• Category Archives Growing
  • 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.

  • 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.



  • First Day of Spring

    Another winter is exiting in a flurry of mud and fluxuating temperatures. It seems a very long time since my last post. Life on the farm always has its ups and downs. We lost a few pigs this winter and it’s always sad. And, today, we saw the fox that has been picking off our free ranging chickens. It’s one of the perils of free range: chickens are attractive prey to lots of wildlife. We are too soft hearted to catch and kill the fox so we may see about relocation possibilities. Meanwhile, we’re going to close the chicken gate to keep them in the hen yard during the day. They won’t be happy, but they will be protected. We are getting LOTS of eggs after having something of a drought last fall.

    Bob got the wood-burning stove online in the den so we have been able to expand beyond the library. It’s lovely to have a “hang out” room and it’s right next to the kitchen, which makes it cozy as well.

    We’ve also been enjoying the fruit of our bounty. The last blog post I wrote described all the preserving that was going on. Now, we are digging into those bags and jars to enjoy pear and apple sauce, green beans, tomato sauce, and more. We enjoyed eggplant parmesan yesterday and it was delicious enough that I will do it again: I cooked and froze the breaded slices of eggplant and yesterday made a big pot of homemade tomato sauce that included kale and basil from the freezer and a splash of home grown honey. I have to admit that I still get excited about using our own honey!

    On the plus side, my hives seemed to have survived another winter. There was lots of bee activity at both hives yesterday. I fed them two ro three times this winter and may do a light syrup to get them through the next few weeks if they need it. But the peach trees are already blossoming and the daffodils are in bloom so they will be foraging soon. I need to swap out some hive boxes that are getting rotted so today’s job is putting together some new deep boxes I bought. A little glue, a few nails and then a coat of paint.

    Bob’s seedlings are doing well and I am already imagining fresh greens in the next few weeks. The flower garden down front is on the list for a major overhaul so I’ll probably put a few things in pots today. We need to clean up the sight line for the driveway and just generally reorganize.

    For your viewing pleasure, yesterday’s photos:



  • August!

    rudbeckia_thumbnallAugust has arrived very quickly, it seems to me! The weekly updates I promised got lost in my my work travel and the farm. We are taking produce to two markets each week. We are in Claremont, Virginia, on Fridays from 6 to 8 PM, at the Claremont Circle Store. Then, Saturdays, we attend the Waverly Farmer’s Market on the grounds of the Miles B. Carpenter Museum in Waverly, Virginia. The market at Claremont has become something of a community party. Isaiah from the Circle Store provides hamburgers and hot dogs and there’s live music planned for this week.

    It is a great produce year: cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, green beans, cantaloupes with watermelons and pumpkins on the way. Fortunately, the pigs LOVE vegetables, especially cucumbers.

    My flower garden is blooming, even as the weeds threaten to take over. I am getting started on reorganizing now, moving the liatris and obedient plant to a more prominent place. They were overwhelmed by the black eyed susans. Zinnias are coming up through the grass and I have a row of sunflowers that should be blooming soon. It is glorious chaos and I despair of making any kind of headway against the weeds.

    The pigs are almost all out on grass now. We just have one sow in the pen. Her litter is almost four weeks old and will get weaned in another week or so. They will all end up on grass in the next few weeks. Some people wean at three weeks but the litter we did that early just didn’t seem to do as well. My pigs may end up as food at some point but I want them to have as much piggy fun as they can before that happens!

    I put together a video with clips of this particular litter, captured over the last month. We call them Hamp’s Herd: they run around together, in and out of the enclosure, playing in the soybeans. We only lost one, the runt. The rest are just happy little piggies.

    Today, we sent off Biscuit, our boar, to provide services to some sows up the road. (Did I say that gently enough? We think that loaning out our boar makes us real pig farmers.) He was easy to get into the trailer: we just threw in an overripe cantaloupe. While he is on his adventure, we are going to better secure a pen for him so we can get him out of the very muddy building and yard he currently occupies. We can’t get him on grass as he seems to be impervious to electric fence.

    This time of year, I am in charge of preservation. My freezer is a lively place right now: green beans, pesto, peppers, tomato sauce and eggplant are nestled on the shelves. And we are loving eating fresh vegetables as I experiment with recipes. I’ll try to put a few together to share. I tend to be an “on the fly” cook, trying out different methods and sauces, whatever is at hand. We loved eggplant parmigiana made with pesto rather than red sauce. And, the roasted vegetable ragout had a bit of a punch with the jalapenos but was rich and tasty as well.

