The Good, the Bad, and the Delicious

Well, let's get the crappy stuff out of the way first, shall we? Last night about 1:30 a.m., I heard the unmistakable sound of leaves crunching under the feet of deer, outside our window. This is a sound I used to hear nightly, so I knew immediately that the deer had somehow breached our fence. I got up and drew back the curtain, and though I couldn't see anything in the dark, heard a tremendous clattering and then silence. There was nothing for it but to go back to bed.

This morning, sure enough, evidence of deer everywhere: The cucumbers, cantaloupe, pumpkins, and a recently planted hibiscus in a container, all snipped. Over in the North Garden, trampled tomato vines and half-eaten green tomatoes.

The damage is not terrible, it could have been far worse. But here's the thing: There's no obvious broken bits of the fence, no obvious source of entry, and the gates were shut. Therefore we can assume that this deer somehow jumped seven feet in the air to clear our fence. And now that she's done that, and sampled the goods, she'll be back. And possibly not alone.

I cannot adequately describe how defeated this makes me feel.

On top of that, we had some hive-fixing to do today, which depressed us. Last Thursday, Tom and I attended the monthly meeting of our local beekeeping club, the Mt. Diablo Beekeeping Association. We went to hear the speaker, Rob Keller, of Napa Valley Bee Company. It was an inspiring talk about the biodynamic side of beekeeping, with which, of course, we agree. Rob was adamant in his opinion about the management of varroa mite, which is to do nothing. If the bees die, they die. The colonies that genetically can fight of the mite should survive and thrive and be allowed to go through this process with no help from us. I had pretty much made up my mind not to treat with any kind of chemicals, even though it is heartbreaking to lose a hive, especially one that is doing well otherwise. But the bees have to evolve on their own.

While at the meeting, we talked with another top bar beekeeper about our recent bee problems. I think I mentioned here once or twice before that the bees are building the comb just a hair sideways, instead of the comb being plumb with the bar. Why does that matter? Well, every time we try to lift up a bar to inspect it, the comb tears and falls off, undoing hours and hours of the bee's work. This is disheartening. So we've sort of stayed hands-off with the bees, adding bars if it looks like they need more room, but mostly not messing with them. This isn't good either because, while it's fine to just let the bees do their own thing, if something goes wrong in the hive, we'll never see it in time and have an opportunity to correct it. Beekeepers need to be aware of what's going on in their hives.

Here's what the master keeper told us: Bees build comb according to gravity. If the hive isn't level, the bees won't build in a level way. Remember when I moved the hive to put the entrance on the opposite side? I didn't level the hive when I did that, which was an idiot move. Because I didn't take the time to do it, the hive has been messed up for months. The bees aren't being stupid, or difficult - it's all completely my fault. Ugh.

Our mentor continued on to say that we needed to level the hive and cut off any herky comb, no matter how difficult it feels to do that.

So, today, we took care of business. We leveled the hive. It was so janky, I don't even want to confess it. I guess I have a good enough eye for hanging pictures straight without leveling, but clearly the same eye doesn't apply to bee hives. Once the hive was leveled, we opened it up and inspected it.

First, the good news: The bees have built on every bar, and there is an incredible amount of brood and nectar and pollen. On Thursday night, keepers were talking about how much they've had to feed their bees this summer, because of the drought. But our bees clearly have plenty to eat, thanks to our vigilance in the pollinator garden and our vegetables and fruit, as well as the cactus garden down the street and the blooming Chinese Tallow trees next door. Also, the fresh new combs were plumb with the bars and looked amazing.

The bad news: We had to remove two full bars of brood and honey, as they were built sideways instead of plumb.

This feels terrible, and there is no way to sugar coat it - we killed a lot of baby bees today. The only sweet side to this, and it's bittersweet, is that we can save some of the honey we removed, and we'll maybe get a cupful.

We replaced the bars with fresh ones, and added more bars, and closed up the hive, feeling sober but better about the whole thing, moving forward. I won't be making the leveling mistake again. As Anne Shirley says, "One good thing about me is that I never make the same mistake twice." Gaining experience is sometimes painful.

