Archive for June, 2009

First One

June 22nd, 2009
My first ripe tomato of 2009 - June 21

My first ripe tomato of 2009 - June 21

This is a much more momentous occasion than you might think – I’ve never had ripe tomatoes before July 4, and usually a week or even two later.  The plant is an “Early Girl” which honestly is not all that tasty of a tomato variety – and yet compared to the trucked in tomato like objects in the grocery stores (at as much as $2 a pound!) they’re pretty excellent.  A Home grown tomato is another thing that even when it’s bad is still pretty danged good.  If I were only growing a few tomato plants “Early Girl” wouldn’t be the variety I would grow  – I would grow “Celebrity” for it’s admirable if not outstanding taste plus unsurpassed reliability and disease resistance.  Fortunately for me I can grow lots of tomatoes.

This plant was set out in my 50 dollar greenhouse on March 15 from seeds that I started using home made bottom heat in  February, and is one of my greenhouse experiments – to grow extra early tomatoes.

So, two weeks isn’t really all that much earlier – is this experiment a success or not?

I must say that many gardeners in my area are not having stellar results this year, because wet weather prevented an early start, and more wet weather has caused poor germination, water logged roots, and a general failure to thrive.  That’s because they don’t use raised beds, and therefore have poor drainage.  Also the ongoing abuse of their soil caused by the application of chemical fertilizer and pesticides is not conducive to healthy plants when the weather is less than ideal.  Healthy soil makes healthy plants.

My tomatoes are thriving on an application of compost + a scoop of rabbit manure (possibly the most excellent fertilizer there is) and a bit of lime in the planting hole and a weed suppressing mulch of grass clippings.  Other than caging them and pulling the occasional weed I haven’t had to do a thing since planting.  Soon will come the best job of all – eating home grown tomatoes.

Happy Organic Gardening!

Brood

June 18th, 2009
This is a frame of honey be brood

This is a brand new (and nearly perfect) frame of honey bee brood. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Not brood as in introspective and depressed – brood is the term for pre-adult honey bees.  The queen lays an egg in a cell  (up to 2000 a day) and 3 days later it hatches out into a larva – on day 8 the workers put a wax cap on it – where it meta morphs like a caterpillar into a butterfly.  A few days later (depending on what caste the bee is destined for) an adult bee emerges.

I promise that this isn’t going to turn into a blog just about honey bees, but I think this is pretty cool and I thought some of you might be interested.  Click on either picture in this article and you’ll get a high resolution version that you can zoom in on – hold the ctrl button and hit the + key to zoom in.

Look closely now

Look closely now - in the uncapped cells you can see white larva curled up in all stages of development. The white capped cells at the top of the frame contain honey - I think. The tan cappings lower down contain baby bees. The cells that look empty actually have either eggs or larvae that are too small to see. Right in the center of the picture you can see a bee with her head stuck down into a cell - she's feeding a baby. Click on the picture for a much higher definition view.

Is that cool or what?

If you’ve been following my progress as a bee keeper you can see from these pictures that the bees have stopped building crooked comb and are now building 2 frames of comb like this about every 3 days.

Collapsed Honey Bee Comb Repair

June 13th, 2009

Because of a mistake which I made my bees built crooked comb across the frames instead of inside of them.

One week after putting my mail ordered package of honey bees into the hive I opened it up to see what had transpired.  I wanted to check sooner but cold rainy weather prevented it.  What I was hoping to find in there was lots of nice straight parallel  comb built from the guides on the top bars of the frames.  And that is probably what I would have found if I had followed Michael Bush’s advice to not  put the queen cage inside of a foundationless hive or they would be likely to build crossed comb off of it.  Maybe I’ll listen next time.  This is the kind of mistake that rookies (like me) make.


After I cut the queen cage out and brushed off the bees you can see that they built in two different directions across the frames instead of parallel with the frames.  Once they got started wrong they just kept building parallel with the initial crooked comb.


I rubber banded the combs into the frames, and twisted it all around as straight as possible.


There was probably about 3 frames worth of beautiful new comb (I hived the package of bees one week before) that were running across the frames, and when I opened the hive most of it collapsed.  Plus about 3/4 frame total that they had built more or less correct.  I hope that I got all of it right side up at least – I doubt it though.


