Saturday, May 14, 2016


This year I am expanding the garden.  The place is really starting to feel like a farm. Our front yard is about a 1/4 acre and the long term goal is have a mix of perennials and annual food producing plants.  I want to have it look like an English cottage garden and be a beautiful place to spend my time.

Now that it is mid May we have lots of projects underway.   Mulching is a big part of the work.   Our soil is very sandy and full of grass and the mulch should reduce the weeds and watering. We are using wood chips over cardboard around our woody perennials. The annual beds are getting a layer of compost and mulched with grass clippings or mulch hay we got from a friend last year.
  There are a lovage, 2 rose bushes and 7 blueberries that need better weed protection and the cardboard and wood chips should make a big difference.  Our town transfer station has free wood chips so when Alec has time he picks up a load of them for me.  

This bed still needs a bunch of clean up.  It is my favorite part of  the garden.  From May to October it is full of flowers.  The ditch has a bunch of cardboard mulch that the chickens shredded for me last fall.  They love to destroy mulch.   The ditch is one of our swales  that  catches water from the driveway and waters my flowers and apple trees.  It will also get yard waste and mulch to make compost for us.

Kitchen herb and veggie garden (new in 2016!) right outside our front door.  Planted with snap peas, arugula, spinach, romaine lettuce.   Cooking herbs, kale, and other crops will be planted as the leafy greens mature and get harvested.  

When we dug the swales we put a big rock here for a nice place to sit and enjoy the garden view.

This bed up front with daffodils, iris, walking onions, strawberries, and comfrey is new - we made it late last fall while re-digging the pond.

Rhubarb, planted 2 years ago.  Pond in the background (along with the 4-in-1 pear tree and garlic bed).  My rhubarb is finally big enough to start harvesting from.  

Our 4-in-1 apple tree is blossoming for the first time.

Cold frames and cardboard in the background. (I did mention that I have lots of projects to finish...) We've been using the trailer and wheelbarrow to get free wood chips from the town dump.

Perennial flower swale from another point of view. The bed behind it will have some of my tomatoes, basil, and carrots.  I am hoping to get it planted next week.

The Baldwin apple tree.  Baldwin is a 276 year old multi-purpose variety that's good for fresh-eating, pies, and cider.  It's also more pest resistant than larger apples like Macintosh, and can be grown without chemicals (as we plan to).

I planted approximately 90 cloves of Music Garlic last fall.  The smaller green plants sprouting on the left side are potato onions.  The are an older style of bulb onions that form  a cluster of bulbs under ground.  the onions should range form 3/4" to 4" in diameter each.   

Perennial herb bed with egyptian walking onions, catnip, an edible crab-apple tree (too small to see), high bush cranberries, strawberries, aronia berries, bee balm, oregano, lavender, fever few, sages, thyme, mint, roman chamomile and a few other things I can't recall. There is way too much grass in this bed.  I will be digging the clumps out and adding more herbs to fill the holes. 

Our two newest beds in the annual part of the garden.  We split an old bed that was too wide; we'll eventually turn 5 very wide beds into 8 or 9 beds that are far more manageable.

40 crowns of asparagus planted this year in a new bed, and mostly mulched with grass clippings.  With luck we'll be getting as much asparagus as I can eat for many years out of this bed. 

The line of berry shrubs.  We're using cardboard (shown earlier) and woodchips to protect these plants from grass competition.  Some have been growing here for two years and are still small due to the grass.

View facing uphill (west) over the whole front yard garden.  The wood is from sumac that we cleared last fall to let in more light; we'll be giving it to our neighbor for bonfires.

Free wood chips from the dump.  This is about 2-3 yards; I can fit ~0.6 yards in our little trailer and do one run every ~30 minutes (so I'm still looking for more efficient ways to move it).

King George and the girls.  We switched feeders a few weeks ago to reduce food waste (the new feeders make it harder for them to knock the food they don't like to the ground).  I think it's working but I don't have great measurements yet.

Pak choi in our Kitchen garden.