On to happier subjects.

Tom spent a good portion of his time off this week cooking and canning. He's already written about his hot sauce adventures, but he also made pickles from the first of our cucumbers, and both peach and strawberry jam.

We had a lovely hike on the back side of Mt. Diablo this morning as a sort of 'last-hurrah' before the kids return from camp, and it's back to work for Tom. I'm heading up the nature unit at Girl Scout camp this coming week, which is always rewarding but exhausting. So it was nice to have this week of projects and adventures, just the two of us.

Gates and a Bat Box

Another guest post from Tom about construction...


One of our plans for this year was to raise the height of the fence that surrounds the yard, so that we could grow more food for us and less for our local deer population. This past weekend we finished the last part of that work, installing new and higher gates.

The work to make new gates gave me an opportunity to work with Elizabeth's dad Tim Killen,  who comes from a line of woodworkers and who blogs for Fine Woodworking. Tim's focus for a number of years has been in using SketchUp, 3-D modeling software, to plan his woodworking pieces. I'd dabbled a little bit with SketchUp, but I've always found that having a specific project is always a good way to learn software. This gate project would be a perfect opportunity.

After a few fits and starts and YouTube tutorials, I was able to work up a model for the gates:

Front View

Rear view

We had some lumber left over from the chicken coop construction project, and used that to form the main frames of the gates. Working with Tim gave me a chance to try making some mortise and tenon joints, and at one point we used nearly every clamp that he had:

The final gate design looks a little different than the model I'd created, as we simplified the work needed to make the pickets that attached to the frames.

The gates wound up being pretty heavy, so I was glad that I'd followed Tim's advice and ordered some pintle hinges online to hang the gates. Pintle hinges come in two parts -- there's a metal strap that attaches to the gate using carriage bolts, and a pin (the pintle) that gets screwed into the post. The gate is then lowered into position so that a loop on the end of the straps goes over the pintle. Here's a closeup:

Pintle hinge
 We used two straps per gate, and each one is rated to 100 lbs, so that should hold up. Here's one of the finished gates in place:

It was a lot of fun working with Tim on the gates, and I learned a lot (like, when you subtract off the width of the stiles when measuring your rails, be sure to add back in the length of the tenons, or your gate frames will be a lot more narrow than you had planned. D'oh!).

Our other construction project of last weekend was for an Eco-project for Adam's 7th grade science class. For this project, he needed to make something that would contribute to an environment. We've been working on making our home environment a better place for animals, both wild (birds, insects, lizards) and domestic (chickens, bees), and so we decided to follow that same path and work on a bat box.

There are a lot of plans for bat boxes online, and the construction is pretty straightforward. We settled on a design from This Old House that has a fun bat motif. The box itself has an opening on the bottom, and is fairly shallow – only about 3/4" between front and back.

Adam has to bring it in to school next week, then we'll put it up high on our shed.

This means WAR.

Yesterday, I noticed that one of the wires had come off our new deer fence - in the corner - behind a compost bin - not a convenient place for deer to leap, so I didn't put it at the top of my priorities. We were out until late last night at a band concert and I completely forgot about it.

This morning I went out into the garden and found fresh scat at the scene of a horrible crime: the corn has all been snipped, neatly, as if it had been given a haircut. It was a similar story at the bean patch and in the butternut squash patch.

the break-in

DNA evidence


butternut squash

pole beans
This is the last straw.

How deer-proof do we have to make this place, anyway???

Our gates are still not done, so we've taken to leaning boards up against each one - I'm about ready to sharpen them into pikes. The poor UPS people and the meter readers are wondering why we've banned them from our yard.

deters delivery guys, but not deer
I'm discouraged, maybe even a little depressed. But I'm not beaten!!!!! Priority one this weekend: gates and reinforcement. Meanwhile, I might have to cowboy camp in the garden.

