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Category Archives: Gardening

Don’t eat those berries!

I cannot remember how many times as a child my parents warned me of the perils of eating “poison berries” off bushes in our yard.  Pretty much every berry in our yard was “poisonous”, according to my mom:  crimson holly berries, shiny red magnolia seeds, waxy nandina berries…and she was mostly right.

I mean, this was in the late 1970s, early 1980s when there was no Google for my mom to instantly find out which of those tempting, jewel-colored berries were safe to touch and/or eat, so my brother and I pretty much steered clear of them.  Well, except to pick them and use them as ammo to throw at each other.

Those gorgeous, enticing purply-blue berries on the mahonia bushes that we thought were deadly are actually edible.   I just instantly and inadvertently found out via a Google search to check my spelling of “mahonia” that you can make a great jelly from those berries.  I’m still skeptical though.  Mom drilled that “poison” thing into our heads.  I do that to my boys too — better safe than sorry (for example:  they love to check out mushrooms, and I know so little about which wild ones are edible I steer them clear except to look at them).

We have several mahonias in our yard.  They are quite invasive and non-native to boot, but they were here before we moved in so I live with them and actually enjoy their punchy fragrant yellow flowers in the early spring.  Turns out that bees LOVE them too, so they further find favor in my gardening eyes.  And, as the daffodils and crocuses (croci??) are popping out of the ground in late January and early February with this unseasonably warm weather,  so follow the mahonia blooms — and a bee too!

 

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Still waiting on winter….

We made a stir-fry last night with some of the greens from the garden:  red kale, spinach, mizuna, mustard greens, and leeks.  It’s not totally out of the ordinary to find these growing fairly well in a January garden around here.

However, it is a little unusual to find carrots and radishes growing mid-winter — even when I’ve got the row covers over the beds.  It takes a certain amount of warmth (or lack of hard freezes) for these guys to grow like this:

Unfortunately, the carrot was kind of anemic, and the radish tasted fine but the texture was lacy.

And, along with the warmth comes the bugs — so not only did I bring in greens, but also a big brown caterpillar (boys loved checking him out) and a couple of bluish aphid colonies on the kale.

Oh winter….where art thou?

 
Aside

It’s mid-January and I’m still seeing cabbage worms, slugs, and aphids on the greens in the garden.  The collard greens are lacy with holes (despite the boys helping me pick off the green worms), and the aphids completely coated the dinosaur kale so I had to pull them up and pitch them in the compost.

My older boy found a tick on our dog’s ear over the weekend.  I saw a mosquito floating through the kitchen last night.  We need some serious cold, y’all!  ‘Tis the season to be critter-free!

Well, I must admit I’m not totally hating the recent balminess.  It has been nice enough to hang out at the park with the kids and friends, play in the yard and dig around in unfrozen garden soil.  Plus, we’ve been able to make some great salads as a result of this unexpected extended season.

Mizuna is the big feathery green in foreground, spinach behind, carrots on far right

Spinach, arugula, and mizuna are doing great.  And there are even some tiny carrots coming along. I love to add mizuna to a salad — it’s spicy like arugula but crunchier. I like the light green color too.

I’ve found a few wormy critters munching in this raised bed, but not nearly as many as on the big greens.  At a friend’s suggestion, I’ve been soaking the greens in salt water for about 15 minutes before rinsing and putting them in the salad spinner.  That helps loosen any bugs.

Mâche, or corn salad -- notice there are no bug holes -- I'm liking this green!

In late fall, I planted a few rows of mâche seed in the uncovered raised bed next to the arugula.  The plants are slow growing but they’ve turned into small, close-to-the-dirt rosettes.  I’ve been eating the leaves directly from the garden and they are as mild as lettuce with a taste similar to buttercrunch.  I’m going to try making this salad with grapefruit and avocado — a nice antidote to holiday gluttony (although I can eat my weight in avocado, so maybe not!)