Our original asparagus bed from 2 years ago that we thought the deer wiped out.  Some made it, so we mulched them with grass clippings.  Grass clippings are more work to collect (I estimate 10-12 times as much labor as free wood chips) with a walk-behind mower, but there are certain uses like this where you need the nitrogen and lack of weed seeds.  Angelica is on the right.

Peach tree, daffodils, garlic that didn't get harvested last year, and crab grass (ugh!)

Fruit tree swale.  We have 2 peaches, 2 plums, 1 apricot, 2 cherry trees, and a sweet crab apple tree.  It also has blueberry bushes (arranged in order of harvest date from front to back), cherry shrubs, and more.

Fenced in back yard garden next to the bee hives.  We used a 16'x20' 16 mil tarp to kill the grass last fall, and it worked great.  We're trying to use a lighter weight clear tarp to kill more grass behind it, but it's not as effective.

The same 16x20' heavy weight tarp, killing a new section of grass for us.  This will get planted with flower bulbs for the bees - a good use of space over the leech field that we don't want to disturb too much.

Our "immobile" chicken tractor.  After 2 years in the sun and cold, the tires are shot.  We've cleaned it out and will put the new hens in it when they have finished feathering out next week.

Bee hives.  We got the two taller hives in 2015 (they're Italian bees), and the shorter ones last week (Russians).  We're slowly adjusting the position and orientation of the hive on the garden cart - it will end up on those concrete pavers with the opening facing East.

Bees coming and going from one of the new hives.

Bees in flight outside an old hive.

Chicken run and rainwater harvesting.  The two IBC totes give us 550 gallons of water storage.  The birdbath in the foreground has rocks for the bees to land on so they can drink without drowning.  We installed little red & black solar powered flashing-red-LED "NiteGuard" modules after seeing a bobcat in the back yard.  We haven't lost any chickens to predators yet, but a lot of that is probably luck.

Bird bath being used by bees.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

More Bees

We're getting our second batch of bees tomorrow!

We wanted bees for several reasons: because they pollinate the plants in our garden to help us get fruit (although we have plenty of wild pollinators here so we would have been fine without them), and to get honey, and because we think they're really neat.

Kate does almost all of the bee-keeping; she took a local bee-keeping class and ordered our first bees in January 2015 for May pick up that year.  She wanted Carniolan bees because they're supposedly the easiest for people who have never done bee-keeping before, but they were sold out, so we got two hives of Italians instead.  Italian bees are also good for new bee keepers.

They came in two 3-pound boxes that looked like this:
Forgot to photograph!  These aren't our actual bees.
 and each had their own queen.

We made level bases from old patio pavers, and set up the hives with the entrances facing East so they'd wake up earlier and access the flowers during peak nectar flow.

Kate did all the work of setting up the hives, including spraying the bees with sugar-water to calm them down (the bee-equivalent of Thanksgiving Dinner) and pouring them into their respective hives.

We got medium-frame boxes because they're lighter than deep-frames.  A box with 10 deep frames can weigh 80+ pounds, and 60 pounds of that is honey.  Mediums are only 2/3 as heavy.

We put them up off the ground so small animals (like skunks) that might try to eat the bees would have to reach up and expose their bellies to bee stings.  We really need to protect them better against bears, though.
Our medium frame hives sitting on re-purposed patio pavers.
The bee population grew rapidly, and in June, Kate found queen cells in both hives.  Worker bees create special cells to incubate queens in preparation to swarm.  For 1-month old hives, this generally isn't a good thing.  She got two nuc boxes just like the one below, moved frames with queen cells to the new hives, and killed all the queen cells in the original hives to prevent them from swarming.

Nuc boxes are a nice way to split hives, because they only hold 4 frames, so it's easier for the bees to regulate their temperature with fewer of them.  When they grew enough, Kate moved them from the nucs into full-size boxes that hold 10 frames apiece.
Nuc boxes just like the two we have.

