Super Bee Sunday

Ha ha. The game is on here, but we're not really watching it. It's been an interesting week in San Francisco with pre-game events and concerts, all of which we've largely ignored. There's been controversy about the homeless of SF, of which there are way too many, and 'where to put them' so the tourists wouldn't be affected in any way. To be frank, I'm tired of going to the morning paper and seeing Super Bowl news. Today at least, the hoopla is down closer to San Jose, about an hour/hour and a half south of us. 

Anyway, our list of chores didn't change any. We still had all kinds of stuff to accomplish in the garden and kitchen, and it all got done. Since it's a beautiful day, we decided to open the hive and see how the bees were faring. Over the past week (sunny and warm) I had noticed some limited activity, and I wanted to make sure the bees were ok. 

I tried this trick Dad said he uses, which is to set a timer for a minute and count how many bees come back to the hive (after foraging). He has two hives; one is very strong, and he had 30 bees come back within a minute. His other hive, which he thought he lost this winter, had 10 bees come back within a minute. Me? I had 5 bees come back. So I was a little nervous about the state of the colony.

But what we found was very encouraging. We really have very few bees, I mean it seemed like maybe a hundred (though I'm sure that's wrong). However we found the queen, we found a small bit of brood, we found plenty of honey still in the hive (and several bees were eating it) and new pollen being packed in to cells. So while they are extremely diminished in number, they are also beginning to recover.  

House bees working near the brood

House bees working near the brood

Sorry so fuzzy, but that's the Queen up top. She moves fast and it's hard to focus before she's gone!

Sorry so fuzzy, but that's the Queen up top. She moves fast and it's hard to focus before she's gone!

We rearranged some bars, moving those full of honey up close to the cluster. We saw an opportunity to take out some old bars on which the bees had built comb sideways (it's been a pain to work around these bars since last spring), as they were at the back of the hive and being completely ignored. As I've said before, bees won't travel to the back of the hive in cold weather, as long as they have enough honey nearby - they need to stay warm in the cluster. Now was the time to take these bars out of rotation.

And that meant we could have the honey from those bars!

We cut the comb off of five bars, dropping it in to bowls lined with colanders. We soon realized that this wouldn't be a large enough solution, so Tom ran to the hardware store and picked up two buckets, then drilled holes in the bottom of one bucket, making an impromptu drainage system that I think we will probably now use forever. 

Tom drilled the holes, then I washed the buckets with soap and water.

Tom drilled the holes, then I washed the buckets with soap and water.

Stacked one on top of the other, there's a good half foot between them inside.

Stacked one on top of the other, there's a good half foot between them inside.

Crushed comb goes in the top layer...

Crushed comb goes in the top layer...

... draining in to the bottom. Simple!

... draining in to the bottom. Simple!

This was a totally unexpected benefit of opening the hive today. How lovely that the colony made so much honey last summer that they still have plenty to eat, and extra to give to us! 

The Weird Bugs Continue

Ok, Entomologists: Tell me what this thing is.

I found him on a window screen. He's been hanging out all day. Beetle? Cricket?
*edit 9/14/15 It is NOT a beetle, it is a true bug, by the name of Leptoglossus zonatus, or Leaf-Footed Bug. This guy has probably been eating all my fruiting vegetables. Next time I see one, it's toast.

The Western Spotted Cucumber Beetles are all over my garden, I find them in every crop, on every flower. So far they haven't done enough damage to any one thing that we can't harvest some of it. But honestly, they are everywhere, and I've never had them before. Hopefully my deep mulch plan (with chicken coop litter) will help to deter them next year. They apparently overwinter in the soil. Argh.

But I continue to see good bugs on everything too -native bees, most notably the huge Carpenter Bees on all the flowers each morning. We checked our honeybee hive today and they look great - a little bit of brood, a lot of honey - plenty for winter, I think. This is really good news. Now if they can just fight off (or avoid entirely) varroa mites, we may have a strong overwintering hive. I've decided not to use chemicals to treat any varroa seen or unseen. I'm convinced now that I have to let the strong survive without help, and evolutionarily, the weak ones shouldn't survive. The bees just have to figure it out themselves. It's heartbreaking but that's the way I think it should go down. I know plenty of people would disagree with this assessment. However I'm confident in my decision, and I'll let you know how it plays out here in the next few months.

