• Category Archives Living
  • 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



  • 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.


  • Very Overdue Update Plus Angry Bees


    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.



  • 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:



  • This Life We Lead

    We couldn’t help but be moved by the tribute to farmers aired during the Super Bowl even though we don’t fit the portrait perfectly:

    But, somehow over the past two years, we have become farmers, somewhat on our own terms and in our own style, but we are farmers. A cold wet snow was falling yesterday afternoon when we got home from our introductory bee class, but chickens and pigs needed tending. I bundled up against the elements to spread food and break up iced over troughs. A dozen eggs went into my basket.

    We are also busy preparing for the main growing season. Bob is working on spring seedlings that need watered twice a day, and we check our mushroom containers for mycelium daily. The next big job is setting up the beehives since I ordered two packages of bees, and their homes need to be ready when they arrive in several weeks. It is satisfying to harvest our own food and provide food for at least a few others, but it can be exhausting.

    love isThe other evening as I looked at my dinner plate, I realized we are also turning into locavores, eating locally sourced food. The freezer yields up its bags of green beans, corn, peas, carrots, and kale, frozen fresh from the garden this summer and we have fresh rosemary and sage on the sun porch. With our own hens laying, eggs are abundant. Bacon comes from a butcher down the road. We get goat milk and goat milk ricotta from a friend. Strawberry jam is a treat and I put it into cakes and cookies as well as spreading it on bread.

    This has happened pretty naturally. It’s what is available. Now, I’m going to get more deliberate. I know there are local sources for chicken, beef, flour and cow’s milk. Most of them can come through the food coop in a nearby town so we will probably get involved with them. However, many of the farmers let you do pickup at their place so it would be a chance to get a peek at others’ operations.

    As I trudged from pigs to chickens this morning, head lowered against the wind, it did occur to me that we have chosen a somewhat challenging life to lead as we head past middle age. And it was a choice: our path was headed to a lovely patch of waterfront woods where our sailboat and kayaks are awaiting our return. But those plans led to more serious conversations about sustainability, and when the price tag of building a house along the creek spooked us, we found the farm without looking all that hard, like it was just waiting to let us know that we weren’t ready to retire.

    And so here we are…for how long, we’re not sure. We think about a ten-year plan, hoping to get to that patch of woods and water while we are still young enough to enjoy it. But every workshop I attend and every book I read gives me a longer view. Tending the land takes time and it grows in your heart with each passing year. A decade may not be enough to achieve our vision.

    Who knows? For now, we are contented in our choice, scaling the sometimes steep learning curve and having some success along the way.


  • Another Year at the Farm

    The family is on the way to celebrate Christmas at the farm so I can only take a quick break to wish everyone a peaceful holiday and a magical new year! If you want to know what we’ve been up to, browse the blog…we’ve settled into country life, learning how to live on a farm and in an old house.

    A few highlights:

    We lost Tina Turner late last year and miss her very much. Spot and Major are thriving. The three of us welcome each sunrise together as we head out for the morning walk.

    Bob continues to work hard to develop the farm. We’ve put about 12 acres into pasture, anticipating some cows next year. The growing season was bountiful, and even now, we are enjoying broccoli, kale and collards. The chicken flock is up to 35 girls, and we added four pigs last week, creating a pen from one of the outbuildings.

    I continue to work as Executive Director of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education. I am also teaching, mostly online. My goal is to work online as much as possible, something that provides me with the best of both worlds: working in a field I love from a place that I love.

    We haven’t done much work on the house. Some gas logs in a couple rooms provide enough heat and Bob redid a few windows upstairs. A handy friend loaned a few days to work on the cottage and with a couple more days, it will be ready to rent. We’re hoping to find a tenant who is interested in helping with the farming.

    We both work from home so usually one of us is here. Feel free to just drop by. We can’t promise it will be dust free but we would love to see you despite that. You can also keep up with us at http://www.bottletreefarm.com.

    Here’s a slideshow from the year:

    And a little holiday fun!

  • A Picture Is Worth…

    1. Cardinal Flower, 2. Wildflower, 3. Mexican Fritillary, 4. Onions, 5. Two Days Old, 6. The Corn Is As High…, 7. Red Chard, 8. Chick, 9. Farm Sign, 10. Cauliflower, 11. Wildflowers and Barn, 12. Yellow Hollyhocks, 13. Pink Hollyhocks, 14. Blackberries, 15. Patty Pan, 16. Fennel, 17. Orange Chard, 18. Black Eyed Susan, 19. Yucca, 20. The Silo Area, 21. Trumpet Vine, 22. Yarrow, 23. Chard and Barn, 24. The Harvest, 25. Sweet Potatoes

  • Christmas At the Farm

    I usually don’t write a typical Christmas letter, preferring instead to jot short individual notes in each card. With the advent of social media and email communications, many friends both near and far know what we are are up to whether through Facebook status updates, flickr photos or the blog. As for old family friends, aunts, uncles and cousins, my mother makes a good social network node. But I suppose there are folks who are busy living their own lives without time to have much interest in mine.  So if you haven’t been following along, here are the highlights.

    We started the year in the same small 1920s bungalow in suburban Williamsburg that we had lived in together since we married nearly 20 years ago. We ended the year in a two-story, rambling 1850s farmhouse in rural Virginia. It came with 18 acres that we hope to cultivate in various ways from pick-your-own berries to farm stand produce to a few pigs and cows.

    We started the year with one old dog–Tina Turner the beagle mix still graces our lives–and ended the year with three dogs. Tina welcomed Spot, a large lab/terrier mix, in early April, and just recently, Major, a stray beagle/lab mix puppy probably born somewhere on our property adopted us. I’m still longing for two cats to hang out in the library but we’ll get past raising the puppy first.

    2011 saw some major change in our lives. While we miss our Williamsburg friends and neighbors, we are having a great time on the farm. Bob is harvesting gorgeous vegetables from cucumbers to greens to soon-to-be red cherry tomatoes from the sun room that runs along the southern side of the house. We’ve put in some gas logs so we will be cozy this winter since all the chimneys need lined before the fireplaces can be used. We would love to have you visit us here in Waverly. We have a lovely downstairs guest room with its own bath.

    We both work from home so usually one of us is here. Feel free to just drop by. We can’t promise it will be dust free but we would love to see you despite that. You can also keep up with us at http://www.bottletreefarm.com.

    Our best wishes to your for a peaceful holiday season and a new year full of joy and love.  And just for fun…enjoy some Christmas karaoke!

    A photo collection for your entertainment: