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Category Archives: Gardening

The end of the overwintered dinosaur kale

I love dinosaur kale.  I really love it when I don’t have to pick off the cabbage worms that like to live on it when the temps are a little warmer.  It also looks so nice before they eat holes in it. (Dang cabbage worms).

James suggested I pick a few leaves of it out of the garden for something he was cooking a couple nights ago.

When I came back in with two whole plants he wondered why I’d pulled them up.  Well, it’s getting just warm enough that they’re starting to bolt, so I figured we should just go on and eat them before they get bitter.

He said (more than once) that was way too much dinosaur kale for what he was making, but he was just forgetting how leafy greens cook down from mountain to cupful in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, here’s what he created with the kale, some of our frozen stewed tomatoes and a dried cayenne pepper from last summer, diced chicken breast, a couple heads of garlic and an onion….

So good!!

Here are some pics of what’s happening with the other overwintered greens….I’ll be pulling them up in the next few days, making room for more early spring seeds…..

Arugula is flowering. Mizuna getting big with a *major* bite.

Tatsoi bolted and flowering

Spinach is really going strong now (on left)

 

Honey harvest

One thing about taking pictures for my blog is that my camera phone gets a little dirty.  I’m writing about gardening and composting, so when I take photos to put in a post, my hands have usually been in the dirt or I’ve been wrangling a muddy toddler.

Yesterday I took my first venture into the world of beekeeping: I harvested 10 racks of honey from my brother’s hive in his yard. Now that was a challenge — trying to take pictures while working with honey. Not to mention that was my first time doing this, and by myself too. My 4 year old was keenly interested, but mainly in eating the honey. (Fortunately for my beginner-beekeeping self, there were no live bees involved — it was just a box of racks full of honey.)

Consequently, my phone got pretty sticky as I was trying to capture some images of the whole process. And the honey can be found in various places in our house, from the front porch to my 4 year old’s forehead.

My brother showed me the basics of how to get the honey from the rack, then left me to figure it out by myself.   So, from here on, remember that I’m no expert, and that there might have been easier (and more correct) ways to do what I did:

First, I used an electric hot knife to remove (“de-cap”) the wax covering the honeycomb cells:

The left side of the rack shows the cells that still have the wax caps.  The right side is where I just made a swath through with the hot knife and honey is exposed.  (You can also see where the honey kind of “cooked” on the blade and turned brown.   I don’t know if it was supposed to do this, like maybe I should have been wiping the honey from the blade while working —  it didn’t affect the outcome but it will be a pain to clean I’m sure.)

**Note — the above tool is a hot. knife.  My thumb will attest to that.  A burn/cut combo. Ow.  It was a scary enough tool that even my boys wouldn’t get near it, and they’re usually attracted to anything electric, sharp, and/or poisonous.

Spinning honey on front porch

Two uncapped racks went into the extractor at a time.  I turned the handle and it spun the racks (they were in a cage-like contraption inside).  It took about 10-15 minutes of spinning per set to get the honey out.

Something I’ve learned about gardening in the front yard is that it’s much more social than back-yard gardening:

When I had the extractor on the front porch, my neighbor’s landscaper, Shylock, came over to check it out. Shylock is from Zimbabwe, and he told me how he and his brothers get honey from hives in the woods there.  Getting honey from a wild hive is a whole ‘nother ball of wax (couldn’t resist)….I like the idea of bee boxes and protective bee suits myself, but it was truly fascinating to hear him tell about it.

When they were all done, I brought the extractor inside to sit on the radiator.  The warmth of the radiator made the honey less viscous so it flowed better when it was time to strain it.

It also made our house smell deliciously of honey.

 

 

Our resident Pooh bear was right by my side once the honey started flowing:  He eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich *every* day for lunch.  He’d love to be able to live on honey alone.

After all the honey went through the strainer and into the 5-gallon bucket, then it was time to put it into jars.