    We continue to dream of improvements: we bought a trailer to serve as the base for a chicken tractor, our next project. That way, we can get the chickens out on grass as well, moving them as they eat the grass. They get lots of vegies this time of year, but we really want them to be more free range.

    We also want to make an actual market stand on the property and aren’t sure how to do that: build or buy? We could customize one of the storage sheds more quickly but could probably save money if we built it ourselves. This is an ongoing dilemma. We usually end up using a mix of repurposed and purchased materials. For some things, like irrigation and electric fencing, buying new is the only option as all the components work together.

    As we become more known in the community, we are beginning to become part of a network of farmers. We share knowledge and resources as we all work to make our farms successful. Once we get past the growing season, we are hoping to strengthen that network. It is easy to get isolated as the farm demands so much work. But networks can help support bulk buys and local advocacy. We are encouraged by local food initiatives like the one in the Roanoke Valley.

    As I write, a thunderstorm is boiling up outside. The summer has been amazingly mild: today was the hottest day this week and we barely broke 90 degrees. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open and keeping doors open to the back yard during the days. The dogs love it, coming and going as they please, keeping track of the world of the farm and then retreating inside for long summer naps.

  • Five Months Later

    It was a tough winter here at the farm. We didn’t get a lot of snow but the freezing temperature required extra work keeping pigs and chickens war, keeping water from freezing and worrying about the bees.

    I’m happy to say that both hives survived and are now busy making honey! I added a queen excluder and honey super to each one about a month ago. And for the first time in my tenure as a beekeeper, I saw the queen! I want to go down and give a quick look to see how the honey is coming. Everything I read says to let them alone while they are working so this will be a quick peek into the top.

    We had an unexpected litter of piglets in mid-March. The sow didn’t look pregnant and also didn’t seem to be able to feed her babies so they ended up on our sun porch. We bottle fed them, fought off disease with antibiotics after losing two of them, and have managed to sell four of them in the past few weeks! We also sold six gilts (female pigs ready to breed). All this is a good thing since we have 14 new piglets down with their mothers. Two groups born a week and two weeks ago. Everyone seems happy and we have already sold a couple of them once they are weaned. We have had calls as far away as Connecticut: the pig virus you’ve been hearing about seems to be taking a toll on herd stocks.

    The gardens look better than ever and the vegetables are coming in. I have beans to freeze after this blog post. We welcome visits to the farm and you can find us at the Waverly Farmers Market every Saturday. Starting next Friday, we’ll be at the Claremont Circle Store from 6 to 8 PM.

    I’m going to commit to making a weekly update here on Sunday mornings. The story of trying to be a small farmer is one that is important to everyone, I think, as we struggle to create something that could be a model for others. We have benefited from a project at Virginia State University called 43,560. This demonstration farm has a goal of making $1/square foot and thus, $43,560 on an acre of land. It benefits from volunteers like us who then also learn techniques we can apply on our own land. You can learn more from the article.

  • Piglets!

    IMG_0725I am writing this entry from the pig pen. And, I will be attending today’s board meeting from the same place. I declared this a “family emergency” and want to spend every minute with our first set of piglets. Ten adorable babies were born yesterday to Macintosh, our full blooded Tamworth sow. We knew she was pregnant but weren’t sure when the babies would arrive. She seemed perfectly fine yesterday morning, hanging out with the others to get fed. But late morning, she made a bit of a nest for herself and in about four hours, we had ten piglets! They came out easily and were up and moving almost immediately, heading for food!

    Friends arrived and we hung out watching the whole process, taking turns getting coffee or walking the dogs. I stayed until after dark, once everyone seemed to have settled in for the night.

    I am blessed by a great board chair who was willing to let me phone in my attendance today. I probably could have left them alone, but mother pigs have been known to accidentally smother their babies in the first few days. Macintosh seems to be very careful as she moves around, making gentle sounds and lowering herself in the nest first before rolling over. She has been in and out of the nest this morning. She ate a hearty breakfast and has been drinking lots of water. We fed her dog biscuits and water yesterday but she wasn’t all that interested. Right now, my back is to the pen but it is completely quiet.  AAH…Happy Mama

    Bob headed to the farmer’s market with the last of the summer watermelons and baskets of greens. I feel a little guilty for the dogs…they haven’t gotten their morning walk today. Relief is coming at some point and I’ll give them a little attention. We strung up an extension cord down here and I’m thinking I could bring the Keurig down, too.

    So, that’s the big news here…we believe Tam, another sow, is also pregnant. We have a farrowing shed almost ready to go so that will be the afternoon project. Babies never come when they are supposed to, do they?