Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Grace in the Garden (Plus My 6 Favorite Online Garden Catalogs)

Lacy Phacelia
Brand spankin’ new year, and I’m sitting here surrounded by notebooks, last year’s seed envelopes and journal, my garden layout and all my favorite seed sources open in a tab on my browser. It’s snowy and cold, and this is my antidote to winter – planning my garden with lists and penciled, detailed, obsessive plans.

Every year, as I work on my plans, I’m picturing a lush, green, productive garden. But reality is that every winter I see that elusive mirage of a garden, with its high-yield tomatoes, powdery-mildew-free cucumbers, catalog-inspired annuals, and it has yet to materialize in my small backyard.

But as I’ve become more experienced as a gardener, I find that every year is an experiment where I learn more about what works in this Colorado climate and what doesn’t work. I’ve finally reached the point where, if I see an interesting variety or plant that I’ve never tried before, I give it a try. It’s not like I’m putting in a swimming pool. It’s a $3 investment in garden know-how, and succeed or not, I've come to realize there's grace in my garden -- it's all good.

So, I’ve added artichokes to my list this year: Colorado Star variety for short growing seasons as an annual. I like artichokes, and hope I manage the careful cold-temp prep the seeds/seedlings need. But what I’m really hoping for is big, fat, purple blossoms for visual interest and for my bees. Because I tend to choose flowers according to bee affinity.

Which is why I put Phacelia tanacetifolia, aka Lacy Phacelia, aka Purple Tansy, aka Fiddleneck, on my list last year. I’d never heard of it, and the flowers are an interesting octopus-like unfurling finger of small blue lacy flowerets. It’s in the same family as borage, and given how my bees go crazy for that blue-flowered easy grower, it’s perhaps no surprise to see it high on lists of nectar producers. I ordered the seeds from Hudson Valley Seeds, started a handful indoors, then tossed some seeds alongside the newly transplanted seedlings. I remember thinking I’d get a few blooms.

In fact, it thrived. Each plant was covered in blooms. And the bees were practically frantic as they worked and foraged over it. As it bloomed, it would slowly unfurl, with new blooms surfacing and the old ones going to seed. It bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. In October, I collected the seeds and scattered them in areas where I want them to naturalize. We’ll see if that works. As a back up, I saved some for this spring's seed starting trays.

Reflecting on its success and reading more about it I found two reasons why it did well in my garden: It’s fairly drought tolerant and it likes a more alkaline soil. Check, and check. I didn’t realize that it’s also considered a cover crop. Positives all around – good results for an experimental planting.

That’s not to say that all those experiments turn out. More often than not, results can be pretty discouraging. Varieties that – even though I think they’ll work in my garden – simply don’t survive or take root. And so I add that experience to my garden knowledge. I've learned that traditional furrows for potatoes (and straw to cover) works far better in my garden than potatoes grown in bags or towers. That if I lay frost covers over my newly sown beets and lettuce, they’ll stay moist and germinate at a higher rate than if they are exposed. And that not all seedlings germinate better using a heat mat – some are a lot happier if I actually read the seed packet to find out what the optimum temp is for germination. I have still not gotten it right with cucumbers.

I don’t know how the artichoke will do this year, but I’m looking forward to giving it a go. Worst thing that can happen is it fails to germinate, and I have space in my garden for something else. But best case? I have a new plant that will make my bees happy. So I'm back to perusing seed sites for inspiration. And on that note, a few of my favorites: 

Johnny's Select Seeds
Hudson Valley Seed Company
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds 
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

Thursday, April 30, 2015

CCD, Bee Safe Neighborhoods, and Humming Hives

Last night on a beautiful spring evening, I stood outside my hive and watched bees coming and going, their panniers packed with pollen. I felt this great sense of satisfaction and rightness. It was as if the backyard had a missing element all these months while the hive stood empty, and now the balance was back in my garden.

Last year we learned so much, but the failure of our hive to thrive was discouraging. It was hard to watch the bee numbers diminish to total loss. Whether it was a weak or older queen, or a symptom of nearby pesticide use, we don’t know. But all through the fall and winter there was a vacant feeling in our garden.

In past years, beekeepers expected a loss of hives in the single-digit percentage range. It was to be expected. This past year I have heard reports that beekeepers reported losses around 60 percent. 60 percent. That is an astonishing, heartbreaking, worrisome number. It is an unsustainable figure in any business, and unsustainable ecologically, as well.

Friends ask me what is causing the declining pollinator populations. With the ominous Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) making the news, I understand why they are asking.

It is believed that the Varroa mite is one factor. This pin-head sized mite is an external parasite that first arrived in Florida in the 1980s. According to an article from the University of Kentucky, varroa mites “suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the life span of the ones on which they feed. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Untreated infestations of varroa mites that are allowed to increase will kill honeybee colonies.”

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, honeybees also face devastation from pesticides and herbicides. In fact, Harvard University recently released a report linking the use of neonicotinoids (a class of insecticide chemically similar to nicotine) to CCD. The European Union and some non-EU countries have banned the use of neonics. The United States is dragging its heels…

All of these thorny issues are at the back of my mind as I watch our new colony begin to build comb, care for their brood, pollinate and gather nectar. I watch an undertaker bee drag a dead bee from the hive (worker bees generally live only about six weeks), carry her body a distance and leave it, then return to continue cleaning house. Forager Bees are carrying bright orange dandelion pollen into the hive, and I’m hopeful that the flowers they visited were not tainted with herbicides.

In talking with Colorado State Beekeepers Association President Beth Conrey earlier this spring, I learned about an initiative called “Bee Safe Neighborhoods.” Beth was pointing to urban beekeeping as one of the frontlines for giving bees cleaner foraging and brighter futures. While changing Big Ag’s approach to pesticides and herbicides is a huge ship to turn around, concerned urban communities can participate in Bee Safe Neighborhood programs that address the issue of chemical usage on gardens and lawns.

Here’s how it works:
According to the Living Systems Institute, The goal is to have leaders from as many neighborhoods as possible solicit pledges from their neighbors to stop using systemic poisons.  The minimum number of households required for a bee safe neighborhood designation is 75 in a contiguous block.  If a neighbor on a particular street does not wish to participate, the boundary lines of the contiguous block will be configured to exclude that household.  In other words, every neighbor on every street does not need to participate in order to have a contiguous block.”
Want to learn more or see how you can get involved? Go to the Living Systems Institute/Honeybee Keep page on Bee Safe Neighborhoods. There you’ll find information about specific chemicals that are a concern, and alternatives and options that are better for bees.

It’s easy—especially when faced with an empty hive—to get discouraged. But if we do what we can to make our yards and our neighborhoods safe for bees, we are addressing the issue locally and helping honeybees. And as we create cleaner neighborhoods, we are also making spaces better for not just bees and other wildlife, but also for our children, our pets, and ourselves.

A new beekeeping season has arrived, flowers and trees are blooming in my neighborhood, and once again my hive is humming. My garden feels complete again. And I am hopeful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mother Hens Just Are

We've been treated to some wonderfully warm weather for the last few days, and besides giving me spring fever, it gives me the chance to watch my flock. Instead of hurrying from house to coop in single digit temps, I can slow down and soak in the peacefulness that comes with just watching hens scratch for bugs or grains, dust themselves, or spread their wings in the sun.

The three chicks and two moms add an extra measure of pleasure. When we had a bathtub full of chicks we used to call it "Chick TV." They are entertaining little fluff balls. Now that we have the mother-hen dynamic at work, it's like watching the sequel to the series. Where we just saw one side of the biology of chicks, now we see the most amazing, whole picture with the interaction between hens, chicks and flock.

Sunday I took a bowl out that had leftover corn in it. Usually, it's every hen for herself. They belly up to the bowl, run over each other if need be, and eat that corn as fast as they can. When I put the bowl down this time though, it was different. The non-mom hens were there gobbling it up, but I was amazed to see what Thelma was doing.