That nice piece there on the right actually grew there – I banded it in to keep it from falling out while I worked on the crooked one that crossed right next to it.  The dark areas of comb are pollen stores, and the cells above that are full of uncured honey.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that most of the lower parts of the combs were already full of brood – eggs and baby bee larva.

I never spotted the queen – she wasn’t still  in the queen cage though.  I was careful and the bees were really mild so the carnage wasn’t too bad despite this being the first time I ever even saw the inside of an active bee hive.  I did a fair amount of damage to some of the comb, but considering it was only a little bit more firm than biscuit dough I think I did alright for my first time.

A few days later I spotted some capped brood  – 8 day old larvae which are in the pupal stage of development, like when a butterfly is in it’s cocoon.  At that point I knew that the queen had been busy laying eggs.

At the rate they were going up till now I think that the 8 frame medium hive body they are in would’ve been full of comb in another week.  I’m sure this is a speed bump at least, but I’m thinking I should check back in 4 days or so to make sure, and to try and find the queen.  I hope this gets them going more or less straight.

Three days later I looked in to see how the repairs were going.

One of the frames of collapsed comb that I had to re-frame

Only three days later it looked like this:

Already attached and running straight – so far.  When I rubber banded it in the comb was so soft that even being as careful as possible I did a fair amount of damage to it, but the bees got to work and fixed it all up.

There were some other frames that looked a little more lumpy but they were all attached well and expanded somewhat.  It looks to me like that even with the set back they are building about 1/2 frame of comb a day.

I looked pretty hard, but still didn’t spot the queen (or eggs) , but I figure that in another 3-5 days I should be able to spot larvae if all is well.

I later saw some brood in the pictures that Shirley took during this inspection.

Photography again by my lovely and fearless wife Shirley who stood 15 feet away without a stitch of protective gear to take these pictures.

A Little Space to Fill

June 12th, 2009
This 3 foot square area is perfect for one teepee of Chinese Long Beans - a variety that I'm trying for the first time.

This 3 foot square area is perfect for one "tepee" trellis of Chinese Long Beans - an heirloom variety that I'm trying for the first time this year.

No matter what size garden you have one of the best ways to maximize the space  is to keep something growing everywhere / all the time.  This is often referred to as succession planting.

Now that the Summer season is upon us many gardeners will already have early season crops  – lettuce, spinach, carrots, early potatoes, onions, peas, etc – that are finished producing and failing or beginning to fail.  Others of us have a few spots left here and there that we just haven’t planted yet.  Well get out your seed collection and poke some in the ground!

Don’t leave those unhappy failing plants suffering in the garden just because they are still producing an occasional pea – yank them out and toss them on the compost heap – a little (organic!) fertilizer or compost, and a quick pass through with a hoe and that spot will be ready for something new.

You might think that the little patch vacated by early lettuce is too small to do anything with – but take a cue from square foot gardeners – it’s not –  if planted appropriately and well cared for.  If you’re a small space gardener then it is even more important to keep the space that you do have planted and producing.

Flowers like this Mexican sunflower will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden.

Flowers like this Mexican sunflower will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden.

Great candidates for filling those empty spaces right now are the summer crops – beans, squash, cucumber, even corn or melons if you have enough space.  Flowers are also a great option as well and many of them attract beneficial insects and may even repel insect pests (marigolds for example).

Unless you live somewhere without hot dry summer weather you probably should not plant cool season crops this late – although in a few weeks (July-August)  you might want to start some for a fall garden.

If you’re a traditional row gardener you might consider broadcasting sunflower seed that you buy as bird food into your finished areas – the tall growing sunflowers will suppress weeds and when they mature they attract droves of songbirds.  I did that a few years ago and the garden was filled with dozens of goldfinches for a while – I didn’t harvest a single seed – they ate every one right off of the flowers. It was great.

Here in zone 6 there is plenty of warm weather ahead at this point for just about anything, but what if that isn’t the case where you live or when you get a round tuit?  Planting something (anything) is better than surrendering the ground to the weeds.  If you plant beans or other legumes they will improve the soil by adding organic nitrogen even if you never get a harvest.

Summer squash come up and grow fast in hot weather, but are prime targets for pests like squash bugs and vine borers when planted later.  You might have to take countermeasures when you plant squash later in the season.