Today has been very nice; I was unexpectedly released from work, as the kids went on a field trip and they had enough parents attending! The first thing I did was take a nice long walk with Joe, in the lower woodland elevations of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. I almost never get to ramble with the dog anymore, and it was really lovely - extraordinarily peaceful and idyllic.

wild plums

wild blackberries

a trickle of water in the creek

wild grapevines growing up a tree

native honeysuckle, about to bloom

native mallow

shelf fungus
Then I came home and started on my list of chores. Always first up, weeds. The bermuda grass and bindweed are coming up all over the place in the North Garden. "Tenacious" is an understatement.

Evil #1: Bermuda Grass

Evil #2: Bindweed
As I was weeding and giving supplemental water (and moaning to myself about deer), I noticed that the huckleberry was full of ripe fruit! So I stopped for a snack. These berries are delicious - smaller than blueberries, but quite similar. 

The tomatoes are already reaching jungle proportions. A combination of good starts and good soil, I guess. We haven't had very hot weather, so I can't imagine what they'll do once it gets truly warm.

The peaches are ripening, and getting large. Soon it will be time for frozen peach smoothies again!

We got a new rain barrel, so I set it up. Tom will have to get the downspout adjusted over to the screened opening.

Dad brought over five bags of fresh sawdust and I spread the contents of three of them in the coop. The chickens have gotten noisy lately. They aren't annoying like a barking dog, and they aren't terribly loud, but there is a constant clucking and hooting which I didn't expect. Several of them have gotten their combs and wattles, and I'm expecting to see some egg laying starting next month. They love to dig down through fresh sawdust and take baths in it. They have gotten braver about coming close to me, and I often feel them peck the rivets on my jeans or the ends of my shoelaces, while I'm kneeling and working in their coop. And they come close when they see me heading over with fresh kale from the garden. But when I clean the coop or change the water, you'd think I was a terrorist. They just can't seem to calm down at those times, or maybe they just forget that I'm the person who gave them greens earlier in the morning. I understand now why people think chickens are dumb. It's because they ARE. However, they are cute and funny, and a nice addition to the garden (despite all the hooting and quarreling!).

Molly, checking me out. She's the bravest one.

Minerva and Hermione, with Luna looking on. 
Next on the list, weeding the flower beds. Things are looking quite nice, I must say, and I hope the flowers stay abundant for the Urban Farm Tour (June 6!). 

Gilia tricolor, or Bird's Eye Gilia


Bush Anemone
Flowering pomegranate
California poppies with Elegant Brodiaea 

The potatoes are growing beautifully, as are the carrots and peas. It appears that the collards and lettuces have also had a recent trimming by those four-footed devils. The shallots are starting to look drier and may be close to harvest. The strawberry wall is recovering from a recent deer attack, and the blueberries are producing a few each day.

Yukon Gold
Our potato crop was eaten by deer last year, so it would be very depressing to have that happen again. I don't mean they ate the actual potatoes; as far as I know, deer don't dig (though I wouldn't put it past them). They just completely decimated the leaves. Twice. Are you noticing a recurring theme? 

Next chore: pulling out the kale, adding a few wheelbarrows of dirt to the bed, and planting basil seeds. Red Russian Kale is a star in my garden, producing well for six months out of the year. The chickens love it, we love it, it's a nutritional powerhouse - an all-around great plant. But I'm dying for fresh basil, and I have to get it in the ground now if I want a crop. And the kale was starting to flower and get quite leggy, despite my daily pickings. So with a sad heart I fed most of the kale to the chickens (and gave some to my neighbor for her chickens too!) and composted the rest. 

Unbeknownst to me until I began this project, the lower reaches of the kale was full of aphids, which can certainly happen once the plant is stressed. What an ABSOLUTE pleasure to feed the aphid-ridden bits of kale to the chickens, to whom Christmas had come early! Chickens dearly love bugs, of all kinds.

I hope I didn't feed any on-the-prowl ladybugs to the chickens while I was at it
The worst part about aphids is that after you get rid of them, you feel all crawly.

I noticed a bunch of bees hovering around the hive today. My best guess about this is that they are the first flights of the new bees. I'm anxious to take a look in the hive this weekend and see how much the colony has grown.