She would daintily take a piece of corn out of the bowl and carefully, with precision, drop it in front of one chick, then another, and then the third chick. They would pick the treat up, carry it away and eat their prize before going back to mom and repeating the process. Not once did I see Thelma eat any of the corn herself.

As she ranged around the yard, she'd find something, then cluck in a way that said, "Eat this, it's good, and good for you," and the chicks would run to see what she'd found. They'd eat, she'd move on, scratch a spot, and call them again. Cotton, mom-hen-number two, was right there with them. Thelma seems to be the top-hen, a little stricter and a little more instructive. Cotton, on the other hand, seems to be there to keep the chicks out of trouble, provide a warm wing when needed, or run interference if another hen is getting too close.

The other hens don't interfere with the small family, and for the most part, tend to ignore the chicks all together. If a hen gets too close, she is informed in no uncertain terms that she better give the babies a little space.

The chicks are busy, preening, scratching the ground, running to catch up or--if one of their moms settles down for a moment--taking the opportunity to peck inquiringly at an eye or a feather or a toenail. The moms both have great patience, vigilance and calm, and watching them is relaxing. It's a great illustration of where the phrase "mother hen" comes from.  Because mother hens... really are.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Two Broody Moms, Three Chicks

A bird in the hand...M holds the first hatchling.
It started with Cotton sitting on a clutch of six eggs. When my sister-in-law gave us the eggs from her flock (because she has a rooster and we don’t) we weren’t sure if they were fertile, but decided we’d give them to our little Bantam cochin, Cotton. Then Thelma began to assist with hatch duty.

The way our nesting boxes are set up, there are two regular-sized boxes on each end, and one larger one in the middle. I had just about given up on any chicks hatching, thinking maybe the eggs had gotten cold or just weren’t fertile. After work one evening I opened the nesting boxes from the back to see if there were some fresh eggs. I’d been leaving the marked hatching eggs and gathering the rest.

Thelma was in the box where we’d put the fertile eggs. I reached under her, lifting her and moving her, but didn’t see new eggs. She pecked me hard, unlike her but forgivable considering her important task. I moved to the other side, opened the door and found Cotton on some newly laid eggs, retrieved them and closed the small door. 

Then I walked around to the front of the coop and stepped in to check on feeders and water. As I left, I thought I heard a peeping sound. At first I thought maybe I’d heard wrong, or that it was a mouse or a sound from outside, but I listened closer and was sure it was a chick.

I kneeled down and watched Thelma and the box where we’d placed the eggs.  I still heard peeping, but couldn’t be sure where it was coming from. Beneath Thelma, I thought. And then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, hurrying from Cotton’s box, I saw a small fluffy dark colored… chick. It was heading toward Thelma, like a child who had hopped out of a warm tub and was hurrying toward a dry towel.

Somehow it seemed like magic to suddenly see a little creature where one hadn't been. It was so small, with a yellow spot on top of her head, and more yellow in front. I scooped her up and looked at her. She was bright eyed and healthy. Chicks are very difficult to sex, and I sure don’t have the expertise, so we don’t know yet whether it’s a pullet or a cockerel. I popped her back into the nesting box and she wiggled her way beneath Thelma’s fluffed up black feathers. Thelma eyed me a bit smugly. How could I have doubted?

Over the next couple of days, I watched and wondered if there were more. I’d see the small black peep running around, and both Cotton and Thelma seemed to be caring for it. But Saturday morning, K and I went out to the coop to see how the little trio was doing. K opened the door and laughed. I looked in. Thelma was standing up, her hidden family revealed. Three chicks. All peeping loudly, indignant about the cold rush of air.

Cotton and Thelma are sitting together on the nest, co-raising the babies. I watch as the small fluffy chicks hop onto Cotton’s back, a good vantage point for pecking her comb. Or her eye. Or the black hen’s feathers. They wiggle beneath the curtain of feathers when they get cold, pop back out when they are too warm. It’s amazing how Thelma—who was raised in a brooder and never knew a mother—knows exactly how to care for her little ones. Cotton seems perfectly comfortable in the motherly role as well.