Summer squash will come up and grow fast in hot weather, but they are prime targets for pests like squash bugs and vine borers when planted late. You might have to take countermeasures when you plant squash later in the season.

Assuming that you do hope to harvest something from your efforts it’s becoming increasingly important at this time of year to plant things that are relatively drought and insect resistant, because high summer is the season for both of those plagues.  For our area Kentucky wonder green beans (either bush or pole variety) is a particularly good choice for those reasons – ask the garden specialist at your local farmers co-op for advice on your area.

Happy Gardening!

Honey Bees By Mail

June 9th, 2009

My new bees hanging out at the hive entrance.

The honey bees that I ordered last January arrived in the mail today – actually 4 weeks ago – but that’s when I started this post.  As soon as I picked them up at the post office I misted them with some cool water – they were definitely thirsty – as soon as they got out of the box later they started lapping up water wherever they could find it. Since it was a little bit cool today the bees rode in the cab of the truck to keep them from being chilled on the ride home.

A 3 pound package of bees as it comes through the mail.

The first thing I did to get the bees into the hive was to take out 4 frames to make a space for the bees – then pry the plywood cover off of the package.  The bees will hopefully build nice neat comb in the frames.  I’m using wooden starter strips instead of wax foundation and this is my first ever hive of bees  so the frames are completely empty.

The package contains a can of syrup with a few holes in it for the bees to eat as they move through the mail system.

I'm holding the metal tab that the queen cage is hanging from as I very slowly remove the syrup can. Everything has bees clinging to it so you have to go slow and kind of wiggle things around to keep from injuring them.

After removing the can I kept the bees in the cage by laying the little piece of plywood back over the hole.

Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route.  They really cant wait to get to work.

Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route. They really can't wait to get to work. You can't see the queen in this picture, but she's been marked with a spot of florescent green paint to make her easier to find.

The queen is confined in this cage that comes hanging in the package.  The queen and worker bees were collected from different hives at the commercial apiary where the bees were produced, and don’t immediately accept each other – although the bees that are clinging to the queen cage seem to have because I could see them feeding her (I think).

Anyway, the queen cage has a cork that keeps the queen in for the trip, and under the cork there is supposed to be a plug made out of sugar “candy” that the workers will gnaw away to free the queen.  Unfortunately when I removed the cork there wasn’t any candy – so I put the cork back in and went and got a piece of bread to plug the hole with.  If the queen is still in the cage in a few days I’ll release her during the first inspection.  I should have prepared for this possibility by equiping myself with a marshmallow to plug the hole.  I’m not to worried though – if they don’t eat the bread and free the queen they will feed her through the cage, and she’ll be fine.  I hope.

Don't do this - When introducing a queen into an empty box without foundation just free the queen and put the queen cage in your pocket - seriously don't leave the cage laying around or the bees might cluster on it because of the queen pheremones on it. If you do what I did in this picture you will probably also have to repair the crossed comb that they will build.

After I removed the cork and improvised a plug I hung the queen and her attendants from one of the frames near the center of the hive.  I’ve seen pictures of people having to bend nails and whatnot to improvise a hanger, but the strip of soft sheet metal that this package came with seems to be way easier to use.

I found out a few days later that this was a horrible mistake – the bees started building comb off of the queen cage instead of from the starter strips in the frames.  More about that later.

Usually in package bee installation how tos you are instructed to shake the bees out through the 3 inch hole left by the syrup can – lots of shaking involved which doesn’t look too pleasant for the bees.  However I just took the screen loose on the side of the box to open up the entire side as instructed in this beemaster video on installing a package of bees.

Then the whole bunch comes out with very little effort or trauma to the bees.

Now just carefully replace all of the frames – slowly wiggle them in to give the bees a chance to get out of the way.  It seems impossible from the way this picture looks, but I don’t think I killed a single one.

Now carefully replace the inner cover.  That piece of plywood with the round hole and screen is just laying over a corresponding round hole in the inner cover.  My idea is to feed the bees without them getting into the upper chamber.  We’ll see how it works.  By the way I made all of the hive parts except the frames from scratch.  I’m planning to use 8 frame medium depth hive bodies for everything.

Notice that the bees aren’t attacking me at all.  I doubt if I would have been stung even without the bee suit – but It’s going to be a while before I get that cocky.

