July 22nd, 2015

I can’t believe I forgot to tell you all about my last huge project! But the photo in the last post made me realize that I never did post about it. Well, remember the southern slope of Backfill Hill, where I have a few grapevines?

I got one retaining wall put in back in like 2013, but then I ran out of donated waste block (tail ends of projects from a landscaping company) and had to leave the rest of the slope as is.

That slope was a real problem in terms of runoff, erosion, and maintenance – a little too steep to mow with the mower, and treacherous footing when working with the weedeater. Unplantable due to erosion. I knew it would have to be terraced on contour to catch water and provide planting space, but I didn’t want to pay for all the landscaping block it would take. And in the mean time it kind of got forgotten.

But Sofía became more and more interested in having her own little garden; she was happy with a little spot I gave her for a couple years, but since it was among fruit trees it quickly became too shaded. She begged and begged me for a spot where she could grow tomatoes, but I didn’t have any space to spare. Unless…

Sometimes things work out just right. A couple days after I started pondering how to make it work, someone posted the solution on Freecycle – a long fence made out of concrete “logs” that the person wanted taken away. (They had been concrete formula tests originally, a long time ago.) My darling husband made trip after trip after work with our dinky little pickup to bring them all home, and I started working on Sofía’s garden bed.

She helped me – a little bit – excavating the trench and learning about leveling.



first wall nearly finished, biodegradable weed fabric spread


We finished it on Mother’s Day!


Two new terrace beds – three if you count the one at the bottom – of free materials kept out of the waste stream. Sofía has her very own little garden now, where she planted about three dozen snapdragons and – you guessed it – tomatoes.

My next major infrastructure project is with the bed on the right –  you can see pink roses there in the photo. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, but it’s still in the planning stage at this point. All I’m gonna say right now is that it involves building with beer bottles! I don’t think anything makes me feel better than finding new uses for what would otherwise be filling a landfill.






Resigned to raised beds

July 21st, 2015

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my farm area is suited more for growing rice than veggies. This year has been especially wet, with thunderstorms nearly every other day, and my garden is suffering. Despite all the work I’ve done to raise the beds through copious additions of organic matter every year, the water table is so high this year that I have to walk on boards through the pathways, and put galoshes on every time I plan to do some work out there. Nearly half my crops have drowned; the others are still not much bigger than they were when I planted them as seedlings. With no oxygen getting to their roots, they cannot absorb nutrients. No nutrients, no growth.

If I want to be able to grow anything, I’m just going to have to make some serious raised beds.

(And yes, I am actually looking into growing rice in the wettest area – I have vague, cloudy plans involving somehow rotating the ducks out of their garden paddock during the growing season and turning them back in all fall and winter for fertilization… but it’s all very vague at this point.)

I don’t want to build raised beds! The list of cons is very long. 1) expensive. 2) so much labor. 3) how to fill? I have no extra dirt. 4) it’s not a flexible system. Once the beds are in, I won’t be able to easily change row width and placement.


concrete “logs” holding in 8″ of half-composted wood chips that will be a bed next year.

But I’m starting to think my way around these problems somewhat.

1) Building costs. If I build up 10 of the worst beds, that’s about 600 linear feet of building materials. If I were to buy new composite decking or cedar boards, I’d be looking at around $2 per foot for 6″ wide boards. Since I figure I need a minimum of 1′ height, that equals a cost of never gonna happen.  However! I found a source for free shipping pallets, and I figure if I cut each one in three pieces, that is three 1′ tall, 4′ long sections. I just have to figure out how to keep the soil inside. Score.

2) Labor. I’m going to have to rent a mini-excavator-bobcat thing, also because of #3:

3) How to fill. You might remember I’ve already started a couple hugelkultur beds; those are coming along fine. I’m planning on doing something similar with these raised beds, laying in a pile of branches and woodchips and chicken compost. Before I do, though, I’m going to excavate all that precious, mineral-amended soil I spent so many years trying to perfect, and then put that back on top of the pile. That likely won’t be deep enough soil, but if I rented a bobcat I could finally take care of deepening the ponds and use that rich sludge on these beds too. I could even dig out the long spot in the forest that seems to stay 3″ deep in mud all year long. Maybe that would turn it into a more useable pond, and meanwhile I could use that dirt to fill my beds too. Tasks much too big for me alone with a shovel. Heck, I could even carve the top of backfill Hill into swales for water runoff management… you can probably tell I’m pretty excited. I hope it works like I want it to.