It is so much easier to raise chicks when you have broody hens, and I am amazed at the instinctive care they take. It is a lesson in the built-in knowledge nature provides, and makes me realize humans are a distant second when it comes to raising chicks. I close the coop door and leave them, confident that they will be just fine.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Waiting Egg-spectantly: Giving a Broody Eggs to Hatch

Cotton, dedicated mama-to-be. (That's Thelma squeezed in next to her.)
Our little hen Cotton has been broody for months. She wants so badly to raise some babies that she spends all her time earnestly (and fruitlessly) setting on unfertilized eggs.

Cotton is the hen who came to us as a chick and insisted on being raised by Oreo, the other Bantam hen. I don't think she's produced an egg in long time. Every time she gets broody I take her off the nest and take her eggs, and she comes back to her empty nest and looks forlorn. It makes me feel bad for her.

Nothing seems to break her of her mama-urges. So I asked my sister-in-law, who has a nice country flock, for some fertilized eggs. Her rooster is none other than Cluck Norris, the rooster that started life at our house as a pullet named Cadbury. Until we heard him crow and sent him off to live in the country where he could crow and crow and tend his own little harem.

So we took five eggs, marked them so we could tell them apart from the eggs our hens produced, and slipped them under Cotton on February 1. If we were serious about raising chicks, we'd have candled them to see if they were fertile, but instead, we took a sort of "if it happens, it happens" approach. I'm doubtful, but it feels good to leave Cotton some eggs to tend.

Cotton is a devoted broody, and she is almost always there on the nest. She'll take a break each day for water and food, but hurries right back. So when I saw her wandering around in the chicken yard one fine 60-degree day last week, I expected she wouldn't be out there long. A little while later, I looked out and she was still out there.

I thought maybe she'd forgotten about being broody. Sort of felt disappointed in her. I thought, "Well, we tried." But I figured it was a good time to go out and at least gather the new, fresh eggs without having to reach beneath her for a change.

I opened the nesting box door from behind, and laughed. Facing me were two fluffy chicken behinds. Cotton was, quite logically, taking a break from her hatching duties while two other hens were laying eggs and at the same time keeping the potential hatchers warm.

Hazel and Thelma  (seen from behind) share egg-sitting duties. 
Time and again, my chickens remind me that they know what they are doing. Why I think I'd make a better chicken than my own chickens I don't know. We've got T-minus five days to hatch, if they are viable eggs. In spite of my doubts, I'm determined to let nature have the upper hand here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The story behind our O'Keefe & Merritt stove

Our new old O'Keefe & Merritt stove, circa 1956
When we first bought our 1905-era home, I remember seeing pictures of renovated kitchens that featured vintage stoves. I had checked out the cost of newly-built vintage stoves and knew that was well out of reach budget-wise. But a couple of years ago, as we began to talk about renovating our small kitchen, I came across a listing on Craigslist for an O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove, and it was less than the cost of a new stove. It was in-use and worked well, albeit crusted with old grease. And for $200, it seemed doable, compared to a fully refurbished O’Keefe & Merritt stove which can run more than $1,000.

To make a long story short, we brought it home with plans to restore it. I began to look up parts on eBay, read old-stove-repair sites online, Googled pictures of O’Keefe & Merritt stoves (for reassurance and inspiration) and daydreamed about how it would look in our old house.

It sat there in the garage for two summers, waiting for its makeover. As we started to renovate our kitchen, I became more serious about trying to find parts for it. Prices had, I discovered, gone up a bit. At one point the original knobs had been taken off our old stove and replaced with '70s era black and stainless knobs. One vintage knob on eBay ran about $40. That meant an investment of $200 just for knobs.

Discouraged, I looked on Craigslist again, thinking maybe someone had one I could use for parts. There was a photo of an old stove that was behind stacks of boxes. I knew it was an O’Keefe & Merritt with all its knobs intact, but it appeared to be incomplete and dismantled. It was listed for $75.