 

Yummm

My brother’s amazing sense of timing brought him back to the house right when I was starting this part — or as he described it, “the fun part”.  Knowing that I have a touch of adult ADD and am a little klutzy (both amplified when toddlers are around) he kindly reminded me that it was *really* important to keep an eye on the honey filling the jar — not fun when it overflows.

I am proud to say that I had no spills — amazing for me!  Here’s the beginnings of what we got: 

Its flavor is just perfect…it is flowery and light.  I have been eating straight spoonfuls of it and can’t stop.

I used random left-over jars so there were 3 different sizes, but we ended up with 10 pints, 3 half-pints, and 4 4-oz. jars.  If my math is correct that’s over a gallon of honey….

And one very happy resident Pooh bear.

 

Appalachian Spring

It’s here!

And it’s so tempting to think that the snows and hard freezes are over till next winter.  There’s no reason not to be excited though, it’s just the reality of springtime in the Blue Ridge.  I’ve been especially happy seeing all the new things popping up around the yard, in the raised beds, and around town.

I planted my first asparagus plants last year.   I planted about 20 crowns and they produced great-big, feathery plants by the end of summer.  They’re not in my raised beds but instead in a bed right next to our front porch, sharing space with herbs.   Here’s what started breaking through last week:

Mary Washington asparagus

When they first start to emerge just above the soil line, they are really white.  My older son was worried the first time I pointed one out to him:  he was sure it was one of the white grubs that keep turning up in his shovelfuls of dirt when he’s playing in the garden.  (Funny, he loves slugs but is repulsed by the grubs).

Here are some of my Sow True seeds that I planted a week ago in one of the raised beds –woo-hoo!

Asian Greens

The cabbages are just about done, so I picked two heads……

and they were the starring ingredient in this stir-fry tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was nice to get them out of the garden — there’s all kinds of space that opened up for some new seeds and plants.   A note about growing cabbages (and collards, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts):  they take up alot of room in raised beds, even when you plant them fairly close together.  The ones above each had a “footprint” about 2 feet around.  I like cabbage but there are other plants I like better that take up less room.  Will have to think about that when I plant my fall garden…..

Here’s a spectacular tree that my boys and I saw on our late-afternoon walk today.

 

DIY raised beds

  • DIY = Do It Yourself
  • DIWH = Do It With Help

The latter better described what I started yesterday.  Actually, it should be:

  • DIWLOHFB = Do It With Lots of Help From Brother

(OK, I better stop, I am an “initial-talk”, or “I.T.” addict and can easily get carried away.)

This time last year, I was in such a sleep-deprived fog from a year of colicky-baby nights (and no-napping days) that I didn’t even consider trying to build my raised beds.  So I ordered some cedar raised bed kits online from Natural Yards and was thrilled to be able to put all four beds together in less than a half hour— seriously.

Now that my almost-two year old has recently liked sleeping (hallelujah), my brain is working better,  and the stretches of time when I can get things accomplished are starting to, well, stretch out.  So I’ve decided to expand the garden with a few more raised beds.  And instead of ordering kits again,  I attempted a DIY/DIWLOHFB project to build the beds on my own.

After enlisting my brother’s help, we got all the supplies, started building, and I by default was the helper/gofer.  I didn’t mind a bit — as a mom to toddlers, it’s nice to have somebody else be in charge sometimes!  Using the exact design of my existing from-kit beds, we got one bed done (measured, cut, assembled) before the first thunderstorm of the year came roaring along mid-afternoon.

The ends of the pieces of lumber fit together after they've been cut. We cut and stacked another layer on top of these (making the beds 12" deep), then drilled holes all the way through the overlapping ends and secured them with metal dowels.

My brother was in meetings this afternoon.  I was dang determined to get the other bed done, so I plugged in the Sawzall, got the speedsquare and went to work, measuring and cutting the cedar boards.  (I’m talking like I know what I’m doing, when actually I’m talking like somebody who knows *just* enough, but not quite enough.  Just wait.)