4) Not flexible: too bad. At least my cabbages might get bigger than a softball before giving up the ghost.



July 20th, 2015

The little bee nuc is doing well! The last time I checked, they had capped the couple queen cells that had eggs in them, so I’m hopeful that there’s more than one queen developing. Whichever queen survives ought to emerge next weekend and start laying in another week or two. So I’ll wait to look for eggs until about the first week of August sometime.


swarm queen cells generally hang from the bottoms of frames.

Oh and I meant to show you this frame structure. Bees make two kinds of cells: worker (female) cells and drones (males). Since all manmade foundation is made of worker sized cells, often bees will fill all kinds of crazy cracks with drone cells anywhere they can all through the hive. Many beekeepers spend a lot of time cutting this out and “cleaning up” the hive. But if you don’t provide bees with nice straight foundation to start from, they’ll most likely make really strange convoluted comb all over the place, so you can’t move frames and inspect for disease, etc.

So what I’ve done here is cut a sheet of foundation in half, and allowed the bees to draw their own foundation to fill in the rest of the frame. This ought to satisfy their urge to draw drone comb all over and do what comes most naturally to them. (Not my idea – it’s sort of just an adaptation of top-bar beekeeping. I used to do only top-bar beekeeping, but the energy expended in wax production is so significant that now I try to do a mixture of foundation and top-bar, to help the girls along).



It’s awfully considerate of these bees to have built both the drones and the queen cells on the same frame for me, isn’t it? Made transfer quite easy. :)

They are absolutely sucking down sugar syrup, about half a gallon every day or two, and busily putting away food stores. Man, I wish I could get a taste, but these bees are now racing against time to put away enough stores to survive the winter. Hopefully they do survive and start off next year nice and strong, to make a nice honey surplus for me.


capped and uncapped honey.


And actually, that reminds me, they may be making too much honey and clogging up spaces that the queen will need for laying. In fact, I should have checked this weekend to see if they needed more frames of brood. Oops.

But I was kind of mad at them, since last night as I was fixing up the duck waterer – in the dark, with a headlamp, well away from the hives – one of them came at me and stung my cheek! It was only a glancing sting, as I seem to have crushed her before she could deliver all the venom, but wth girls? I’ve never known bees to fly in the dark before! Ungrateful little jerks.

Bye bye, cherries

July 19th, 2015

My favorite fruit is pretty much done for the year, alas. This time though – for the first time in 3 years – I managed to make it to the pick-your-own orchard for sour cherries before they were all gone.



Cherry almond sauce, sour cherry jam, pie filling, cherry syrup (in lovely flip-top bottles), vanilla bean cherry jam, and even a couple quarts of cherries soaking in amaretto and bourbon with vanilla beans, respectively. I made some jam with regular pectin, which required about half and half fruit and sugar, and I made some with Pomona’s pectin, which only requires about 25% sugar and actually set up better. I’ll be using that from now on.


And for the first time I made jelly! I had juice left over from syrup making, so a little pectin later, it turns into this sparkling, jewel-like delicacy. I’d never go through all the trouble of making jelly on purpose, seeing as without any of the fruit in it it’s basically just flavored sugar – but it sure is pretty.

First split

June 30th, 2015

My new colony is doing great – the population absolutely exploded! In fact it boomed so much that the last week when I checked, every single frame in a two-deep was full of brood. I happily put on an extra box and walked away.

You’d think this would be a good thing, right? Except I was a little bothered by the fact that they had so little space left… only a few bits of honey at the edges of the frames. And the more I read about it, the more I realized that this was not so good. With no place to go and no room to expand, even with an extra honey super put on top, the bees would most likely swarm. The only reason they hadn’t already was probably because the nectar flow was over.

But… they had no honey stores, so I absolutely had to feed them, which means they would think there was a nectar flow… and they would definitely swarm.

Sure enough, I checked them again this morning and there were little swarm cells on the bottoms of a couple frames. Swarm cells with eggs in them. Which meant that if I didn’t intervene, I was going to lose half my bees within the week. I had to divide the hive on my own – make them think they’d already swarmed and free up more room in there. So I took a deep breath and put on my big-girl bee pants and figured out how to do it.

First thing I’d need was a nuc box. Like a whole little beehive, cover and bottom and everything, except made for five frames instead of ten. Tiny. And somewhat costly. And mail order only… which means weeks away, plus assembly time. But I needed one now. Like, tomorrow latest. So I rolled up my sleeves and figured out how to make myself a nuc box out of existing equipment.