Oh, and I’ve been reading that mâche has 3 times more Vitamin C than buttercrunch, and it also packs alot of iron into those little rosettes. Wikipedia has some more interesting facts about mâche — I also find it interesting that such a little plant can have so many different names.  And it’s a member of the valerian family.  Cool little plant!

A couple of nights last week we had some temperatures in the teens, so I pulled the vinyl covers up onto the hoops to protect the plants.  Here are a couple of other raised-bed, front yard gardens I saw in the ‘hood on a run last week after a cold night:

And this one has a different support structure from mine and the ones above —  metal fencing — definitely stronger in wind/snow – it seems like overkill now but I’m sure in the next few weeks it will come in handy, right??  Come on, winter!

Gardening in a lukewarm winter

 

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I needed a haz-mat suit for that?

Horseradish in the food processor.  Have mercy.  I am still reeling from the fumes.  I thought I could handle it — I mean, I’ve grown and roasted all kinds of peppers from thai to habaneros.  Gotten them in my eyes and under my fingernail beds, resulting in hours of burn, but I survived.

I planted a horseradish root in the corner of one of my raised beds and the plant ended up growing ferny leaves about a foot tall:  Note that my 4-year old could safely handle the plant after I dug it up, so I had no indication that it could turn my kitchen into a fumey chemistry lab.

Well, I should have heeded the warnings I read online about making the stuff.  If my blog had smell-a-vision you’d be running from your screen right now.  Seriously, it was like a tear gas bomb exploded in my kitchen.

The root itself looks like a parsnip.  Unpeeled it actually had less of a smell than a parsnip:

Our garden has had a couple of frosts on it this fall, so it was time to harvest the roots a few days ago.   According to a few gardening websites, unless horseradish has had time to go dormant, it won’t have much flavor or kick.  I was a little worried that since there were still some green shoots sprouting, it hadn’t gone dormant.  I was wrong.

All was fine till I started peeling it then chopping it into small cubes to prepare it for the food processor.

At that point I started to suspect that the websites insisting that processing horseradish outside or “in a well-ventilated area” might be on to something.

But the real chemistry happened about a minute after I got it all ground up.  White vinegar stops the chemical process of ground horseradish morphing into battery acid.  The longer you wait to put the vinegar in, the stronger the horseradish gets.

I think I waited about a minute too long because I could barely get within 2 feet of the food processor.  Not kidding.  It was that sensation of taking a whopper bite of wasabi, yet it was airborne.

Fortunately the vinegar calmed down the horseradish and I was able to get it into a jar.  Now the challenge will be getting somebody to actually try it….

 
 

Worm tea and worm castings

Top bin removed before getting castings out from middle bin

A few months ago I bought some worms and made worm-composting bins.  My boys and I have been feeding them kitchen scraps every week or so since then.  It’s been a fairly low-maintenance venture, and worms don’t sting, so I don’t have to don a hot (not figuratively) bee suit every time I need to feed them and/or check on them.

The only real negative was the gigantic fruit fly swarm that materialized mid-August when I hadn’t put enough dirt on top of the veggie and fruit scraps in the bins.  Otherwise, it was just like any healthy composting set-up with no smell at all.

Those redworms have been busy.  I tried to lift up the top bin and almost pulled my back out.  I finally hoisted it off and the middle bin was full of dark castings.

Top bin compared to final product -- castings!

I’d been feeding the worms only in the top bin so they’d pretty much all migrated up, so I only had to fish a couple of them out of there and transfer them to the top.

The bottom bin was about half-full of tea, actually that’s “leachate” — I was informed by James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms that’s the correct term for the liquid that runs off the castings. ( Worm tea is another form of compost-based liquid that comes from worms, but there’s more involved in making it, including fermenting it with molasses and some other stuff that sounds pretty advanced.  I’ll stick to the liquid dregs for now….)