I continue to see lots of spiders, and lots of monarch butterflies. Today I found a scrap of monarch Gulf Fritillary wing on the garden paths. It's really beautiful, and nice to have a chance to study it close up.


back - hard to see in this light, but those white
patches are silvery and glittery

The first section of buckwheat cover crop has flowered and it sure is pretty - in a couple of days I'll need to chop it down so it doesn't set seed. I'll let it compost in place. I've been reading an awful lot about cover crops and growing all your own compost materials rather than importing outside materials. For instance, I don't know exactly the history of any compost I order in bulk, nor do I know the exact history of even the horse manure I pick up each year. Who's to say the horses didn't eat herbicide-treated hay? In that case, you'd have herbicide-treated manure, which can do a bad number on your crops. I've had a lot of trouble with crops this year, most notably tomatoes and pumpkins, both of whom are planted in (forgive me) a shitload of horse manure-amended soil. In fact the cucumbers haven't done that well, and I've had problems with other crops too. So who knows? If I grow all my own carbon materials here in the garden, I'll have everything I need to make plenty of compost. I already have quite a bit, the compost just takes so long to break down. I guess I need to be better about turning and watering it. Or build a compost pile directly on a raised bed that is fallow, then start a new one when that is high enough... Gosh it just takes so much planning. Even getting a cover crop in takes a lot of planning, because I can grow veg in the beds year-round. If we had a cold winter here, I could plant a cover crop in the fall and let it winterkill, then the beds would be all ready come spring. Oh well. There's drawbacks and benefits to gardening any place, I guess. But the benefits to using cover crops are very clear in numerous ways - they definitely provide stacking functions (a permaculture premise) as they do more than one job. Feed pollinators, improve soil tilth, provide compost material, prevent soil erosion, feed microorganisms in the soil - lots of good stuff.

I do have to say, my honeybees pretty much leave the buckwheat alone, just as they did last year. I'm not sure if I'm planting the wrong kind to attract honeybees or what. There are lots of native pollinators on it, which is great - I was just hoping to provide some forage for my bees, as well. I may try something different next summer. The only thing is, buckwheat is good for hot dry weather and fast growing, and there aren't too many other cover crops that fit that bill.

I did see some honeybees up in the open space last week, which is only a mile from our house, so it's very likely that they are our bees (although I do know one other beekeeper in my area). The tarweed (Hemizonia congesta) is prolific right now, up in the hills.

As you can see, that's about the only living thing up there at the moment, other than native trees.

Here's another interesting thing I found this week walking with Joe:

Sorry the light is wrong on this picture, but the turkeys are everywhere, as usual. I wish I could try to catch one for Thanksgiving dinner. I wonder if we'd be allowed to? And then of course how would you do that without a weapon? I haven't the foggiest. Joe the dog just looks at them and yawns, so he's no help.

I harvested beans, tomatoes, peppers (both hot and sweet), cantaloupe, cucumbers, and herbs today from the garden. Three beds are full of ripening pumpkins (mostly the mini variety at this point, though I planted three different sizes), one bed is holding basil and buckwheat, one has cucumbers and buckwheat, one has cantaloupe, another one has just buckwheat, three have tomatoes, one has all the peppers, one has winter squashes, one has beans, and one has the sweet potatoes, which are going nuts. I'm looking forward to winter crops, even though we're nowhere near ready to plant them yet. We've got at least a month of hot weather in front of us. Early November will be our time to get the floating row covers ready and plant overwintering crops.

Just Chores, but So Much Fun!!!!