I'm finishing up the day with a fancy dinner, because when you have the time to cook something special, you have to take advantage! I'm roasting a beef tenderloin, which is a splurge - but we will eat leftovers from it for days. I've made a compound butter to go with it. This sounds complicated, but it's not; just soften a stick of butter, then whip it with garlic and herbs. I used thyme and sage from the herb garden, as well as our newly hung garlic, which is really fun to use - it's not dry, like grocery store garlic. It's quite moist and easy to peel, and has a wonderful flavor. With the tenderloin, I'm going to roast some beets, and make some parmesan polenta. It'll be a great end to a great, full-of-accomplisments day!

Beer making and garlic braiding

Tom and I are attending 'Beer School' through The Kitchn. Last week most of our assignments were preparing us for the actual brewing of beer, and yesterday our task was to go shopping for all the equipment we needed.

We visited our local brew store and had a fun time gathering up our list, which included strange-sounding things like 'hydrometer' and 'airlock.' We also got our grains. We are making an all-grain beer, which is apparently more flavorful but is a bit harder. It was fun to go into the 'grain room' and taste and smell all the grains. We also enjoyed milling the grains right there in the shop.

Employee Nolan helps us navigate milling
We have everything at home now, it set us back about $119 but we already had a significant amount of the kitchen items needed. If you had to start by getting that stuff too (stockpot, thermometer, etc) it would be quite a bit more costly.

I'm guessing that we may begin the brewing very soon. We're excited to get started making our first amber ale!

Today my fruit trees arrived from Stark Brothers, impeccably packed as usual. I soaked them in water for several hours while I prepared the beds. Last week I took out a huge ceonothus and many sunroses from along our North fence. The first thing I had to do today was borrow my father's ax and hack the stumps to pieces. I gotta tell you, nothing makes me more exhausted than using the ax. I always end up with numb hands and arms, literally dripping sweat. How did all the pioneers clear their land with just an ax? It blows my mind, every time I use this tool. Respect, pioneer dudes.

Next I needed to clear the land of mulch and dig some holes. Clay clay clay. Digging is the second-most exhausting thing in our hard-as-rock earth. I shall sleep well tonight.

Sunrose is gone, time for cherry trees...

...and here they are

only the ceonothus stump left.... a plum tree

I put wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of good compost in these areas, and mixed up a huge amount of flower and herb seeds, then broadcast them over the dirt. Tom hooked up drips, and in a few weeks, we'll see how these guys are doing. These trees probably won't fruit for at least two years. Planning for the future, yo. In the meantime, we'll hopefully get a nice pollinator garden going.

By the way, those cinder blocks you see in the plum tree picture are for the new rain barrel I ordered. Turns out, they don't make them the way they did five years ago when we got our old one; they no longer make them with removable lids. So you must use the spigot to fill your watering cans. (I guess it's a safety issue?) Therefore, they need to be up on blocks. Also in this picture is a small strip of bark for Joe. He likes to lie in this spot, and I keep taking away his favorite places. I couldn't bear to do it again.

I also made my garlic braids. The garlic was harvested two weeks ago and placed to cure on top of our chicken coop. It had gotten quite dry in the curing period, so I decided to go ahead and braid it. You start out with three bulbs, wired together. Then you braid, adding another bulb to the middle each time. It's a little like French braiding hair (which I was never very good at). When you've reached the top, you secure with twine, making a knot at the front and then at the back, then making a loop with which to hang the braid.

Still a little green in the middle; that will dry with time

Dad has finished my canning shelf, which has knobs on which to hang these garlic braids, and I'll be installing that next weekend.

You may recall that I made Thieves Vinegar a few weeks ago. I decanted it in to a spray bottle and used it to clean the kitchen, the shower, and our wooden dining room table this weekend. I'm happy to report that it works excellently on all those surfaces. It smells good, too - very minty. And yes, vinegar-y too. But after using chemical cleaners most of my life, it was a nice change. I guess you just have to decide what you want to smell when you're done cleaning.

I put some in another spray bottle to take to work tomorrow - what with the kids' diagnosis', sensitivities, and allergies, we try to use natural cleaning products whenever possible. So we can use this to clean the lunch and station tables when we are done.

