• Birds, Bees and Wendell Berry

    Spring 2017Wendell Berry is the poet of farmer and nature dweller alike. He is my favorite writer, poet, fiction, nonfiction, and I’m excited to say he liked my tweet. For World Poetry Day, I linked to the Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

    Spring 2017We are in spring mode: Bob has been tending seedlings for months and they are now filling the high tunnel. Kale, carrots, radishes and an unidentified probably Asian green that was supposed to be butter crunch. It is much more like Romaine, long spiky leaves growing from a center but without any head forming.

    I have four ginger plants sprouting in the greenhouse in the back bedroom  and am just trying to be patient for the others. There is a spot ready for them in the high tunnel. The turmeric showed no sign of real life so I just put all the pieces in pots on the sun porch. We shall see…maybe getting into dirt will encourage them to sprout and root.

    I decided, even after last summer’s failure, to go ahead and increase the apiary. I bought two nucs–boxes of bees with a queen, brood and some honey–from a store about two hours away and picked them up on Friday. I took the pickup, thinking they could ride in the back but the owner insisted they be up front with the air conditioning running full blast. With so many bees in such small space, they generate a lot of heat. We had a careful drive home and they aSpring 2017re now hived.

    My goal today was to get the feeders off my old hives and installed with a light syrup mix on the new hives. I knew the old hives seemed to be doing well but hadn’t done a check yet. I am happy to report they are doing well. So well, in fact, that I decided to put boxes on them and do the feeders another day. Both hives had begun building up into the feeders so I scraped the comb and left the feeders for them to clean. I added a medium to the single deep hive that I saved last year. I had some old comb from the freezer, three frames from the strong hive, and five newish frames. I’ll keep an eye to make sure they start filling it up but I’m not too worried as they seemed ready.

    The stronger hive has a deep and a medium. I checked the medium and saw new brood and lots of honey. Didn’t manage to get to the bottom box but will check it next time. For now, I added a queen excluder and a honey super with some drawn comb and some new frames. They also seemed eager to start building. The bees seemed pretty mellow. I had the smoker but they didn’t seem all that aggressive. I was able to walk away without being chased.

    I am pleased with both hives and am hopeful for the new ones. They are active as they get settled in their new homes.

    Spring 2017A few other pictures…the resident fox who has little concern for the dogs that are barking at him like mad. I worked in the hay barn one afternoon this spring, prepping the bee hardware. I kept an eye out for him as he hangs out in the hay but I didn’t see him this day. As I came down out of the barn at one point, I realized he was snoozing in the sun on a cart we have in the barnyard. It’s loaded with brush for the next bonfire and he was tucked in the branches on the edge, one eye slightly open and keeping an eye on me.

    Spring 2017I am kind of excited about my orchids! I have been pampering them for a year now: summer in the dappled sunlight of the upper porch and then winter in a greenhouse in the bedroom upstairs. Warm and humid, just the way they like it. I was rewarded with blooms on two of the plants. I brought them downstairs for some late winter color. Soon, it’s time for them to head back to the porch.

    We have had two red bellied woodpeckers at our feeder this year. They like the long tube where they can rest their tails.Spring 2017

     

     



  • Upgrading the Infrastructure & Adding

    Two major “buildings” have been added to the farm since January. The first, a high tunnel, is an unheated greenhouse that allows us to extend the growing season in both the spring and the fall and grow tropicals including ginger and turmeric. We received it as part of a grant program from the National Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

    The second, a shipping container, will serve as storage and work space. It was just delivered yesterday and will take some work to create windows and man doors.

    As for crops, the sun porch in the house is filled with Bob’s seedlings: herbs, greens, tomatoes and flowers. Some of them will get moved into the high tunnel to grow. The grant requires that crops in the tunnel be planted in the ground.

    I allowed my ginger and turmeric to stay in their pots until the end of December. Once they were harvested, I gave them a month to dry. I cut the ginger into small pieces, being sure that each piece had a few eyes, and dipped them in clorox water to sterilize them. They dried for another week or so and then I planted them in sterilized one gallon pots that included sterilized dirt, mushroom compost and peat moss. The pots are now in a small greenhouse in an upstairs room. They’ve been sitting for three weeks and I haven’t seen any sign of life. I’m tempted to dig one up to see what’s happening under the ground.

    I decided to sprout the turmeric outside of dirt. I cut the roots off the original rhizome and laid them in a tray. I’ve been spritzing them with water to keep them moist and a few are showing signs of life.

    Here are a few photos and one video of the shipping container:

    Spring 2017 Farm

    Find more videos here.