Well, I was really DIY this afternoon, all the while entertaining my older boy and the neighbor girl with fun games —  like pretending the scrap blocks from the lumber I was cutting were “rocket fuel” and “magic invisibility bars” to use in their treehouse adventures.  I was feeling pretty cool and quite capable (hubris; pride before the fall).  Should have known it was just toooo easy.

Curses.

Just as I was on the final cut, by brother drove up.  Oh, was I proud that I’d done all that by myself — in under 3 hours!  We went to put the pieces together, and — oh **$&%#.   Cavewoman Carpentry, at its finest.

Mama tried, Mama tried.

Fortunately, my brother was able to fix it all (he basically cut off the end notches I’d cut and started all over again).

Uncle Craig saves the day

Lesson:  Raised beds with cedar lumber are awesome. They look good, the cedar is safe for you and your plants, and it’s durable.  However, if you’re going to DIY and you’re like me (limited carpentry skills), get some help from someone who knows, or plan very well.  (I’m not a planner when it comes to gardening, hence my blog sub-title, “…by-the-seat-of-my-pants.”  Smarty-pants brother reminded me “Measure twice, cut once.).

Price-wise, it was about half the cost of the kit beds I’d ordered online.  So definitely an advantage there if you’re competent enough to do the carpentry part.

Note:  You can make raised beds from just about anything and there are all kinds of ideas on how to do it on this about.com page on organic gardening.

 

Bee burial

Don't worry, they're not alive!

My dad and brother started keeping bees in our backyard when I was about 14 years old.  Beehives and the associated tending were not high on my priority list at the time.   The bees were mainly a source of entertainment to me at that age — not of the “oh that’s so cool” kind, but of the “Oh Hey!  Check it out — I think the bees are chasing Dad!”   Oh teen humor.

Well, my dad and brother are still keeping bees in their respective back yards, 20 some-odd years later.  Today my brother suggested it’s high time for me to have my own hive.  He has a couple hives in his backyard, about a half-mile from downtown Asheville, said he could help me get set up and even offered to do the tending.  Wow!

Now, with two toddlers who are always in the yard, I’m a little hesitant, but I think we’re going to give it a try, make the hive far enough off the ground that the bees’ flight path is out of range of my little fellas. Maybe on a platform.  We’ll see…

Anyway, through the years I’ve always noticed that to my brother, father, and beekeeper friends, the bees are not just a mass of stinging insects that happen to produce one of the most divine substances ever, but they’re also something else to them, I can’t quite place it.  They love bees, their tenacity and amazing productivity despite being robbed occasionally by humans of their hard-earned honey. They are indeed amazing creatures.

Listen to a beekeeper talk about their bees and you’ll pick up on it.  It subtle, not exactly like a person talks affectionately about a pet, but it’s a little like that.  A friend of ours went to a beekeeper’s meeting years ago, and he asked the group a question about a hive of his that had died after some particularly wet weather.  One of the old-timers spoke up indignantly, almost accusingly, as if Jack had failed as a bee parent:  “You drowned them bees!!”

 

Dearly departed

Today my brother brought the remnants of a failed hive to my house.   He wanted to put the dead bees in my compost pile.   He wasn’t sure what was their ultimate demise, but he was definitely somber and a little quiet about it.   It was almost funereal as he unloaded the white square box containing the hives from his truck, pulled out the racks and held handfuls of the dead creatures in his hands.  He looked at them as he held them in his hands and said “they were really good workers…..”.  I sensed that he was feeling some guilt, like he could have saved them.

My almost-4 year old and our almost-5 year old neighbor were intrigued.  My son picked up a few of the light, fuzzy little bees and checked them out.  The neighbor girl was wary, not sure if they were indeed incapable of stinging, so she observed.  Intently.

 

Shaking the bees off the honeycomb

Next we took the hive  to the compost pile and started shaking the bees off the racks.  I swear, I felt like it was a burial.  My brother kept saying that dead bees in compost were really good fertilizer, but I wonder if he was also thinking that they were going to continue working, feeding the dirt as they faded away.  A proper burial of sorts.  At least I was thinking that.  Busy bees, working on into their apiarian afterlives via the compost pile.