I can think of lots of other uses for this too - I'll try it as a clothes softener this week. Vinegar naturally softens clothes and it doesn't leave a vinegar smell on them, apparently. Much better for the environment than regular fabric softeners. Plus, if we go with a graywater system, we're going to need to use different detergents/softeners anyway.

I'm desperate to plant basil and get it started, but I'm loathe to pull out the kale until it's really and truly done. So I'm leaving the kale for now, and I planted some interim basil between and among the peppers. I ordered more seeds and will just plan on succession planting once the kale is finished. I also had to re-seed a few items. You see, we've attracted an intrepid scrub jay to our yard. He came for the chicken coop. He discovered that the chickens will sometimes, in their enthusiastic scratching and digging, pitch a treat out through the fencing of their coop. He sees them scratching and comes down, perches on the edge of a raised bed, and waits for any morsel that comes sailing out. Smart bird. Apparently he's also seen me seeding beds, because I've seen him steal the seeds once I've planted them. So I have to be stealthy. I have to make sure he's not around before I go out and bury and few furtive grains of corn or beans. I feel silly looking out for a BIRD, but there it is.

Finally, we tried to get to the fence gates. We've taken to parking our cars as close to our gates as possible (three gates, two cars - one gate is always unprotected) because the damn deer are hopping the fences to get in, now that they can't get over the fence. Beans - eaten! Strawberries - eaten! ARGH. And we just didn't get to the new fences this weekend. It's top of our list, next weekend.

And that's the news from Poppy Corners this second weekend of May. Have a good week, everyone!

Raising the Fence

We worked all weekend on raising the fence. Tom did all the cutting and measuring of wood, I helped with the wire, and chopped down several old, woody bushes that were in the way. What we have now is, hopefully, a subtle but effective deer deterrent.

You can barely see the three-tiered wire going across these posts, which is just how I like it. Neighbors can see in, we can see out, and yet no one wants to jump it. The fence goes around our entire property, except for the driveway and garage, so this was a major undertaking. Tom bought six foot lengths of 4x4 posts and cut them into two foot sections. Then he bolted them on (using deck screws) to the existing posts using metal plates on two sides. The wire is heavy gauge and is threaded through staples pounded into the wood.

We have three gates, one of them double-sized. So Tom's next project is to make, essentially, four gates, each six feet tall. He'll make them similar to the chicken coop door, since we have some supplies leftover from that. They'll each be latched by some sort of string system that can be accessed by either side.

I cleared out a truck-sized load of old westringia, ceonothus, sunrose and buckeye. It was difficult, scratchy, and painful,  and I would have liked a nice huge bonfire afterward to celebrate, but that's not allowed here. So we borrowed Dad's truck and took it to the compost facility at our local waste center.

This project took up most of the weekend, but I managed to make some new bars for the beehive; paint a brick for the new blackberry vine I scored for free on Nextdoor; open the hive (all looked well); reseed some corn, beans, watermelon; add dirt to the potatoes; clean the coop and the house; do laundry; and weed and mulch and get everything looking nice - plus a half day of training for Girl Scout camp. We did cross everything off the list except I didn't get to the herb purees. That will be a job for the week to come!

I've ordered three new bare-root fruit trees to take the place of some of the bushes I took out. I chose two different sweet cherries and a Santa Rosa plum variety hybridized by Luther Burbank. Once I plant those, I'll spread a ton of flower seed around them, and hopefully have a pollinator garden in the North Garden as well as the South. 

Everything in the veg garden has sprouted and looks great. I have yet to harvest kale and plant basil in its place, and I have yet to harvest the shallots and plant cantaloupe in its place, but everything else is in.  It's all wonderful, but it's the flowers that are really knocking me out these days, so I'll leave you with pictures of those, plus a funky mushroom (I think it's a stinkhorn).

Clarkia, Mountain Garland

Blue Flax


Pollinator section of the South Garden

Redbud seedpods

Tidy-tip and Phacelia 
 Bonus picture -

Gopher snake Tom saw on a hike with Joe