprit blue?
No he said in his classic Texan drawl. He hadn't needed to paint her blue, "because she already was blue."
Turns out it was not one of our lovely well behaved hens.

It was a rascally, pillaging Blue Jay!
What to do now?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

If you build it will they come?

I worked like mad this winter, in what little spare time I had, to build a bee hive.

Exactly when I began thinking I wanted to have bees I don't really remember. Possibly it started when Honey Bees were in the news. Possibly because I used to help my Grandpa with his bees when I was very little.

But I think it is mostly because I have always loved bees.

Did you know that a third of our food exists solely because of a pollinator?

I began to think about making a little rescue boat for bees and that somehow led to my discovery of the ancient Top Bar Hive. All the plans I found were fairly sketchy or inaccurate, so I winged it a little when I built mine.
With the roof off the bars make a solid top so that the bees do not get excited when you remove one bar at a time to check on them or to harvest honey.
If I gleaned a little of the sweet stuff on the side all the better. But I just can't see using up 50 to 75 pounds of honey a year. That is how much you get from a Langstroth Hive.
No, what I wanted was a safe harbor for my pollinating friends.

The Top Bar Hive seemed the very best choice for us.

There are just bars across the top instead of frames and the bees design their own comb hanging down from the bars instead of building on plastic square sheets as they do in Langstroth Hives.

The groove on the underside of each bar has bees wax melted into it to guide the bees. I later found that this does not work very well.

The "follower" board is a partition that allows you to make the inside hive space as big or small as needed.

This is how I set up the syrup feeder, just under the bottom edge of the follower board.
This is the screened underside of the hive. Ventilation is very important for bees, even in winter.

I set up a board to cover the screen on the very coldest days of winter.

Underside of the roof.

Some people say you can get bees to move in on their own. So I baited it with the recommended Lemon Grass oil but no takers thus far.


The property is thoroughly fenced. Thing is, the fences are pretty tired. There were several years with a very smart mustang who was very good at smashing down fences. That, and the usual wear and tear on livestock fencing convinced us to start again on the fences that really matter.

We are starting with what we call the Fort Knox pasture. The first one, closest to the house, probably going to get the most use. We staked out a little more than 1/3 acre, fairly flat, running right up to the edge of the woods.

As we are on a very rocky hill, we are only going down about 2 feet. Up here, that is plenty. With 5 foot No Climb fencing and a nice string of hotwire on top, it will be pretty secure. Our animals will stay in, wild critters will stay out.

So far, 11 of the 17 posts are set. Tomorrow I hope to get 4 more in.


We have a two part security system, the little dog and the big dog. Or, to continue with the nom de blog approach, we will call them the Barker and the Bruiser.

Between them they make enough noise that we know if anything funny is going on. And when someone arrives at the top of the drive, they are met with enough sound and fury to keep any sane person in their car until we call them off.

Just what we want.

They are good, good dogs, and are really enjoying themselves out here.