Adding leachate to raised bed

So, as I’d suspected when we started composting with worms, our system wasn’t big enough to handle all our kitchen’s compostables.  However, they ate more than I’d thought they would — maybe 75% of the stuff that would have gone into our regular compost bins out in the side yard.

I put all the castings into one of my raised beds where I’ve got some dinosaur kale growing.  I poured the leachate around the arugula, mache, and red russian kale in another raised bed.

Putting castings into raised bed

Now it’s time for the worm bins to go back into the basement for winter as we’re getting into freezing temps at night.

And I’ll be keeping an eye on the winter greens on into spring to see how they benefit from our worm composting venture….

Redworms at work in worm composting bin

 

We’ve been robbed…and infested

Our beehive is having a rough time right now.  Not only have they been discovered by a band of marauding robber bees, they’ve also had some freeloading hive beetles and wax moths move in.

Beetle traps, sugar water, pollen patties (cider vinegar and oil to bait the traps)

To fight back, I called John Christie at Wild Mountain Bees up in Madison County and ordered some ammo:  mite strips and hive beetle traps.  And to help my bees re-stock their food supply to get them through the winter, I ordered some pollen patties.

Since we got this hive back in April, tending the bees has been fairly low-maintenance.  I fed them sugar water to get them established, and checked the hive every couple of weeks to make sure they were producing brood and building up a good supply of honey.

All was well till I started noticing the tiny black shiny hive beetles scurrying around in the racks, then I realized every time I’d go in the hive there were more of them.  Then we found some wax moth larvae (eww, vile grubby things) attached to the sides of one of the boxes.  But the most alarming thing was that where there had once been racks full of honey, there was nothing.  And it happened fast.

Robbed!

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent robber bees from coming in.  Robber bees are just bees from another hive who’ve been tipped off by one of their own that there’s a good supply of food in another hive, and they make quick work of stealing it.

One thing we did was to put an entrance reducer on the front of the hive so that our bees would have less territory to defend.  It basically is a strip of wood with a small notch cut out so that only a couple of bees can come in or fly out at once. I also put some grass and leaves over that entrance after a Google search informed me that would confuse the robber bees and they’d eventually give up trying to invade and go back home.

This is not just happening in my urban beehive:  it is happening in all my friends’ hives around the 28801 and 28806 zip codes.  I sure would like to see the hives where the robbers are absconding with our honey.  They must be strong and gigantic.

Mite strips: 7-day treatment

When checking on the hives a few weeks ago we noticed that some of our bees had shriveled-up wings.  That’s a sign of mites.  Despite their flightlessness, the other bees don’t reject them.  (My brother was marveling at this, reminding me that bees will banish the drones from the hive at the end of the season when they don’t need them anymore, but they will “let” these hive-bound bees stay and work.)

These mite strips about knocked us over — they’ve got formic acid in them. I don’t know what formic acid is exactly, but it smelled like the vinegar on steroids.  I felt guilty putting them in the hive knowing the bees would be trapped in there with all those fumes, but I knew that unless we dealt with the mites we were at risk of losing the entire hive, especially since we’re headed into winter.

Pollen patties on top of racks

So my bees wouldn’t hate me forever after I subjected them to the formic acid treatment, after I took the mites strips out I immediately put in some pollen patties.  Pollen patties look and smell just like PowerBars (I swear I didn’t taste one!) The bees started eating them as soon as I put them on top of the racks.

Trapped hive beetles

The hive beetle traps are great.  They work by luring the beetles in through small holes in the top with apple cider vinegar, then they get stuck in the vegetable oil inside.  These little traps also sit on top of the racks.  One note if you try them:  be really really careful with the oil — don’t spill any inside the hive because any bee that touches it will get all gunked up and won’t be able to fly.

The only things that could mess with our bees now are the giant variety:  bears.  They are roaming all over the place.  They’ve been in our neighborhood the past few weeks.  There was a family about a half mile from downtown, not far from us, just recently:

Mama bear and 3 cubs in tree, courthouse and downtown in background

Bear-proofing

Hence:

To end on a happy note:

October 13th and still coming in with pollen

 

“Edamame” sounds so much cooler than “soybean”

Time runs fast in the summer.  I’ve already pulled up all late spring veggies that were done, and am now heavy into tomatoes, squash and beans.