By the end of the day, we were the proud owners of our second O’Keefe & Merritt stove. This one was circa 1956. What surprised us was that it was in better shape than our first one. All the porcelain was beautiful. It sported a chrome top that lifted like the hood of a muscle car, and the griddle-in-the-middle was in beautiful shape. On top of all that, we found that the box of parts that came with it contained extra parts—which, we reasoned, we’d sell on eBay to recoup our expenses.

It was placed in the garage next to stove #1. Then, a few weeks later, as if sensing its impending retirement, our 13-year-old electric range burned out the oven element on Thanksgiving day. That hurried the process along a bit. I began to clean stove #2, removing the glaze of years from burners and grills, degreasing, scraping, gently separating hardened burned-on grunge. When I finished, most of the stove looked pristine. Two of the burners will eventually need new porcelain.

K hooked it up and texted me a photo at work. “It works!” We were smitten. It beamed stoutly. We beamed. We took our photos next to the two quiches we made with it.  It's gratifying to think that it escaped the landfill, and we marveled at how solidly it was built and crafted.

On Christmas Day, we put it to the test, using the warming oven to let the rolls rise while the ham baked. The kitchen heated up. I could not help wondering how many Christmas dinners it had made, and imagined it was pleased to be back at work on a holiday meal. I look forward to using it for bread baking, canning, and yogurt making.

I am still smiling every time I clean it up, polish it, start the teakettle or fire up the griddle. It is worth every bit of elbow grease it took to burnish it back to its mid-century beauty.

Meanwhile, stove #1 awaits. Do we restore and sell it whole? Or sell it piece by piece? It needs more work than stove #2 did, and will require a greater investment to re-porcelain parts and get it to the level of restoration it needs. We know its story is not yet complete, and whether pieced out to bring its kin back to life, or refinished as a whole, we are confident that someday it will also be cooking with gas.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Seed Sources to Consider

If you're like me, you may be starting to think about seeds -- what you'll plant, where and when you'll plant it and where you'll buy your seed, if you aren't using seeds you've saved. I've always been concerned with organic seed, but having a hive of honeybees tunes your awareness to good seed.

I've made a list (with links) of some of the seed and plant sources that have signed the "Safe Seed Pledge," and plan to support these companies with my orders. Those in italics are companies I've ordered from in the past. I'm hoping to try a few more this year

Adaptive Seeds* - Northwest

Amishland Seeds - Pennsylvania

The Ark Institute* - Pennsylvania

Baker Creek Seed Co. - Missouri

Bountiful Gardens - California

Crispy Farms – Florida

Gourmet Seed - California

Grow Organic - California

Heirloom Seeds* - Pennsylvania

Heirloom Solutions - Illinois

High Mowing Seeds – Vermont

Horizon Herbs* - Oregon

Humbleseeds – Michigan

Growing Crazy Acres – Florida

Ed Hume Seeds – Northwest

J.L Hudson – California

Kitchen Garden Seeds - Connecticut

Lake Valley Seeds – Colorado

Landreth Seeds* - New York

New Hope Seed Company – Tennessee

Organica Seed* -- Massachusetts

Prairie Road Garden – North Dakota

Renee’s Garden – California

Restoration Seeds – Oregon

Sand Hill Preservation Center (heritage breed poultry, too) – Iowa

Seeds Trust – Idaho

Siskiyou Seeds (NW) – Oregon

Southern Exposure* - Virginia

Sow True (SE)* - North Carolina

Sustainable Seed Co* - California

Tomato Fest – California

Trees of Antiquity – Heirloom Fruit trees – California

Turtle Tree Seed – New York

Underwood Garden Seeds* (Terroir Seeds) - Arizona

Uprising Seeds* -- Washington

Victory Seeds* - Oregon

White Harvest Seed – Missouri

Wild Garden Seeds* - Oregon

Wildseed Farms – Texas – Wildflowers