Archive for the ‘How To’ category

Starting Seeds Indoors Under Lights

February 8th, 2010
seedlings growing under lights

Seedlings growing under lights

I started some seeds today in my “plant work room” and I thought you might be interested.  I start seeds in regular plastic nursery trays that I get from a local greenhouse – and that I save from store-bought plants.  I do recycle my plant containers from year to year –  If you reuse containers like this you really should wash them thoroughly in a weak bleach solution and dry them in the sun before storing them away for reuse.  » Read more: Starting Seeds Indoors Under Lights

Honey Bee Queen Rearing

February 4th, 2010

This post is probably not going to be very interesting unless you keep honey bees – Or want to become a bee keeper.  Sorry about that, but there will be more gardening content coming soon.

Queen Bees – The heart and soul of a honey bee colony is the Queen.  Every hive has just one (with few exceptions) and if she is healthy, good natured, and productive she will pass those traits on to all of her daughters – the worker bees – and all will be good.

A bee keeper needs new queens to replace failing older queens, and to establish new hives and grow their operations.  If a hive becomes queenless for very long it’s production and health will suffer, and eventually the colony will die.  Hives with old queens are more likely to “swarm” – an event where the hive splits itself and half of the bees flying off to make honey for their selves instead of for the bee keeper. So replacing old queens with new ones every year is also a way of preventing swarms.

Queen Rearing – Most bee keepers order new queens by mail (when they are available) for about $20 each plus shipping.  Others raise (or allow the bees to raise) their own queens one at a time like nature does.  These videos are of what is called queen “rearing” – producing viable queens in batches.

At a value of $20.00 each the ability to rear even small batches of queens could make a big difference in the economics of a small apiary. Being able to have queens when you need them instead of having to wait for one to come through the mail, and having some control over genetics are also factors in favor of learning this craft.

Wax cell cups for raising queens

In the first video very young (probably one day old or less) worker larva are being removed from a frame of brood comb and placed into wax cups using a wire grafting tool.  BTW, all workers are female.  The larva are very small – about the size of a comma.  Wax cups roughly the size of a small thimble  are either manufactured or are home made by dipping a wet wooden peg into liquid wax.

1) Grafting larva into cups

In the next video, the grafted queen cups which have been mounted with hot wax onto cork shaped pegs that fit into a special frame are being placed into a “cell starter” hive.  A cell starter is a regular hive with the queen removed that has a very high population density of bees – especially young “nurse” bees – and plenty of food stores – honey, and pollen.  » Read more: Honey Bee Queen Rearing

Salad Every Day

January 12th, 2010

Lettuce growing in my cold frame.

When I built my 50 dollar greenhouse over a year ago one of my goals was to be able to have something fresh to eat out of the garden or greenhouse every day of the year.  Well, it’s been about a year now, and  it hasn’t even been very hard to do.

Here is what I’ve learned so far –

Despite what you might have read, lettuce spinach and other salad greens are not really  particularly quick crops.  Sure you can have a pretty little stand of plants in about 6 weeks or so under good conditions, but  in cool weather  they don’t really get productive until they are  almost 3 months old.  Yes you can harvest a few salads out of the thinnings, but the young plants » Read more: Salad Every Day

Forced Rhubarb

January 7th, 2010
Doesnt that look delicious?  Forcing rhubarb results in an earlier, tastier, more tender crop.

Doesn’t that look delicious? Forcing rhubarb results in an earlier, tastier, more tender crop.  The container used to force this rhubarb probably should have been taller – note that the tops are curled over.  Sure is a pretty color though.

Rhubarb is a perenial plant which grows back from the root crowns every spring.  The large leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and are poisonous, but the celery like stems are wonderfully tart and tangy.  Children like to eat them fresh right out of the garden, but nearly everyone likes it used as a fruit in sweet deserts – pies, crumbles, or just stewed with sugar.  My Mom (a marvelous cook of course – thanks Mom!) used to make it into a pie with strawberries.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.  Don’t worry too much about those poisonous leaves – they apparently taste so nasty that there is not much danger of anyone eating them anyway.