Unfortunately splitting the hives didn't work, and July 4th weekend I was outside doing yard work and noticed thousands of bees flying around.  They were swarming - in pretty much the worst month of the year for bees to swarm.

Our backyard looked like this:
Forgot to photograph!  From Wikipedia:
After 30-45 minutes of flying around, they piled up on a branch 30 feet off the ground in a tree being strangled by poison ivy . . . so I declined to try to catch them.

We knew they'd be looking for a new place to live, so we put out a box in the hopes they'd move in, but unfortunately they wandered off and we never saw them again.

July is a bad time to swarm because it's right before a 'dearth' of flowering, so bees who swarm then have very little chance of establishing a new hive and making it strong enough to get through winter.

We realized after the swarm that it most likely happened because their population grew faster than we expected, and they ran out of room.  The countermeasures we took (splitting the hives) probably still weren't enough to alleviate crowding, or we missed one of the queen cells and she grew to maturity and the old queen left with the swarm. Thankfully only one of our two hives swarmed, so we probably only lost 30% of the bees.

We kept the two new small hives through the summer and into fall, but they weren't growing fast enough or putting away enough honey to make it through the winter, so Kate moved the worker bees into the big hives so more of them would make it through the winter.

Here are our hives in mid-winter:
Our two hives wrapped in insulation for winter.  The platform to the left of each hive is where the smaller hives used to be.
Thankfully we had a mild winter in 2015-2016 and both hives appear to be thriving.

We borrowed our friends' honey extractor (which I converted from manual to motor-driven using an Arduino, a 12V power supply, and a variable-speed motor controller), and got about 10-12 pounds of honey from 5 mostly-full medium frames.

Here's the extractor before I added a 13.5:1 gear reduction to keep the motor from overheating:
The frames we emptied still have most of the wax intact, so it will be less work for the bees to rebuild them and add more honey.  The first batch of frames we extracted are already back in the hive.

Today we assembled new frames because we didn't have enough for the new hives.  The wax foundation already has the honeycomb pattern, and is molded from actual beeswax (which bees apparently like better than the plastic ones).
The frames come partially assembled.  We add grommets, wire, and sheets of wired wax foundation.
Tomorrow Kate will drive to Vermont and pick up the Russian Bees.  These bees originated from Far Eastern Russia, slightly farther north than we are in New Hampshire.  They're more resistant to varroa mites than other bee races, so we hope they'll give us better survival rates in future winters.

The guy we bought them from raises them without chemicals and overwinters them in Vermont before selling them, so they're far more likely to be adjusted to our climate by the time we get them.  We tried to get them last year but they were back-ordered.


Transporting the new bees and getting them situated went smoothly.  The two hives came in a single deep box with a divider between them, and two entrances (facing 180° from each other).  One hive (4 deep frames) uses each entrance.

Kate assembled two hives, each made of two medium boxes stacked on top of each other (to provide enough room for the deep frames, which are taller than mediums).  She put 4 deep frames (filled with brood from the new hives) in each box, and added 6 mediums to fill out the space.  This leaves extra space below the frames where the bees would eventually build comb (which we don't want), but she's hoping to cycle all of the deep frames out of the hives before they get around to that.

Her strategy is to put the deep frames on the outside, because the queen likes to lay eggs in the middle of the hive.  As all of the existing brood hatches from the deep frames, she'll pull and replace each frame with a medium.  When all the deeps are out, she can remove the extra medium box (since it's only there to make space for the deeps).

Unfortunately it was drizzly the morning after she got the bees, but they were low on food, so she had to move them into their new boxes and set up feeders, and they weren't happy about it (bees do not like having their hive opened up on cold, cloudy days).

They're doing fine now, though, and she's steadily adjusting the orientation of one of the hives to face East like the others.  An East-facing entrance wakes the bees up earlier in the day when nectar flow is higher, but with the 2 hives facing 180° apart, she had to face one of them west.  She's moving it in small increments to avoid excessive disruption to their navigation - if you move a hive too much, the bees get lost and die.