Nuc boxes are 5 frames only because if you give bees more space than they can adequately protect, pests like small hive beetle and wax moths move in and can wreak real damage (don’t ask me how I know, it’s sad.) So I took a ten frame hive bottom and made it a little more versatile.


I cut the back support of a ten-frame bottom board right in the center, pried it up, and nailed it into the front. Now when the box sits on top, there are two entrances facing opposite directions, which is what you want for nucs anyway (don’t ask me why. I just do what the books tell me to).

If I do get lucky enough that this little nuc starts to thrive enough to be moved onto ten frame equipment, I can simply reverse the placement of the severed back support and voila it’s back to being a regular setup again. Woo for saving money!


I found a sheet of masonite and made a single panel that fit snugly inside the box. It rests on the bottom board and reaches all the way up to the top where it contacts the cover. It had to be really tight to prevent bees moving into the other side and possibly a) starting a war if there happened to be another nuc on that side at the moment or b) making all kinds of crazy wild comb in the empty part that would have to be discarded – but also loose enough that I could remove it when necessary. (I hope I got it tight enough – I’m not good at precision work, and those little tabs on the top were difficult). I added thin wood slats on either side of the bottom to thicken it so that it would still block access securely even if it got warped with the moisture or something.

With the boardman feeder attached, the entrance is nicely reduced to help protect the little colony while it gets on its feet. I hate using boardman feeders because of their reputation for encouraging robbing, but I have little choice here until I can figure something else out that gives them access to the sugar but still prevents intrusion onto the other side.


I put in:

  • a frame of honey. I’ll still have to feed them heavily through the summer. I wish I had another frame of honey to put in there, but that is just how honey-poor Darjeeling is. None left to share. Or not all on one frame, anyway.
  • the frame with the queen/swarm cells on it. How convenient of the bees to draw them all on one frame for me!
  • a couple more frames with brood at all stages of development to continue supplying workers until the queen they -hopefully!- make starts laying on her own 2-4 weeks from now, and
  • an empty but drawn frame for them to expand onto as they grow.

I shook in an extra frame or two of nurse bees as well. Since the young nurse bees haven’t been outside the hive on foraging flights yet, they’ll grow up thinking that this is their home and they won’t “drift” back to Darjeeling like the older, wiser foragers will.

Hopefully I didn’t accidentally include the queen anywhere in all these shenanigans. I didn’t see her anywhere. (I know she is still in Darjeeling somewhere, because I saw eggs).

I gotta say, I’m really really anxious about this whole thing. I’ve had such bad luck with bees – I mean, six years of trying and I’ve never had a single colony last more than two years. Now I finally get a colony that’s booming, and I go and weaken it on purpose?

It helps me feel better that everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to told me that I had to do it. But until I see a queen cell capped and developing… until I see that queen mated and laying… there is going to be a lot of holding breath and crossing fingers around here.


Various shades of green thumbs

June 22nd, 2015

Everyone has their talents.


Keeping houseplants alive is not one of mine.

I don’t think these guys are going to bounce back from this one….

Bees on the rebound

June 21st, 2015

I knew I had to check up on my bees, but I dawdled and dawdled all day. It seems like it’s never good news when I go out there, so I was dreading it.

I’ve never been so delighted to be wrong!


so many bees you can’t see the comb


I didn’t have my camera with me when I was inspecting individual frames, but these bees are thriving. Nearly 7/10 frames in both boxes is just full of brood and larvae and eggs. This is fantastic, as it means the colony is booming and strong! These ladies might just survive! I don’t think I’ve ever had a colony this strong, and I’m feeling very optimistic.

All this brood, though, is not good in that they have no room left for honey. There were a couple – maybe four – empty frames in there that still had room to be filled in, but I only saw a few frames with capped honey, and not even fully filled at that. A big colony needs big food stores if they are going to make it through the winter; about 60-80 pounds of honey.


when my camera decides to focus, it can actually take pretty good photos.


I put on a honey super so that they would at least have room to put the honey if they make it. I still have one or two supers with fully drawn comb from a colony that got robbed out a couple years ago, so that will save them a lot of energy (seven pounds sugar go to make 1 pound wax) and they can get right to work making honey instead of building out comb.

Since the nectar flow is over now,  there is not nearly enough forage for them and I’m going to have to feed the heck out of them all summer long. I sure hope Costco has stocked up on their 50# sacks of sugar.