  • The Farm in Transition 2016

    As the title suggests, 2016 has been a transition year here at Bottle Tree Farm. We said good-bye to the last of the pigs in 2015. Now, thanks to the wily fox, we are down to a small flock of fowl: three turkeys (two toms and a hen), two chickens, and two ducks. The turkeys are free range while the ducks and the chickens share a pen within a pen that seems to be sturdy enough to deter our fox. “Real” farmers would have rid themselves of the predator, but he is beautiful and wild and we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. And, as we head into the second half of our ten year plan, reducing animals means being able to do more traveling together.

    As for those free range turkeys: they’ve wandered off twice in the past month or so. On Thanksgiving Day, we found them entertaining the neighborhood across the street. Today, I found two of them wandering the fence line by the railroad tracks where the third had managed to get himself on the wrong side of the fence. It took about an hour of jumping the fence myself, thrashing through underbrush, basically pushing him back over and then luring them back to the barnyard with a bucket of food. Phew…I’m ready for a nap.

    We continue to nurture two bee hives. We installed a third late in the summer and it didn’t make it. Not sure why: the queen seemed to be doing her job but it just wasn’t strong enough. We would like to add two more this coming spring.

    Our plans for 2017 include a high tunnel, courtesy of a USDA grant. It is an unheated plastic greenhouse that will be installed next week. We’re planning to mostly use it to raise ginger and turmeric but should also be able to get some early crops of lettuces and other greens. We were able to raise a small amount of both ginger and turmeric on our sun porch this year, thanks to seed stock from Virginia State University, where they are experimenting with growing these tropical crops in our climate. We harvested some nice ginger root and are going to pull the turmeric on New Year’s Day. These niche crops have a variety of uses and while we get the crop going, we’ll be looking for outlets to sell them. Our small harvest will be used for root stock and we’ll also be buying plants.

    For now, we are enjoying the wood stove we installed in the den and doing what all farmers do this time of year: browse seed catalogs! Despite its challenges, we continue to love living here. If you’re ever in the area, feel free to stop by.

     



  • Cautiously Optimistic

    In my last bee post in June, I mentioned the weak hive. My remedy of putting in a few frames of brood from my other hive did not work. The next time I went into the hive, it had been heavily invaded with wax moths. There evil invaders take advantage of weak hives. Normally, the bees are able to fight them off but my hive was just not strong enough. It is just ugly: they make sticky webs across the frames and the worms eat into the wax. The only positive part was that there were still a large number of bees in the hive.

    I made an emergency call to a bee keeping expert. Could I at least try to save this hive? He advised swapping frames with the healthy hive again, adding any unaffected frames from the invaded hives and reducing the whole hive to one box. I ended up with six frames of bees, brood and honey and added four empty frames to fill the box.

    I am lousy at finding queens so couldn’t find one. But, after a week or so, I found the evidence of the bees making an emergency queen. This is another one of those fascinating things that bees do and one of the reasons I don’t buy queens. It just makes sense that having the bees make one is better than introducing one.

    Once they make a queen, it’s all a game of timelines and numbers. From laid egg to hatch is 16 days for a queen. Then another 5 to 6 days  until she is ready to make her mating flight. Then, a few more days until she lays eggs. It can be 28 days plus or minus 5 days.

    So, today, when I pulled some frames, I saw larvae. Yay! That works perfectly with the timeline. I reduced the hive to one box on July 12. Around July 31, I saw hatched queen cells. That’s 19 days. Larvae show up in about 3 to 5 days after the eggs are laid. That means my larvae were eggs around August 6, 25 days after this all began, just about a perfect timeline.

    It is going to take 20 days for those larvae to turn into bees. Workers bees live about 40 days. I put capped brood in the hive on July 12. There wasn’t a whole lot left on July 31. That means the current bees in the hive are anywhere from 14 to 28 days old. So, I am expecting to see the population go down in the next couple weeks. I may need to add one more frame of brood from my healthy hive, which had plenty of open brood.

    So…I am cautiously optimistic that I can save this hive. I did commit to getting two more nucs of bees. If all goes well, I will have four active hives.

    Today was also the first day of dusting the bees with confectioner’s sugar. It is a known, organic method for fighting varroa mites. They live on the bees so when you dust them, they clean off the sugar and get rid of the mites at the same time. I have sheets with grids that I can slide in the hide to do a mite count and may do so the next time I check the hives.

    I continue to balance nature and management. All the beekeepers I know are having a tough year: the late frost killed off the blossoms that fuel the spring flow and some hives, like mine, never requeened. This is the most management I’ve had to do int the three years I have had the hives and I’m hoping it will save my hive.

    One item of interest: I am getting nucs from someone who practices Slovenian bee keeping, a method that makes it easier for people to manage a hive. A typical hive box can weigh 50 pounds. It is right on the edge of what I can lift so if I am going to continue this hobby into my next decade, a friendlier method would be welcome. I am looking forward to seeing the operation.