Here in TN I can barely grow rhubarb – although last year was so cool and rainy that it did pretty well.  It really does much better farther north » Read more: Forced Rhubarb

Starting Cool Season Crops in the Heat of Summer

August 8th, 2009

There are any number of ways to get your cool season crops for your fall garden started despite the intense heat of August.  In fact some of them will be just fine direct seeded into the garden as long as you keep them well watered.  However, you will still have to contend with peak populations of insects.

This simple trick will protect your tender seedlings from the intense sun, while still letting in plenty of light, and keeping out the bugs.

You probably already have some of these mesh flat trays.

You probably already have some of these mesh flat trays - If you don't you can get them for cheap at most nurseries.

Just turn one upside down over your plants.

Just turn one upside down over your plants.

Then drape a pice of screen cloth over the top - you can buy this by the foot at any home center.

Then drape a peice of screen cloth over the top - you can buy screen by the foot at any home center.

You can weight down the edges of the screen cloth with boards or you can fold it under the flats.  You can also water right through the screen cloth.  You can even use this trick if you’ve direct seeded.  By the time your plants outgrow the inverted flats they will be big enough to survive the sun without the protection.

Try to pick an overcast day to remove the screen on if possible – otherwise do it in the afternoon when the sun has passed it’s highest intensity.  Remove the mesh tray a day or two later.

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.

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!

Square Foot Garden in About an Hour

April 6th, 2009
A 24 square ft garden like this can grow a remarkable amount of food and is easy to build and take care of.

A 24 square ft garden like this can grow a remarkable amount of food and is easy to build and take care of.

Once you have all of the materials gathered up you really can set up a square ft garden like this in about an hour.  As you probably already know “Square Foot Gardening” is a method promoted by Mel Bartholomew.  Basically you grow in a permanent raised bed full of highly enriched soil which is divided into blocks which are 1 foot square – each block is intensively managed and cultivated.  It is an especially effective method for small areas and people who are new to gardening – there is no need whatsoever for roto-tillers or any other expensive equipment.

The bed in this article does not yet have a square foot grid so according to Mr. Bartholomew it isn’t quite a square ft garden.  I guess that will be up to the owner (My Daughter Sharon) who has been reading the book.  Anyway here are the simple steps to building a Square Foot Garden.

The frame for this bed is made out of regular SPF grade construction studs – not pressure treated – and should last 3-5 years before it rots and has to be replaced.  In my opinion treated lumber should not be used to construct garden beds, because of the chance that it will leach nastiness into the soil which could either harm your plants or end up in your food.

For this project we used:

  • 6 – 2 x 4 x 92 5/8″ studs
  • 4 wooden stakes about 14″ long (made out of scraps of 1 x2)
  • 16 – 3 1/2″  screws
  • 10 – 1 1/2″ screws
  • Some newspapers
  • 2.8 cubic foot bale of peat moss
  • 2.8 cubic foot bag of vermiculite
  • 40 gallons of screened yard compost
  • about 5 pounds of rabbit poo

Start out by cutting two of your studs up into 36″ pieces, and then screw them together – Put the 36″ end pieces between the long side boards so that the inside width of the bed is 36″ .  You could go all OCD here and carefully measure, mark, pre-drill, and counter-sink each hole if you like, but consider 2 things first:

  1. You ain’t buildin’ a piano.
  2. It will rot it a few short years.

So, do whatever makes you happy.

Screw the fram together with 2 long screw in each corner.

Screw the frame together with 2 long screws in each corner.

Once you’ve put all of the boards together so that you have two rectangular frames, stack them on top of each other and screw them together.  You can make this easier and neater by first drilling a 3/8″ (more or less – it isn’t critical) hole about 1/4″ deep at all of the locations where you want to angle screw the two frames together.

You can improvise pocket screws by drilling a small hole straight in...

You can improvise pocket screws by drilling a small hole straight in...

Then drive screws downward at an angle through the side of the holes you drilled in the previous step.  This is an improvised pocket screw – it’s just as fast and strong as a “real” pocket screw, but without the expensive pocket jig.  It also looks almost as good if you’re careful.  I used about 10 of these to hold the 2 frames together.

Like this...

Angle the screws in like this...

Fasten the frames together with screw driven at an angle - I call this an improvised pocket screw.

I call this an improvised pocket screw.

Once you have the frame completely assembled place it where you want the finished garden to be – pick a place that is in full sun, near the kitchen, and also near a water supply if at all possible.  A level spot with good soil would be awesome but not really essential.