I had really hoped that they’d have enough honey stores by now that I could maybe take a taste, a single frame or even just a scoopful… but they really, really don’t. And even if after I feed them they do build up enough stores before winter – well, you wouldn’t want to eat that honey because it would be made from sugar, and taste like it.


I have very high hopes though; there’s plenty of time left in the summer and  as I understand it there will be a second, much shorter, nectar/pollen flow in Fall.

Oh, I’m so relieved.


Easiest self-waterer ever.

June 20th, 2015

I’ve always wanted to make some of my bigger pots out in the garden into self-watering pots – the kind where you fill a reservoir in the bottom of the pot and the water slowly wicks up into the soil so you can go way, way longer between having to water. In fact this spring, I was trying to design a greenhouse with wicking beds that would function along these principles.

It was always something I meant to get around to, but suddenly I needed to come up with one now – I had bought a passionflower vine this spring that was getting very unhappy about the size of its little pot. It needed to be planted asap, BUT: 1. passionfruit vines are crazy invasive, so to keep it under control it needed to be in a container. 2. They like damp soil, but containers dry out way too quickly. Obvious choice: self-watering system.

(Oh, and PS: passiflora incarnata is the one with tasty fruit. It has white flowers with purple stamens. Passiflora caerulea has purple flowers, but bland fruit.)

There are a million and three plans for self-waterers out there – but they all seem to require storebought materials, and drills, and measuring, and… well, they’re just overcomplicated. Plus, the most prevalent one calls for two five-gallon buckets, or two identical rubbermaid tubs. And I don’t know about you, but rubbermaid tubs and plastic buckets aren’t necessarily my esthetique preferee if you know what I mean.

I already had a beautiful large pottery container that I wanted to use. So I slapped together the ugliest, cheapest self-waterer you will ever see to go inside it… but it’s buried, so who cares? At least I don’t have bright orange plastic buckets all over the place.

This is it: a plastic pail I had on hand, a disposable pie plate, a chunk of 1.5″ pvc, and a longer pipe to fill the reservoir with. (If your pail had a lid, you could just use that instead of the pie plate). A box cutter for the pie plate. And some foamy gorilla glue to fill the gaps between the pipes and the pan, so earth wouldn’t filter down and clog the reservoir.


That’s it. No messing with overflow holes, or special wicking materials, or cutting plastic to fit precisely. If the reservoir gets overfull, the water simply spills over the unsealed edge between the pan and the pail, and then drains out through the hole in the bottom of the ceramic pot.

I put it inside my pot and used a hammer handle to pack the pvc section with potting soil as tightly as I could manage. I wanted it completely solid, to act as a strong wick to pull the water up from the bottom of the plastic pail.


I filled the container the rest of the way, planted my passionflower vine, and we are in business.


^ my shot at a permaculture annual bed: looks like a mess, but every single plant in there is useful and has a purpose.

Things I would do differently next time (besides maybe not waiting til the plant is rootbound, d’oh): I do wish I’d punched some holes in the pie pan so that rainwater could drain down to permeate the reservoir. I didn’t because I was thinking soil would filter in and clog everything, but I could have just put a shred of landscape fabric over those holes, maybe even glued that in place. Next time.

I really love how it looks… now we’ll just have to see how it performs. And if it works as expected – well, by summer’s end I’ll have a whole stack of used plastic sherbet containers in my basement just crying out to be put to use.



June 18th, 2015

My first homegrown cherries!



They were more or less underwhelming, sigh. I wonder if too much water can make fruit taste bland? (I hope not. Nothing I can do about that.) It was their first year, though, so we’ll give them a pass. I hope for a better (and bigger!) harvest next year. Anyone got any tips on tastier fruit?

I used a big tulle net over these guys. Right after petal fall, I bagged the whole branch with a bag about 4′ x 4′ of fine tulle. But the tree filled out that bag: by the time these cherries were ready for harvest, the branch tips were starting to get bent over as they grew. Still: zero predation from birds, nearly zero insect damage (ants got in, may have caused some brown spots). So definitely an experiment to repeat next year.

The flowers in the basket are cilantro flowers. My cilantro always seems to go to seed as soon as I plunk the little seedlings in the ground – I’ve never gotten enough to be able to freeze it in ice cubes like I do my basil and dill. But I just read that cilantro grown in place from seed is slower to bolt – so I’m letting most of this batch just go ahead and flower. Hey, it really is working great for my forest of volunteer dill!