Soy plants in the raised beds. They're big. About 4 feet tall and bushy.

And speaking of beans, the edamame that my kids and I planted are coming in strong.  That’s an easy seed for little kids to plant — they are big, round, white seeds– so they’re easy to handle and see going into the ground in late spring. Now we’re enjoying some really robust plants.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad speaking disparagingly of fields of soybeans — I think he was disappointed to see mono-crops taking over the sandhills of South Carolina (I think I’m projecting….). Or maybe he just didn’t like to eat soybeans then.

I really didn’t hear much about soy again until I went vegetarian in college and ate all kinds of incarnations of the bean.  When I moved to Asheville about 15 years ago, I re-discovered it at a sushi restaurant as “edamame”.  Yum.  Anything that has lots of salt, I love.  Plus it’s fun to eat – it’s a Japanese version of boiled peanuts.

Sow True Seed had a variety of edamame seeds this spring, so I planted one row in the smallest (4×4 foot) raised bed, so not alot of plants but they are producing more than enough for our family.

My kids are not into harvesting edamame or any other small vegetable that requires patience to harvest. There are lots of mosquitos out and it’s hot, so it’s not really fun for long for anyone. However, they really wanted to pick every tomato, green and red.

They did enjoy getting to see how much we (ahem, “I”) harvested by weighing them on the kitchen scales.


Another fun thing about edamame is you don’t have to snap and/or string them like you do most other beans.  I just threw them in a pot of boiling salted water for about 8 minutes, drained, then salted them.  Then there’s the best part:

Still a little hot but sure are good

Notice there are no photos of my 2 year old eating edamame.  He likes to lick the salt off, then get the beans out of the pods and look at them.  We’re working on getting him to expand his vegetable repertoire.  Not easy, but at least he has a good example set by his older brother!

 

Great front-yard garden design

My friend Amanda Ray turned half of her front yard into this great garden, right here in 28801.  I think a garden really says alot about a person — Amanda Ray’s artistic soul definitely helped shape the space here.  She’s a mom to two boys too, and she’s designed a garden that’s both fun and practical for her family.

I love the layout of this design — you can imagine how cool it is for little kids — it’s a maze, so very inviting.  It also makes tending the plants really easy too, as you can get to them from both sides.

Of course the boys are loving to dig around in the gravel paths…..

Another thing I like about this garden is that it’s right up next to their front porch, so there’s really easy access to the food when it’s ready, and it’s easy to water too.

 

My 4-year old beekeeper


Since we got our beehive last month, our older son has been asking if he could get a “bee suit” too.  Sure enough, I googled around and found many beekeeping suppliers who sell beekeeping suits for kids.

I ordered one for his birthday, and when we opened the package he immediately asked James to help him put it on, then went straight to the hive to get an up-close look at them (well, right after I made him stand still and let me get this picture of him with his big ol’ happy grin before he put on boots and gloves!)

When he got to the hive, he yelled “I smell honey!!”

Now, although he was fully suited and protected, I was still a little worried about him getting stung somehow. However, he was not actually “working” in the bees, and we weren’t opening up the hive to check on them, so he was safe from getting stung, and was elated to have been able to get close to the hive and see the bees up close as they traveled in and out of the hive.

A few days later, we went to my husband’s cousin’s house to check on their new hive. My brother had installed the hive along with a new queen, but he was out of town and couldn’t check to make sure the queen had been released from the little box she’d been delivered in.

There is a wall of solid sugar on one end of the box that the bees eat to release the queen.  Sometimes (rarely) they won’t have freed her so the beekeeper has to help the process along.

This was my first attempt at checking on a hive without someone else’s help, but my brother assured me all I had to do was take the top off the box, find the queen box and make sure she was out.