  • Bee Log Plus

    I’ve been keeping an eye on the hives, and one of them has been noticeably inactive compared to the one on the left. A few bees coming and going. I haven’t been able to get down to open the boxes: it’s either raining or just too hot. But, today was pretty perfect for putting on the suit and heading down to the bee yard. I checked the quiet hive, and there wasn’t much brood. There were a few new babies but very little brood. I didn’t see the queen or even queen cells so I may have a queenless hive or a very new queen.

    My other hive had a TON of brood and babies. So, I did something I’ve never done before: swapped some frames of brood into the weaker hive. The idea is that the brood will both provide new bees and encourage the hive to create a new queen. For me, it felt a little like major surgery. I swept the bees off the frames with my brush and then popped them into the other hive. This meant both hives were open at the same time. The bees were busy around me but not particularly aggressive.

    I am traveling for the next ten days and will check when I return to see if the remedy worked.

    Meanwhile, we’re getting steady vegies from the farm: lovely roma beans, kale, yellow squash, chard, beets and turnips. I put up a half gallon jar of pickled turnips and beets using this recipe. I threw some small turnips and beets into tonight’s crock pot chicken. My oven was being used to heat dirt to sterilize it. I have 100 lavender seeds to get started.

     

     



  • Spring 2016 Update

    The azaleas are blooming so we put out the hummingbird feeders yesterday. Saw the first bird today. No photos yet.

    PeasBob has been busy in the sun porch and garden. He has lots of tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings just waiting for danger of frost to pass. But he also has lots of stuff in the ground: beautiful lettuces, peas just up and getting ready to climb, beets. They should survive a bit of frost. We’ve had fresh asparagus and plenty of lettuce from the sun porch. 

    I checked on the bees in March and was pleased to find healthy hives that had pretty decent stores of honey as well as evidence of newly laid babies. May have even seen the queen. The bees in the hive on the left were particularly active; that hive has a deep and a medium box so is smaller and generally more active. I wanted to see if I could avoid a swarm so added a queen excluder and honey super. Not sure I did, but they seemed to settle down. I also put the honey super on the other hive. I am hoping that, since they had strong store left, they’ll start making honey for me.

    LadyWe’ve made our two male royal palm turkeys quite happy by bringing a hen on board. For now, she’s hanging out in her own pen while they pay court. Give her a chance to get acclimated. She has acquired three ladies in waiting, bantam hens who lost their rooster and are joining the main flock.

    The males are doing all manner of displaying, dancing, and generally showing off. I haven’t gotten video of the dance they were doing in unison last night but here’s a bit of the display:

     
    Look at Me!

     



  • Endings and Beginnings

    In early December 2012, we brought four pigs home, not really fully prepared for what it meant to add livestock to the farm. In those three years, I have done things I never imagined I would from being present at the birth and death of a pig to eating an animal I helped raise. Last week, we bade farewell to the last six pigs. We don’t regret the adventure and learned a lot about ourselves and our relationship to animals, but we are ready for a break from the responsibility.

    Whereas chickens and other fowl can survive without daily attention, pigs demand it. They were contented behind the electric fence until their stomachs growled and then they came looking for dinner. We’ve had a few barnyard buddies who hung out under the porch of the cottage and came out to steal the turkey food or get a ru. I think my favorite story is coming home late on a summer evening to see the barn yard littered with half eaten watermelons. That could mean only one thing: Biscuit, our first boar, was out. Sure enough, he had busted through the chain link and made his way through a pile of melons, a piggy favorite. We pushed him back in, knowing, he wasn’t secure and headed to bed. We woke to a ruckus in the middle of the night to discover Biscuit wandering around in search of more melons. I coaxed him back to his pen, made a more secure barrier and watched as he headed into his pen, stretched out, sighed contentedly and feel asleep.

    With the pigs gone, Bob may be able to travel for more than a day or two. We have also turned our attention to the house. We pulled up the carpets in most of the front of the house to reveal the hard wood floors. Bob covered the hole in the wood paneled den in the back of the house and it has become our family room for the winter. We haven’t had to use the wood burning stove very much with the warm weather, but we’re ready when winter really does come. The stove warms the den and the kitchen and makes a cozy living area for us.

    We are taking advantage of the sun porch to raise lettuces and I have sprouts and herbs in the kitchen window. We have some greens and broccoli down front. Freshly picked broccoli, lightly steamed with butter and lemon, is one of the joys of farm living. And the hens continue to provide eggs…just enough for the two of us. We’ll keep gardening but will also use the dollars we save to support other farmers, knowing how hard it is to produce sustainable food in all its various forms whether on hoof or nest or vine. You will pay more probably, but you will do so knowing that your dollars are going right back into your community, literally, and ensuring an ongoing source for fresh food for you and your neighbors.