Gosh, it's been a fun weekend. The highlight was spending an afternoon with a very good friend, and we had a lively exchange of garden ideas, garden gifts, and love. On top of that we had an impromptu invitation for dinner at a neighbor's house last night - more exchanges of gardening tips and delicious produce! I tasted my first prickly pear fruit (delicious, but lots of seeds!) grown in their garden, and ate some amazing grilled fresh catfish they had caught in Oregon the week before. We brought an heirloom tomato salad with Tom's good Farmer Cheese and basil from the garden on top. Plus some of Tom's garlic dill pickles. Kate made cookies to share, the kids all made a huge bonfire, it was just a great time! A perfect official end to summer vacation, as we get back into the school and work routine this week.

I also had a lot of time to spend in the garden and kitchen, and I got a lot done (I'm headed out again after this post, in fact - potatoes to harvest for dinner!). Mainly just chores, but still, it's such a pleasure to spend time outdoors, then come in for a glass of hibiscus iced tea and make something interesting in the kitchen, then back outdoors for more sunshine and sweat.

Here's the roundup:

Bees and other bugs:
Tom and I opened the hive and there continues to be NO EVIDENCE of wax moths - looks like we caught them just in time. Hallelujah! The ants are also staying away, and the bees are making a LOT of honey. We saw very little pollen, a small amount of brood (consistent with the fact that winter is coming), and a ton of nectar and capped honey. The bees are definitely preparing for cold weather stores. I see them all over my flowers, and I am patting myself on the back that there is plenty of forage for them right now, my early planning is paying off.

In the spirit of continuing that trend, I just scattered many more packets of seed everywhere, mixed in with good compost - more sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, and lots of herbs - oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram. I hope to continue blossoms all the way through October.

I watched a tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on some salvia, two cabbage white butterflies (nuisances, but cute ones) chasing each other through the watermelon patch, and scads of monarchs and Gulf Fritillaries feeding on the tithonia. The bees are over everything, especially a very interesting salvia I planted last spring. I can't remember what it's called, darn it.




Agastache sunset

No idea what this is but I like it!

a bee working in salvia

an old-fashioned rose, left over from the previous owners.
I don't keep many roses as the deer just eat them, but this
one seems to stay safe, somehow

bees working in the chive blossoms

California fuchsia next to a tiny zinnia


an interesting seed pod, I can't remember what this is

another interesting seed pod, this is from Nigella (Love in a Mist)

another cosmos, the varieties are endless

more beautiful cosmos

some sort of native milkweed, I think, from our watershed

native California columbine

California asters

bees working in the native CA gum plant. The buds are very interesting, too

This is that salvia that the bees are going crazy for

Something about to bloom! Don't remember what it is, but I'm still excited!

We're continuing to get five beautiful eggs every day, and the chooks are in good health. Now that I've fed them the last of the collards and romaine from the garden, I'm trying hard to find other sources of greens for them. Sometimes I'll pick the pole bean leaves for them, they love those. Lately I've been chopping down huge swathes of borage and taking it in to them, and they fiddle with that all day. I just planted some special grass in pots that both cats and birds can eat; as soon as it grows, I'll put a pot in there for them to enjoy, and then switch it out as it gets mowed down. I also give them any tomato that has blossom end rot, cucumbers that have gotten too big and bitter for us, and assorted nasturtium leaves, along with scratch, sunflower seeds, and stale yogurt or milk from the fridge.

That one on the top right is bigger than normal. ouch.

I tried two new experiments in the kitchen this weekend. The first was a roasted tomato sauce for the freezer. I mixed together about four cups of chopped tomatoes (all kinds), five chopped shallots, five cloves of chopped garlic, a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper, and a handful of chopped basil. I put it all on a cookie sheet, and put it in the oven for two hours at 300 degrees, stirring it once after an hour. It made the most delicious smell in the house, and all of that reduced down to about a pint for the freezer. Not a huge yield, but what's nice about this is I can make a pint or so every weekend with what's available, and soon we'll have a nice hoard of roasted tomato sauce in the freezer.