The jar of syrup has a few holes punched in the lid and goes right over the screen.  If they drink that too quick I’ll use a gallon paint can later.

Now an empty hive body, and the outer cover.

If I had been on the ball I would have placed the entrance reducer before I started.

The stick that you can see is corking up the vent hole in the innner cover.  In just a few minutes the bees were all moving inside and flying around the yard orienting themselves.  In a few hours they were already bringing in pollen from the blackberry flowers.

This process might look intimidating, but after all of the waiting I really enjoyed the whole thing  – I didn’t get stung.  I had worried that when I dumped all of those bees out they would all just rise up and fly away if I didn’t do everything exactly right.  But the thing is they don’t seem to want to fly away.  It’s almost like if you had been cooped up in a greyhound bus for 3 days and then you were deposited right into a five star hotel with an open buffet – what they really seemed to want to do was settle in and make theirselves at home.

Photography by my lovely and fearless wife Shirley – who was not wearing a bee suit.

Saving Seed – Pansies

June 5th, 2009
Pansies are a great cool season flower which bloom through Fall - Winter - Spring in zone 6.  Saving your own seeds saves money and adds to the fun.

Pansies are a great cool season flower which bloom through Fall - Winter - Spring in zone 6. Saving your own seeds saves money and adds to the fun.

Seed saving adds a whole new dimension to your gardening while also saving you money.  Pansies are a welcome splash of color in the cool seasons, but by now are really starting to fade in the warming weather of late Spring.  But before you toss them on the compost pile spend a few minutes to save some seeds for the fall crop.   You’ll need to plant pansy seeds in July or August BTW.

After the bloom falls off you will see the seed pod start to swell where the flower used to be …

This seed pod is starting to turn yellow and is almost ready to spring open.

This seed pod is starting to turn yellow and is almost ready to spring open.

If you wait too long the seed pod will burst and scatter the seeds everywhere – your pansies might even come up as “volunteers.”  A few will also open gently and not scatter the seeds…

A few seed pods will open without scattering their seeds like this one.

A few seed pods will open without scattering their seeds like this one.

What you want to do is pick pods which are just about ready to open, and then contain the seeds as the pods dry and pop.  Pick lots of pods and chances are that some will be good and some won’t – sow many and it won’t matter.

You don’t want them to rot or mold so try something like this – put your seed pods in a sparse single layer on a paper towel on a plate, and cover them lightly with another paper towel.  Keep them in a dry, well ventilated place until the pods open and then remove the empty pods and other debris by sifting, gently blowing or just picking it out.

Allow your seeds to thoroughly dry and then store them in the proverbial cool dry place until they are ready for use.  I like to keep seeds in the deep freeze in an air tight container because they seem to stay viable practically forever, and it also assures that they won’t become infested with weevils.

Pansies are a product of selective breeding derived from violas and there is a fair amount of variability within most varieties.  When you save your own pansy seeds there is no guarantee as to what you will get – other than you will get pansies, and they’ll probably be beautiful.

Happy Gardening!

Buy Seed NOW for your Fall Garden!

June 1st, 2009
Fresh organicly grown cauliflower like this tastes as great as it looks, and is a great crop for the fall garden.

Fresh organically grown cauliflower like this tastes as great as it looks, and is a perfect crop for the fall garden.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – When it’s time to plant the fall vegetable garden in July/August it will be hard to find seeds in many locations.  Right now garden seeds are available all over the place, but I’ve already seen the displays coming down in my local home improvement store.  Some are even on close out sales already – Buy Now!

Around August first I plan to sow cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and late tomatoes as well as pansies and other fall ornamentals inside under lights.  You could also dirrect sow in the garden but it will be very hot and dry at that time, and starting my fall plants inside gives me a few more weeks to clear out space for them in the garden.  Also starting them indoors lets them get ahead of the bugs and weeds that will be in full swing in mid summer – but that’s another story.

In September your garden can look like this one with lots of fresh vegies and greens for the table - if you plan now!

In September your garden can look like this one with lots of fresh vegies and greens for the table - if you plan now!

A fall garden can double your fun and give you some of the most satisfying harvests of the year – while everyone elses garden spot is going to waste.  But you can’t plant it if you don’t have any seed!

Sorry I’ve been so negligent about posting lately, but I’ve been outside  – So should you!

Happy Gardening!