Then the party started.  I found a small area of honeycomb, still full of honey.  It was some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.  My son dug right in, beeswax and all.  He’s got some Pooh Bear in him.  Never met a PB&Honey sandwich he didn’t devour.

Yeah!

Continuing with the celebration of the bees’ life, the neighbor girl said, “We should thank the dead bees for the honey.”  Not in a sentimental way, just using good manners, reminding us why were were all gathered in the garden right then….

I called Dad tonight and told him we put the bees in the compost pile.  His first comment was, “Did you notice how they’d all died facing the queen?”  I told him we didn’t see the queen….but I realized he was trying to impart some of that beekeeper sense to me that I’m still trying to understand. “Didn’t you see how they were in the exact same spot on each rack, the exact pattern?”

It’s beyond anthropomorphizing, what beekeepers do when they talk about their bees.  It’s big respect for these tiny creatures who, despite being — well, insects — behave as though they know an awful lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rough winter. No worries, it’s all green!

Winter blues don’t stand a chance on days I harvest hardy greens to go with dinner. Here are the starring ingredients in our winter salads, clockwise from top left:

Mizuna: textured like frissee, not too bitter, mustardy and a little spicy

Spinach (Bloomsdale):  thick leaves but tender and mellow

Arugula:  rich and spicy

Cilantro:  no wonder these guys always go to seed mid-May…they were happy as clams through the winter and are going strong in the covered beds right now.  I love to toss a few sprigs in with my salads, adds a nice contrast.

Cress:  whoo-wee, spicy  — but so good!  And one of the loveliest rows in my raised beds.

Toss them all together with just about any kind of salad dressing….YUM!   These salads can stand even the most outrageously bold dressing (a la roquefort or something really garlicky) and still hold their own flavor-wise.  But I personally like them with a balsamic vinaigrette.

While I’m crunching away, I can’t help but think of the super vitamins I’m getting from such dark leafy veggies, especially when the toddlers are toting in all kinds of icky viruses this time of year.

I’m sad thinking about these greens going to seed in a couple months, but I’m encouraged by the thought of late-spring salads coming in.  In that spirit, I planted about 20 romaine starts a few days ago.  This is the earliest I’ve ever tried putting them out, but it’s also the first time I’ve had covered raised beds, so we’ll see if they make it through the inevitable final hurrahs of winter:

 

 

Raised bed covers=mini greenhouses

I googled “raised bed covers” and “hoop houses”  at the first hint of cold last fall.  There were lots of great ideas online, but my biggest help was my McGyver-esque neighbor (who’s also an engineer/carpenter).

“McGyver” took one look at my raised beds and replicated them perfectly – from scratch.  I, on the other hand, had ordered mine online…having two kids under 3 plus cavewoman-like carpentry skills and a dear husband who’s about as talented in that department as I am…well, you get the picture.  Then McG built a PVC frame and covered it with chicken wire to keep critters out of their plants.  (We have two Jack Russell terriers who are very effective at keeping those kinds of pests out, so I really just wanted a frame for a cold-weather cover.)

 

Clamp (next to some kind of plumbing thing that broke, wrong kind)

So, materials and technique as I learned from dear neighbor:  1/2 inch PVC pipe;  plumbing pipe clamps (both the plastic and the copper kinds…they didn’t have enough plastic in stock at Lowe’s so I got the copper too).  The clamps screwed right into the interior wall of the beds.  I used a random hand saw to cut the pipe down to 6 ft. (the beds are 4ft. wide).

I really didn’t measure the distance between each pvc-length (now “hoop”)….I just kind of eyeballed it and used the good-ol measuring-by-footstep technique (the one I use when I don’t want to go back inside the house and scrounge for the tape measure for fear of waking up sleeping tots).