The spot for this bed had lots of grass growing on it so I used a weedeater to cut it as short as possible – I suppose you could skip this step if you wanted.  Now drive a wooden stake in each corner.  Since our spot isn’t level I leveled the bed by raising the frame and screwing it to the stakes.  If your site is level you can skip this step.

Level the square foot garden by screwing the frame to stakes driven in the corners.

Level the square foot garden by screwing the frame to stakes driven in the corners.

I filled the worst of the gaps between the frame and the ground by screwing scraps of chip board to the inside of the frame.  The gap can be dammed up from the outside with soil, grass clippings, or mulch once the bed is finished.

Once the frame is leveled and secured to your satisfaction cover the bottom with several layers (at least 3-4) of newspaper or cardboard,  Then wet it down so that it mats down good.  Lap the newspaper up the sides a bit.  The newspaper will help to kill the grass and keep it from growing up through the bed, but will very quickly decompose.

Cover the bottom with wet newpapers to help kill the grass.

Cover the bottom with wet newpapers to help kill the grass.

Now start adding the soil mix.  If you choose to mix it in the bed like we did don’t just dump all of the materials  in a lump – spread them out in layers and it will make it much easier to mix.  By the way, I can’t think of a single reason not to mix in the actual bed and several reasons why you should.  Anyway, we started with a layer of compost…

The compost inspector is my Grandson - hes been a raised bed gardener since he was a little kid.

The compost inspector is my Grandson - he's been a raised bed gardener since he was a little kid.

Spread that out, then add half of the peat moss…

Half of the vermiculite…

and so forth until you use up all of the soil ingredients.

Add the soil ingredients in layers.

Add the soil ingredients in layers.

Now simply use a hoe or tilling fork to mix it all thoroughly together – with just a little care it isn’t hard to avoid tearing up the newspaper.

Thoroughly mix the soil ingredients right inside of the raised bed.

Thoroughly mix the soil ingredients right inside of the raised bed.

When you’re finished give it all a good watering and wait a day or two before setting out any plants to allow all of the ingredients to absorb the water.  If you have seeds you want to sow there is no reason not to go ahead and do that immediately.

Needless to say you could use different materials and build the bed a different size.  I like 3 foot wide beds because you can reach all the way across without running laps around the bed – the length of the bed is as much a product of the previously used materials that were available as anything.  If I had 10 or 12 foot materials I would probably build beds that size unless there is some compelling reason not to.  Of course you could also build a bed that is only 2′ x 2′ if you want, but at some point you might just want to get a big flower pot.

Even so, the 3′ x 8′ size that we did use is pretty handy because one bag each of vermiculite and peat moss worked out well to fill it – along with our home made compost.  It would also be easy to construct a cold frame or poly tunnel to cover a bed this size.

Of course you could use any number of materials to formulate your soil mix – which is essentially home made potting soil.

So, you’re just a simple afternoon project away from being a square foot gardener.  If you haven’t already tried it, you should .

Happy gardening.

The Thing About Strawberries

April 2nd, 2009
Each of those flowers will soon be a sweet juicy strawberry.

Each flower will soon be a sweet juicy strawberry.

When you visit the nursery or garden center in the Spring you will probably see potted strawberry plants for sale – some already with berries starting to form.  The thing is, Spring is too late to grow any strawberries. However, it’s the perfect time to grow strawberry plants – then you can get lots of fresh sweet strawberries out of your garden next spring.

Go ahead and buy a few of those plants this spring, and set them out 16″-24″ apart in a more or less permanent location in your garden.  If you can bring yourself to do it pluck off those berries as soon as possible – they won’t amount to much anyway – let the plants concentrate on growing.  Keep them weeded and watered, and fertilized this summer, and by fall you will have lots and lots of these…

One strawberry Mother will spread by runners to form many daughter plants.  If not thinned in the fall, very few strawberries will form, but each of those daughter plants can be transplanted in the fall and will bear fruit the following spring.

One strawberry Mother will spread by runners to form many daughter plants. If not thinned in the fall, very few strawberries will form, but each of those daughter plants can be transplanted in September or October and will bear fruit the following spring.

In September, transplant those into your “real” strawberry patch.  You could easily get a dozen daughter plants from each of the originals that you purchased this spring.  Next spring you will be rewarded for your efforts.