Right.  Well, along with my trusty helper, I opened up the top and there was no queen box in sight, so I had to start lifting up the racks and looking down into the bottom of the bee box.  I finally found the queen box under the middle racks and gave it to my son to inspect.  He was intrigued that the queen had been freed by the worker bees from that little box (and so was I!)

The bees had already filled out several of the racks, and we were even lucky enough to see the queen — my boy was so excited you’d have thought he’d had seen an ice cream truck the size of an 18-wheeler.  The queen had made it out of the box and was busy laying eggs in the new cells.

Today, we went in our own hive along with my brother.  It was just about an opposite experience from the one I just described.

The bees have been so productive in the past few weeks that they have almost filled up all the racks with honey and brood.  We were really excited to see how much honey they’ve made, and how many brood cells there are.   Well, it was really hot – of course that’s compounded by being in full bee suits – and we were in the blazing sun with no shade.  My brother told my son to put his hands by his side, and not on the stand the bee box is on.

Well, not a minute after that, I looked at my son’s fleece gloves (gloves weren’t included with the bee suit, and there weren’t any to order in his size).  There were a few bees starting to land on his gloves, and they were not happy.  I’d heard that bees don’t like dark colors.  Well, it turns out they don’t like dark colors that also happen to be fuzzy (like fleece) — kinda reminds them of bears.

My brother calmly got my son away from the hive, brushed all the bees off his gloves, and called to me to put the top back on the box  (by this time the bees had sent out some kind of signal that danger was nearby, and they were agitated).

I was so hot and trying not to panic — I was worried for my son with those bees landing all over his gloves– then as soon as my brother got the situation under control I realized that I had to put the bee box back together quickly and I was getting nervous because there were suddenly lots of bees in the air around me.  But I got it done, then ran to make sure my son was OK, and he was totally unfazed, no stings —  but a little cranky from being just as hot and sweaty as we were (and his bee experience was cut short and he wasn’t sure why).

I called a local beekeeper/supplier this afternoon as soon as I’d recovered (and wasn’t about to fall out from heat stroke), and told him I needed some child-sized gloves. He’s got them in stock and we’re going tomorrow morning to get them.  I also told him what happened today, and he said, “Oh yeah, bees really don’t like fuzzy…nope, they don’t like fuzzy at all.”  No more fleece for us.

Here’s one of our bees (I’m assuming it’s one of our bees!) on a broccoli flower in the garden.  Wonder if that affects the taste of the honey (sourwood honey…clover honey… broccoli honey — yikes)?  I’m thinking we don’t have enough broccoli to make a bit of difference, plus I’m getting ready to pull it all up anyway because it’s too hot and it’s bolting:

 

 

 

 

 

Blogging on gardening

[In the blogosphere, I’ve noticed a special kind of post, and I realized after writing it that this is one too:  it’s a “Why-I-haven’t-been-blogging-much-lately” post…]

When I started blogging about my “yard farm” back in February, I knew that I would not have quite as much time to write about my garden once the weather warmed up and I’d be outside, actually working in my garden with my plants instead of writing about them.

And the boys — well, they’d want to be outside if it were 33 degrees and pouring rain — but they want to be out in the yard and garden as much as I do when it’s been as pretty as it has been lately.

In addition to the call of the nice weather and growing “to-do” list in the garden, a few weeks ago I accepted an offer to work part-time for an organization I’ve been volunteer teaching with (Teach the World Online).  All of the work I do for TWOL is online, so that’s a couple hours of time in front of the computer each day (all quite interesting, though!), so as soon as I get done I’m rounding up the boys from their naps and heading out the door.

Needless to say, my blog has fallen a bit by the wayside in the past couple weeks due to the new job, glorious weather, and the start of the growing season here in the Southern Appalachians.  But we’re still here, hands in the dirt and feeling summer coming on strong!  Stay tuned!

 
 
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