It took me a few afternoons to cut, bend, and attach the PVC pipes, turning them into the skeleton of my mini-greenhouses.  After I’d finished, I stood back and looked at my work, and I was reminded of a big whale skeleton, or dinosaur bones.  All that white pipe, couldn’t stand it.  (OK OK I’m particular).

I remembered that can of green fence paint in the basement from a birdhouse-pole project of my husband’s (don’t ask).  Anyway, I spent the next afternoon or two painting all the pipes, all 15 of them.  Total pain, but now my garden doesn’t look like an outdoor paleontology exhibit.

With the structure in place, I was determined to find the clearest plastic I could find.  I really wanted something clear so I could see my plants (yes, I wanted it to look good too).  I went to all the big home improvement stores, hardware stores, garden centers and even a paint store to find this elusive clear plastic.  None to be found.  More googling and I found VINYL.  Sweet.  

You can’t buy vinyl at any of the above venues, but I found some at our local Foam & Fabric store.  I bought a whole roll of the mid-weight (8 mil maybe?) and it was just enough to cover my 4ftx4ft bed, and two of the 12ftx4ft beds.  I used zip ties to attach it to the frames, and they have held up surprisingly well throughout the winter and its temps and winds.

In order to make the beds accessible, I divided the lengths of vinyl in half and nailed the bottom part (with old roofing nails) to scrap pieces of wood:  that makes it easier to lift up the vinyl in one piece, especially when it’s really cold.

 

Vinyl is tough to deal with when it’s colder than 45f or so.  It becomes less pliable the colder the temp, and therefore it’s more of a pain to open and close the “windows” on the frames.  But hey, beauty has its price.

 

And vinyl sheeting met the criteria:  functional + not ugly, and most importantly, we’ve been loving all kinds of greens all winter!

My best helper covering the small bed for the night

 

Checking out the cabbages

 

 

 

 

 

Hooray for 60 degrees in February!

I know, I know, we’re still in for more freezes and snows between now and Mother’s Day (unofficial last frost date in this part of the southern Appalachians), but DANG, it feels great outside!

Great helper - digging for stray carrots

I finally tackled our barely-decomposing compost piles today.  It was an archeological dig of sorts.  I found a perfectly-preserved apple in there from last October, a few smushy but still vibrantly red peppers, and I also found a resurrected kale plant that I thought was killed by the cold….it had even grown a few new shoots.  I fished it out and planted it in one of the beds.   Hmm, my compost piles need some serious adjustment.

Before

We started these two piles last year, and they’re not breaking down as fast as I’d like.  I think the one thing I’m missing is some kind of animal manure to get it hot.

I also think stuff was too big…too many leaves and plant stalks (another one of my finds was an intact lavender branch that still smelled great and looked pretty cool too…but that’s not what I’m needing to amend my garden soil…)

So, my lawnmower became my mulcher.  I dug out both sides of the piles, and ran over the contents over and over and over and over ( = sore lower back in the morning).   This being a “yard farm” and all, the garden/compost piles are in close proximity to my neighbors, so I did go check with them and make sure they wouldn’t mind the mid-morning racket (they have a 3-month old and I surely didn’t want to disturb a nap with a lawnmower chewing up stalks and leaves).

 

After the lawnmower treatment

I was really proud of my idea to mulch with the lawnmower, but that was tempered by my husband pointing out that running over that many stalks will probably mean a trip to get the blade sharpened.  Oh well….it worked, right?

 

 

Compost tumbler

This is our other compost “system” in the yard.  I bought this tumbling composter a few years ago.  It looked so cool, simple and easy….it definitely heats up fast and turns all kinds of stuff into beautiful crumbly black compost, but it’s not easy to turn. And if you leave it turned lid-side-up, it fills up with rain and then you’ve got a big ol mess to deal with (like I had to fool with today).

But even compost slurry getting in my boots couldn’t put a damper on my delight at the hint of spring around the corner — yeeeehaaa!

 
 
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