Anyone who has ever tasted a bolted cilantro leaf, though, knows how awful, bitter, soapy, and resinous it tastes. But what’s a salsa-loving gal to do without cilantro? Apparently once it’s bolted you can use the flowers instead of the leaves. They are much milder than the bolted leaves… though still noticeably more astringent than a regular tender leaf. A little goes a loooooooong way.

See those flowers up there? That is too many. Doesn’t matter what you’re making. It’s too many. And I am a cilantro lover. I should have left some of these in place to harvest coriander seeds from later.

I’m crossing my fingers for some little cilantro seedlings here quick, before I have to buy too many more storebought bunches to fulfill my wicked salsa needs. And now Sofía’s hooked (as long as I don’t put in hot peppers, sigh). Hurry up, cilantro!

Rain collecting passive poultry waterer, take 2

June 14th, 2015

The ducks and their chicken friends seem happy in the duckyard. Every night I tuck them into the old chicken tractor (which never will be mobile again, sadly) and check their feed and water. Which inevitably need refilling, which means I get to crouch down to chicken-tractor height and squelch through all that …not so good smelling mud, drag the containers out, all the way up to the house (we don’t have electricity or water down there) and then drag them back in again even heavier, all the way to the back of the tractor (why did I put the roof all the way at the back?!) to protect the feed from rain.

(The only upside is that the ducks are more cuddly at night, and come over and give me ducky kisses all over when I’m in there with them. I love ducks. Though I still wish they didn’t poo.)

Anyway it’s just gross, and a lot more work than it has to be. I knew I should be able to come up with something that would supply them longer than one day – and something that could be easily filled from the outside!

Because of my success with the previous poultry waterer tank I made, I decided to start with the waterer. One of the main problems is that without running water nearby, filling buckets etc. becomes a huge pain. I wanted to harvest some rainwater so I could go longer between refills, but there is no way to collect rainwater from the roof of the duck house. So this waterer had to have passive rain collection built into it. (I was thinking along the lines of giant funnels, or something? I had no idea what I was going to do, but I’d figure it out when I got to that point.)

I bought a 55 gallon rubbermaid trash can, a float-regulated livestock waterer dish, a small tube of 100% silicone sealant, and these:


(except make that drill bit a 1″, not a 7/8″.) That gray thing is a thick rubber washer.

I drilled a 1″ hole a few inches up from the bottom – not on the bottom – of the trash can. Why not on the bottom? Because this way, there is room for sediment and other random floaty crap to settle onto the bottom of the tank rather than being sucked into the output hose and gumming up the workings at the other end.

I liberally siliconed both sides of the hole, stuck the male connector through, then wrapped the threads clockwise with teflon tape. I fit on the rubber washer and then sealed the goose-neck-shutoff over the whole thing to close any gaps.


teflon taped, just before attaching the gooseneck valve.

After waiting for a day for the silicone to dry and set, I cut a piece of screen and fit it over the top of the male connector on the inside, wrapping it with wire. It’s there to screen out any larger detritus that may randomly get into the tank. (Why wait to do this til the silicone had sealed? In case I ever needed to get into the connection there, I didn’t want the screen to be glued in place.)


fitting the screen hood, then removing it before attaching the male connector.

Then I had an insight that made me literally slap my own forehead. I figured out how to make a funnel as wide as the entire trash can: just invert the lid.

I had some galvanized screen patches on hand (I didn’t use plastic because I didn’t want them to degrade in sunlight) and I sized my drill bit to fit easily inside of those patches. I drilled three holes along the center of the lid (would have been only one, except for those two ridges you can see). I generously siliconed the holes’ circumferences and screwed the wire patches on top using big washers, making sure the screen was well embedded in the silicone so no detritus can make its way under the screen into the tank.




… lo and behold, the pieces fit as if they were made for each other. :)



I also wanted a way to see the water level without having to go into the duck yard to lift the lid. I put together a pretty nifty little flotation device but ran into some unexpected problems with it that I’m still trying to iron out. So I’ll save that part for a later blog post. (Plus, I’ve been hired to write an article about this stuff for an online magazine, so I can’t share all my secrets with you here yet. :)

In the mean time I’ve already got this bad boy raised up on cinderblocks and connected to the waterer dish. Everything (except the darn float) seems to be working fabulously. We’re in the middle of a furious thunderstorm right now actually – and I’m so tempted to run out into the rain and see how the funnel is working, ha!