    I harvested a little honey this year. The hives appear strong and are full as we head into winter, but the supers had very little honey. I did not feed them very much last year and wonder if their stores were too low. I’m going to feed them on January 1. I am also considering adding two more hives to the apiary.

    Fox in the Field

    Bob has done a great job clearing much of the acreage but there is still some wilderness that is home, along with our barn yard, to wildlife. We usually see wild turkeys and this year, we provided sanctuary to at least one fox. We’ve protected the chickens a bit better because we don’t have the heart to get rid of him. We can live in balance. Bob caught some video of him in the pasture.

    Turkey in the Den

    The most fun this fall has been with our two Royal Palm turkeys. They are both toms who like to jump the fence into the back yard and eat the sunflower seeds. They wander along the back porch and have, at least once, been in the front hall as we leave the doors open for the dogs in the warm weather. They don’t have names…I call them collectively “gentlemen” and they greet me in the morning and gobble at trains and sirens. Endlessly amusing. They are a daily reminder of our somewhat odd life: I forget sometimes that not everyone looks our their laundry room window to see two turkeys roosting on the wash line.

    It is a good life. and we are looking forward to the journey ahead. We hope you had a wonderful holiday and wish you a magical new year!



  • Very Overdue Update Plus Angry Bees

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    Four months? Really? I didn’t do an update all summer?

    I was busier than ever with workshops this spring and summer. My flower garden was lovely in the late Spring, early Summer and then I started to travel. Newspaper and mulch helped some but eventually the weeds won out. We also decided to add another 5 or 6 feet to the front to make it easier to mow so those grasses have obscured what flowers might be blooming.

    Ditto for the rest of the farm. Bob got nice hay and early greens. He was keeping ahead of the chaos. And then, rain and heat combined to make it impossible. We did get a nice harvest of pears from our house in Williamsburg that are now lovely sauce in the freezer. But, our produce is coming from others…and I’m discovering the fun of the farmer’s market. I hope I’m a better consumer because I know how hard farmers work to get the food to the market on Saturday morning. It is, I can tell you, a very hard way to make a living, this raising of food essentially by hand.

    I’ve frozen corn, blueberries and tomato sauce. The blueberries also went into freshly baked hand pies last week and were delicious. There weren’t any this week and the season is almost over. So, our sweet treat this week is going to be peach cake using canned peaches from last year.

    We’ve turned our attention from farming to house work. We haven’t done much in the past four years: added heat mostly. So, Bob is starting with painting the front porch.

    Now to those bees…it is the time of year when you sprinkle them with confectioner’s sugar for mites. I did it last week and all seemed fine. One box had really started in on honey production so I know I’ll at least get a bit in the fall. The other one hadn’t done much. It’s a bigger hive so more space to store honey in the bottom boxes.

    This week, everyone seemed a little edgier and I only managed to complete one hive. My smoker wasn’t helping and eventually failed on. And the bees were going for skin where they could find it. I got stung a couple times so decided to wait on the other hive until another day. Maybe try it earlier or later when it’s cooler, too. The suit is very hot and I think the sweat draws them in even more. Who knows? Just not a happy day at the hive.

     

     



  • Suddenly Spring!

    A gorgeous Saturday and the big job was to do the first post-winter bee hive checkin. I’ve been watching the hives for the past month or so and seeing lots of activity. They’ve been on the to do list for awhile but when I had time, the weather was too rainy, or windy, or cold. Today was perfect! I donned the suit, fired up the smoker and headed down mostly just to remove the feeders and see if there were babies.

    I fed them three times this winter: twice in December/January time frame with a thick syrup (2:1) and then in February with a lighter 1:1. The feeders were empty, and both hives had started building comb with lots of honey along the underside. I took them off, scraped up the excess comb and honey and put them to the side. They’ll clean them out.

    I’m happy to report that both hives have LOTS of bees but they were not overly aggressive. I used the smoker, of course, but they mostly left me alone as I worked, too busy with their own Spring chores to worry much about me. And, I think I have gotten less intrusive, feeling more confident about moving boxes and pulling up frames.

    They seemed to have a fair amount of honey and pollen stores and bees were flying in with bulging legs. It’s the Spring flowering season with fruit trees and early flowers providing plenty of foraging.

    There was also evidence of brood in all stages including eggs and larvae so that shows evidence of a queen. I am not good at locating the queen and did not want to pull out lots of frames. This was a check in after all. I did switch the boxes for one of the hives, putting the deep on the bottom and the medium on the top.

    Next week, I want to replace one of the hive boxes on the other hive as it is in pretty bad condition, starting to rot at the top. I’m also going to put on the honey supers. I may look a little more closely then since I will have to pull all the frames out of the box I’m replacing and see if I can find the queen.

    We’ve been enjoying our honey all winter and if I get that much or even more this year, I’ll be a happy camper.