both paste and slicers

basil, garlic, and shallot from the garden

I also decided to try to make fermented whole pickles, like the kind you get at real deli counters. This is also a recipe I can make with whatever is on hand, and add more cucumbers as I harvest them. It works best for smaller fresh pickles, apparently, and if I wait until I have a ton of cucumbers, half of them are too big and bitter, so this recipe appeals to me. I made a brine of 6 tablespoons kosher (or pickling) salt to one quart of water and heated it till the salt dissolved. Meanwhile I added, to a large mason jar, one grape leaf from our neighbor's grapevines, two bay leaves, two smashed garlic cloves, a 1/4 teaspoon of pickle crisp, 2 heaping teaspoons of dill, and 2 teaspoons of other pickling spices (allspice, coriander, mustard seed, etc). If I had any fresh dill left in the garden, I would have added that too. Then I washed the cucumbers and cut a thin slice off the blossom end (apparently you don't want the blossom part in the brine, it makes it taste funky). I put the pickles in with the spices and poured the hot brine over them. I weighted it down with another half-pint mason jar, then put the lid on. You are supposed to let it sit out for two weeks, at least, at room temperature (between 70-80 degrees). The brine will get cloudy. You can add an airlock, like with beer or sauerkraut, or you can 'burp' the pickles about once a week until they are the way you want 'em. You can let them sit up to six weeks on your counter if you want maximum fermentation, or you can put them in your fridge after two. I guess tasting will tell us when they are just right. They'll then keep in the fridge for six months. I'll add more cucumbers, maybe two more, as they ripen.

I also mixed up a new batch of Thieves Vinegar. I do this every two weeks. I pick lavender or mint from the garden, stuff it into a mason jar, and cover the whole thing with apple cider vinegar. I let it sit out in the sun, lidded, for two weeks. Then I decant into another clean jar and use it in the laundry room as a natural fabric softener. We love the spicy smell, and we like that it doesn't have any chemicals.

Produce from the garden:
We're harvesting tomatoes (all kinds), both sweet and hot peppers, green beans, delicata squash, watermelons, cucumbers, basil, and potatoes. We're a hairsbreadth away from butternut squash and cantaloupe. We're a little further out from pumpkins and sweet potatoes. The buckwheat cover crop is doing well, and we've had some new growth (surprisingly!) in many areas - the asparagus patch (a spring crop, for heaven's sake), the alpine strawberry patch, and the apple tree seems to be putting out another crop for us! That summer pruning must have made the apple tree feel extremely refreshed. We aren't complaining!

watermelon blossom

Bloody Butcher tomatoes

Alpine strawberry blossom

pumpkin blossom

Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers

Panache fig

buckwheat cover crop

asparagus patch

apple blossom

second crop of apples

Jobs looming on the horizon:
As crops put out their last fruits, I'll pull them, and put in a quick cover crop of buckwheat. After a month of the cover crop, I'll turn it in and let it rot, then cover each bed with a layer of compost from the chicken coop (heavy mulch made up of hay, sawdust, lots and lots of manure, and whatever vegetable or fruit bits didn't get eaten). Around the first of November, I'll start moving aside that mulch and plant our winter crops in. We'll need to make hoop tunnels for the North Garden and make sure the ones in the South Garden are secure, and order new floating row cover. I'll need to order garlic and shallot starts soon, as well as winter seed (kale, spinach, chard, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, turnips, more romaine, braising greens, possibly even red winter wheat). We'll need to watch the beehive vigilantly as varroa mite season is coming up, and we don't want a repeat of last year. There's still a lot of preserving in our near future as we continue to can and freeze the harvest - we've got the two hottest months of summer coming up in September and October, here! I need to sheet mulch the little bit of grass we have left and decide what the heck to do with that area - a huge herb garden, with paths winding around so you brush against the plants and smell them? Or a native California meadow, with summer-dormant grasses and lots of spring bulbs? What do you think? I'd like to sheet mulch it in the next month, and plant it once there is a hope of winter rain.

I hope, wherever you are, you are enjoying some time outside and enjoying nature!